When talented rappers move from the underground to the mainstream, they are often deemed sellouts in the music industry. Many were worried about Kendrick Lamar.
At 25, Lamar was being called the next great West Coast rapper and he was cutting tracks with Lady Gaga. In other words, he was positioning himself to be swallowed up by the industry like many a rapper before him.
His album “good kid, m.A.A.d city” was Lamar’s way of telling the world he was not going to lose himself because of the money, fame and big record labels.
Kendrick crafted “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” as a reflection of his life path, from his upbringing to his modern state of mind. Meant to play out like a short movie rather than an album, it is has a thematic thread that strings each song together into a cohesive narrative.
The album opens with a group of young men reciting a prayer. The narrative is slowly pieced together with voice messages and recordings from the day’s events. The album eventually returns to that prayer with new, devastating implications that can only be understood if one has followed Kendrick’s story from the outset.
The album starts out with “Sherene a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter”. In this song, we meet Kendrick at 17, a young man with nothing but women on his mind. Kendrick takes his mother’s car to Sherene’s house. All told through his lyricism, Kendrick paints the picture of the typical hormonal teenage boy.
After this song, Lamar’s mom calls asking where he is and where her car is. The voicemail ends with his father telling his mother to cut the oldies back on because she’s killing his vibe.
We venture back to the times of old school hip-hop on top of modern beats mixed with some nuances of old school. One of the greatest songs on the album is none other than “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe”. At the end of the slow jam, one of Lamar’s friends yells at him to get in the car because he’s “got a pack of blacks and a freestyle CD.”
By “Backseat Freestyle”, Kendrick is starting to envision success and his ego has taken hold. Over a vicious hit-boy beat, he says “all my life I want money and power, respect my mind or die from lead shower.” One can almost see the puffed-up teenager standing on the hood of a car screaming that line.
His sense of invincibility carries through the first half of “The Art of Peer Pressure”, but it’s clear that his thinking is beginning to adapt. “The Art of Peer Pressure” shows Kendrick at his most visual. One envisions the group of friends in the “white Toyota” driving down Rosecrans smoking blunts and drinking orange soda. It’s a seemingly traditional, albeit extremely lyrically adept, day-in-the-life rap song. It seems that while Kendrick grew up with and has a certain love for that kind of lifestyle, he understands that it is ultimately “circling life” rather than taking responsibility for oneself.
Lamar’s friends tell him they have a possibility to make money from robbing a house. They invite Kendrick along and “Money Trees” begins to play. The song is simply about his struggle between doing what is right and trying to make money. Where he grew up, in Compton, one could not do both.
Lamar’s mother calls him again asking for the car. His father is high in the background trying to seduce his mother. She isn’t having it. In cuts the track “Poetic Justice”. Lamar gives his ideas on how to seduce a woman, saying, “I know just what you want; poetic justice put it in a song.”
After an argument, the most lyrically intense song on the album begins to play. He raps about the struggles of living in his city. In “Good Kid”, Lamar raps about the struggles with police and how they racially profile him: “And you ask ‘lift up your shirt’ cause you wonder if a tattoo of affiliation can make it a pleasure to put me through.” Lamar then raps about how the police find no tattoo, but continue to beat him up because “he’s down.”
Once the song is over, it quickly shifts to his song “m.A.A.d city”. Kendrick’s recent beat-down by the police who are supposed to be protecting him brings back memories from his childhood living in Compton. Lamar recalls how he saw someone get shot in front of a burger stand as a child.
Lamar’s friends come back into the picture. They are drinking and they give Lamar some alcohol to help him numb the pain. “Swimming Pools (Drank)” is Lamar’s way of going somewhat mainstream with his sound while still staying true to his art of storytelling. This song is all about peer pressure. Does Kendrick want to drink? No. But is he being pressured by all his friends? Yes. One cannot simply drink casually where Kendrick is from; instead, they must pour it all down.
After the end of the song, it is revealed that Kendrick has been jumped. Apparently, it was Sherene who set him up. Kendrick and his friends roll by the house of the people who jumped him and shoot it up for revenge.
After the driveby, Kendrick begins his song “Sing About Me, Dying of Thirst”. “Sing About Me” and “Dying of Thirst” are two separate moments, but one song. Kendrick sees his impending death coming up if he stays in this lifestyle. Kendrick hopes that one day his friends will sing about him, a common ritual used when a friend is deceased. The line “I’m dying of thirst” refers to the West Coast tradition of pouring a libation for the deceased. Both singing about a dead friend and pouring out liquor are rituals of eulogy and homage.
Kendrick and his friends are met by an old woman, voiced by the renowned poet Maya Angelou. She tells them they are dying of thirst. Not literal thirst, but a thirst for the Holy Spirit. She then leads Kendrick and his friends through the sinner’s prayer. Kendrick sheds his hood persona, bringing him to where he is today.
After the prayer, Kendrick drops his old mentality; the song “Real” begins to play. The song references an extremely important realization to Kendrick. The whole song alludes to loving yourself and how this action is a necessary component to living life.
At the end of the song, we are met by a voicemail from Kendrick’s mother. Kendrick has left his hometown and gone on to pursue his dreams. She tells him to come back successful and to tell his story to all the kids in his neighborhood.
We then hear the sound of a cassette tape being stopped and fast-forwarded. We are now in the present-day life of Kendrick Lamar. The song “Compton” begins to play: “Compton, Compton. Ain’t no city quite like mine.” Lamar gives homage to the town that turned him into what he is. Lamar is doing what his mother told him to do: telling his story to all of the children from Compton.
The word “classic” will undoubtedly be thrown around in reference to this album. I’d say that’s fair, but it is also premature. It is a varied and dense listening experience that feels more like an emotional outburst than an assured statement of purpose. For now, it is safe to say that “good kid, m.A.A.d city” is the most potent exploration yet of one of the most interesting minds in rap music.