Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for American Express.
The Encyclopedia of 'good kid, m.A.A.d city'
Our celebration of Kendrick Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d city fifth year anniversary continues with this encyclopedic breakdown of the persons, places, and slang used on the album.
It took Kendrick Lamar four tries to get his magnum opus just right. He’d been playing with the title good kid, m.A.A.d city at least as early as 2009, when he rhymed it on The Kendrick Lamar EP. The Compton lyricist, who formerly rapped under the moniker K-Dot, had plans in mind for his major label debut long before the album was released by Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope nearly five years ago on Oct. 22, 2012, a date that’s quickly becoming a celebrated milestone in modern rap history.
“We did good kid about three, four times before the world got to it,” the 30-year-old MC recently told Billboard. “New songs, new everything. I wanted to tell that story, but I had to execute it. My whole thing is about execution. The songs can be great, the hooks can be great, but if it’s not executed well, then it’s not a great album.”
Based on the immediate reception to good kid, m.A.A.d city, which was widely hailed a classic shortly after it dropped, it’d seem as if Kendrick accomplished his goal. The project is carried by an A1 lyricism over an eclectic mix of melodies that nod to Los Angeles hip-hop both classic and contemporary, and by a vivid storyline that plays out over 12 songs (and a handful of supporting skits). The project is so dense with detail—names, places, concepts, vernacular—that it’s worthy of its own reference chronicle.
We re-visted Kendrick Lamar’s five-year-old masterpiece to dissect, reassemble and catalog good kid, m.A.A.d city for the hip-hop lover in you.
Photo Credit: Seher Sikandar for Okayplayer
The year in which the plot of good kid, m.A.A.d city takes place, both implied—by references to Ciara’s “1, 2 Step” and Usher’s “Let It Burn”—and stated directly (on “Black Boy Fly”). However, the timeline is contradicted on “The Art of Peer Pressure,” in which Kendrick mentions listening to Young Jeezy’s first album Let's Get It: Thug Motivation 101, which dropped in July 2005.
A TDE labelmate who is also one-fourth of Black Hippy. Appears alongside the rest of his lyrical quartet on the remixes to “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and “The Recipe.”
NBA basketball player and former schoolmate of Kendrick Lamar back at Centennial High in Compton. On the good kid, m.A.A.d city bonus track “Black Boy Fly,” Kendrick remembers doubting the odds of both he and the gifted baller—who led the school to a state championship before attending UCLA on scholarship—escaping their perilous city and rising to stardom. He once sold K-Dot a burned CD-R of Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt for $5.
While she’s not credited in the liner notes, the late literary legend is believed to have voiced the woman who pushes Kendrick and his buddies to embrace God in “Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst.” She once lectured Tupac Shakur to tears on the set of the 1993 movie Poetic Justice IRL, so an appearance here would be fitting.
Kendrick deems his lyrics too real for public consumption twice on good kid, m.A.A.d city: On “m.A.A.d city” he avoids implicating a gunner known for hanging at an L.A. burger spot. He censors again in the closing interlude of “Swimming Pools (Drank),” when a homie involved in a shootout is named. SZA told Billboard that she used an identical sound file on her 2017 track “Doves In The Wind,” which coincidentally features K-Dot. “It's always the same bleep,” she says. “We literally got it from the good kid file.”
“Cartoon & Cereal”
A K-Dot fan favorite released in the lead-up to good kid, m.A.A.d city, but ultimately shelved due to sample clearance issues. True to its title, the song references classic cartoon characters (Animaniacs, Bugs Bunny, Darkwing Duck, Scrooge McDuck, Wile E. Coyote) while reflecting on some of his hood’s horrors.
Kendrick Lamar’s home turf, and the central vicinity where the album’s events takes place. The city is as crucial to the plot as anyone who Kendrick names, characterized as an ominous neighborhood plagued by crime, gang violence, prostitution, drug use and police brutality, but also capable of exhibiting love, via caring neighbors, friends, and family. The proper tracklist’s final song is named for the city.
One of the two dominant rivals street gangs based in Los Angeles. Crips rock blue bandanas — Kendrick most prominently raps about the gang on “good kid” and “m.A.A.d city,” when discussing the danger of residing in Compton without claiming an affiliation.
A friend of Kendrick Lamar who serves as the subject of the bonus track “Collect Calls”. Kendrick primarily raps from Dante’s perspective in the song, pleading with his mother via voicemail for help from behind bars.
Kendrick’s friend who is sadly killed in the shootout that takes place during the closing interlude of “Swimming Pools (Drank)”. The opening verse of “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” is delivered from the vantage point of his brother, who meets a similar demise.
Inglewood producer whose big break came via “Money Trees,” which he laced while he was still a resident supervisor at Marymount California University. “That was when I knew I had to quit that job,” he told L.A. Weekly earlier this year.
Aftermath producer who created the beat for the bonus track “County Building Blues.” Has previously worked with Clipse, Eminem and Jay-Z.
Rapper-turned-rival who appeared on the second verse of “Poetic Justice,” in more cordial times.
Executive producer of good kid, m.A.A.d city and mentor to Kendrick Lamar. Mixed several tracks on the album, and appears on “The Recipe” and “Compton,” the latter of which was initially intended for his own shelved album concept, Detox.
Kendrick Lamar’s father, who is heard on interludes throughout the album complaining about his missing set of dominoes—he appears in the video for Kendrick’s “Backseat Freestyle” to reprise the skits—and drunkenly sing to Kendrick’s mom before “Poetic Justice” begins. He drops some real talk on “Real,” though, commenting on the murder of Kendrick’s friend, Dave. “Any nigga can kill a man, that don't make you a real nigga. Real is responsibility. Real is taking care of your motherfucking family. Real is God, nigga.”
Scottish singer who appears on “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe (International Remix)”. Damn, Interscope really milked this project.
Comedian and actor who cameos in the music video for “Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe”. He dunks Kendrick into a tub full of alcohol after taking one of the rapper’s lyrics too literally. “I thought you said baptize in a pool full of liquor,” he says in the video, before taking a swig from an unlabeled bottle.
Food For Less
A national supermarket chain headquartered in Compton, California. As Kendrick’s mother reveals on “Real,” the store serves as the location where Kendrick and his crew encounters an older woman who convinces them to end the cycle of violence that’s consumed them and instead devote their lives to God.
A park in Compton where Kendrick’s crew hangs out—and presumably hoops—before embarking on some juvenile delinquency in “The Art of Peer Pressure.” (“Basketball shorts with the Gonzalez Park odor / We on the mission for bad bitches and trouble,” he raps.) It comes up again on “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” when Kendrick (as Keisha’s sister) identifies the park as a site where prostitution goes down. Three months before good kid, m.A.A.d city dropped, Kendrick sent a Twitter invite to then-President Barack Obama to meet him there for a game of basketball.
A rambunctious, MMG-affiliated rapper who Kendrick specifically intended to guest on the shelved track “Cartoon & Cereal.” He told Complex about the decision to feature the Miami rapper: “People thought I was crazy for it. I just know his flow and his cadence is crazy and his consonants is crazy. [I knew] he’d do it justice and that he did.”
A concept first introduced on the Overly Dedicated track “Cut You Off (To Grow Closer)” that Kendrick revisits on Section.80’s eponymous J. Cole-produced closer and again on “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” when he rhymes, “Threes in the air, I can see you are in sync” — an allusion to the three I’s in the word. “It means we stand above all of the bullshit that’s going on in the world,” he’s said of the term in a 2011 interview. “Everything that we was taught in school always been a half truth, in the world, in general. So I’m trying to start my generation on a whole new stepping stone and a whole new set of truths.”
Fellow California artist who produced “Backseat Freestyle,” which he says Kendrick had a hand in tweaking. “Kendrick [changed the beat I gave him by] looping this one part from the beginning that wasn’t that way when I first gave him the beat,” he told Complex. “So he’s hearing what he wanted to hear. He definitely had a hand in making it how he wanted it to sound.”
Photo Credit: Lawrence Gasgard
The Jimmy Iovine-headed label that released good kid, m.A.A.d city—Kendrick’s first major label release.
L.A. producer who’s primarily dabbled in R&B tracks for artists like Solange and Alicia Keys before crafting theMary J. Blige-featuring bonus cut, “Now or Never”.
TDE’s former flagship artist who took Kendrick Lamar on tour pre-good kid, m.A.A.d city. Also one-fourth of Black Hippy. Arguably steals the show with an incredibly in-pocket verse on “Money Trees” — the contribution was initially intended for a remix but it was so strong that Kendrick included it to the official version. Rock also appears on the remixes to “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and “The Recipe”.
A rap hero of Kendrick who really needs no introduction. Hopped on the remix to “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” rapping about treating the White House like his own, and sitting next to Hillary Clinton “smelling like dank.”
Legendary Roc-a-Fella in-house producer who crafted “Compton” for Dr. Dre before the track landed on good kid, m.A.A.d city’s tracklist.
A tragic character who originates in the Section.80 track “Keisha’s Song (Her Pain),” a true story that details how traumatic events led to her taking on a life of prostitution and ultimately being murdered. It’s basically Kendrick’s version of Brenda (Tupac’s “Brenda’s Got A Baby”) or Sasha Thumper (OutKast’s “Da Art of Storytellin’ Part 1”). Kendrick takes on the perspective of Keisha’s younger sister on the second verse of “Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst,” blasting the rapper for using her story as lyrical fodder. On “The Recipe (Remix)” Jay Rock insists that he’s sold her coke at least once: “Everybody know I got that yola, ask Keisha she'll confess.”
The star of this “short film,” born Kendrick Lamar Duckworth but also known as K-Dot or—as he claims on “m.A.A.d city”—“Compton's Human Sacrifice.” The “good kid” in this story commits some not-so-good acts, though, particularly on “The Art of Peer Pressure,” in which he helps jump a gangbanger and participates in a home burglary. He repents before becoming a rap superstar—King Kendrick—by the end credits.
Pop star singer whose contributions to good kid, m.A.A.d city were scrapped. According to Kendrick, she was a planned feature on “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” but the two artists weren’t able to record the track in time to meet the label’s deadline (thank God!). He references the collaboration on the pre-album warmup track, "The Heart Pt. 3 (Will You Let It Die?)": "Rapped with my forefathers, even record with Gaga too. Later, to Kendrick’s surprise, Gaga leaked a demo version of the song featuring her vocals. “Partynauseous,” another shelved duet between K-Dot and Lady Gaga, hit the internet in 2015—it’d been previously shelved due to creative differences.
Like (of Pac Div)
One-third of the L.A. group Pac Div. Producer of the first half of “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.”
A fast food takeout spot that marks the location where Kendrick’s Uncle Tony was shot dead, near the intersection of East Rosecrans Ave. & North Bullis Rd. Kendrick mentions the restaurant in “Money Trees”.
The acronym that graces both the title of the album and one of two titular tracks. Kendrick has revealed that the acronym has multiple definitions: “My Angry Adolescence Divided” and “My Angel on Angel Dust.” The latter is described on “m.A.A.d city,” when K-Dot remembers hitting a blunt laced with coke and angel dust: “Cocaine laced in marijuana / And they wonder why I rarely smoke now / Imagine if your first blunt had you foaming at the mouth / I was straight tweakin,’” he rhymes.
Jazzy L.A.-born producer who created “Real.” “That song is like a ghetto Brazilian song, but it’s so free,” he told The Shadow League. “It’s about love and it’s beautiful.” Terrace Martin is also credited as a co-producer of “m.A.A.d city”—he lays down the song’s second half.
Compton rap legend who guests on the second half of “m.A.A.d city”. Formerly headed the group Compton’s Most Wanted, and appeared in Menace II Society. Kendrick told Complex: “MC Eiht influenced me by showing me that I don’t have to talk about a lifestyle that’s not mine to win. He talks about his lifestyle growing up. That stuck and people still relate to that. He gave me inspiration to speak on something that was real to me.”
The amount of time that Kendrick asked his mother to borrow her car at the start of this wild joyride, as alluded to by his mother at the end of “Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter's Daughter” and Kendrick at the end of “Compton.” A Genius user pointed out that the album’s deluxe edition bonus tracks span about 15 minutes, reinforcing the album’s cyclical, albeit disjointed, storyline.
Legendary rapper who Kendrick Lamar intended to appear on “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.” Unfortunately, the timing didn’t work out for the two lyricists to link up. “I never really got a chance to reach out to him—I was so wrapped up in getting the music done, samples cleared and mastered,” Kendrick told Vibe. “I actually wanted to sit in the studio and vibe with him. Whatever inspiration he drew from it, I’d just have him there and he would go.” Nas responded, telling Vibe, “That would’ve been an honor... I would love to [collaborate].”
Kendrick Lamar’s mother, who appears on several interludes throughout the album, practically begging her son to return her damn car so she can pick up her food stamps from the county building. She foreshadows his success in the music industry at the end of “Real,” passing on a message from Top Dawg, who wants to get K-Dot in the studio. She asks Kendrick to learn from his experiences, share his story and give back to the community through his own leadership once he makes it big—advice he seems to have heeded.
Aftermath producer who’s worked with everyone from 50 Cent, Busta Rhymes and Eminem. He co-produced the bonus track “Black Boy Fly”.
One of the two dominant rivals street gangs based in Los Angeles. The Piru set—also known as Piru Street Family and Piru Street Boys—patrols Compton and is affiliated with Bloods, so its members (like Jay Rock) sport red or burgundy bandanas. Kendrick most prominently raps about Pirus on “good kid” and “m.A.A.d city,” when discussing the danger of residing in Compton without claiming a gang affiliation.
Kendrick uses questions—often framed as moral dilemmas—to portray the dire circumstances of his city. It’s a lyrical tool that leaves listeners guessing just how much trouble one good kid in a mad city can get into. On “Money Trees,” Kendrick poses the alternatives “Halle Berry or hallelujah?” as in: temptation or righteousness. The stakes are higher on “m.A.A.d city,” which presents another question with potentially life-or-death implications: “Where your grandma stay, huh, my nigga?” Kendrick gets darker (and more cryptic) on that same song, asking, “If I told you I killed a nigga at 16, would you believe me / Or see me to be innocent Kendrick you seen in the street / With a basketball and some Now and Laters to eat?” It’s a tension that’s become a theme throughout the canon of Kendrick Lamar (especially on this year’s DAMN.).
L.A.-bred co-producer of “Black Boy Fly,” who has also worked with The Game, Mac Miller and Eminem.
A TDE labelmate who Kendrick has called “the funniest nigga on planet [E]arth” at least twice on Twitter. Although he’s only credited on the remixes to “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and “The Recipe” alongside his Black Hippy cohorts, Q’s signature adlib “Yawk! Yawk! Yawk!” appears on the first half of “m.A.A.d city”. His handwriting is also featured on the album’s artwork.
L.A. producer who flipped Janet Jackson’s “Any Time, Any Place” for “Poetic Justice”. “That sample flip was a special piece that I was saving for the right artist,” he told Complex — who also produced “The Recipe.” The album marked his first time working with TDE, despite being down with the crew for a few years prior.
The intro to good kid, m.A.A.d city is fittingly named for this character, around whom the entire narrative revolves. She and Kendrick met at this house party on El Segundo and Central, they quickly got to flirting and proceeded to chirp each other on their Nextel phones all summer ’04.
Things went left though, when a horny K-Dot visited her just beyond Compton city limits, only to land in a setup in which he’s stomped out by two hooded men. Presumably her gangbanging cousin Demetrius is involved, hence her alias as “Master Splinter's Daughter.” Kendrick says it’s a true story.
“When I go back to the neighborhood the [homies] know who I'm talking about,” Kendrick told MTV, adding that he carries no ill will. “It be a big joke, and I've been hearing things that she's more excited and surprised that I put her in the song more than anything.”
While we never learn what becomes of Sherane after the good kid, m.A.A.d city collusion, Kendrick cryptically hints at karma coming back around on “The Heart Pt. 3 (Will You Let it Die?),” which he released days before the album: “Thinkin' 'bout when Sherane tried to set me up / Cold game, full circle, they set up her.”
A twerking model named Tokyo portrays Sherane in the “Backseat Freestyle” video—Kendrick says the real-life “Sherane” has a similar look and shape.
After Dave is killed in a shootout, Kendrick and his friends have a come-to-Jesus moment with a neighborhood woman who leads them in this repentance, which marks their spiritual rebirth and an end to a cycle of violence. It goes like this:
“Lord God, I come to you a sinner. And I humbly repent for my sins. I believe that Jesus is Lord. I believe you raised Him from the dead. I would ask that Jesus come into my life. And to be my Lord and Savior. I receive Jesus to take control of my life. And that I may live with Him from this day forward. Thank you, Lord Jesus for saving me with your precious blood. In Jesus name, Amen."
Producer who crafted the second half of “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” after linking with Tae Beats of Digi+Phonics to contribute to Ab-Soul’s Control System.
A DJ, blogger and model who starred in the music video for “Poetic Justice.” Kendrick handpicked her for the lead role, in part because he wanted to share his spotlight with a brown-skinned woman. “I always kept in the back of my mind like ‘you don’t ever see this tone of a woman in videos,’” he told Miss Info. “No disrespect, I love all women, period. But at the same time, I still feels like it needs that balance.”
TDE’s in-house producer, who is also one-third of the production team Digi+Phonics. Sounwave produced “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” also adding co-production to “m.A.A.d city” and “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.”
A production team from Copenhagen, Denmark that has worked with ScHoolBoy Q and Ab-Soul before linking with Kendrick to make “The Art of Peer Pressure.” They’re signed to L.A.-based indie label Treacherous Records.
Rapper more commonly known as The Game. On “Black Boy Fly,” Kendrick reveals that he was jealous of his success as a high schooler back in 2004 (“He was top of the rap game, we was the top of the block,” he rhymes.) In 2012, he told Vibe that he’d recorded a response saluting Kendrick that’s titled “Little Brother”—it has yet to be released.
Seattle production and songwriting team (made up of Dow Jones and Henny) that produced “Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter's Daughter.” They’ve also worked with Wale, Chris Brown, Young Buck, and Jeezy.
Production trio comprised of Axel Morgan, Ricci Riera and Iman Omari. Co-produced “m.A.A.d city,” good kid bonus track “Collect Calls” and the scrapped “Cartoon & Cereal.”
Frequent Drake collaborator who produced “Swimming Pools (Drank).” He didn’t initially imagine K-Dot taking the instrumental. “I was thinking maybe an R&B artist was gonna jump on that beat,” he told Complex.
Kendrick Lamar’s slain uncle. On “Money Trees,” Kendrick reflects on the pain that his murder caused, and how much faith Tony had in his nephew: “Two bullets in my Uncle Tony head / He said one day I'll be on tour, ya bish / That Louis Burger never be the same / A Louis belt will never ease that pain.” K-Dot previously alluded to this murder on Overly Dedicated’s “P&P.”
The automobile—a purple Dodge Caravan—that appears on the artwork of the album’s deluxe edition and cruises through good kid, m.A.A.d city’s narrative, repeatedly alluded to by his mother, friends and Kendrick himself.
The primary mode of communication for Kendrick Lamar’s parents, who leave messages for their Compton-cruising son on interludes throughout the album. Presumably via his Nextel/Boost Mobile phone.
One-half of The Neptunes. Producer of “good kid.” Has repeatedly compared Kendrick Lamar to Bob Dylan.
One-half of the group Sonnymoon, whose TDE introduction formally takes place on Ab-Soul’s Control System (“Double Standards”). Appears as a featured guest on “Real,” and provides background vocals on “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” “Money Trees,” “Black Boy Fly,” and the shelved track “Cartoon & Cereal.”
The perfect rating that good kid, m.A.A.d city received in XXL magazine, placing the album in the pantheon of certified classics like 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin', Jay-Z’sThe Blueprint, and Kanye West’sMy Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Kendrick also shouted out the magazine (and its editor-in-chief Vanessa Satten) on “The Heart Pt. 3 (Will You Let it Die?)”. The album received an overall Metacritic score of 91 out of 100 (the critic aggregation site placed a value of 94 on Okayplayer’s glowing review).
A phrase that Kendrick uses to punctuate his lines throughout “Money Trees.” Derivative of “You bitch,” obviously.
The escape route Kendrick and his crew take after burglarizing a house in “The Art of Peer Pressure.” “We made a right, then made a left, then made a right / Then made a left, we was just circlin’ life,” K-Dot raps. Fortunately, the police’s twisted path diverged from their own. One lucky night with the homies, indeed.
John Kennedy is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York, whose work has appeared in Vulture, Complex, Genius, Billboard and VIBE. Tweet him at @youngJFK to debate about why all of the best rappers hail from Queens.