Kendrick Lamar, "good kid, m.A.A.d city" (Interscope)
"Why are you so angry?" asks a grandmotherly voice near the end of Lamar's major-label debut. A Compton, Calif., native born into the same stresses that once galvanized N.W.A, Lamar, at 25, has plenty to be mad about: girl trouble, a lack of economic opportunity, the retributive gang violence that leads to "bodies on top of bodies," as Lamar describes it with penetrating candor. It's a turbulent atmosphere worlds away from the strip-club exuberance of 2 Chainz or the mirrored introspection of Drake (who guests here, along with gangsta-rap vets Dr. Dre and MC Eiht).
Yet on "good kid, m.A.A.d city" anger gives way to analysis. Nearly a quarter-century after N.W.A's eye-opening "Straight Outta Compton," Lamar isn't re-sounding the alarm -- he's looking closer, showing us in deeply considered detail how those conditions affect individuals and families over the long term. In the spacey "Real," he wonders if the material comforts he craves might limit his ability to relate to others.
We know they haven't so far: The most impressive track on an album full of them is "Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst," a 12-minute epic in which Lamar ponders death (and the fate of those left behind) from several distinct perspectives, including that of a sex worker. It's a masterpiece of storytelling, empathy in the midst of chaos.
MIKAEL WOOD, LOS ANGELES TIMES
Donald Fagen, "Sunken Condos" (Reprise)
Fagen has never lacked for words of discouragement when it comes to love. Years of touring with the snarky Steely Dan and his all-star Dukes of September cover band have sharpened the vocalist/ composer's shtick in the ruined romance department. With his wriggling voice, icy dry wit and sensual way with ticklish electric piano play, Fagen is still a coy seducer.
His album's brass and reed arrangements are more sophisticated than a Noel Coward play. The vibe is noirish. Only this time, the feel is lighter than previous outings as a solo artist or a Dan -- an early dusk rather than a midnight mood. Along with a slinky take on Isaac Hayes' "Out of the Ghetto," Fagan's own melodies ooze through cool-headed lyrics like hot caramel dripping onto ice cream. The grumbling blues of "Weather in My Head" and the swinging "Memorabilia" are dashing. Lyrically, Fagen's in fine fettle, playing both the wise old man ("The New Breed") and the jovial jilted lover ("I'm Not the Same Without You"). When he squeaks "I'm evolving at an astounding rate" on the latter tune, you believe him.
A.D. AMOROSI, PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER