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Kendrick Lamar- good kid, m.A.A.d. city (Album Review)

October 30, 2012

Overly Dedicated, Kendrick Lamar’s 2010 mixtape, was a trickle of water to the parched throats of thirsty hip-hop heads. Autotune had permeated hip-hop music to the point that even Jay-Z called for its death. Lamar brought something genuine to the table, reminding hip-hop fans what a young hungry MC uncorrupted by the corporate industry sounds like again. In 2011, Section 80 was released and took Kendrick’s fame and popularity to the next level. He reportedly worked with Dr. Dre on Detox and garnered praise from the hip-hop publications to the indie press for his latest effort. His rhymes got faster and more complex; it became clear that he was a man who took his craft seriously.

In the Spring “The Recipe (featuring Dr. Dre)” swept the radio and internet, exposing him to more potential fans. The laid back Californian anthem boosting about “women, weed, and weather” was the stepping stone he needed to fully cross-over. Later in the year, “Swimming Pools (Drank)” would seal the deal for his mainstream introduction as it went on to enter into Billboards top 20 for the hip-hop chart. And as brilliant as Lamar may have came off to fans in his earlier releases, he hadn’t even begin to tell his story yet.

Good Kid, m.A.A.d city (subtitled A short film by Kendrick Lamar), chronicles a day in the life of the young rapper, then named K. Dot, and the ills that he faced growing up in Compton, CA. Lamar cleverly weaves his story together with immaculately produced tracks, and skits that have the perfect element of realism.

The album opens with a prayer and introduces the story’s narrative with “Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter.” He met Sherane at a house party on El Segundo & Central in South LA. Her mother was a crack addict, so she lived with her grandmother with her two younger brothers. Lamar mentions her favorite cousin is named Demetrius and that she comes from a gang-affiliated family. He borrowed his mother’s keys to the van to go see her. Being a horny teen at the time, he had sex on his mind and fantasized about her on the ride over to her house. When he arrived, he was confronted by two men in hoodies as his phone rang. K. Dot’s mother left a voicemail; she called to check up on him and see when he’s returning. She was concerned about him messing around with “hoodrats” and it being a school-night. She tells him she needs to go to the county building to get food stamps while arguing with his father in the background.

“Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” breaks from the narrative to reflect on Kendrick’s career. He is wary of new people in his life who may be trying to take advantage of him and his newfound fame. He analyzes staying true to himself without compromising his integrity to “co-sign what radio does.” A brief skit at the end resumes the narrative with Kendrick’s friends picking him up with “a pack of Blacks and a beat CD,” and telling him to get his freestyles ready.

Lamar raps from the perspective of a young K. Dot in “Backseat Freestyle.” He rhymes while riding with his friends “All my life/I want money and power/Respect my mind or die from lead shower.” The stigma of violence and materialism clearly has an influence on him. He boost to his friends about his “bitches… wifey, girlfriend, and mistress” and at one point in the song contorts his voice into an angry growl reminiscent of Eminem’s disturbing screams in tracks like “Kim.”

In “The Art of Peer Pressure,” Kendrick, who is usually sober and “a peacemaker,” lives life fast with “the homies” against his mother’s warning that “One day it’s gonna burn you out.” They drive around in a white Toyota listening to Jeezy’s first album. While driving through Westchester, they check out girls and later jump three guys wearing colors that they “didn’t like.” Lamar claims he “never was a gang banger” and “never been violent” until with “the homies.” He claims to be “usually a true firm believer of bad karma;” he and his friends “were trying to conquer the city with disobedience.” They burglarized a house that his friends been stalking out for 2 months. His mom called after they took off and he told her he was “kickin’ it.” In the next skit, K. Dot accidentally hits a laced blunt referred to as ‘The Shenanigans.’ They plan on dropping him off at the park where his mother’s van is so he can go visit Sherane, but also plan on meeting up again later that night around 10:30pm.

DJ Dahi samples Beach House’s “Silver Soul” in “Money Talks.” Kendrick references his adventures from earlier in the day, and mentions the lost of his Uncle Tony who was shot in his head twice. The song explores the desperation of many youth in the hood to make money, either to floss or plot an escape. Young K. Dot even slightly justifies why he and his friends robbed guys that looked like “an easy come up,” stating that he knew they came from ‘silver spoons.’ And although he and his friends dreamed of “living life like rappers do,” their daily reality was poverty. Young K. Dot feels that “money trees is the perfect place for shade.” In the next skit, his mother calls him telling him to bring the van back, stating she probably missed her appointment. His inebriated father is heard in the background in a sillier mood.

“Poetic Justice,” produced by Scoop DeVille, samples Janet Jackson’s “Anytime, Anyplace.” The song references the 1993 John Singleton film with the same name starring Jackson and Tupac Shakur. Following the narrative, it is presumably a track detailing his relationship with Sherane. The story resumes in the next skit with the flash-forward of K. Dot confronted by the two men in front of Sherane’s house.

In “Good Kid” he talks about getting jumped by those two men. He expresses his frustration with gang culture in LA and the Catch 22 of being ‘unaffiliated.’ He asks “But what am I supposed to do/When the topic is red or blue/And you understand that I ain’t/But know I’m accustomed to.” In the second verse his frustration turns to racial profiling from LAPD, their harassment, checking for tattoos and looking for excuses to add him to their gang files. Kendrick’s concerns with being a constant target is a reality that many young men face in the inner-city. In “m.A.A.d. city” he reiterates his vulnerability of being unaffiliated singing “If Pirus and Crips all got along/They’d probably gun me down by the end of this song/Seem like the whole city go against me/Every time I’m in the street I hear/’YAWK! YAWK! YAWK! YAWK!'” He also mentions seeing “a light-skinned nigga with his brains blown out” at a burger stand when he was 9 years old, as well as still being distressed about losing his cousin in 1994. The song transitions into a second segment in which K. Dot references Kanye’s “We Major” with the line “Projects torn up/gang signs get thrown up.” He also discussed how a laced blunt made him foam at the mouth and is the reason for why he “barely smoke now.” The second-half of the title tracks also features veteran Compton rapper MC Eiht.

The leading single from the album, “Swimming Pools (Drank),” provides a subtle criticism about escaping problems with alcoholism. Lamar rhymes “If I take another one down/I’m gonna drown in some poison… This how you capitalize/This is parental advice/Then apparently/I’m over influenced by what you are doin’.” He implies that the negative influences from elders can have an impact on younger generations. This is made when he mentions growing up around “people living their lives in bottles” and his grandfather’s “golden flask.” The skit at the end reveals that K. Dot’s friends retaliated against the men who jumped him, shooting at them. It ends with the revelation that Lamar’s attackers killed a brother of one of his friends.

In a tragic turn in the story, “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” continues after the death of a homey. The first verse discusses a true story about one of Kendrick’s Blood friends who lost his brother to gang violence. He asked Lamar to tell his story if he dies before his album is released; the gun-shots abruptly ending the verse is emblematic of his murder. The song serves as a tribute. The second verse tells another true story based on a reaction from Keisha’s sister (Lamar profiles the death of a young prostitute Keisha on the track “Keisha’s Song” on his previous album, Section 80). Despite her disapproval of Lamar sharing Keisha’s story and intimate details with the world, he proceeds to explicitly tell Keisha’s sister’s story from her perspective. In her voice he asks “How could you ever put her on blast and shit?” and “My sister died in vain/But what point are you trying to gain?” She warns him “If you have an album date/just make sure I’m not in the song/Cause I don’t need the attention/bring enough of that on my own.”
The song implies that Keisha’s sister is HIV positive in the line “Did I mention that I physically feel great/A doctor’s approval is a waste of time, I know I’m straight/I’ll probably live longer than you and never fade away,” and that she too is a sex worker. The verse ends with Lamar’s voice literally fading out. In the third verse, Kendrick elaborates on why he told both stories and tries to defend why his intentions were good. “Dying of Thirst” further expresses his frustrations with violence in the inner-city. In the skit at the end of the track, an elderly woman dissuades K. Dot and his friend from retaliating and ask them to join her in prayer.

In “Real,” Lamar reflects on the flawed characters on the album and has a certain coming of age, discussing how they have love for their vices but not love for themselves. He redefines what it means to be “real” for himself asking “Should I hate street credibility I’m talkin’ about/Hatin’ all money, power, respect in my will/Or hatin’ the fact that none of that shit make me real.” His parents leave him with useful advice on his voicemail at the end of the song. His mother has practically given up on trying to get him to return with the vehicle. His father gives his condolences for the death of his friend and tells him “realness is God.”

“King Kendrick Lamar” steps to the mic in “Compton.” He closes the album with a Dr. Dre collaboration, representing their hometown. It is a testament of his success and evolution as man and artist. In “The Spiteful Chant” on Section 80, Lamar states “Everybody heard that I fuck with Dre/And they wanna tell me I made it/Nigga I ain’t made shit/If he gave me a handout/I’mma take his wrist and break it.” He wisely acknowledges that he’s capable of progressing his own career without being entirely dependent upon other established artists in the industry. Dr. Dre helped bring global recognition to Compton with N.W.A. back in the late ’80s. He made a tsunami-sized splash into the hip-hop pond with his solo release The Chronic in 1992. Dre also helped develop the careers of Snoop Dogg (of Long Beach), Eminem, 50 Cent, and The Game (also of Compton). Lamar is a part of a lineage of young black men telling their stories about growing up on the streets of South LA. The West Coast gangsta rap veterans have embraced him, passing on the torch to a rapper from a younger generation more analytical about the destructive nature of the culture of violence in the inner-city.

Lamar doesn’t simply glorify the violence, he explores the psychology of black youth in the hood , providing a critical defense for behavior and conditions often condemned by larger society. His argument is not one that is unique to his life alone; there are many other young people who grew up in South LA (or other inner-cities) who consider themselves “good kids,” but are capable of slipping down a troubled path with the wrong influences and decisions. Good kid, m.A.A.d. city isn’t just an album with exquisite production and a creative presentation, it resonates with young people who are in similar situations as K. Dot. It is a pivotal voice in post-Gen. X hip-hop. Another reason why Lamar’s sophomore LP is a success is because his rhyming skills are clearly superior to many of his Gen. Y peers. Laziness has consumed commercial hip-hop, with rappers putting in less and less effort with the art of lyricism. Lamar, like his predecessor Nas, is able to paint colorful realistic pictures of street tales in his songs; he lives up to his title as an artist. Besides the witty wordplay, good kid  also excels because of the contributions of talented young producers (ie: Scoop Deville, Sounwave, and others) who took a sophisticated complex approach to creating music with Lamar. Some beats improve upon the trap music trend, while others provide throwbacks to ’90s hip-hop (gangsta rap and jazz-hop). The album manages to sound contemporary, retro, and futuristic all at the same time. Some music fans ask whether it’s too soon to call good kid, m.A.A.d city a classic; the ingredients for the recipe of a classic are all present on this album. Lamar is the most invigorating artist hip-hop has seen in years, and what’s most exciting is the fact that this is just the beginning of his career.

*Author’s note: Kendrick Lamar was born in 1987, a year after me. I was born and raised in South LA (and other parts of Southern California). Personally, I related to good kid, m.A.A.d. city a lot. I can relate with the vexation of being a ‘good kid’ in a troubled environment and trying to escape its negative influences. I also know what it’s like to feel like an endangered species as a young black male, being a target for black gang members, Latino gang members, and the police. And when not dealing with that obstacle, there’s always plenty of fearful Caucasians clutching their bags or crossing the street when I’m passing them in nicer neighborhoods. When Kendrick said that “he’s easily prey,” I felt that- it was something I could definitely relate to. Being a South Central native made me look at the world differently. As I grew older I came to understand the complexity of troubled neighborhoods and why some people choose to be violent. For me, the helicopters, police/ambulance sirens, and gunshots were the soundtrack to my childhood. As sad as it was, it was something I was conditioned to. Growing up in South Central in the ’90s, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and 2Pac had a big influence on me. Along with the neighborhood ambiance, their music was the soundtrack to my childhood as well. I was a different kid from early on though. It seemed as if I was destined to bloom into a bohemian. Like other kids who grew up in the hood, I saw violence- saw people stabbed and shot and bleeding. Like with young Tre in Boyz n the Hood, the violence to a kid can be traumatic, but there’s certainly an element of desensitization. Hyper-masculine gangsta rap like 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Trying, which came out when I was in high-school, glorified street violence without any substance attached to it. By that time, I was deep into underground/alternative hip-hop and grew to resent music that reflected negatively on black people and that further stereotyped us. I didn’t necessarily agree with the lyrics in the gangsta rap I had grown up on, but the nostalgic attachment was strong. After listening to good kid, m.A.A.d. city; I feel inspired. There is hope for my generation of hip-hop. It all doesn’t have to be autotuned generic trap music bragging about swag or hybrid techno Eurotrash. There is opportunity for something better on the commercial level again ; Kendrick just proved that.

-Griff X (October 2012)

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