Photo Credit: Ural Garrett for Okayplayer.
How Kendrick Lamar's 'good kid, m.A.A.d city' is Hip-Hop's 'Pulp Fiction'
Photo Credit: Ural Garrett for Okayplayer
To celebrate the fifth anniversary of Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city, writer Andreas Hale compares his debut album to the cinematic prowess of Quentin Tarantino.
Prior to October 22nd, the year 2012 was initially viewed as a down year in hip-hop. There was no Kanye West, Drake, Jay-Z or any of the heavy hitters with commercial solo releases. But it left the gate wide open for a new batch of emcees with the opportunity to put the industry in a stranglehold. The blog era emcees were just getting their feet under them and lyricism had yet to be appreciated by the mainstream.
The industry was in a unique place where the pipeline to free music courtesy of music blogs was cut off by major labels and the challenge to keep the attention of the listener was an uphill battle. The flood of releases began to break down the listening dam as our attention spans were haphazardly shaken due to the sheer amount of music spreading.
There was a lot of good music that dropped in 2012, as Nas got his mojo back and Frank Ocean burst onto the scene. Killer Mike set the foundation for Run The Jewels by collaborating with El-P for R.A.P. Music and Rick Ross broke the Internet with his free mixtape, Rich Forever.
But nothing came close to what was birthed out of Compton, California on October 22nd, 2012.
Nine days before Halloween was the day that Kendrick Lamar blessed the world with the first of arguably several modern day classic albums with good kid, m.A.A.d city. We knew it when we heard it, but many of us hesitated before recognizing what the Compton artist’s major label debut album was -- sonically pristine, lyrically exceptional and the emergence of the torchbearer of the new era.
Despite being in an era of instant gratuity, the common rule of deeming an album a classic is to see whether or not it stands the test of time. But there are occasions when an album can circumvent the rulebook because the listener just knows that what they are hearing is special. Of course, nowadays the word classic is almost disposable considering how social media and the art of microwave journalism has diluted the term.
But Kendrick Lamar Duckworth was different.
Initially, the comparisons to Nas’ seminal classic Illmatic sounded premature. But as time went on, the comparison was adequate. Nas’ poetry was ahead of his time with a sonic backdrop that was simply brilliant. Kendrick Lamar was the West Coast version of that where he eschewed radio ready songs for a tightly knit album that was both a lyrical and sonic masterpiece.
It’s fascinating to think about how much the industry has changed since Kendrick Lamar burst into mainstream consciousness with his major label debut album good kid, m.A.A.d. city. Prior to that, the artist formally known as K-Dot and Top Dawg Entertainment were challenged with trying to climb the mountain of relevancy on their own. It was a daunting task that would require a special talent to achieve. It reshaped the game entirely on the back of a semi-autobiographical project.
The album’s artwork — a necessary staple for a classic album — was a fascinating choice that carried a great deal of weight and intrigue. The childhood photo immediately brought about Illmatic comparisons but there was something a little more haunting about the cover art. A shirtless child with what appears to be family members who all have black bars covering their eyes. It’s a simple image, but speaks in extraordinary volumes when Lamar offered an explanation to Fuse.
"Two [of the men] are my uncles, to the far right, it's my grandpa, and a baby bottle, next to a 40 oz., next to a gang sign, holdin' a kid,” he said. "If you look in the background, you see a picture on the wall, and the picture is me and my pops. And the eyes blacked out, that's for my own personal reasons, you'll probably hear about that on the album.
"That photo says so much about my life, and about how I was raised in Compton, and the things I've seen, just through them innocent eyes," he continued. "You don't see nobody else's eyes, but you see my eyes are innocent, and tryna figure out what is goin' on."
In many ways, Kendrick Lamar is the hip-hop version of Quentin Tarantino. He’s more than a rapper who simply lays words over beats. He harnesses his influences, pays homage without bastardizing and orchestrates emotion in a way that few other emcees are able to articulate. He’s one with every ounce of the musical production. Although he’s not credited, he’s just as important to the production as Sounwave, Hit-Boy, DJ Dahi, Just Blaze and everyone else who worked on the album.
Like Tarantino, Kendrick Lamar had the wise men and women of the industry buzzing with his previous work. Where Tarantino bubbled with Reservoir Dogs, K-Dot served notice with Section.80. Both were hailed as masterpieces by critics but the masses had yet to catch full wind of how superbly talented they were. And when they stepped into the spotlight, they exceeded expectations.
It’s almost ironic that Lamar references Tarantino’s cinematic classic that caused a seismic shift in American cinema when talking about his own album.
"The story is about one day in the life of me and my homeboys,” Lamar said in a 2012 interview with Complex. "I really didn’t want to make it song-by-song. Each piece, I want to trigger certain points where you make a connection. Almost like a Pulp Fiction feel—you have to listen to it more times to live with it and breathe with it.”
It was a unique approach considering that it was his debut album. But King Kendrick always pushed his words past the margins. He had the foresight to plot Easter Eggs throughout his projects as one song would end up referencing something from two projects before it. He was in it for the long game and was far from shortsighted when it came to mapping out his major label debut.
It’s very much how Tarantino approached Pulp Fiction and created a universe where characters were related to one another in remarkably intricate ways.
But there was also this enormous shadow from a certain doctor that Kendrick had to deal with that either pushed artists to the moon or watched them burn in space, never to be seen or heard from again.
Kendrick Lamar had the almost insurmountable task of exceeding expectations placed on him after aligning himself with Dr. Dre and Interscope Records. It’s not a secret that there is a considerably high strikeout rate for artists who are touched by the good doctor’s fairy dust. For every Eminem and 50 Cent, there are ten versions of Truth Hurts and Hittman that disintegrate before they hit the spotlight. But curiosity was piqued and the masses were willing to lend a skeptical ear to the diminutive emcee that attended the same high school as his mentor.
As mentioned before, the TDE emcee was always interested in playing the long game with his album. Although “Swimming Pools (Drank)” was the single, it played better when wrapped into the fiber of the album than as a standalone cut. Fortunately, for Lamar, he carries the intrinsic trait that turns every song into something that taps into the brainwaves of the listener and causes an addiction. Songs that weren’t supposed to work as singles did just that. But that’s because Kung-Fu Kenny has a unique trait that can balance substance with harmony.
Photo Credit: Vickey Ford of Sneakshot for Okayplayer
good kid, m.A.A.d. city is a coming of age story and an exploration of the identity of a young man who did his best to claw his way through the perils of poverty and pain. He stumbles along the way but what we’ve been gifted through those trials and tribulations happen to be one of the greatest rappers of our era.
Rather than start the album with a bombastic curtain jerker, the Compton emcee set the table with a subtle narrative that opened his short film. With the sound of a reel hitting the projector, the album begins with a short prayer recited by a group of young men before “Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter” opens with his haunting voices and organs. Lamar tell the Compton version of “boy meets girl.” But rather than this narrative serve as the beginning of this story, it is a flash forward of sorts that parallels Tarantino’s neo-noir crime film that was told in out of chronological order. When K-Dot pulls up to Sherane’s house in his mother's minivan and spots two guys in black hoodies, we’re left to wonder how he got himself into this mess.
It was a highly calculated risk for Lamar that ended up paying off in dividends as the listener is sucked right into the narrative before even knowing that it is more than a collection of songs. The untrained ear may simply recognize GKMC as a album full of dope songs, but it is considerably more rewarding when you dissect the Pulp Fiction-esque narrative about a young black man trying to keep his head straight when the world around him is hopeless.
In an era where coastal sounds no longer mattered because everybody sounds the same, Kendrick Lamar crafted pitch perfect autobiography that was so unmistakably Los Angeles.
The album isn’t littered with grandiose guests appearances that would have served as a transparent effort to market the album to the mainstream. Instead, the guests were limited and placed in spots where it made the most sense. The pairing of K-Dot and Drake on “Poetic Justice,” which cleverly sampled Janet Jackson's “Anytime, Anyplace,” was similar to Shaquille O’Neal joining a young Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles. And perhaps the perceived fallout between the two artists bears some striking parallels to the infamous breakup of the Lakers. Pharrell’s production on “good kid” was certainly not one of the N.E.R.D.’s trademark sonic offerings, which made it all the more significant. The inclusion of MC Eiht on the rambunctious “m.A.A.d city” was simply brilliant as Kendrick snatched up the signature flow from the de facto leader of Compton’s Most Wanted to illustrate the violent climax of the album.
Everything on the album has a purpose. Although “Backseat Freestyle” is a fevered demonstration of Kendrick Lamar’s lyrical ability, it really serves as a transition into “The Art of Peer Pressure.” Rather than being just a dope song, it’s actually K-Dot kicking rhymes in the backseat of a friend’s car en route to burglarize a home. “The Art of Peer Pressure” is frightening in its execution considering that it essentially lays out how one wrong turn could alter our lives forever. What’s more haunting is how a majority of our errors are due to succumbing to peer pressure. It’s something that the Compton emcee articulates brilliantly with a chilling narrative over a brooding production.
There are a plethora of “moments” on GKMC, but none are more astounding than “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.” If there was such a thing as the perfect song, it would certainly occupy a space on the short list. A daringly poignant narrative that begins with Kendrick recounting two individual’s vastly different perspectives before explaining in the third verse why he chooses to tell the stories of others. It’s a fascinating approach that could have fallen off a cliff if not executed to perfection. But when the song shifts to the second part “I’m Dying of Thirst,” where Kendrick joins the individual in the first verse on a quest for revenge. It is ridiculously well thought out and nuanced. To this day, it still may be Kendrick Lamar’s finest moment. Not to mention that he manages to reference the prostitute from “Keisha’s Song” off of Section.80.
By the time that album reaches the feel good conclusion that finds Kendrick navigating his way out of the m.A.A.d. city with “Real” — followed by the celebratory credit rolling “Compton” with Dr. Dre riding shotgun — we realize that the journey has only begun for the artist who has a very strong claim to the Greatest Rapper Alive title.
Little did we know that there was so much more to come from Kendrick Lamar. This was just the beginning.
Andreas Hale is a "Curator of Culture" and co-host of the The Corner, a podcast covering social issues, hip hop, combat sports and pro wrestling. He has written for outlets including Yahoo, The Grammys, Billboard, Ebony, MTV, BET, Ring Magazine, Sherdog, Ozy and Jay-Z's Life+Times, among others. Follow him (and us!) on Twitter @AndreasHale.