Kendrick Lamar’s “good kid, mAAd city” turns 10
Before Kendrick Lamar retreated into himself and declared, “I choose myself,” he chose to channel every inhabitant of his little corner of California. A concept album about a single day in the life of teenager Kendrick, good kid, maAd city presents Compton as a treacherous wonderland that devours and nurtures its young in various ways. Inspired by the bound Los Angeles canons of gangster rap and hood movies, and eager to complicate this story, Kendrick and his collaborators place a new Compton on the familiar, shattering past and present.
Kendrick’s Hub City is overflowing with echoes and ricochets. His songs don’t just represent or reintroduce his mythologized hometown; they drive it. Like Professor X patched into Cerebro, Kendrick projects his anxious mind into the heads of neighbors, relatives, and rap influences and harnesses psychic feedback. Ghosts of homies and relatives talk to and through him as he hits blunts and licks. Gangbangers and cops trample him. Voicemails about missing dominoes and reality are piling up in his inbox. “It feels like the whole city is going against me,” he whispers on “mAAd city,” the line capturing both the brutal force of this ambient pressure and its concussive recoil. Kendrick was far from the first rapper to shine a light on the victims and bystanders of LA’s gang disputes — laments for the dead are a staple of West Coast rap — but he was the first rapper to mainstream full of such hauntings in his style. Every line, melody and scene in his “short” is a seance, Kendrick summoning local spirits and contorting his elastic voice to convey their stories alongside his own.
Released 10 years ago this Saturday, the album hit rock bottom at a time when rap was divided along now debatable fault lines: mixtape vs. album, underground vs. commercial, web vs. radio. Few rappers bridged these worlds, and those who did were deeply polarizing. Nicki Minaj, the top female rapper of 2012, backed out of her Summer Jam performance because Peter Rosenberg said her pop rap hit “Starships” wasn’t “real hip-hop,” a microcosm of the reception of Pink Friday: Novel Reloaded. Drake was already a meme and a superstar; a Take care of yourself single or feature film seemed to go platinum every day. Drill mutated in real time as talking heads and critics wrung their hands. Lil B became a college professor. Azealia Banks resurrected hip-house and called Jim Jones a fellow Harlem. Kanye and JAY-Z rocked the arenas into frenzies as they performed encores of “Niggas in Paris.”
good kid, maAd city ignored everything around him. With a cosign from Dr. Dre and all the resources of Interscope and Aftermath, Kendrick and TDE doubled down on their good faith, and the scheme worked. The album’s double punch of autobiographical specificity and adulthood relatability quickly catapulted Kendrick to still shocking levels of visibility and acclaim. From a short-hit album packed with skits and gnarly rhymes, Kendrick went from blogger favorite to rap messiah.
Listeners immediately and prematurely judged good kid, maAd city a classic on arrival, but 10 years later the balance sheet holds. Vince Staples’ wry anti-gangster rap, J. Cole’s anguished survivor guilt, Chance The Rapper’s black boy glee, JID’s conscious trapping, among other currents, all trace back to Kendrick’s intimate hitch between narrator and country. It didn’t screw up the game with a verse until 2013, but it proved the viability of a grassroots audience in an atomized landscape, a dynamic that has intensified in this era of unseen stardom.
To this day, the album remains the pivot of Kendrick’s mythology, the trunk from which all collective ideas about the rapper and his music start. Despite rapping as Jesus, Lucifer and Erik Kilmonger, declaring himself King of New York and being a black Israelite, and repeatedly sharing his love of fucking, huge swaths of rap listeners still regard him as the consummate good boy. Even this year’s abrasive psychodrama Mr. Morale and Big Steps did not shake the legend. Thanks to this album, he is forever the Peter Parker of rap: an anxious talker who fights against enormous obstacles.
He started calling Compton a “crazy town” and himself a “good boy” as early as 2009. Kendrick Lamar EP — which marked his transition from K. Dot to artist Kendrick Lamar — but it took years for the phrases to develop into big-screen allegories. “K.Dot was just rapping,” he said XXL in 2012, explaining the name change. “Kendrick Lamar remembers when his older cousins, 16, 17, had their girlfriends there, were in a relationship with them, and they were screaming in my living room while I was playing Sega.” By Article.80he identified himself as an observer and a questioner, planting himself in the “dead fucking center, looking around” on “Ab-Soul’s Outro”, but he always struggled to tell his origin story with the clarity and seriousness with which he experienced it.
According to the producer of TDE Soundwave, the first version of good kid, maAd city was completed in 2010 and then abandoned, a pattern that repeated itself at least three times by Kendrick’s count. “I wanted to tell this story, but I had to execute it,” Kendrick said. Billboard in 2017. “My whole thing is execution. The songs can be great, the hooks can be great, but if it’s not executed well then it’s not a great album. This perfectionist streak, which TDE executive Punch attributed to TDE working alongside Dr Dre during the Detox sessions, pushed Kendrick to wrap every image and melody with purpose and feeling.
The accent sharpens his writing considerably. Its flows slip, sneak and hammer these tracks while keeping the safeguards of its daily concept. Instead of embracing volume like his Lil Wayne and Eminem influences, he commits to density. Fact, fantasy and mouthfeel constantly converge while he raps. There’s an almost cartoonish quality to the way the writing distorts reality. The animosity becomes “as big as a building”. The heads “crawl” in the slipknots. Banana tongs split banana pudding. Alcoholics live their lives on the inside their bottles. Kendrick’s story of redemption through rap and community prevents his goofy poetics from veering into complete abstraction, but the real and the surreal are always intertwined.
While literary critics and English teachers have praised Kendrick’s storytelling, they have tended to ignore his style and musicality, which are as much a part of the story as his raw despatches about life in the hood. None of the autobiographies work without the free-form buoyancy of its rapping. Realism informs Kendrick’s writing, but like the many films that influenced him – Boyz N the Hood, pulp Fiction, training day, Corn Children, poetic justice — good kid, maAd city never strictly concerns reality. Kendrick is a dreamer and parabolist who sifts through the fog of trauma and nostalgia in search of clarity and purpose. Although he uses real names and details from his life, and the album cover includes creased Polaroids from his childhood, the focus is more emotional than journalistic. It doesn’t matter if he held a cul-de-sac hostage or staged a robbery at work. He just wants to make sense of a world where such episodes really happen. These songs are as much visions as diary pages.
The production is just as dreamlike and heady. Drawing inspiration from the cinematic soundscapes of Dr. Dre and the aquatic mixes of the Dungeon Family, Kendrick and the producers load up the tracks with layered vocals, supple bass lines and lush strings that enhance the staging edgy vignettes from Kendrick. Each beat prioritizes fluidity and immersion, complementing Kendrick’s frequent mentions of water. The refined arrangements are as colorful as Kendrick’s writing: the bass guitar on “Sherane aka Master Splinter’s Daughter” ripples over the drums like moonlight on a lake; the misty touches of “Real” drift over Anna Wise’s harmonies like fog; the hydraulic bounce and the “Bird In The Hand” sample of “mAAd city” immediately take you somewhere in the center-south, an address where you are welcome. Every little detail reclaims Compton as a material place where real people live, die and dream.
Some people even survive, a feeling evoked by the finale, “Compton”. Breezy non-album single “The Recipe” is a better song, but the celebratory retromodern beat Just Blaze beat out for “Compton” fits the occasion. Kendrick walked out of Mad City with his heart still beating. This success would unravel in survivor’s guilt and resentment in his later music. ” A good boy ? Yeah, it’s only in my mama’s eyes,” Kendrick raps on Ab-Soul’s These days… from 2014, already tired of his anointing. This exhaustion with fame and expectations would increase as his stock grew and became a mainstay of his deeply conscious music. But within the confines of this invigorating and hopeful album, the good kid’s victory is forever sweet.