Every great ‘hood movie has the character who takes the gangster stigma to the extreme. Loud, cocky, fearless and, of course, crazier than Tony Montana snorting on a mountain of narcotics is what makes characters like Menace to Society’s “O-Dog” or Juice’s “Bishop” shocking, amusing, and quotable. But there is a reason why Kane and Q were the main character’s in those motion pictures: their internal struggles in maintaining the acceptance of their peers at the expense of their own family instilled morals was more relatable and even more compelling.
For the BET Hip-Hop Award’s lyricist of the year and West Coast torch bearer, Kendrick Lamar, the well-to-do, Black male youth is taken on a journey through the extreme vices of the ghetto lifestyle with his personal morality and identity in trouble at every turn on his Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope debut, Good Kid, m.A.A.d City,.
After stealing his family’s van, Kendrick takes a joy ride through muffled echoes and flat percussion to meet up with a summer fling on the intro track “Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter”. Upon meeting his crush, he also encounters some mentors who introduce him to the L.A. street life. Sounwave’s sultry guitar licks and soothing strings make a perfect background as Kendrick shuts off from his moral reasoning in order to embrace his new-found immorality on “B*tch, Don’t Kill my Vibe” (“I can feel the changes/ I can feel the new life/ I always knew life could be dangerous”).
“The Art of Peer Pressure” explores K. Dot’s first acts of deviance, with a story of doing drugs, fighting, and robbing with the homies. The track captures just how going with the flow can end up with a night of crimes. Up-and-coming West Coast producer DJ Dahi adds his signature background samples and elastic bass on “Money Trees”, where fellow Black Hippy member, Jay Rock, ventures from his own flow in order to out-K-Dot Lamar out of his own rhyme scheme, resulting in one of the most memorable verses on the album (“Imagine rock up in those projects, swear them n*ggas pick your pockets, Santa Claus done miss them stockings/ liquor spilling, pistols poppin’, baking soda yola whipping, ain’t no turkey on Thanksgiving”).
Towards the end of the album, Kendrick starts to question the impact of his immoral decisions on his character and decides it’s time to get baptized on “Sing about me, I’m dying of thirst”: (“My mama said see a pastor, he’ll give me a promise/ what if today was the rapture and you completely tarnished?/ The truth will set you free/ so to me you should be completely honest/you dying of thirst, you dying of thirst/so hop in that water and pray that it works”). An old-Kanye beat pattern and harmonizing spiritual vocal sounds makes it seem as though Kendrick might have cracked The Da Vinci Code to “Jesus Walks”.
It is rare accomplishment to have such an array of different producers on one project to sound this cohesive. But songs like the playful but mediocre “Backseat Freestyle” and the hard-hitting, Dr. Dre-featured “Compton” seem to stick out like a sore thumb. The Drake featured “Poetic Justice” also seems a tad cliché and misplaced, yet these are minor missteps.
What makes Good Kid, m.A.A.d City resonate so well is how Kendrick relates his own personal guilt of partaking in the street lifestyle without being condescending to the gangbangers who still are living the ‘hood life. Ironically, he even compares himself to Cuba Gooding Jr.’s protagonist “Trey” in Boyz in The Hood – a morally-sound youngster who tried out gangster lifestyle only to find out he would be better off admiring it from afar.