Kendrick Lamar's critically lionized good kid, m.A.A.d city has stunned listeners with its lyrical and musical depth. Which isn't necessarily unusual in post-millennial hip-hop: Kanye West has made a career out of layering sounds and themes that often take a few listens, or even a few years, to fully absorb, while Outkast stirred funk, slang and Southern club trends into works that have as many components as a richly flavored gourmet dish.
What differentiates good kid, for starters, is that it's first and foremost a quintessential Los Angeles album. Coincidentally, the other watermark work of 2012, Frank Ocean's channel ORANGE, is also posited as a coming-of-age tale in L.A. Ocean explicitly describes his encounters with the city's sights and sounds through the mid-2000s electronic funk scene (via Om'Mas Keith of Sa-Ra, who coproduces) and singer-songwriter pop rock (via a John Mayer cameo and hooks modeled on Elton John's "Bennie & the Jets"). Lamar and Ocean find inspiration in Outkast (with Lamar seemingly inspired by the neo-soul-inflected ATLiens, perhaps the group's murkiest-sounding classic); Pharrell Williams, a totem for genre-busting urban innovations, has collaborated with both.
But overall, Lamar's approach is more subtle. The sprawling good kid, m.A.A.d city, the title built around an acronym for "my angry adolescence divided," is a "short film" with lyrics narrowly focused on a day in the life of a Compton man-child. It's the sonic references nestled within the music that sprawl beyond the neighborhood's borders to take in the entirety of Southern Californian culture.
Many of the samples seem inspired by KCRW-FM, an influential public radio station that combines NPR news with eclectic music programs. Producer Scoop DeVille reportedly heard Twin Sister's indie pop gem "Meet the Frownies" on one of its broadcasts, leading him to sample it for "The Recipe," Lamar's hit with mentor Dr. Dre. Quadron, the self-titled debut from Copenhagen singer Coco Malaika and producer Robin Hannibal, was a favorite of KCRW DJs; as the duo relocated to L.A. and signed with Epic Records, they linked up with Lamar and collaborated on a few unreleased tracks. Producer Sounwave used the beat from "Tiden Flyver," a song Hannibal produced with Copenhagen collective Boom Clap Bachelors, for "Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe," one of good kid's most beloved tracks. In a similar vein, the dream pop of Beach House emerges through a prominent sample of their "Silver Soul" on "Money Trees."
The liner notes for good kid include contributions from alternative R&B vocalist JMSN (who adds backing vocals to several tracks, including "Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe"), Anna Wise from electronic pop experimentalists Sonnymoon (who features on "Real"), Like from rap scenesters Pac Div (who produces "Sing About Me") and underrated rapper/musician Terrace Martin (who produces "m.A.A.d city"). But overall, Lamar's approach is more subversive than iconoclastic. It's very much a mainstream rap album, and not just because it dovetails nicely with the ever-popular R&B-inflected rap of Drake (who appears on the Janet Jackson-sampling "Poetic Justice"). He proudly hails from Compton's streets. His management team, Top Dawg Entertainment, launched with help from The Game; two of his fellow TDE artists, Schoolboy Q and Jay Rock, are admitted former gangbangers. (The fourth, Ab-Soul, remains a bit of an enigma.) For "m.A.A.d city," Lamar duets with MC Eiht, one of the best artists from Compton's flowering of rap stars in the late 1980s; Compton figurehead Dr. Dre helped executive-produce the album.
As a good kid in a mad city, Lamar traverses many worlds. He merges them all on good kid, and expects his audience will figure it out. It's a sign that the mainstream hip-hop audience is neither as dumb nor as stratified between hardcore and pop as we often mistake it to be. People of all colors, classes, and walks of life will gravitate to an intelligent and entertaining rap album when they hear one.