Every few years, a hip-hop album drops that completely shifts the culture, forcing us to take a step back and acknowledge that something special has just been released. Four years ago (October 22), this happened when Kendrick Lamar released his masterpiece of a major label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city. Since the release of GKMC, Kendrick’s career has been on a steep, upward trajectory, a direct result of his continuous evolution as a musician, and the impact of the album is more evident today than ever before.
Prior the release of good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick was viewed as one of the more talented up-and-coming emcees in the rap game. Hip-hop fans knew he could rap really well, and that the West Coast was championing him as “next,” but after signing to Interscope in March of 2012, he still had to prove he could deliver a strong major label debut.
With a co-sign (and label deal) from Dr. Dre and a cult classic in his back pocket (Section.80), there was a lot riding on his first major release. While many high-profile, new generation rap artists play it safe with their debut, K.Dot did the exact opposite, creating a near-flawless conceptual, story-based, true West Coast rap record. He knocked it out of the park.
In October of 2012, when good kid was released, I was a senior in high school. My friends and I, being the classic backpacker rap fans that we were at the time, had already decided before its release that the album would be an instant classic. It had to be, right?
The day after the album leaked, everyone in school was asking each other, “Have you heard the new Kendrick album?” You couldn’t go anywhere for weeks without someone bringing up good kid, m.A.A.d city. Debates took place anywhere and everywhere—the lunchroom, the mall, parties on the weekends. As a fan, it’s easy to disappoint yourself by having unrealistic expectations for your favorite artists, but in this instance, Kendrick had delivered the goods.
Before October 22, 2012, Kendrick was a very well-known and respected emcee, but good kid, m.A.A.d city changed everything. Kendrick was now a star.
From the album cover to the production to the lyrical content, it was immediately clear that GKMC was a project that rap fans would be talking about for a very long time. Kendrick, over the course of 12 tracks, had raised the hip-hop album bar.
Despite Kendrick’s story being centered around his growing up in Compton, a life riddled with the temptation of gangbanging and constant danger, he made it easy for the listener outside that upbringing to understand and relate to his plight. Songs like “The Art of Peer Pressure” and “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” displayed Kendrick’s vulnerability and attention to detail in his writing, forcing fans not only to empathize but to connect with his story. The intro, "Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter,” is Storytelling 101 as Kendrick paints a vivid picture of the pursuit of a girl from around the way, which leads to a precarious and dangerous situation, and, ultimately, sets the scene for the rest of the album.
The immediate success of good kid, m.A.A.d city, which sold 242k first week copies and has since been certified Platinum, also brought a bevy of mainstream attention to Kendrick’s homegrown label, the ever-growing powerhouse that is Top Dawg Entertainment. At the time, the label had four signed artists: Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, ScHoolboy Q and Jay Rock. While all four crew members had a core fan base in 2012, each with a couple of projects showcasing their skill set, Kendrick becoming a global, mainstream success opened new doors for the rest of TDE as more hip-hop fans became interested in what the rest of the label had to offer. Of course, Kendrick Lamar is not solely responsible for all of TDE’s success, but the success of good kid, m.A.A.d city was the match that lit the fuse.
By dropping a critically acclaimed and commercially successful album so early in his career, Kendrick was put in the perfect position to take his artistic expression to the next level. Quite often when an artist has a large amount of hype behind their name and pressure on their shoulders, music is made to satisfy expectations rather than push the envelope musically. But good kid, m.A.A.d city was the exact album that hip-hop fans wanted. As a result, when Kendrick went (way) left and experimented with his sound on the follow-up, To Pimp A Butterfly, an album that sounds nothing like GKMC, his core fanbase didn’t flinch. The funk and jazz elements that dominate TPAB only add to how diverse Kendrick has become as an artist. He completely changed his sound and put out an even better album than his first.
It’s impossible to gauge expectations for Kendrick’s next proper full-length, but that’s okay because he’s already given us the quintessential rap album. good kid, m.A.A.d city was a moment, one that has lasted four years.
By Marcus Blackwell. You can follow him on Twitter.
Photo Credit: Interscope