Music Mondays – The Story of “good kid, m.A.A.d. city”

If lyricism is a gift, then Kendrick Lamar is Christmas.

Ok, complete overstatement, but K. Dot is pretty amazing. And the story he tells in good kid, m.A.A.d city is dark, twisting and redemptive.

The only real danger that faced GKMC is that it was Lamar’s major label debut. It certainly didn’t feel like his debut, based on last summer’s Section.80’s commercial success, and what was perhaps the album of the year. What could have further raised skepticism is the fact that Lamar went as far as to say that GKMC would have a completely different feel than Section.80. 

But any of the concern was washed away with the first single, “Swimming Pools (Drank)”which explored the battle between peer pressure and sobriety.

A fairly dark song, “Swimming Pools,” featured what can best be described as a bleak beat. K. Dot seamlessly transitions between standard and a double-time flow here. Of course, the danger of the song is that those who don’t pay too much attention to the lyrics can actually see it as a “raise your glass anthem.” But, the song comes in at a crucial part of the album’s story, a phase when Lamar tries to get out of the vacuum of a culture that he’s in.

In an interview, Kendrick adressed the acronym in the title, stating that it stood for two things: MAngry Adolesence Divided and MAngel’s on Angel Dust. The former acronym signifies K. Dot’s youth and his evolution into the artist that he is today, while the latter explains his choice to avoid marijuana because of a laced stash he had in his earlier days.

There’s something (intentionally) off-putting about the title track. Beginning the album with a group prayer juxtaposed with the horror-esque beat to “Sherane AKA Master Splinter’s Daughter” is so interesting and really sets the tone for the album. You usually don’t see a song about a girl sound so dark, but Lamar loves going against the grain, so it’s not all that surprising. The girl mentioned in the song is the start to K. Dot’s violent side, the struggle that he deals with in early adolescence. The skit at the end perfectly caps off the intro track, with K. Dot’s mother warning her son about Sherane, setting what one would expect to be an ominous tone for what’s to follow.

Surprisingly, that’s not where GKMC goes next. Instead, it chooses a bubbly track in “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” and the kind-of-meta “Backseat Freestyle.” While “Don’t Kill My Vibe” strays from the narrative a bit, it still is a nice track, and one of the lighter feeling songs amongst the album’s serious tones. “Backseat Freestyle,” on the other hand, resembles a freestyle you would see on a classic rap album from the likes of Jay-Z or Big L. But this isn’t actually a freestyle, and plays along with K. Dot discovering who he is amongst his peers. What one can hear from the lyrics, it’s Lamar riding around with friends while smoking and entertaining them with his rapping ability.

Narrative aside, Hit-Boy continues to impress me as a producer, and he should be the next big thing with his work on “N****s in Paris” off Watch The Throne, “Clique” and “Cold” off of Cruel Summerand “Goldie” off the upcoming LongLiveASAP. Maybe he deserves a Music Monday…

Anyways, one of the darkest and most “plot-heavy” songs off the album is “The Art of Peer Pressure.”

The embedded version is actually a shorter, slower version, and the finalized version sounds better. Regardless, the song talks about pressures of the suffocating, violent gang that traps K. Dot in a situation he doesn’t quite know how to escape. However, he and his homies know how to escape, which is how the song ends, after Lamar and his friends manage to rob a house and lose the police.

“Everyone gon’ respect the shooter, but the one in front of the gun lives forever.”

-Kendrick Lamar on “Money Trees”

“Money Trees” has a similar feel as “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” but is a much better track. This song is a great break from the heavy material, and represents a happier, more confident moment in K. Dot’s adolescence. Between Halle Barry and E-40, you see a lot of cultural references here, which suggest that Kendrick embraces his surroundings a little more. Still, robbery and murder is very much present in the lyrics from Lamar and Jay Rock, so while it’s an aesthetic break, it’s not a complete turn from GKMC‘s featured subject matter.

“Poetic Justice” is sort of out of place here, and Drake also feels a bit out of place, though I really think these two rappers blend well together, whether it’s here, on LongLiveASAP, or on Take Care. The song does extend the character of Sherane, however, and the skit at the end really builds up the end of the album momentum. As the next two tracks are a great one-two punch.

Pharrell jumps on the first of the titular tracks and provides a beat that sounds like The Doors backed up Kendrick. It’s a sort of a trippy song solely because of the instrumentals and it works perfectly with the vocals from Kendrick and Pharrell. While Pharrell provides the laid back hook, Kendrick really brings the energy up a notch. Now, that’s not saying he was lackluster so far, it’s saying that this is the first song that really lets him belt it.

Arguably the best song on the album, “m.A.A.d. city” really showcases Kendrick’s rapping ability. The odd thing about this is that it’s a completely new voice from Kendrick. There’s a sense of concern or urgency, and the beginning lines “If Pirus and Crips all got along, they’d probably gun me down by the end of this song,” suggest that there might be. The second half of the song, featuring MC Eiht, picks up a bit, thanks to a beat and samples that are somewhat disorienting…in a good way. There are just so many bold choices here, between voice and beat changes, that this song has a seemingly infinite replay value.

After the aforementioned “Swimming Pools,” is the overlong “Sing About Me/I’m Dying of Thirst.” Coming in at a whopping 12 minutes, this two-parter is actually kind of boring a times, but beautiful lyrically. The song marks a turn in the story, and shows K. Dot’s maturation and self-awareness. The “Sing About Me” portion is fantastic lyrically because it represents the paranoia of growing up in a violent culture, as Kendrick tells his family/friends that he might not be around long. My favorite part of this half perfectly interprets this when K. Dot says “And if I die before your album drop…” and is cut off by gun shots.

“I’m Dying of Thirst’s” half of the song is haunting, as the ethereal backing vocals add a ghostly quality to the song. I’m sure that is and intended effect, seeing as how the first part deals with death and leaving behind a legacy. This half shows how K. Dot is fed up with his lifestyle and the “tired of running” repeated throughout this song shows his frustration with always having to look over his shoulder. The “dying of thirst” and skit at the end of the song suggest that Kendrick found a new life in religion, helping him escape gang culture.

“Real” might be even more boring than the song it follows, but again, it extends the narrative of recovery for Kendrick. It plays with “love” and “hate,” and represents his steps towards peace. The skits at the end hint at the beginning of K. Dot’s rap career, which is a nice lead up to the final track. I find this track to probably be the most skippable, which is a shame since it’s penultimate track of GKMC.

“Compton,” with a well-placed Dr. Dre feature, shows that Kendrick has made it, and escaped the gang culture of the city he still loves. The big, jazzy production really ends GKMC well, as Kendrick has been able to finally move past the dark past he had, using it to fuel his music now.

good kid, m.A.A.d. city is a fantastic album that takes so many artistic twist and turns, all while telling a personal, compelling story about the artist who created it. This album is a must listen, and for now, critics are still warranted in drooling over the near-perfect music Kendrick Lamar churns out.

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