My Rating: 9.5/10
A good kid in a mad city – the title says it all. Furthermore, the acronym “M.A.A.D,” tells us more: “my Angel on Angel’s dust” (Angel’s dust meaning cocaine) and “my Angry Adolescence divided.” Also, on the album cover it says “A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar,” a label which at first, told me that either this is gonna be some gimmicky pap or a powerfully written and thematically dense piece of art. After just a couple of listens, it became clear the latter was true. Released in 2010, good kid, m.A.A.D city stands as one of the pillars in Rap history and a qualitative analogue to West-coast Rap relics like the Chronic by Dr. Dre, Straight Outta Compton by N.W.A, Doggystyle by Snoop dogg, and even the unparalleled All Eyez on Me album by the legendary Tupac Shakur. This album is an insightful play about a kid living in such an inescapably ominous place like Compton. But most prominently, it’s a cinematic parable about Kendrick Lamar finding himself in his wicked surroundings. And if you’re still not buying it, it’s a super hype and fucking lit album that could satisfy the musical needs of any club or party scene.
The album starts with a recitation of the sinner’s prayer on “Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter,” – “I humbly repent for my sins…..,” and the nocturnal and eerie instrumental plays followed by Kendrick introducing the prominent “Sherane,” character of the album. He met her at Central Ave where she gave him her number and the location of her house. The song leaves you at a cliffhanger of him pulling up at her place, shocked by two thugs on her side in black hoodies. The next two tracks take a break from the current story, and retrospect into two thematically pertinent yet chronologically digressive allegories in K-dot’s life as well as the poppy “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” song where he articulates his desire to be undisturbed and focused at enlightening the masses through his storytelling. “Backseat Freestyle,” is the first one and its an aggressive banger that may fool you in your first few listens. Blindly, it may seem like he’s parroting any trap-rapper with bars like “I pray my dick get big as the Eiffel Tower,” or in the bridge: “Goddamn I got bitches, damn I got bitches, Damn I got bitches, wifey, girlfriend and mistress, All my life I want money and power,” but rather he’s consciously spitting the materialistic and mislead thoughts of a 16 year old who wants to get famous. By doing that, he is also dissing the hedonism and lasciviousness that’s plagued the Rap genre making this one of the best tracks on the entire album.
In the second short story: “The Art of Peer Pressure,” he’s robbing a house with his friends who he’s come under the influence of and thereby epitomizing exactly THE art of peer pressure on the most precarious level. And while doing so, he’s having this monologue with himself in lines like “really I’m a peacemaker,” “I’m usually a true firm believer of bad karma,” “Momma used to say, One day it’s gon’ burn you out,” and “look at me, I got the blunt in my mouth, Usually I’m drug-free,” all followed by a reasoning of “But I’m with the homies right nowww.” In the skit at the end of the song, his homies are trying to deal with him passing out from the blunt that he smoked which was laced with cocaine – that experience is exactly why Kendrick is still drug-free today. After the “Money Trees,” track which talked about taking either the negative or positive path like in the line “It go Halle Berry or hallelujah, Pick your poison, tell me what you doin,'” the song returns to its core story in “Poetic Justice.” While the background vocals on here were just awful, lyrically, it’s another insight, now into his seduction by the sexy Sherane (inferably) character. The Drake feature was actually quite solid on here, despite my heavy skepticism of it and it proved the tactical savvy of Kendrick, knowing what type of personality to bring where without just mere interest into adding stardom to the album. At the end of the song, the thugs that were standing beside Sherane when Kendrick pulled up, start interrogating him “I’m gon’ ask you one more time, homie…get out the van, homie! Get out the car before I snatch you out that motherfucker, homie,” and with flow of the plot, give him a hard beating that’s not actually presented in the skit.
Than we get that the two title tracks: “Good Kid,” and “M.A.A.d city,” which branch off from the story again but talk about so many important things. “Good Kid,” deals with racial profiling in the police force. Kendrick powerfully expresses his bold opionions with the subject in first person: “Every time you clock in the morning, I feel you just want to kill, All my innocence while ignorin’ my purpose to persevere,” and in “And you ask: “Lift up your shirt,” because you wonder if a tattoo of affiliation can make it a pleasure to put me through Gang files, but that don’t matter because the matter is racial profile.” Subsequently he’s in a room where all he sees is “20’s, Xannies and these ‘shrooms, Grown-up candy for pain, can we live in a sane,” for people anesthetizing themselves from their fucked up lives.
The next song “M.A.A.d city,” gets even better. The first stanza and bridge of the song is “If Pirus and Crips all got along, they’d probably gun me down by the end of this song,” describing his neutral standpoint on gang culture – not supporting the crips or bloods. In the second half of the track, Kendrick now raps in this quirky, and pretty awesome falsetto that I’m pretty sure is supposed to mimic the voice fluctuations men go through in puberty. He now explicitly explains why he doesn’t do drugs, and still being apprehensive from violence even where the government provides these free lunches to the community in Compton. The beat is fucking hype, and at the end of the track Kendrick returns to his homies and they start getting drunk to help Kendrick numb his physical and psychological distress from his beat-down by Sherane’s thugs. This leads to perhaps an even more misleading and cryptic song: “Swimming Pools.” The instrumentation in tandem with Kendrick crooning “I got a swimming pool full of liquor,” is smooth, intoxicating and synthetic. In the hook he sings from his homies’ point of view: “Nigga, why you babysittin’ only two or three shots? I’ma show you how to turn it up a notch,” and in the verses Kendrick’s introspecting at his destructive bout and even his conscience starts narrating the song for a little bit: “if you do not hear me. Then you will be history, Kendrick I know that you’re nauseous right now..As the window open I release, everything that corrode inside of me, I see you jokin’, why you laugh? Don’t you feel bad? I probably sleep, And never ever wake up.” At the end of the song you get the most action-packed, and thrilling skit with Kendrick’s friends firing at the guys who beat him up, but inadvertently killing one of their own – Dave’s brother, a major plot twist.
The subsequent piece “Sing about Me, I’m Dying of thirst,” is the best individually story-driven song and the track I would give to someone as a summary or conceptual snapshot of this album. In the first part, Kendrick essentially exemplifies the ghetto life with narration from two perspectives of his close friends: Dave’s brother who wants to avenge Dave through violence and Keisha, who has resorted to prostitution in order for her to survive. The instrumental here is somber, yet rhythmic with mellow guitar strings and subtle pianos. By telling these important stories, and hopefully leaving a mark on his audience, in the chorus Kendrick asks us to “Promise that you will sing about me, Promise that you will sing about me.” The second part of the song, despite such a dense and deep first part, has Kendrick following Dave’s brother in the pursuit of reprisal for what caused his murder. He raps “never learned how to live righteous but how to shoot it…..fuck the world, my sex slave, Money, pussy, and greed – what’s my next crave?” and “Too many sins, I’m runnin’ out, Somebody send me a well for the drought..You dyin’ of thirst, you dyin’ of thirst, So hop in that water, and pray that it works,” which leads to the outro skit of the song. Here, an older woman (his neighbour) explains to them that they are dying of thirst and that they need to take a new path and let Jesus into their lives. She then leads them in a rendition of The Sinner’s Prayer, which is recited in the beginning of the album. She asserts “You need to be baptized, with the spirit of the Lord, Do you want to receive God as your personal savior? Okay, repeat after me, “Lord God, I come to You a sinner.”….Alright now, remember this day…The start of a new life – your REAL life.”
This spiritual moment leads to the denouement of the story in “Real.” While the hook “I’m real, I’m real, I’m really, really, real,” is just disgusting and corny, the song closes off with Lamar’s conclusion that he is in full control of his life and that the spirit, the savior is indeed real. Vocally, the tone of Kendrick’s bars are much more mature and controlled as opposed to the cracking inflections you hear in “M.A.A.D City.” This is followed by a voicemail from his dad warning him to not make the same mistakes he did and a couple of voicemails from his mother as well – noteworthily asserting “If I don’t hear from you by tomorrow, I hope you come back and learn from your mistakes. Come back a man, tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton. Let ’em know you was just like them, but you still rose from that dark place of violence, becoming a positive person. But when you do make it, give back with your words of encouragement, and that’s the best way to give back. To your city.”
And needless to say, that’s why this album is one of the greatest to ever be produced. The smart usage of allegory, anecdote and ultimate parable of Kendrick realizing the power of spirituality and personal autonomy is why this album is so effective at what it’s trying to say. It’s something this next generation of rappers should really try to understand and take inspiration from. Even if a rapper would overlook the spirituality, philosophical and cultural motifs, the format should at least be tried to emulate in my opinion- the format of telling a chronological story in an album. Instead of just having a theme for an album, why not actually tell a narrative in real time? It sounds almost too easy. However, to have one grand, overarching story that people are going to be moved by requires you to either create one or have some kind of grand, and profound experience that Kendrick has. But with his case, the story being on such a precarious level with drugs, violence, and murder – its no wonder why most kids get fucked by the system and spend the rest of their lives repping their gang or residing in prison rather than singing their profound experiences through poetry and sound like K-dot. Most individuals that do find relative solstice through rap, end up just making uninspired and plain violent Rap – listen to any Trap tape, and you’ll know what I mean.
Walking home from school one, day a group of kids socializing and smoking on an alleyway had “Backseat Freestyle,” playing on a speaker. Did they know that this song was a conscious retrospection into the delusional and sybaritic mind of a 16 year old Kendrick Lamar? No, and that’s another reason why this record is so great – its “multidimensionality.” This album has everything the average rap looks for – fire bars, and lit beats, but from an avid reader’s vantage point, it has that desirable compelling narrative with themes of self-awareness, spirituality, peer pressure, and making smart decisions in life. All in all, that multidimensionality, the hard-hitting, banger beats, and the insightful and vividly painted parable of the album makes it one of the best rap albums ever made and is easily transcendent of any of its contemporaries. Growing up in such an ominous place like Compton, Kendrick gives you the best possible storytelling of the story of a good kid in a mad city. Whether he’s fucking reflecting in his head whilst drinking swimming pools full of liquor, robbing a fucking house, or rapping on behalf of a prostitute, he’s destroying every Rapper around him. Other than a couple of distasteful vocals on a few of tracks, this album is one of the most influential and enjoyable records ever made: 9.5/10.