That may sound hokey but it really works. The emotional honesty of the storytelling is the big strength of the album, from the energetic rush of young Kendrick racing through traffic to get laid in Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter, to the tremble in his voice when he's jacked in m.A.A.d city to the belligerent teen prostitute who tells Kendrick not to dare speak for her on the album's tear-jerking centerpiece, Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst
GKMC is a rap opera that tells the story of a young man immersed in street culture, but it's also a comment on the culture of hip-hop and the use of Compton as a symbol for an anarchic landscape that's very dangerous and very "real.""K-dot" is extremely self-aware, and the sex-and-violence fueled path he treads is illuminated by a thread of redemption (the record starts with a prayer). As "the music of being young and dumb" thrusts Kendrick out onto the streets, the songs are interrupted with clips of his mother telling him to bring her van back and reminding us it's a school night.
These clips are reminiscent of a previous generation of gangsta rap, when albums like The Chronic and Doggystyle were peppered with little interludes, most of them quite funny. While Lamar's little video clips (the album is presented as a "short film") are not without humor, they're a little more involved and move the story along, giving it a very true-to-life feel.
GKMC is a gangsta rap album, but it's also a cautionary tale. The characters are desperately trying to grab a piece of the pie, quick to drown their sorrows in alcohol and prone to violent outbursts. Needless to say, this does not end well. But instead of just blowing this off as "a Compton thang," Lamar examines it from a lot of angles, showing, for example, how a normally sober, spirtual kid can end up a criminal (The Art of Peer Pressure). The record has an unmistakable basis in Christian morality ("Where your sword at?/Hand on the cross and swear that", Kendrick raps on Compton), but there seems to be a lot of insecurity and anxiety around whether this is enough to survive the mean streets of Compton.
The metaphors are constantly mixed, and the narrative goes back and forth, and this seems to be intentional -- we start with a prayer, we end in the real world with Kendrick running out the door again. The most interesting spiritual moment on the album, where an old lady preaches at them in the middle of a gang fight and presumably baptizes them on the spot, is preluded with Kendrick rapping "you dying of thirst/so hop in that water/and pray that it works," a line that recalls the decadent desperation of Swimming Pools (Drank) (extended version)
The production seems to follow the same path, sometimes loud and full of bragadaccio, sometimes quiet and unsure, sometimes just simple and smooth to highlight the lyrics. Often the soundscape is used for the purpose of storytelling, as in "Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst," where a rapper is shot in the middle of a sentence. Compare the vicious use of gunshots as percussion in the old days; this is a lot more true to life, a lot less cynical, and it makes heightens the awareness of mortality that is the songs's dramatic effect.
Having MC Eiht and Dr. Dre, two of Compton's most famous rappers, on the album ties GKMC into the tradition of the west-coast gansta-rap as well as allowing some older voices to speak to Kendrick's themes. MC Eiht's cold acceptance of laced blunts and drive-bys in response to Kendrick's frantic verses (on "m.A.A.d city") is very effective, and Dr. Dre's familiar cadence in "Compton" reminds us why the city was such a big deal in the first place.
Overall, this album represents an ambitious project that is very effective. The hooks are catchy, Kendrick's voice is amazingly versatile, and the deeper themes hold up well to repeated listens. My rating: 8/10.