Kendrick Lamar is a fascinating character and a heck of a character actor on his major label debut, “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope).
After growing up in Compton, Calif., the epicenter of ‘80s and early ‘90s gangsta rap, Lamar turns his major-label debut into a 12-act play about his hometown.
Rather than recycle gangsta tropes, he gives them a twist, or sometimes upends them completely. The opening sex reverie finds Lamar channeling a teenage slacker fantasizing about “Sherane A.K.A. Master Splinters Daughter,” only to be rudely interrupted by a phone call from his mother. His dad gets in on the act, too, chewing out poor Lamar about misplacing his dominoes.
On “The Art of Peer Pressure” he veers from a cartoony introduction into a sinister-sounding, detail-rich description of a car-full of boyz in the ‘hood gearing up for a robbery. Folded into the Gothic synths and the cold, descriptive verses, the narrator wrestles with his self-doubt. He portrays the gangbangers not as hardened criminals but as aimless kids “just circling life” as they avert the police, staving off the inevitable for one more day.
Even when Kendrick boasts, he sounds like he’s winking at the listener. On “Backstreet Freestyle” he conflates his preacher “Martin-had-a-dream” voice with his own ridiculously outsized dreams, as bawdy as he wants to be. It leads to the oblivion of the “Swimming Pools” full of liquor and a 12-minute meditation on the elusiveness of redemption in “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.”
“Compton” provides an over-the-top curtain closer, in which Lamar brings all his personas on-stage for one final bow. The low-key production and in-your-ear rhymes suddenly go bonkers, complete with the gratuitous declaration: “Ain’t no city quite like mine.” It’s one of the few predictable moments on an album that otherwise brims with comedy, complexity and the many voices in Kendrick Lamar’s head.