(NOTE: A Spotify embed of good kid, m.A.A.d city can be found at the bottom of the article, just in case you’ve yet to experience the joy of Kendrick.)
If you were to hear Kendrick Lamar’s “The Art of Peer Pressure” on the radio and knew nothing about his music, you might mistake Lamar for your average gangster rapper. The song chronicles one evening where Lamar and his “homies” smoke blunts, rob a house, and evade police. The track ends with the guys planning their next “mission,” when Young Jeezy’s “Trap or Die” is evoked: “What’s that Jeezy song say, nigga? ‘Last time I checked, I was the man on these streets!”
On Lamar’s second album, the semi-autobiographical good kid, m.A.A.d city, the Compton rapper discusses his relationship with his hometown, faith, family, and more. In some ways, it’s an unconventional album that flips west coast hip-hop on its head, rejecting the lifestyle portrayed on “The Art of Peer Pressure.” But in addition to renouncing thug life, Lamar also dismisses the notion of masculinity that’s often tied to it. In west coast gangster rap specifically, being a man often means being the toughest guy on the street. Take a song like “NWA’s Straight Outta Compton,” for instance. Ice Cube begins the track by boasting about his ability to kill anyone who crosses him. “When I’m called off, I got a sawed off / Squeeze the trigger and bodies are hauled off,” he raps, “You too, boy, if you fuck with me.” In NWA’s Compton, what separates men from boys is body count.
good kid, m.A.A.d city is nearly a direct counterpoint to “Straight Outta Compton.” Rather than adopt Ice Cube’s mentality, Lamar reverses it, claiming that the tough guys are the real children. That point is accomplished through a psuedo-narrative that runs through the album. On the opening track, “Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter,” Lamar introduces his young self as the protagonist. “Seventeen, with nothing but pussy stuck on my mental,” he explains, going on to describe his adolescent excitement as he drives to Sherane’s house to get laid. It’s a comical scene that characterizes young Lamar as an immature kid. On a more generic hip-hop track, listeners would be barraged with verses about how much of a stud the rapper is (“Make yo main bitch suck me dick cause I’m handsome,” to use a Lil B example.) Instead, Lamar illustrates his teenage awkwardness; “Sent a picture of her titties blowing up my text / I looked at ‘em and almost ran my front bumper into Corvette.”
As the story progresses, the protagonist slips deeper and deeper into Compton’s dark side. And as he does, his masculinity goes over the top. “I pray my dick get big as the Eiffel Tower, so I can fuck the world for 72 hours,” he boasts on “Backseat Freestyle.” The track is intended to explain a 16-year-old’s state of mind, acting as a satirical jab towards the culture. The whole track is intentionally ridiculous, with lines like, “I look like OJ, killing everything for pussy.” And if you think he’s going a little too overboard with his caricature of hyper-masculine rappers, listen to NWA’s “She Swallowed It.” No lyric reference needed.
Matters get more serious on the album’s back half as the protagonist’s downward spiral through Compton gets bloodier. On “m.A.A.d city,” Lamar is in a state of panic, sounding as if he’s rapping while hyperventilating. It’s a brilliant contrast to the loud-mouthed kid in “Backseat Freestyle” sneering, “All you pussies is losers.” Here, he takes listeners “on a trip down memory lane,” recalling various stories from his life growing up in Compton. And there’s nothing glorified about it, just “bodies on top of bodies.” After a barrage of grim imagery, Lamar makes his position towards the lifestyle incredibly clear in the final verse: “Would you say my intelligence now is great relief? / And it’s safe to say that our next generation maybe can sleep / With dreams of being a lawyer or doctor / Instead of boy with a chopper that hold the cul de sac hostage.” Once again, the characterization of gangsters as children pops up. He’s incredibly careful with his language through the album, never using the word “man” when talking about this type of person; the tough guys out on the street shooting guns are boys.
There’s a big pay off to his precise word choice. good kid’s penultimate track, the downtempo “Real,” ends with an answering machine message from Kendrick’s parents, consoling their son after one of his friends is gunned down. As the beat drops out, Kendrick’s mother speaks; “If I don’t hear from you by tomorrow… I hope you come back, and learn from your mistakes. Come back a man…” There it is. For Lamar, masculinity isn’t about “money, pussy, and greed;” It’s the exact opposite. Being a man is about rejecting the adolescent fantasy of thug life and taking care of yourself and those around you. What’s particularly interesting is that Kendrick’s mother becomes the most “masculine” character in the story. While Kendrick is out trying to get laid and his father is complaining about his lost dominos, Kendrick’s mother is concerned about getting her car back so she can get food stamps and feed her family. She takes on the role of the provider, a term traditionally associated with men. Not only does Lamar reject normalized notions of masculinity in hip-hop, but he ultimately disassociates it from gender. His mother is the one to lead Kendrick to manhood, not his “homies” or his father.
If you desperately needed to boil good kid, m.A.A.d city down to one overarching theme, you could say it’s all about tradition. This set of songs talks about the traditions that make us “realer,” and those that hold us back. In Lamar’s view, much of hip-hop culture, or how it’s existed in the mainstream for decades, is part of the latter. Can one album single-handedly overturn it? Realistically, no. But by talking to a younger generation (as his mother suggests he should in “Real”), he presents an opportunity for kids to question glamorized gangster rap and ponder “What really makes a man a man?”