Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Dear Kendrick Lamar (re: 'good kid, m.A.A.d city')

40s next to the baby bottle. It's no question where you are.
I've said it time and time again, but dey don't hurr me doe: The best hip-hop albums are portraits of the time, place, and mindset of the artist behind them. They draw from experiences seen and told to the artists, incorporate the sonic memory of what that artist is experiencing, and draw the listener into a world viewed through the artists' eyes.

Nature versus nurture; it's the oldest conflict in the book of human development and interaction. Is one a product of their environment, or do the sum of those products make the environment? After listening to your debut, Kendrick Lamar, I'm convinced there needs to be an urban studies symposium or class or certificate program regarding it. Holding true to its name good kid, m.A.A.d city, is a portrait of the battle between nature and nurture: a black child whose inborn 'goodness' is chipped away at by his gritty urban surroundings.

The good kid you portray is clearly a smart one, as evidenced by his constant introspection. One of the first things I noticed in the story is the push and pull relationship that comes with groupthink. You muse, "Rush a nigga quick and then we laugh about it / That's ironic 'cause I never been violent, until I'm with the homies." Throughout GKMC, you grapple with your own decision-making because though you're capable of making informed decisions, frequently decisions are made for you. Whether out of circumstance, laziness, or influence of drugs or alcohol, you more often than not seemed to be carried away with a wave of bad intentions. Even in trying to develop a mature relationship with a young lady it is obvious your appetite for sex will ultimately trump your desire for emotional comfort and security:
A fatal attraction is common, and what we have common is pain / I mean you need to hear this / Love is not just a verb and I can see power steering / Sex drive when you swerve, I want that interference / It's coherent, I can hear it... mmhmm, that's your heartbeat / It either caught me or it called me, mmhmm
Kendrick, listening to GKMC is like watching Spider-Man fall victim to the Venom symbiote. You know that the anger that fuels the symbiote will make Spider-Man stronger, but that same symbiote will kill all pure ambitions within him. It's a tough album to critique with a moral compass because the listener can interpret your descent into that m.A.A.d city ambiguously.

Speaking of ambiguity, there's another prevalent theme in this album. While you grapple with acquiescing to your nature or nurture, the ever-reaching grey area between right and wrong rears its confusing head in almost every song on GKMC. You debate whether it is better to be predator or prey in such a vicious jungle, saying "Everybody gon' respect the shooter, but the one in front of the gun lives forever." Neither is an enviable position to be in, dying a hero or living as a villain. You recant on your past trespasses, too, wondering if your present good deeds and intelligence can erase that past on 'M.A.A.D. City':
If I told you I killed a nigga at 16, would you believe me? / Or see me to be innocent Kendrick that you seen in the street / With a basketball and some Now & Laters to eat / If I'm mentioned all of my skeletons, would you jump in the seat? / 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
That imagery is ridiculous, especially in light of the rash of violence in Chicago or the Trayvon Martin killing. No matter the littered past of a teenager, who is to say that the same teen couldn't end up curing the world of epilepsy or become President? Aspirations, regardless of how attainable, seem to all be misguided in your world though, Kendrick.

The title tracks of the album, expertly placed in the middle, give way to the vices in the second half of the album. 'Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst' that shows the true ill of your story: thirst. Thirst for love, thirst for fulfillment, thirst for money, and thirst for direction lead you and your compatriots astray so many times, that the prayers of an old woman couldn't possibly sway you. You can't help but quench it in 'Swimming Pools', because the holy water the woman speaks of isn't feasible in the way you would want it to be. As a good kid in that environment, the visuals of drugs, sex, violence, and crime are much more influential than that of a God whose presence you can't see. The city pulls your gaze in so many directions that it's impossible to tell what deserves attention and what is real. 'Real' details that conflict, making light of the choir of voices begging for your ear:
But what love got to do with it when I don't love myself / To the point I should hate everything I do love / Should I hate living my life inside the club / Should I hate her for watching me for that reason / Should I hate him for telling me that I'm season / Should I hate them for telling me ball out / Should I hate street credibility I'm talkin' about / Hatin' all money, power, respect in my will / I'm hatin' the fact that none of that shit make me real
Fame is a bitter medicine by your tastes, Kendrick. As a good kid from a m.A.A.d city, you're happy to have gotten yourself away from the chaos of that city, yet clubs, credibility, influence and fame aren't necessarily the antithesis to your rough upbringing. They seem more like a different part of the city, rather than an entirely different city. Maybe that's the answer to the nature versus nurture question. You can take the good kid out of that m.A.A.d city, but it's impossible to take the memory of that m.A.A.d city out of the good kid.

No matter how far you get away from that city, Kendrick, its ills, its vices, and its pitfalls all served to make you the man you are today. You're not ashamed of your city. Kendrick Lamar is a product of Compton. It was so fitting to end the album with a track titled after your hometown, featuring Dr. Dre nonetheless. Just Blaze-produced, it was a horn-laced yet hard-bodied anthem showing the bravado of a bastion of West Coast hip-hop. Though you deride the bad, you know your city is full of good kids like yourself. You would rather show off your city for what it is, 'responsible for taking Compton International', than continue to languish in hatred for the madness that it engenders. It's like I said: your album is a portrait of Compton and your experiences in that city during your formative years. You rose above that m.A.A.d city to show that you can be a product from your environment without being a product of your environment.

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