good kid, m.A.A.d. city
Three weeks ago Bonus Cut’s “Album of the Week” was Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music, a highly underrated piece that was slept on by many critics despite acclaim from others. For 2012, R.A.P. Music was the second best hip-hop record, and as it touched various lights from a veteran in a community focused on new-age rap, it was this new-age rap community that came away the winner with Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city.
The main takeaway from Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city isn’t the dazzling lyrical story-telling, the mix of pulverizing and soothing beats or even the cast of stars that are featured on the album–it’s the narrative. For perhaps the first time in the new-age rap era, Lamar gives us an unprecedented look into the wake of a rapper on an album from start to finish. As opening track “Sherane”–a song which displays a 17-year-old Lamar borrowing his mother’s car to pursue a girl–ends, we are introduced to the first of many voice-mails where his mother is asking for the car back and his father is yelling frantically about missing dominoes. It becomes apparent that these voice-mails aren’t merely voice-mails, but rather the family connection that is holding Lamar back from the Compton, California gang-life that consumes too many.
On “Backseat Freestyle” Lamar transitions his story from being a young kid pursuing girls to a newly-turned rapper freestyling over beat-tapes. The song itself seems like a masculine-charged rap with lines like “Goddamn I got bitches,” but when put into the context of the album it shows that this is the part of the story where Kendrick Lamar is just now beginning to learn how to rap and “Backseat Freestyle” is his first attempt at fitting into the scene. As it becomes evident that “Backseat Freestyle” is a continuous stream of the good kid story, Lamar’s genius becomes even more grand.
“The Art of Peer Pressure” is the next song on the album which screams classic West Coast g-funk with rolling high-pitched synths. The beginning is soothing, almost as if Kendrick is playing an ode to his idols at his friend’s house, and we see a newly turned rapper wrapped in lush happiness. However, the mood of the song changes from innocence to seriousness by way of elongated bass synths and minimalist percussion claps, and here Lamar shares a story timidly. “I never was a gangbanger,” Lamar explains, “I mean I was never stranger to the folk neither. I really doubt it. Rush a nigga quick and then we laugh about it. That’s ironic because I’ve never been violent, until I’m with the homies.”
It’s this continual line of first-person storytelling that makes good kid so strong and cohesive. We collectively see a character under the confines of urban America grow and develop and eventually learn what’s important in life. On “Real,” a song that features another voicemail, Lamar’s father puts it perfectly: “Any nigga can kill a man, that don’t make you a real nigga. Real is responsibility. Real is taking care of your motherfucking family.”
Kendrick Lamar’s second album good kid, m.A.A.d. city was released to immense critical acclaim. After this, Kendrick had cemented his reputation as a quality MC in Los Angeles but also across the country. With Kendrick’s lyricism and unique style of story telling, he allows the audience to hear, see and feel his experiences from growing up in Compton. What sticks out are the complex thoughts and skillful production found on this album. Kendrick Lamar’s sophomore sound features slower melancholy sounding production from the likes of Dr. Dre, Pharrell Williams, Just Blaze and Scoop Deville. With good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick Lamar provides knowledgeable insight into the angst of adolescence, city life, drugs, gang violence, religion and the state of hip-hop.
The first track, “Sherane,” opens with a prayer asking Jesus for forgiveness. From there Kendrick launches into a story about his attraction to a girl and the sexual tension and awkwardness of being a seventeen year old. As he puts into words in the second verse, “Love or lust, regardless we’ll fuck cause the trife in us / It’s deep rooted, the music of being young and dumb / It’s never muted, in fact it’s much louder where I’m from.” And in the third verse, “I’m thinking bout the sex, thinking bout her thighs / Or maybe kissing on her neck, or maybe what positions next / Sent a picture of her titties blowing up my texts / I looked at em and almost ran my front bumper into Corvette.” On this first song, Kendrick perfectly illustrates the complexity of teenage sexual attraction.
This is much different than the hyper-masculinity found in much of mainstream hiphop. As the album moves forward, the intricacies of growing up is evident throughout. This is especially apparent in “The Art Of Peer Pressure,” “Good Kid,” and “m.A.A.d city” where Kendrick sheds light on hanging out with his boys, the true complications of peer pressure, wanting to fit in, the harsh realities of growing up in Compton and gang violence.
On the dark and slow moving beat of “The Art Of Peer Pressure” he says, “I got the blunt in my mouth / Usually I’m drug-free, but shit I’m with the homies” And in the second verse, “Rush a nigga quick and then we laugh about it / That’s ironic cause I’ve never been violent, until I’m with the homies.” In this song, Kendrick shares with the audience his experiences with hanging with close friends, getting into trouble and doing things he probably wouldn’t do on his own time. The brilliance of this track is it’s relatable content as he speaks about being a teenager and chillin’ with his crew. Kendrick’s experiences with drugs, alcohol and girls feel all too real and comparable to most teenage boys as they come of age, regardless of where they live.
He takes this knowledge to the next level on the seventh track, “Good Kid.” Produced by The Neptunes and featuring Pharrell Williams on the hook, “Good Kid” addresses resiliency and the constant presence of gangs and police within Compton. “But what am I supposed to do with the blinking of red and blue / Flash from the top of your roof and your dog has to say woof / And you ask, ‘Lift up your shirt’ cause you wonder if a tattoo of affiliation can make it a pleasure to put me through gang files / But that don’t matter because the matter is racial profile.”
With “Good Kid,” the audience is able to understand the endless racial tension, hostility and harassment from the LAPD. At the same time, the continuous gang violence within the community is exposed. For adolescents such as Kendrick, it becomes clear that they are caught in the middle and that there is brutality from the police, but also the gangs. On “Good Kid,” Kendrick’s delivery is more subdued and it sounds like he is just observing what goes on. On the next track, “m.A.A.d. city,” Kendrick takes many of the concepts of “Good Kid” and expands on them. Comparatively, “Good Kid” is more of a subdued song, while “m.A.A.d. city” is an in your face track where Kendrick showcases his abilities to go in on a hardhitting track. On “m.A.A.d. city,” Kendrick takes on the corruption he has observed all around him as he grew up in Southern California. With this song, it feels that Kendrick is no longer a teenager but is becoming conscious of the social, political and economic inequities that have plagued his community for generations. As he puts into words, “Ak’s, AR’s, ‘Aye y’all. Duck’ / That’s what momma said when we was eatin’ the free lunch / Aw man, God damn, all hell broke loose / You killed my cousin back in ’94. Fuck yo truce.”
Kendrick Lamar’s brilliance on good kid, m.A.A.d. city is the attention to detail and picture he is able to paint about city life, adolescence, gang violence and police brutality. He is able to do this with multi-layered lyricism that pushes the listener to see through his eyes. As the album moves forward, the audience is able to grow with Kendrick and is able to experience what he is saying, not just hear it. I think of Kendrick Lamar’s album similarly to Straight Outta Compton by N.W.A. The 1988 classic shed light on the anger and frustration felt by the people of Compton following the Civil Rights Act of 1964. N.W.A gave a voice to the people of Compton, just like Kendrick Lamar has been able to do. Ultimately, good kid, m.A.A.d. city is the evolution of west coast hip-hop and of what Ice Cube refers to as street knowledge.
“The Art of Peer Pressure”