Six Years Later, good Kid m.A.A.d City Transcends Classic

There was a moment in 2012, shortly after Kendrick Lamar dropped good Kid m.A.A.d City (GKMC), when those of us who are annoying enough to do this, began debating if the album was already a classic, just weeks after it was released. Six years later, the debate is over. GKMC is not just a hip-hop classic, most reputable critics – and more importantly music fans – view the project as one of the best albums of the last 20 years.

It’s funny to look back and think that accolades like one of the best debut albums ever now seems like a gross undersell. Calling it, as Vibe did, just the nineteenth best album since ’93 (an arbitrary but logical cut off point when talking about modern music) seems like an insult. None of that accurately captures the singular impact GKMC had and continues to have, on music today.

The album’s focus on narrative creates a deeply personal connection. It forces listeners to engage with the realities of the childhood and social landscape Lamar lived and grew up in but look – you knew that already. Six years later, what makes the project stand out in Lamar’s deep catalogue is its singular nature. To Pimp a Butterfly, Untitled Unmastered and DAMN are all brilliant projects that show a broader, more politically minded Lamar but GKMC is so brilliant in its depiction of a personal journey.

Critics initially missed the mark in trying to describe the record, using almost generic superlatives like whip-smart, high flying, ambitious and thrilling. None of this is wrong but it entirely misses the point. Sputnikmusic was one of the few publications to first grasp what was happening on the album, recognizing that its ambitions were akin to Kanye West’s on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, just more subtle. The subtlety is in the way Lamar paints a fairly straightforward story about a kid who suddenly finds himself moving from driving over to see his girl to standing outside while his friend is gunned down. It’s all so simple but asks so much of listeners. Even now, songs like “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” are draining. They constantly ask people who know nothing about the specifics of growing up in L.A to look long and hard at what it means to live in that kind of casual violence.

Kendrick Lamar is often boiled down to a lyrical rapper, which is shorthand for someone who doesn’t have a ton of hits but operates at an elevated level of style and intelligence. What people are really trying to say is they aren’t fucking with Kendrick like that, because he asks so much of listeners. He asks you to think long and hard about how life in America affects black people and other minorities on an extremely personal level. More recently he’s been delving into the fear of losing what he has, but back in 2012, Lamar was trying to paint a picture of loss and fear that played out every single day.

Couple that with classic West Coast sounds and a guest appearance from Dr. Dre and a remix with JAY-Z along with Kendrick Lamar’s always brilliant lyricism, and you’ve got yourself an instant classic. Classic no longer feels appropriate with this album. It’s way beyond that now. GKMC is part of American musical canon the way Underworld is literary canon. It’s a piece of art that generations are going to study as a portrait of life in inner-city America, and a piece of music that is going to stand the test of time. As hip-hop has matured into the dominant genre in the music landscape, good Kid m.A.A.d City may be referenced as a turning point, when the world started to take notice of what was happening beyond its gaze.