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Cult Classics: ‘good kid, m.A.A.d. city’ at 10 Years Old

Cult Classics: ‘good kid, m.A.A.d. city’ at 10 Years Old

A little over a decade ago, a new era in rap was firmly cemented.

As is typical of rap every decade or so, this new era gave rise to new debates over who is this generation’s best emcee. When, on October 22, 2012, Kendrick Lamar dropped his critically acclaimed, triple platinum, insta-classic album good kid, m.A.A.d. city, he became, in most people’s eyes except Shyne, the main contender for 2010s rap’s top spot.

Think about how far he’s come since then. He’s won Grammys when he wasn’t being outrageously snubbed by them. He’s released albums that receive consistent critical acclaim despite being deliciously varied in tone, instrumentation, and subject matter. I mean, the guy’s made actual history as the first rapper to win a Pulitzer Prize. And y’all still debating if it’s him, Cole, or Drake that’s this generation’s best? 

But it all had to start somewhere, and I place good kid, m.A.A.d. city as Kendrick’s true moment of arrival. Yes, he had released mixtapes dating back to 2004 under the moniker K.Dot. And, yes, he had even released EPs Overly Dedicated and Kendrick Lamar and official album Section.80 under his more autobiographical pen name. But these projects felt more like auspicious signs than anything, the beginnings of a hero who had yet to realize his true potential. I would argue it was GKMC that really put the emcee on the mainstream’s radar and firmly placed him in the cultural conversation as someone who, if he took a years-long hiatus, we’d be clamoring to hear his idiosyncratic flows and views on the current state of things.

On a side note, yes, it is a bit of cheat to consider an album for the Cult Classics review, but, since GKMC is subtitled “a short film by Kendrick Lamar,” and since it conforms to the genre’s expectations of a storyline replete with cinematic moments, let’s just say that this is a “movie” I think we all know and love and is worthy of this retrospective treatment. If you disagree, please feel free to leave me a message, and I’ll be happy to get back to you in 7–10 business years.

The album’s story itself is pretty easy to follow, but here is a link that I think explains it well. On paper, it’s not exactly mind-blowing. It’s a day in the life of a young Compton man who’s getting into differing, increasingly serious types of trouble with his friends. 

There’s everything ranging from a botched home invasion to a retaliatory shooting that results in one of the protagonist’s friends dead (the depressing coda to “Swimming Pools”). As Lamar confirms when he raps, “I’m like Tre, that’s Cuba Gooding,” GKMC owes a lot to 1991’s Boyz n the Hood in the sense of the latter providing a template to tell a somber but motivational “hood story.” But there are some important differences. 

For one, whereas John Singleton’s parental characters begin and end the film as firm authoritative and aspirational figures, Lamar lets his parents perform comic relief much of the time. Indeed, his father Kenny seems more like Pops from Friday than Laurence Fishburne’s disciplinary Furious Styles. But, like Pops, Kenny becomes serious when he needs to be. Just listen to his admonitions on penultimate track “Real”: “Real is responsibility. Real is taking care of your m*********g family. Real is God, n***a.” He’s dispensed with worrying about dominoes and is making it clear that what he ultimately wants is for his son to live a happy life free of guilt and other emotional debts so easy to incur when taking desperate actions to survive in the ghetto. 

Likewise, who doesn’t feel all the pathos of Lamar’s mother Paula in her final message on that same song? While her message of empowering others simply by overcoming and living to tell the tale is great, it’s the last part, when she says, “And I love you Kendrick. If I don’t hear you knocking on the door you know where I usually leave the key,” that knocks me out. It’s the quiet moments of intimacy that speak the loudest: the familiar, familial gestures of leaving a key by the door so no one is ever truly barred or alone.

GKMC populates its world with characters we love, fear, or both. The men interrogating Kendrick in “Poetic Justice” as to his neighborhood origins and current intentions are terrifying. Similarly, the police that beat Kendrick in “good kid” are rightly presented as thugs concerned with territory and gang affiliation. Even Kendrick’s friends seem labile and combustible. They’re smoking laced weed in between crimes, drinking to get over various pains, and attending parties ostensibly only as an alibi in order to pull off a shooting. It’s a nightmarescape that, unlike Boyz n the Hood, doesn’t at least have a Ricky or Brandi to offset the horror. 

good kid, m.A.A.d. city infamously lost at the 2014 Grammys to Macklemore’s The Heist, and, while I think there are many (probably racist and/or appropriative) reasons for this, I believe a large reasoning may have been that this album is not “fun,” as many foolish people assume all rap should be. This was a complicated work of art that was often pretty bleak. As a “short film,” GKMC has more in common with Menace II Society than Boyz n the Hood

On top of that, it’s an acutely religious work. I don’t know that mainstream rap has been this overtly Christian since 2004’s “Jesus Walks.” Kendrick as an artist is worried about souls — his, his family’s, the hood’s. He is looking for redemption and grace, and good kid, m.A.A.d. city is the story of seeking God when that seems most foolish or impossible. It’s not exactly the kind of thing rap dilettante Grammy voters are looking to bump while they’re on the treadmill. 

Since its release, this album has remained in conversations as one of the best and so has its creator. It says something about Lamar’s staying power, his seeming inability to become stale or irrelevant, when the culture clamors for his return whenever he goes silent. Kendrick Lamar is just one of those guiding voices who helps us make sense of things. That is his power as an emcee and storyteller. And all this was made known in his second studio album and debut “film” good kid, m.A.A.d. city.

good kid, m.A.A.d. city is available to stream on Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon Prime Music. 

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