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The New Faith of Kendrick Lamar: Dramatic Unity in 'good kid, m.A.A.d city'

Wynton Guess
Kendrick Lamar (promo photo / photographer unknown)

Lamar's story is more that just a personal statement or expression; it seeks to bring light into a city corrupted by darkness.

In the summer of 2013, rapper Kendrick Lamar made an astronomical leap onto the world stage of hip-hop, with his widely praised and greatly controversial verse on Big Sean’s song “Control”. In this verse he proclaimed himself, among many things an offspring of Makaveli, the “King of New York”, and had the audacity to place his name alongside a pantheon of living hip-hop legends such as Nas, Jay-Z, Eminem, and Andre 3000.

The verse also included an invitation to a diverse group of the most prominent artists of his generation to challenge his claim to the throne of hip-hop. In an incendiary fashion reminiscent of the enfant terrible of the '50s-era Pierre Boulez (The French composer Boulez accumulated much notoriety for his fierce advocacy for contemporary music over music of the past (most notably in the '50s, serial music) and for his critical outlook on his contemporaries. He once accused his fellow serial composers of becoming “number fanatics” concerned with “frenetic arithmetic masturbation”), Lamar challenged his contemporaries to rise to the standards of excellence in which he holds himself and went as far as to question the seriousness in which they hold their art.

Despite trying to set the bar for excellence in contemporary hip-hop with his verse on “Control”, that bar was actually set in the previous year when Lamar released his second studio album, good kid, m.A.A.d city. The album, a coming-of-age tale of his adolescence on the rough streets of Compton, garnered critical acclaim from many corners of the music world for its complexity in storytelling, coherence, and for its memorable songs.

The far-reaching excellence of this album goes well beyond the realm of being a good piece of music, however. One of its unique aspects is its use of acted out skits interspersed between songs, and the relation of these skits to the music and overall dramatic narrative. good kid, m.A.A.d city, through its meticulous structural coherence and continuity established itself as one of the defining albums of a generation, firmly rooted in a tradition of hip-hop as well as in a literary tradition of the Bildungsroman coming-of-age genre.

The coming of age tradition that the album is rooted in helps to form a thread of coherence that runs alongside the dramatic narrative. This interaction between these two threads within the music and skits, gives good kid, m.A.A.d city its unique sense of unity. Through this unity, the listener is given insight into the psychological development of the 17-year-old protagonist, and the struggle of coming of age in a rough city such as Compton. good kid, m.A.A.d city chronicles his metamorphosis into the figure we know today as Kendrick Lamar.

The album, aptly billed as a short film by Kendrick himself, is comprised of 12 tracks, following a theatrical form. The 12 tracks are broken into four distinct sections, each having three tracks: the first functioning as a prelude, and the next three functioning as three separate acts. The track listing is as follows:

01. Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter

02. Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe

03. Backseat Freestyle

04. The Art of Peer Pressure

05. Money Trees

06. Poetic Justice

07. good kid

08. m.A.A.d city

09. Swimming Pools (Drank)

10. Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst

11. Real

12. Compton

The plot is rather simple and functions more as the skeleton in which everything in the album is built upon. It begins in medias res with a 17-year-old Kendrick, know to his friends as K. Dot, going to visit a girl, named Sherane whom he had met at a party and had maintained a physical relationship with. As he approaches her house to meet up with her, he runs into two guys in black hoodies who proceed to physically confront him after a short interrogation regarding his geographical homebase (i.e., they jumped him after not being able to find out where he was from.)

K. Dot meets back up with his friends who then get drunk and in a fit of rage return to confront the assailants. In the ensuing shootout, one of K. Dot’s friends gets shot and dies. These series of events form the core of the plot for the album. Being less of a plot driven work, the true drama and conflict is found within the music and psychological portraits found in several of the songs. Layered on top of this, the skits in between the songs add a dimension of realism that gives the album its unique tinge.

The opening track, “Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter”, contains the germinal material and motifs that will recur throughout the entire album. From the beginning we hear a tape being placed in a cassette player, which is turned on. What follows is a prayer recited by K. Dot and his friends that chronologically occurs in the second section of the tenth track entitled “I’m Dying of Thirst”. Nearing the end of the prayer, an organ enters playing a chord progression: b flat minor – d flat augmented –e flat minor. On top of this progression we hear a heavily processed voice singing short riffs.

The whole opening is saturated in reverb, giving it a sense of atmosphere. (Something to note is that this track is one of three, which do not contain any samplings from other songs. The other two are the title tracks “good kid” and the first half of “m.A.A.d city”.) Before any beat or bass line is dropped, before any lyric is heard, several germinal seeds can be found. The sound world or atmosphere of the album is set with the ominous chord progression and processed vocals.

The prayer foreshadows events to come in “I’m Dying of Thirst” and sets a religious or spiritual theme that will subtly be developed. The act of placing a tape in a cassette player implies that the events about to be described took place in the past. It also suggests that these events are not unique to this situation; that they will play out again and again, as tapes can be played many times. This story that Lamar is about to tell can be read as an allegory for any “good kid” growing up in a “m.a.a.d city”.

Musically, the distinguishing feature of this track is the tense and ominous atmosphere that is continually being built upon with every new verse. When the bass line enters on an electric bass, it's firmly rooted in e flat minor and suggests a progression of i -- V of IV -- iv. The motion of this progression contrasted with the motion of the organ progression creates great tension as one is hovering around the i or e flat minor, and the other is moving toward the iv or A flat minor. While both progressions share the same key area of e flat minor, they reach the i chord at different points, avoiding hearing a pure minor triad.

With each verse, there's a new musical motif that's layered on top of this accumulating pile. In the second verse, a line in the high piano is introduced, reinforcing the organ progression. But in the third verse, this reinforcement is undermined by an electric keyboard and electric guitar that obscure the organ. The keyboard obfuscates the organ because of its wide vibrato and lush sonic profile. The contrast of its relatively mellow tone is jarring when it enters grabbing the attention of the listener.

Accompanying this building texture of harmonic saturation is the story K. Dot tells, which follows a similar trajectory. The pad of sound along with the rather straightforward drumbeat allows for Lamar to display his virtuosic lyrical flow, which is highlighted in different forms throughout the album. And thus the story begins:

I met her at this house party on El Segundo and Central

She had the credentials of strippers in Atlanta

Ass came with a hump from the jump she was a camel

I want to ride like Arabians, push an '04 Mercedes-Benz.

From these opening four lines we are thrown into the mindset of the young K. Dot. The first thing he mentions about Sherane is her body and her stripper-like credentials. These first observations highlight the overwhelming feeling of lust he felt upon seeing her. Throughout the song we learn several important facts about Sherane that have severe implications for later in the album: 1. Sherane lives in an area of Compton that K. Dot is unfamiliar with, 2. she comes from a troubled home, given that her mother is a crack addict and therefore her grandmother is raising her, and 3. her favorite cousin Demetrius has an unspeakable history of gang violence as does many other members in her family.

These three facts should immediately be red flags of danger to come, but K. Dot consciously chooses to ignore them being blinded by love or lust At this point he doesn’t even know which one it is because he feels so strongly for her. He even suggests that he could end up marrying her. As the track as a whole begins to escalate, K. Dot’s anticipation of meeting Sherane at her home becomes more and more obsessive:

Or maybe kissing on her neck, or maybe what positions next

Sent a picture of her titties blowing up my texts

I looked at 'em and almost ran my front bumper into Corvette

Most of what is found in the third verse is his musings and fantasizing about her. The cloud of infatuation K. Dot is lost in, builds up to the point where he finally sees Sherane. To this he smiles, but much to his surprise, she wasn’t the only person who was waiting for him to show up.

And six steps from where she stay, she waving me 'cross the street

I pulled up a smile on my face, and then I see

Two niggas, two black hoodies, I froze as my phone rang

At that very instant, the song ends and is interrupted by K. Dot’s mother calling him. The tension between the music and lyrics had been building the entire song, and at the very point of climax, everything makes an abrupt turn for the worst.

But rather than continuing the story, we are left with a cliffhanger. The story doesn't resume until the end of the track “Poetic Justice”, which is the last track of Act I. The skit that follows though is important to the narrative and overall flow of the drama.

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