Listen to the track Good Kid, by Kendrick Lamar.
A young man, aged 16 or 17, is driving to a young woman’s house in his momma’s van. He’s thinking about what young men think about when they are getting ready to meet up with the opposite sex, but this girl might be different than the others. They have been getting to know each other all summer long:
The summer had passed and now I’m liking her
Conversation we having probably enticing her
Who could imagine, maybe my actions would end up wifing her.
He’s “young and dumb” so doesn’t fully understand these emotions inside him but does know she’s hot and they have stuff in common so his adolescent mind dreams of the future with this girl named Sherane. As he’s pulling up to her house though, something seems suspicious. There are two young men standing outside her house wearing hoodies and watching him drive up.
This year’s Grammy Awards are being called the year for Hip-Hop with various rap artists securing numerous nods from the Recording Academy. There have only been two Hip-Hop albums that have taken home the award for best album to date. Lauryn Hill was the first to win in 1999 for her fantastic album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, oh how I miss Lauryn Hill, and Outkast won in 2004 for Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. I am often disinterested in much of the popular music nominated for Grammy Awards, but there is usually a few scattered picks which become my favorite. Whoever wins Best Album is regularly the most deserving of the nominees and it seems artistic quality is considered ahead of commercial success. That is why Kendrick Lamar’s breakthrough LP, Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, needs to take home the award for Best Album this year.
Lamar’s album can be considered as nothing less than an hip-hop tour de force. It is a concept album, following the actions and choices presented to a young man living in Compton, California. This is folk music at its best, relating the events of a single day while managing to capture the lifestyle and culture of one man’s environment with an emotional depth that makes the story personal for the listener. The subtitle for the album is “A short film by Kendrick Lamar” and after listening to the album several times, then becoming familiar with the narrative, the story becomes very similar to the 1991 John Singleton film Boyz n the Hood. The album’s fluid narrative lacks none of the gravitas present in the critically acclaimed film which make this a hip-hop masterpiece and worthy of the Grammy Academy’s top prize.
The theme of the album, and where the album gains its weight, is when the narrative picks up again in the first of the title tracks, Good Kid. Up to this point Lamar has been relating how a young man goes about his day in this city of Compton, first meeting up with his friends to compete in a friendly rap battle. Backseat Freestyle is the most braggadocios and pompous song on the album and it wouldn’t work without the story. Lyrics about the size of his penis, the amount of women he has, and the skills in his flow are given meaning in the opening line:
Martin had a dream. Martin had a dream. Kendrick have a dream.
The recklessness of this young man’s lifestyle is compared to the dream Dr. King had for the black community and what they could accomplish. Incidentally, this song shows off Kendrick’s talent as a rapper more than any song on the album, combining cadence, breath control, and lyrical mastery, which is even more impressive considering the song only took two takes in the studio.
Then the young man and his friends pull off a robbery in the Art of Peer Pressure; the use of strings on the track give this song a sense of a creeping dread. After outrunning the cops, Lamar talks about the pursuit of money which provides a false hope among his peers in Money Trees. The hook begins with the line:
It go Halle Berry or hallelujah
Pick your poison tell me what you doin’
Materialism or religion seems to be the only choices given to the young man. One offers instant gratification while the other offers eternal reward and this becomes the theme of the entire album.
After a slow song with Drake called Poetic Justice, complete with a Janet Jackson sample, the narrative of the album picks up again. In my opinion, the next four tracks are the best hip-hop I have ever heard. Good Kid tells the story of a “good kid” living in the city, trying to stay out of the gang lifestyle and focusing on his girlfriend and “bible study”. This is almost impossible to do since he was seen hanging out with a lifelong friend who has joined a gang making the young man in the story guilty by association. As he goes to meet his girl Sherane, it turns out she set him up by letting her older relative, who was in the rival gang, know he was coming. When he gets to her house, the young men interrogate him about where he is from, accuse him of being a rat, then proceed to jump him. As he is laying there a police car drives up. The police assume he is just another gangbanger and interrogate him as well, searching him and lifting his shirt to see if he has any gang affiliation tattoos. The sense of hopelessness leaves the young man in a state of confusion, and anger, toward the station he has been placed in life:
Mass hallucination baby
Ill education baby
Want to reconnect with your elations
This is your station baby.
At this point, the “good kid” in the story becomes consumed in the “mad city” and the consuming anger is felt vividly in the next song, m.A.A.d. City.
The young man cannot escape the cycle of violence that has taken over his community:
Pakistan on every porch is fine/ we adapt to crime
He tells us about all the violence he has witnessed in his young life; people he knows who have been murdered or who have murdered. The images Lamar uses in this song paint the picture of a warzone, filled with hysteria, as a young man tries to make sense of the senselessness. In the middle of this song the beat completely changes and a beat reminiscent of N.W.A. begins. Lamar raises his voice an octave for the first verse which makes him sound like a young kid but also conjure memories of Easy E. The lyrics,
Reality struck I seen the white car crash. Hit the light pole two nigga’s hopped out on foot and dashed,
are reminiscent of the song 100 Miles and Runnin. The old school vibe and the appearance of veteran Compton rapper MC Eiht work together to tell the listener that this is nothing new; the violence is generational. Education, money, and power won’t bring relief to this young man:
Would you say my intelligence now is great relief?
And it’s safe to say that our next generation maybe can sleep
With dreams of being a lawyer or doctor
Instead of boy with a chopper that hold the cul de sac hostage
Kill them all if they gossip, the Children of the Corn
They realizing the option of living a lie.
The anger is then fed with alcohol in Swimming Pools. This song kind of steps out of the narrative as the young man’s conscience is given a voice. He understands how the liquor gives him courage and acceptance that will fuel this destructive lifestyle. Ultimately it brings him to a place where he and his friends are planning revenge on the guys who jumped him. A gun battle ensues and one of his companions is left dead. The skit in the middle of the song Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst brings tears to my eyes. The pain of running, running from their peers, running from the cops, running from themselves, is intensely felt as the narrator comes to a breaking point. We learn that what these young men have been thirsting for is salvation—an escape from death. This is only found through faith in God, and the breaking point becomes a turning point. The young man recognizes that despite all these traps that are laid for him, it cannot ultimately determine who he will become. The album becomes a warning, a message, that there is a choice and while difficult, is not wholly meaningless.
If you do not like hip-hop music this album will probably not change your opinion of it, though if there is one hip-hop album you should listen to it is this one. Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City could possibly be called the best of its genre to date, and it certainly is the best of the era. At the least, it sits among hip-hop’s best: Me Against the World, Aquemini, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Illmatic. It definitely is the best album of the year and hopefully the Grammy Academy recognizes it for the artistic masterpiece that it is.