The average song on Kendrick Lamar’s debut album is over five-and-a-half minutes. This isn’t an amateur mistake. Lamar released his first mixtape in 2003, so he’s been doing this for almost a decade. The difference between the album and the mixtapes, and the reason these songs are so long, is that now Lamar expresses his Compton childhood through confession, elegy, and jokes, each on every track. In the mid-’90s, this was common (see Illmatic, Reasonable Doubt). But these days, Lil’ Wayne has stopped bringing up New Orleans and Donald Glover is a hip-hop star. Some rappers still introspect, but they usually half-ass it and include several club-ready songs, as Nas did this summer on Life is Good. Lamar’s seriousness comes through in his radio-unfriendly song times, which approach LCD Soundsystem levels; “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” is over 12 minutes. The difference between James Murphy and Lamar is that Lamar fills up those 12 minutes with meaningful lyrics at a rate of 10 words per bar.
Beat-wise, it’s inconsistent. There are some that are just fab, like “Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter” and the first part of “m.A.A.d. city.” There are also cool throwbacks to the The Chronic sounds of late-’90s Cali rap (you can hear Dr. Dre’s fingerprints are on the record). But other instrumentals are minimalistic or cliché or both, like “Backseat Freestyle.” And on occasion, Lamar indulgently slurs or gutturalizes his voice, which is grating. Those two things aside, good kid, m.A.A.d. city is a mellow, honest, and recherché work that is worth the hour and ten minutes it asks for.