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While it is always imperative to study art and not the artist, to really grasp the message of good kid, m.A.A.d city, it behoves us to understand Kendrick Lamar and his upbringing.
Kendrick Lamar Duckworth was born on June 17, 1987 in Compton, California. The caveat in the previous sentence being Compton, California. A city that afforded a murder rate almost 10 times greater than Patna, India’s most homicidal city, whilst ironically in a state with an economy larger than France. The streets of Compton don’t incubate the American Dream, it nurtures a vicious cycle littered by violence and crime.Yet these very streets would produce a prodigy, superfluous with talent to break glass ceilings and usher an era of upliftment for his community.
good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick Lamar’s major label debut, was released in 2012. While most contemporary albums are at best a collection of singles and features, Kendrick’s sophomore effort would feel much more at home next to The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It is concept art without being a disservice to the term. Although the sonic environment of GKMC might be closer to the present day, the album supplies the same ambition as the prog-rock efforts of the 70’s. It truly is a modern classic, not just in the hip-hop arena, but of art itself.
The album is without doubt technically sublime, filled with dense narratives, internal rhymes, and complex time signatures. Whilst each track is flawless by itself, they form a much broader narrative when consumed together. Subtitled ‘A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar’, GKMC is just as much a biographical movie about Kendrick’s metamorphosis, as it is a hip-hop album. GKMC is Kendrick’s effort to chronicle a day in the mad city of Compton in the fashion of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.
The non-linear rendering of the track list depends on the listener paying attention to every single bar to obtain a sense of position in the story. An uncommon tactic, but one that rewards the adherent, the tale of GKMC broadly follows four arcs of the hero’s journey/monomyth:
The album begins with sounds of a tape being inserted and a prayer ensuing. An eerie vocal track, synth, and bassline fade in and Kendrick starts to narrate the circumstances leading to him meeting Sherane, a girl he is infatuated with. Filled with clever lines, it gives a taste of Kendrick’s best gift as an artist, his storytelling. The rap stops with Kendrick, at this point referred to as K Dot, ensnared by a pair of gang members just as he pulls up.
We would later understand this to be flash-forward as the album moves to its opening credits ‘*, Don’t Kill My Vibe’. With a smooth sample and simple harmonies, it acts as a primer to Kendrick and his feelings on the state of music, mimicking the role of a title-roll. In the ensuing outro, the true first act of the story begins, as Kendrick and his friends plot a home invasion.
Whilst on the way, Kendrick spits the bombastic ‘Backseat Freestyle’. Aggressive and immature, with a timbre similar to Eminem, it is Lamar at his braggadocious best. Ready to take on the world, the freestyle highlights the juvenile spirit of adolescent minds. Just as we begin to dismiss K Dot as a mould of a stale die, the prowess of Kendrick’s ability gets highlighted in ‘The Art of Peer Pressure’.
The track highlights the unforgiving nature of Kendrick’s world, one that fosters crime and gang violence. As the robbery takes a wrong turn, and the gang try to escape the cops, Kendrick drops one of the more potent lines of the album:
“We made a right, then made a left, then made a right/ Then made a left, we was just circlin’ life.”
In spite of manoeuvres to escape, the people of Compton are always stuck in a vicious cycle, one that fosters crime and violence. Forever stuck in a rut, they continue their circle until Lady Law takes the baton from Lady Luck. Making a narrow escape, the story now sets the stage for the first track, as Kendrick announces his desire to see Sherane.
In ‘Money Trees’, an ethereal synth (indicating Kendrick’s elevated state of mind) girdles K Dot’s yarns of hustling his way, choosing between two poisons: women or religion. As he recounts the various instance of violence that plagued his childhood, he hooks a powerful idea (“Everybody gon’ respect the shooter/But the one in front of the gun lives forever.”), one that would highlight sacrifice, a recurring theme throughout Kendrick’s discography.
The first major narrative arc, besmirched with lust, turbulence, and fury, concludes with the soulful ‘Poetic Justice’, where he asks “If I told you that a flower bloomed in a dark room, would you trust it?”, a clever metaphor for his own story. Sampling Janet Jackson and featuring Drake, it’s akin to the famous dance sequence of Pulp Fiction, exposing the softer side of the main protagonist as he serenades his flame. And like the movie, things are about to get a lot messier.
The next triad of songs (Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, and Swimming Pools) chronicle the dark episodes that lead to Kendrick having an epiphany on his doomed state. In Good Kid, he narrates the negative effects of gang-culture, police-brutality and violence that break his society. He highlights the unfair practices of the police, systematically tackling minorities and further disparaging the historical divide between communities. The themes of corruption and injustice are further discoursed in M.A.A.D City as Kendrick begins to achieve self-awareness of the doomed streets and lives surrounding him.
The acts of crime that would plague his childhood, from witnessing a murder at the age of 6 to the death of loved ones, aren’t a deterrent to him. In the final verse, he tries to let the good shine through and offer respite for the youth and hopes they don’t succumb to the temptations and pressures of the street like he did. He hopes that his experience and intelligence can do good for the youth living in similar situations.
In Swimming Pools, he battles another vice that plagues his community: alcoholism. Kendrick talks about growing up around alcohol both within his family and group of friends. In terms of the story, the stage is being set for the next act: atonement.
Although the atonement section is only a single track, it achieves the aim in spectacular fashion. ‘Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst’ runs around 12 minutes but not once do you feel copiousness of time. It is a masterful act of production, songwriting and rapping, the standout feature of the album. At the pinnacle of storytelling, it’s fitting of a place beside classics like Stan, In the Ghetto, Brenda’s Got a Baby. The track can be thought of two parts: Sing About Me and Dying of Thirst.
In the first section, Kendrick raps in the perspective of three characters. The narrative switches direction from positive to negative to finally Lamar’s introspective, with every single verse emotionally dangling, pulling every drop of empathy left from the listener’s heart. It’s a sobering experience and a true masterpiece, as the chorus forces a sharp disenchantment that highlights the pitiable state of Compton’s residents.
Stuck in a self-perpetuating cycle of violence, things look ominous for Kendrick, as his comrades plot to take revenge. In monomyths, the key section is the atonement. Dying of Thirst is GKMC’s reconciliation. With the endless brutality crushing their bones and spirit, we are subjected to the breaking point. An elderly lady, offers them a chance to quench their thirst, a metaphysical lack of spirituality. Over a prayer, the reckless K Dot transforms to the awakened Kendrick Lamar, free from the chains of violence and hate. In terms of parallelism with Pulp Fiction, this would resemble the diner epilogue, as Jules (Samuel L. Jackson), driven by guilt, repents his life of crime and manages to flee the game alive. The flower that grew in the dark has finally bloomed.
The last pair of songs, ‘Real’ and ‘Compton’, complete our hero’s journey. On ‘Real’, a considerably more controlled and mature sounding Kendrick preaches the importance of self-worth, love, and honesty. He is finally real, no longer the good kid trapped in a mad city, finally able to chase his dreams. In his idol 2Pac’s words, he would be the rose that grew from concrete, a beacon of hope to his community. Finally, on ‘Compton’, set in present time as Kendrick records the album, the story comes full circle, as he comes to terms with his city. He learns to appreciate the darkness that would mould him and embraces his homies. He understands his responsibility to his city, the pressure on him to succeed and the odds stacked against him. But he isn’t deterred.
The tape comes to a stop.
GKMC is a modern retelling of the American Dream, a nightmare from which the people of Compton can’t wake up from. A coming of age tale that narrowly avoids an early demise. Kids from Compton don’t end up selling multi-platinum records, winning Pulitzers or curating motion picture soundtracks. Kendrick’s rise to the top against all odds must be celebrated. But make no mistake, his story is the exception, not the norm. While his struggles vindicate our notions of success, the main motif of GKMC is the never-ending struggles of the disenfranchised in America, as years of institutionalized racism has ensured their blood and sweat don’t carry any weight in their struggle.
While most artists would be glad with a single album as grandiose as GKMC in their arsenal, Kendrick would end up outdoing himself in further works. In fact the consequence of GKMC cannot be understated. In an industry filled with one hit wonders and one trick ponies, Kendrick Lamar stands out in his zeal to make a positive difference. While he may set record sales and receive countless awards, the measure of his real success is the hope and inspiration his music offers the listener.
After all, he doesn’t do it for the ‘Gram, he does it for Compton.