How Kendrick Lamar’s ‘good kid m.A.A.d City’ Defined the New Classic
Five years ago today, K. Dot set the bar
Brace yourself, I take you on a trip down memory lane
This is not a rap on why I sling crack or move cocaine
This is cul-de-sac and plenty cognac and major pain
Not the drill sergeant but the stress that’s weighin’ on your brain…
When Pirus and Crips all get along, it’s because of albums like Kendrick Lamar Duckworth’s major label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city, which was released five years ago today.
GKMC was, and remains, many things: a densely and carefully woven life in a day bildungsroman of the narrator’s times, dreams and fears in Compton, California; a treatise on the long claw of gang life and the questionable but understandable moral codes cast by the shadow of pathology and institutional impoverishment and neglect. A confetti blast of words crushed, chopped, spit, inhaled and shredded into gushers, whirlpools, rivulets, torrents, waves. On this last point, it needs to be said again: Kendrick Lamar was rapping his ass off.
Rapping as if his life depended on it and, in some spaces, due to the narrative, it did seem that his life was on the line, whether directly or existentially. On “Backseat Freestyle,” he correlates his desires to those of the most famous and misunderstood Civil Rights leader in American history: “Martin had a dream/ Kendrick have a dream…” MLK’s dream was “that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
Kendrick’s dream? “All my life I want money and power/ Respect my mind or die from lead shower/ I pray my dick get big as the Eiffel Tower/ So I could fuck the world for 72 hours.”
It’s a weird juxtaposition of themes that underscores the tense pluralities of this album. Where King sampled flows from Archibald Carey’s 1952 address to the Republican National Convention to let freedom ring from the hilltops of New Hampshire to every hill and molehill of Mississippi and many places in between, Kendrick mentions King largely to chase and run from women while servicing his ego and giving the album its one moment of pure concept-free rhyme—even if it does occur within a narrative that finds Kendrick borrowing the family car to meet a girl he met at a house party near his high school; riding around hotboxing and drinking while listening to Young Jeezy’s Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101, chatting up girls, jumping gang foes and finally engaging in a B&E; turning a sober eye to alcoholism and peer pressure; and, at almost every turn dealing with death, murder and im/mortality.
“I wrote some some raps that made sure that my lifeline reekin’/ The scent of a reaper ensuring that my allegiance with the other side may come soon,” he rapped on “Sing About Me,” adding, “I’m not sure why I’m infatuated with death/ My imagination is surely an aggravation of threats/ That can come about / ‘Cause the tongue is mighty powerful.”
The music was provided by track creators both revered like Dr. Dre, Just Blaze and Pharrell Williams; and ascending like Hit-Boy, Terrace Martin and DJ Dahi—but at no point did the album feel like a producer’s showcase. The music—industrially melodic, aggressively abrasive, meditatively somber—served Kendrick’s moods and throughout he remained the good kid in the mad city—“good” being relative to someone born into intergenerational street life and raised adjacent to killers in the making. Kendrick is not “good” in the way we’ve become socialized to accept virtuousness and immorality as binaries, and his particular location on the constellation of rap stars is what makes his rhymes hit like the fist of Polaris. Over the proper album’s 69-minute running time, Kendrick is deeply thoughtful, irreparably scarred and uncomfortably flawed. “I never was a gangbanger,” he confesses. “I mean, I never was stranger to the funk, neither.”
The self-awareness of his dysfunction made Kendrick more than a protagonist, He became a vessel for the audience—conflicted but driven, remorseful but justifying, wrong in his what’s but right in his whys. He was us—flawed and searching and integrating past choices that could not possibly be undone. The album’s emotional center was found in the semi-titular track “m.A.A.d. City,” which serves as a cornerstone for experiences that felt close enough to leave gunpowder residue on the listener’s garments and blood on their shoes, if not necessarily on their hands.
GKMC’s gaze is supremely important, distinguishing it as possibly the most textured gangsta rap album ever made. Kendrick didn’t just take notes from the greats in terms of rap skills, though you do heard the influences of Andre 3000, Lil Wayne, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, E-40, Freestyle Fellowship and much, much more in the rhymes. But more importantly you heard those artists’ approach to songwriting and vulnerability in every verse. In a space where the emotions and motives were as important as the bars and couplets, you heard Slick Rick and Ice Cube’s attention to detail, Scarface and 2Pac’s internal disclosure, LL Cool J and Big Daddy Kane’s emphasis on speaking to, not just about, women and girls—ugliness and all.
The album’s opener, “Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter,” opened with carnal desire over the title subject mixed in with hyperlocal locations as touchstones. He was “17 with nothing but pussy on my mental/ My motive was rather sinful” and his declarations were universal: “Love or lust, regardless we’ll fuck/ ‘Cause the trife in us is deep-rooted/ The music of being young and dumb is never muted/ In fact, it’s much louder where I’m from.” There were so many redirects on this song—a summer of Nextel chirping, the fifth of vodka in the car, the naughty text pictures, the acknowledgement of Sherane’s family trauma—that ultimately led to a stick-up. It was a novelistic feat of strength that let the listener know they were in for what had been foreshadowed: Kendrick Lamar Duckworth’s major label debut would indeed be a classic.
The album isn’t a classic because of anything written above. It isn’t a classic simply because of the narrative conceits—the non-linear story, the time-jumping, the anchoring skits—that forced a generation that had already accepted the playlist as the highest form of music currency to come to terms with the net worth of an album. Nor is it a classic because it was declared one before it was even released. It’s not a classic because just about everyone acknowledges it as such.
good Kid, m.A.A.d city is a classic because of all of the above and more. Because of how it cut across demographics and subsets of rap fans—from purists to new- and future-school enthusiasts to Pirus and Crips. In many senses, GKMC can be viewed as equally seminal to the listening experience as HBO shows like The Sopranos and The Wire were to television viewing and storytelling—at least for a generation that was unaware as to what a concept rap album could sound like. It’s important to note that, for many listeners, good Kid, m.A.A.d city was their first classic rap album experience. And for those listeners, today’s anniversary represents a coming of age for them as much as the hustling through canals and alleyways in search of money trees represented for Kendrick.
good Kid, m.A.A.d city is a classic because, if you put it on right now, today, it speaks to you as much as it did when you first heard it. In fact, it will speak to you more, as if you are stepping deeper into its rivers. And like, any true classic, it does this while transporting you to exactly where you were—both internally and externally—when it first came out.
It’s distinct as a piece of art in a way that most new artists releasing music in the past decade have not achieved. It precedes J. Cole’s 2014 Forest HIlls Drive, which is not widely acknowledged as a classic. It achieves the kind of singularity of voice and sound and zeitgeist that has eluded Drake’s full-length efforts; the nigh-total pop-culture saturation that Chance the Rapper would not enjoy until last year’s The Coloring Book. Even Kanye West’s classics either predate a generation in a way that must be shared with a generation raised on Dipset, Clipse, Ludacris and ringtone rappers. good Kid, m.A.A.d city was the first classic of a generation.
In this way, good Kid, m.A.A.d city was a gift to those born in the late ’80s/early ’90s that no other rapper had then presented to them. It’s also a great responsibility and why it’s incumbent on the new gatekeepers of the cultural conversation to hold their new stars to a higher standard. It’s the lens through which Lil Uzi Vert, Playboy Carti and XXXTentacion must ultimately be viewed if they want to be considered album artists. It’s the criteria artists like Migos, Young Thug, and YG have either tried to fit into or rebel against because the album—the album—is still the most valued transaction an artist can have with their listeners.
There’s nothing being here said against artists who pay no mind to the album format as a suite of story and mood—gathering a collection of songs from your hard drive as an afterthought can still result in a transcendent listening experience. Regional stars like Kevin Gates and pop chameleons like Travis Scott and banger beaters like Future sidestep the conversation of classic almost by choice. (Though an artist like Future may have and still may create multiple classics by happenstance; that much needs to be said.) And there’s nothing against artists like Rick Ross, Meek Mill and Pusha T, all of whom have made truly great albums that fall short of classicity. But none of those artists have attempted the level of artistry found on GKMC. Most of them make projects that are more suited to repeated or partial listens.
There is something to be said for the trying and succeeding of good Kid, m.A.A.d city as a major label debut.
Five years ago, Kendrick Lamar Duckworth created the first classic of a new era of rap stars. He’s why Pirus and Crips can all get along. He’s why so-called conscious rap and gangsta tunes can coexist in one artist for listeners who may have heard of KRS-ONE, but have no idea how influential and necessary the Blastmaster was to the art of MCing.
If good Kid, m.A.A.d city was your first classic, hold on to it. Ten years from now, you’ll have to explain to someone why this record was important. And it’s going to take you presenting all of the pieces and motivations and context and surprises of this record. And it’s deeper than the fact that Kendrick was rapping his ass off, selling records and making bangers. It’s because this record spoke to you in words you didn’t know you didn’t have for feelings you weren’t sure you were not alone in feeling. It was because for the first time, someone of your generation showed you what an album could do while showing the older generations and the world that you deserved to be listened to.