Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city Turns 5. It’s Past Time To Call It A Classic (Video)
For those who were already familiar with Kendrick Lamar in 2012, good kid, m.A.A.d. city was not his debut album. That distinction belonged to Section.80, the 2011 masterpiece released independently through Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE), Kendrick’s label home since the beginning. Even before that, Kendrick had shown he was a force with which to be reckoned on projects like the Kendrick Lamar EP and Overly Dedicated mixtape, as well as on standout guest verses on songs by TDE flagship artist, Jay Rock, and others. Still, in the year between the release of Section.80 and good kid, m.A.A.d. city, Kendrick had signed a deal with fellow Compton native Dr. Dre’s Aftermath Entertainment, joining one of the most promising voices to ever come out of that oasis of Hip-Hop with its most decorated veteran ever. With that pairing, the stage was set and the anticipation was high for the release of GKMC.
Despite the high expectations, or perhaps because of them, when the first taste of Kendrick and Dre’s union surfaced in April of 2012, it was a slow burn. “The Recipe,” felt very much like the Cali connection it represented, but, with its polish and Dre’s presence, it was not what longtime Kendrick fans anticipated. While the single was received well enough, it was with the release of “Swimming Pools (Drank)” at the end of July that the fervor for the album shifted into overdrive. As has become the case in much of Kendrick’s catalog over the years, with its dark chords and even darker themes, “Swimming Pools” was about art, not commerce. The song received airplay, but was built to move minds, not bodies.
When the album officially arrived, after a leak days earlier, it didn’t just exceed expectations, it obliterated them. By 2012, albums were a dying art form. Even before streaming had revolutionized the music industry–literally redefining how “album” consumption was calculated–iTunes had already made it a singles business. The focus, for most artists, was on making huge hit songs, instead of cohesive bodies of work. good kid, m.A.A.d. city defied all convention and demanded to be heard in its entirety, from beginning to end. Part Boyz N The Hood and part Menace II Society, the album was Kendrick’s coming of age story and invited the world in to see how he survived the mean streets of Compton. The narrative was inter-dependent on both the music and the numerous skits in between songs, as its subject matter ranged from the typical cravings of an adolescent boy to the types of traumatic events typically reserved for war torn soldiers (and many inner city youths).
The songs on GKMC were sonically and thematically complex, and sprawling. Rather than the customary 3 minutes allotted for radio songs, the records on the album averaged well over 5 minutes, with “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” clocking in at a whopping 12 minutes, with its accompanying skit. Notably, “The Recipe,” the good kid, m.A.A.d. city‘s only true radio single, did not make the final cut for the album. Instead, it was addended as a bonus track.
The praise for GKMC was unanimous, with many hailing it as the finest Rap album in a generation. The LP sounded like a classic and felt like a classic, yet, many, including Kendrick, himself, were reluctant to label it as such because it had not stood the test of time. In speaking with HipHopWired in 2012, Kendrick said “The attention and great reception it’s been getting… it’s overwhelming. People are labeling this a classic even without the years behind it, so it’s a great feeling. It’s classic worthy, you know? But it has to stand with the time and have the years behind it. Right now it’s classic worthy and people [will] look back and say, ‘Kendrick’s first album really, really, really outdid everything else and became a classic.’ I went into it with intentions of making it a classic, so I’m glad everybody’s saying that now.”
Five years later, Kendrick’s words were right. There is absolutely no question that good kid, m.A.A.d. city is a classic album. However, the fact is those who declared it as such back in 2012 were also right, and it begs the question of whether “the test of time” should truly be a factor in determining whether an album is a classic. The word should not be used lightly and, in the age of click-bait, hyperbole is more the rule than the exception, but on the rare occasion where greatness presents itself with universal recognition, it should be acknowledged as such.
In the latest episode of TBD, Justin “The Company Man” Hunte takes a look at the critical reception around good kid, m.A.A.d. city and the trepidation behind declaring instant classics. Hunte contends “the idea that an album needs to stand the test of time to be considered a classic is overrated.” In making his case, he looks to the past and lists a number of albums that most believe were correctly assessed as classics, and a number that were missed because of hesitancy. “Let’s use the Source as an example since it pioneered the Hip-Hop perspective of what’s considered a classic album. But when Aquemini dropped and it got 5 Mics in the Source, the culture agreed. When Life After Death dropped and got 5 Mics, the culture agreed. When Illmatic hit the Earth like a comet and got 5 mics, the culture agreed… and it didn’t take years for people to make up their minds,” says Hunte. He notes that out of the 15 albums that garnered a 5 mics rating from the vaunted publication, at least 13 still hold up.
On the flip side, in Hunte’s research, he finds that nearly 30 albums were revised to get the 5 mic rating years later. He asserts that means “there’s at least 2 times more misses than makes when it comes to calling out classics correctly…Way too many misses.” Hunte’s ultimate point is that “all things considered, music media isn’t that great at calling out classic albums on sight. But it isn’t because they’re giving out ratings too liberally. It’s that they’re too conservative.”
In the case of good kid, m.A.A.d. city, Hunte’s argument certainly prevails. On its fifth anniversary, there are very few credible publications that don’t consider the album a bona fide classic. And, soon, they’ll acknowledge it is not the only one in Kendrick’s catalog.