Future Legends: Kendrick Lamar’s ‘good kid, M.A.A.D city’
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You’ve no doubt heard your folks harp on about how The Doors’ L.A Woman totally changed their lives maaaan – but what about the album you’ll be talking about in decades to come? With the help of Jack Daniel’s, we’re looking into our crystal balls and forecasting a bunch of music moments, sounds, people, places and creative ideas that could become a future legend.
We’ve already revisited Mac DeMarco’s unforgettable set at Meredith Music Festival, and now JODY MACGREGOR looks back on Kendrick Lamar’s game-changing second album good kid, M.A.A.D city, which came out just two years ago. Its as-yet-untitled follow-up could drop at any second – but could it ever live up to this modern hip-hop classic?
Chuck D’s description of hip-hop as “the CNN of the ghetto” has been repeated often enough to become a cliché – and an out-of-date cliché at that. By 2012, when Kendrick Lamar released good kid, M.A.A.D city hip-hop was well and truly open to being about anything. That year had already seen the fusion of dance and pop-rap on Nicki Minaj’s Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, a coming together of underground and mainstream on Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music, and the incomprehensible randomness of Odd Future Tape Vol. 2.
But Kendrick went back to the ghetto for inspiration, drawing on stories from his upbringing in Compton. As a kid he’d called himself “K.Dot” and rapped like his idols, 2Pac and Dr. Dre, and he channelled that younger version of himself on good kid, M.A.A.D city, pitching his voice up and freestyling like a juvenile. The point of that wasn’t nostalgia or celebration, but deconstruction. It’s a story building to the moment he grew up and realised he had a way out, one that jumps back and forth in time to show the result of that decision and where he’s at now.
This split in perspectives and timelines is represented by songs that are themselves split, changing tone and subject halfway through. At the midpoint of ‘M.A.A.D City’ there’s a burst of static and Kendrick’s bud Schoolboy Q shouting “YAWK YAWK YAWK” gets replaced by MC Eiht from Compton’s Most Wanted, suddenly appearing like the Ghost of Christmas Future to show what might have been.
The pinnacle of these split songs is ‘Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst’. Each of its first two verses is delivered from the viewpoint of a sibling of someone else Kendrick has rapped about. The first from the brother of Dave, the gang member who died in ‘Swimming Pools (Drank)’. The second from the sister of Keisha, who he rapped about on his first album Section.80. While Dave’s brother praises Kendrick for preserving his memory, Keisha’s sister takes him to task for misrepresenting her. In the voices of these two imaginary siblings Kendrick castigates himself for profiting from the stories of others he’s using to tell his own. It’s a powerful moment of self-awareness.
At the tail end of the album comes ‘Compton’, an old-school westside blowout that feels completely different from everything that’s built up to it. But it also feels like it’s been earned, like a party at the end of a hard week, and it takes time out to acknowledge Kendrick is harvesting a crop N.W.A. sowed. But even though Dr. Dre guests on this track it doesn’t counter the fact Kendrick just spent a whole album piling six feet of dirt on top of his coffin: it’s the ultimate gangsta rap album in both senses of the word “ultimate”, perfect but also final.
There’s a tendency when rap tries to tackle the issue of its glorification of violence to resort to either defensiveness or finger-wagging moralising, but Kendrick resorts to neither – he’s more interested in pulling it apart from the inside. He understands what it’s like to feel like part of something bigger than yourself, whether it’s a gang or a musical movement, and good kid, M.A.A.D city manages to be both a demonstration of why that’s a powerful thing as well as a goodbye to it, a final shot from a clip that seemed empty.
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