Some rappers just have more to say than others. A chronicle of his adolescence in Compton, Kendrick Lamar’s debut album for Dr. Dre’s Aftermath imprint, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, is less concerned with the rapper’s formal schooling than his street education, but it’s not a stretch to assume that Lamar was the student who single-spaced his term papers to squeeze a few extra thoughts into their page limits. In a raspy, rubbery patois tinged with shades of André 3000 and Bizzy Bone, he rhymes with a novelist’s attention to detail and seemingly no off-switch, frequently stretching his verses to 32 bars. He hits 38 in one verse on Good Kid’s 12-minute epic “Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst,” and probably could have topped 50 had the verse not faded out for dramatic effect, the implication being he’ll happily go on and on if left unchecked.
On 2011’s independently released Section.80, the critical breakthrough that secured his place on the Aftermath roster—although a Compton rapper this gifted would’ve ended up under Dr. Dre’s wing eventually—Lamar’s run-on pontification sometimes overwhelmed his songs. On that album, he couldn’t resist the impulse to simultaneously weigh in on everything—relationships, identity, addiction, poverty, politics—but on Good Kid he ditches the soapbox, organizing his sprawling thoughts into an orderly narrative about the challenges of leading a normal childhood amid Compton’s precarious backdrop. In his world, every indulgence is a potential trap that could lead to the wrong page of a Choose Your Own Adventure book: alcohol (too addictive), weed (could be laced), friends (they’re gateways to crime), and girls (even the best intentioned of them are, by virtue of their surroundings, femmes fatale). Yet instead of retreating from these temptations, Lamar engages with them, albeit cautiously. “I always knew life could be dangerous,” he raps over the blissful guitar strums of “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”—the most laid-back track on an album with its share of them—but, he argues, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t live it.
Coming from the label that virtually created the template for the modern blockbuster rap album, Good Kid is an exercise in tasteful restraint, with Lamar employing his boundless budget in creative ways. When his thoughts turn to romance on the Drake-assisted single-in-waiting “Poetic Justice,” he sets the mood with an expensive Janet Jackson sample. When his tale takes a violent turn on “M.A.A.D. City,” the change is marked by a cameo from hardcore veteran MC Eiht, rapping over a blustering throwback to his Compton’s Most Wanted days. Even Pharrell Williams, who has often been grandfathered dead weight on recent rap albums, is put to real use: His dazed, Blaxploitation beat on “Good Kid” perfectly heightens Lamar’s narrative intrigue. Only the closer, “Compton,” with its overblown Just Blaze beat and chest-beating, city-repping assists from Dr. Dre, rings false. The track’s broad strokes are wholly out of place on an album that otherwise understands cities are too vast and complicated to be represented by one person, or captured in a single song.