At the time of its 2012 release, Kendrick Lamar’s major label debut was hailed as both a critical and commercial success. It blasted him from the status of an up-and-coming rapper boasting a catalogue of EP’s to a superstar with a potential future classic to his name. The baby Kendrick put out into the world turned five last October, and its legacy cannot be questioned.
This album blew Lamar into the public eye and paved the way for its follow up, To Pimp a Butterfly, which became an anthem of black America throughout 2015. Lamar is now, two albums and a mixtape on from good kid, arguably the most important musician on the planet and may prove to be the voice of a generation, as Kurt Cobain was to the mid-90’s. good kid, m.A.A.d city remains some of his most influential work.
Despite its excellent lyricism, production and style, the most impressive thing about this album is its narrative, centred around Kendrick’s borrowing of his mother’s van, which sets off a chain-reaction of events. The first song, ‘Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter’ takes place already into the story, with Kendrick having taken the van and on his way to see a love interest by the name of Sherane, a character who is interwoven into the story throughout. The timeline of the narrative is broken at the end of the song by the first of a succession of voicemail messages from Kendrick’s mother, this one asking when he’ll be back with the van, as she has to pick up dinner for his siblings, as well as warning him: “You got school tomorrow. If you keep f—kin’ around on them streets, you won’t pass to the next grade.”
The narrative progresses into Kendrick taking the van for a matter of days. During that time, he tries his hand at rapping for the first time in the backseat of a friend’s car (on ‘Backseat Freestyle’) and getting involved in gang crime and smoking drugs that had been spiked (on ‘The Art of Peer Pressure’). Lamar accentuates these storylines by using different voices for different characters in his story through short scenes between songs that add detail and ground the listener in his world.
He goes on to chase money (on first-side highlight ‘Money Trees’) before things take a turn for the worse for Kendrick, as he tells on the heart of the album, ‘Good Kid’. It is here he switches from boasting about his gang lifestyle and girl-chasing ambitions to the genuine issues in his society: racial profiling at the hands of the police and the dark sides of the gang community, which he continues to speak on throughout ready-made banger ‘M.A.A.D City’. This is also where the power of Lamar’s storytelling ability comes to the fore.
He raps a frantic story of stumbling out of high-school, being thrown into a security job then being coerced by his friends to stage a robbery a fortnight into his new work. He touches on the effects of the spiked drugs he took earlier in the album in one of many examples of recalling earlier events, which makes his story even more engrossing. What is most impressive about this track is the fact that Lamar raps with a frantic, pleading cadence, which sounds like a young man overwhelmed by his surroundings, at times on the brink of tears. This is a portrayal of a character not many rappers on their first major label album would attempt, but it is the song’s most impressive feature and marked of a rapper who was artistically mature before his years when this was originally released.
After ‘M.A.A.D City’ comes ‘Swimming Pools (Drank)’, which was Lamar’s highest charting song (it peaked at 17 on the US Billboard 100 Charts) until it was beaten by 2017’s ‘DNA.’ and ‘HUMBLE.’. The end of this song features another scene, this one centred around Kendrick and his friends getting into a shootout, in which one of Kendrick’s gang gets killed.
On the following two tracks, ‘Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst’ and ‘Real’, Lamar goes further into detailing the consequences of the gang lifestyle and the toll it takes on him, noting “I’m tired of running” repeatedly on ‘Sing About Me…’. He also tells stories of the lives of other people in a similar position to his, such as a young prostitute and the member of his gang whose brother was killed at the end of ‘Swimming Pools’.
On ‘Real’, Lamar wrestles with himself about what it means to be real, and whether the lifestyle he has chosen will get him closer. He questions whether the things people around him are choosing are going to make them more real, especially in the people that claim they already are. His father then leaves the final of the series of voicemail messages for Kendrick. He apologises for the loss of Kendrick’s friend, but goes on to remind him that anybody can kill someone, but that doesn’t make you real. He says “Real is responsibility. Real is taking care of your family.”
The final track, ‘Compton’, serves as a boast, a victorious lap around his home city, but by this point the story is already done.
The most touching moment comes through his mother’s half of the voicemail at the end of ‘Real’. Her son has been gone for what could be as long as days, and she opens by joking about expecting him to have the van with a full tank of petrol when he returns. What follows is a poignant moment as she begins: “If I don’t hear from you by tomorrow…” with the implication that Kendrick may never return, before she catches herself and continues: “If I don’t hear you knocking on the door, you know where I usually leave the key… and I love you, Kendrick.”