The enigmatic Kendrick Lamar is often associated with disdain or eye-rolling.
For a rapper basing his ability to continue making music on commercial success, he often criticizes the platform he’s been given. Songs like “Backseat Freestyle,” “Swimming Pools” and “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” have given an artist committed to art an audience akin to that of Drake or A$AP Rocky. Even his biggest hits, though, are rich with cultural commentary and subtext.
With his second studio album, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, Lamar creates an immersive experience set to the language of the masses. A trap drum, synth, and commercially accessible production lay the framework for a lyrical journey few ambitious rappers can muster.
The album is Lamar’s origin story – a coming-of-age tale of someone who broke free of his crippling upbringing. It’s a tale of resilience and empathy, written with the ink of crime, drugs, and internalized hatred. Set in Compton, CA, the non-linear narrative begins with a young Kendrick setting the scene on “Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter.” Bursting with hormones, the teen is hell bent on borrowing his mother’s van for a meet up with new fling Sherane. Emotion transcends logic in this sequence, and Kendrick drives to her house unknowing of what’s waiting for him: rival gangbangers.
What unfolds is an endlessly gripping puzzle of a story. “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” acts as a check-in of present day Lamar expressing his attitudes toward the music industry and illustrating his atypical motivations – to break free of the “rapper” mold that has been crafted by teams of industry executives for the artists they sign.
After clarifying his current state, Lamar rewinds the tape back to the beginning of the story. “Backseat Freestyle” depicts the young and naive K-dot, an innocent adolescent hanging with his boys, dreaming big through rhymes. The genius of this track lays in its subtext. What many listeners hear as a party banger, the single is actually a commentary of youthful ignorance and escapism. It is a further exemplification of the theme of acceptance echoed throughout good kid.
The album’s narrative gains momentum on “The Art of Peer Pressure.” The storytelling on this song is perhaps the most immersive of any on the record. With a production flawlessly encapsulating the collective, feigned aplomb of K-dot and his homies undercut by a tense, pulsating beat, the song relays a night of seemingly innocuous robbery. The group house hops, scooping goods and evading the police. What’s more, the track analyzes the pressure K-dot feels from his peers to commit crime, do drugs, and, above all, fit in.
“I’ve never been violent, until I’m with the homies,” he discovers.
This sentiment is further echoed from the similar “Money Trees.” The song shifts the perspective to that aforementioned false composure. K-dot brags of his successful robberies. Never subtext free, the track ruminates on the reasoning behind these ventures of theft. “Money trees is the perfect place for shade,” he informs the listener. Money, in this case, is the safety and security he daydreams about.
Once again pausing the narrative is “Poetic Justice,” the most pandering track on the album. Fittingly, it’s the one track featuring rap superstar Drake. The song is not purposeless in the context of the album. It’s actually an assurance from Lamar that he tells his story from as objective a standpoint as possible.
With the song, Lamar speaks directly to Sherane. He urges his intent to share his tasteful, authentic and non-exploitative approach to telling their story.
That very narrative begins to build with the inciting incident on title track “good kid.” Sherane’s family assaults the harmless K-dot. The song expands beyond Lamar’s personal narrative to the overall conflict of the world within Compton. The commentary on the societal prison cell’s recipe of gang wars and racial profiling provide a transitional moment of realization for Lamar.
What follows is arguably the strongest rap song of the 21st century, “m.A.A.d city.” Not only does the song just absolutely slap, but it shows off Lamar’s character expression and versatility. He raps in a voice of desperation, with his recent assault exhuming traumatic moments from his childhood. It’s his rare admission of pain and a moment of emotional indulgence before the beat pauses like the subject composing himself, concluding, “it ain’t nothin’ but a Compton thang.”
The epic, 4-verse opus is the crux of the album. What makes “m.A.A.d. city” a masterpiece is its drug-induced vocal production, dense lyrics outlining Lamar’s experience, and homage to N.W.A. ‘s signature style.
Continuing the narrative is “Swimming Pools,” an introspective anthem continuing the theme of peer pressure and the fleeting pursuit of external acceptance. Lamar copes with his run-in with Sherane’s cousins through self-medication. The track expertly juxtaposes the lyrics of pressure and emotional repression with an uptempo production.
The album’s narrative starts to wind down with “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.” Another epic story, the song adopts the perspectives of Lamar’s friend, past acquaintance Keisha’s sister, and Lamar himself. It discusses mortality, growth, and enlightenment. It’s the incarnation of Kendrick Lamar. Throughout the story, he was K-dot, but at this point he becomes the present day Lamar.
This is further solidified on the calming self-love anthem “Real.” Another study of the characters on “Sing About Me,” the song stresses the importance of loving oneself in a life that’s too short for anything else. The newly minted Lamar is not only cemented through the continued lyrical prowess, but in the collected voice Lamar uses to communicate those words over the course of the song.
The album’s narrative essentially concludes on “Real,” with “Compton” acting as an epilogue and love letter to the setting of the story.
good kid, m.A.A.d. city is the rare rap classic to come from this century. It’s clear that Lamar is a product of his inspirations, from Biggie and Tupac to Eminem and Dr. Dre. He uses the voices of those before him to break into an audience with the same yearning for conscious rap and an ideology framed around the pursuit of enlightenment.
The album is more than a cautionary tale, insightfully giving listeners safety net through which to learn of the hidden horrors that lay not just in Compton but the many poor neighbors scraping by.
Racism, toxicity, and complacency ruled the world Lamar was able to break free from him. To make something of his escape and give back, Lamar made good kid, m.A.A.d. city.