Good kid, m.A.A.d City is a rap album released in 2012 by Kendrick Lamar under the label Top Dawg Entertainment. Lamar’s debut album, Good kid, m.A.A.d City, was his introduction into the professional rap world. Lamar has always made deeply personal music—his previous mixtapes Kendrick Lamar EP, Overly Dedicated, and Section 80 all focused on personal stories. Likewise, Lamar wanted his first album to share that personal quality; he wanted to make it an album “that you could unfold out into a book and read” (Lamar). It is an album “chronicling [Compton], vividly evoking a specific place (this same stretch of Rosecrans) and a specific time (in the summer of 2004, between 10th and 11th grade). It was a concept album about adolescence, told with cinematic precision through the eyes of someone young enough to recall every detail” (Eells). It is the story of Kendrick Lamar as he struggles to balance his morality and values with the pressures of gang violence, familial tension, and economic hardships. More than that, however, Good kid m.A.A.d City encapsulates the daily inner-city struggle, and in doing so it implicitly illustrates the origins of that struggle.
Historical and Cultural Context
Good Kid M.A.A.D City is an album born from a culture of oppression and violence that is present in most impoverished cities. Historically, Compton was a typical white suburb community. Then in the 1960s, the blue collar black community moved into Compton, increasing racial tension as the black community fought for political power in the city. Following the 1965 Watts Riots, there was a large white flight which eliminated the retail sector of Compton. In the following years, a raise in taxes combined with the overall deindustrialization of the area led to the more affluent black community also leaving the city. With the impoverished state of the city, gangs sprung up to gain control of the lucrative crack market—the Crips and Bloods formed in 1969 (Sides). It is the socioeconomic pressures of that environment then led to an environment that perpetuated the violence that good kid, m.A.A.d city focuses on.
In the album, Lamar implicitly states that violence causes oppression like that of slavery. As bell hooks explains regarding lynching “the point of lynching historically was not to kill individuals but to let everybody know: This could happen to you” (qtd. in Love). The presence of controlling violence is reflected in some of the previous songs that Lamar chose to sample. “Sing about me, I’m dying of thirst” samples “Use Me” by Bill Withers which is a song about an abusive relationship. In the context of Lamar’s song, however, it can be interpreted as an intervention about becoming too involved with gang violence. “m.A.A.d city” is similar in that it samples “Chains and Things” by BB King in which King talks about breaking the chains that bind him thus invoking the language of slavery to make his message more poignant. Its presence in “m.A.A.d city” helps to liken the oppressive violence Lamar focuses on to slavery itself. The other prominent sample in “m.A.A.d city,” “A Bird in the Hand” by Ice Cube, tells a similar but slightly different story: the story of why violence is perpetuated. In the song, Ice Cube turns to drug dealing as it is far more lucrative than working at a dead-end low pay job like fast-food. The need to turn to violence is also seen in Young Jeezy’s “Trap or Die” which is sampled in “The Art of Peer Pressure” and centers around the perceived need to deal drugs to be successful.
Themes and Style
Good kid, m.A.A,d city is stylistically inspired by the 90s West Coast sound. As Lamar is from Compton, he takes cues from the West Coast greats—MC Eiht, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, and Tupac, among others. Those are the people that he looked up to growing up, and MC Eiht and Dr. Dre had a lot of input into the actual album making process itself. One way the West Coast influence shows is with skits. Lamar wanted to make an album in the style of Biggie, Tupac, and Dre and reintroduce the puzzle-like album to the mainstream audience (Lamar). He wanted to create “a Pulp Fiction feel—you have to listen to it more times to live with it and breathe with it” (qtd. in Ahmed). He uses them to augment the personal feel of the album and to truly tell the story of Kendrick Lamar Duckworth: “The skits bring the storyline together. Those skits are actually my real mother and father. Those are people that I was raised by, so I decided to put them in the skits as themselves. And those are my real homeboys being themselves” (qtd. in Ahmed). The West Coast influence is especially seen in the lyrical structure of Lamar’s songs. While all his songs have a personal, deeper meaning, they also flow well and appeal to a more mainstream audience which is something that Tupac, Dre and Snoop Dogg all did very well. His homage to 90s West Coast rap also allows him to represent an evolution in that stylistic style of rap; he uses modern, hard hitting beats to further appeal to a mainstream audience thus he, along with the rest of Top Dawg Entertainment, represents a revival of West Coast rap.
But while good kid, m.A.A,d city focuses heavily on the current atmosphere in Compton—and black America—the question needs to be asked on whether it also addresses the roots of how that atmosphere formed. In that sense, Lamar forms an implicit connection between slavery and the present. The omnipresence of violence in the album seems to fight to control Lamar’s life and make him into another Compton gangster. In the album, when he and his friends succumb to that violence, one of their friends end up dead. The introspective tracks that follow— “Swimming Pools,” and “Real”—reveal the struggle of escaping from a cycle of violence: “Some people like the way it feels/ Some people wanna kill their sorrows/ Some people wanna fit in with the popular, that was my problem.” When talking about “Swimming Pools,” Lamar says “I’m coming from a household where you had to make a decision—you were either a casual drinker or you were a drunk. That’s what that record is about, me experiencing that as a kid and making my own decisions” (qtd. in Ahmed). While “Swimming Pools” directly addresses drinking, it also becomes a metaphor for the greater problem of violence in black communities; just as it is easy to fall to alcoholism as an escape from reality, it seems easy to turn to violence to attempt to escape from property.
Through this comparison, Lamar also makes another point; violence is the key force that oppresses; it was present in the institution of slavery, segregation-era America, and now in modern day communities. Thus, he crafts the violence of Compton to be akin to a modern-day slavery that still oppresses and keeps the black community shackled. Living in Compton, Lamar was no stranger to violence growing up. By the age of 8, he witnessed two murders as well as
the Rodney King riots (Eells). However, he never lets the situation surrounding him truly break his morals which leads to the main theme of good kid, m.A.A.d city: despite all the oppressive conditions, stay hopeful and keep the influence of others to a minimum. It is a struggle that represents a continuation from slavery to the civil rights movement, and even to the modern ‘post-racial’ world. And it is in this modern world that this struggle is at its most important as with “new attacks targeting . . . youth like police brutality, anti-youth legislation, and the incarceration of hundreds of thousands of hip-hop generationers,” people seem to become more and more divided on arbitrary lines like race (Love). As Lamar states in “m.A.A.d City,” “Compton, USA turned me into an angel on angel dust” (qtd. in Love). Not everyone can have the formative, life-changing experience that he describes in “Sing about me, I’m Dying of Thirst” so the album really unfortunately “depicts Lamar’s awaking and the realization of his city’s role as a coconspirator in gang violence and drugs. Lamar explains to his listeners—especially those who look like him—why they may never fulfill their dreams, regardless of their abilities and will” (Ahmed; Love).
In general, critics have responded positively to the album. It has a Metacritic score of 91, with scores of 100 and 95 by XXL and Pitchfork, respectively—two of the biggest, most popular sources for reviews of rap music; Pitchfork’s writer Jayson Greene called the album
“fearless and brilliant,” and a “nuanced peek into the rapper’s inner life.” He says that “the miracle of this album is how it ties straightforward rap thrills– dazzling lyrical virtuosity, slick quotables, pulverizing beats, star turns from guest rappers– directly to its narrative.” It is that style of masterful and thrilling storytelling that earned Lamar a lot of respect from those involved in the rap game. When describing Lamar, Pharrell Williams called him “the black Bob Dylan. He’s the most phenomenal MC and his album will completely change the direction of hip-hop. It’s the most poetic, honest shit. He’s giving us rap songs full of hope” (qtd. in Ahmed). On an annotation found on Genius.com, Eminem praised Lamar as “the fact that it was his first real album and he was able to make it into a story which intertwines with the skits like that was genius… The level of wordplay, the deliveries, the beats—it’s just a masterpiece.” The New York rap legend Nas named good kid, m.A.A.d city his favorite album from 2012 and said that “no disrespect to nobody else in rap music, but Kendrick Lamar. I’m really happy about his record. I needed that. His record reaches you. It gives you hope.” It is this level of almost universal praise that led to controversy when Macklemore’s The Heist won Best Rap album of the year over good kid, m.A.A.d city. Many famous rappers, like Mac Miller and Schoolboy Q expressed disappointment in the Grammys and the music industry, and Macklemore even apologized saying that he felt Kendrick got robbed of the Grammy.
The conversation surrounding good kid, m.A.A.d city extends to academia as well. Augusta University professor Adam Diehl included the album in his freshman English class. He called Kendrick “the James Joyce of hip-hop in the complexity of his storytelling, in his knowledge of the canon, and in his continuing focus on the city of his upbringing – Compton” (qtd. in Hooton). UGA professor Bettina Love wrote a paper titled “Good Kid, Mad Cities” that addresses the use of hip-hop to explore the idea of resistance through the building of an existential consciousness with the idea of “black bodies” discussed in other essays like Elizabeth Alexander’s “Can you be Black and look at this.” Northeastern University professor Alison Dover wrote an essay titled “Teaching Good Kids in a m.A.A.d World: Using Hip-Hop to Reflect, Reframe, and Respond to Complex Realities” that examines the use of Kendrick Lamar’s autobiographical hip-hop to analyze complex social, racial, and political realities.
Ahmed, Insanul. “The Making of Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Good Kid, M.A.A.d City.’” Complex, Complex Media Inc, 23 Oct. 2012, www.complex.com/music/2012/10/the-making-of-kendrick-lamars-good-kid-maad-city/.
EELLS, JOSH. “The Trials of Kendrick Lamar. (Cover Story).” Rolling Stone, no. 1231, 26 Mar. 2015, pp. 40-45. EBSCOhost, prx.library.gatech.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=101512629&site=ehost-live.
Greene, Jayson. “Kendrick Lamar: Good Kid, M.A.A.d City.” Review of good kid, m.A.A.d city, by Kendrick Lamar, Pitchfork, Conde Nast, 23 Oct. 2012, pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/17253-good-kid-maad-city/.
Hooton, Christopher. “Kendrick Lamars Good Kid Maad City is being taught as a text in schools.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 22 Aug. 2014, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/news/kendrick-lamars-good-kid-maad-city-is-being-taught-as-a-text-in-schools-9685943.html.
Lamar, Kendrick, and XXL Staff. “Writer at War.” XXL Mag, Townsquare Media, 6 Jan. 2015, www.xxlmag.com/news/2015/01/writer-war-kendrick-lamar-own-words/.
Love, Bettina L. “Good Kids, Mad Cities.” Cultural Studies/Critical Methodologies, vol. 16, no. 3, June 2016, pp. 320-323. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1177/1532708616634837.
Sides, Josh. “Straight into Compton: American Dreams, Urban Nightmares, and the Metamorphosis of a Black Suburb.” American Quarterly, vol. 56, no. 3, Sept. 2004, pp. 583-605. EBSCOhost, prx.library.gatech.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=14752787&site=ehost-live.
Elizabeth Alexander “Can you be Black and Look at This?”: Reading the Rodney King Video(s) Public Culture, vol. 7, no.1, Fall 1994, pp. 77-94.
Bradley, Regina N. “Re-Imagining Slavery in the Hip-Hop Imagination.” South: A Scholarly Journal, vol. 49, no. 1, Fall 2016, pp. 3-24. EBSCOhost, prx.library.gatech.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=123335924&site=ehost-live.
Morgan, Marcyliena. “‘The World Is Yours’: The Globalization of Hip-Hop Language.” Social Identities, vol. 22, no. 2, Mar. 2016, pp. 133-149. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/13504630.2015.1121569.
Straus, Emily E. The Making of the American School Crisis: Compton, California and the Death of the Suburban Dream, Dissertation, Brandeis University, Ann Arbor, 2006, ProQuest Dissertations & Theses A&I; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Full Text, http://prx.library.gatech.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/305353037?accountid=11107
Kendrick Lamar, hip-hop, good kid m.A.A.d city, violence, afterlives of slavery, Compton, resistance