Kendrick Lamar (promo photo / photographer unknown)

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

Lamar's story is more that just a personal statement or expression; it seeks to bring light into a city corrupted by darkness.
Kendrick Lamar
good kid, m.A.A.d. city
Top Dawg

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.

Comic Relief

K. Dot’s mother leaves a voicemail inquiring about his whereabouts. We learn that he was only supposed to have been gone with his mom’s Dodge Caravan for 15 minutes and that she needs the car to go get food stamps. His father is in the background belligerently ranting about his mysteriously missing dominoes. K. Dot’s mother then gives his father the phone as he asks “where my motherfuckin’ dominoes at?” not knowing the phone was on voicemail. They proceed to argue, before his mother ends the voicemail.

This little interruption seems insignificant and even a little ridiculous upon first listen. But it provides important context to and relief from the story. It gives the listener an idea of how much time has elapsed since K. Dot first left to meet Sherane. It also provides comic relief to the anxious and ominous atmosphere of the song. It makes way for the light-hearted songs that involved K. Dot and his friends throughout the first act. His father’s drunken tirade is rather funny contrasting with the concern and frustration of his mother.

One small detail that’s worth noting is that K. Dot’s father is named Kenny. This is the name that his father refers to him as later in the album on the track, “Real”. It can be assumed that K. Dot is a junior, which subtly implies that his father is involved in his life and isn’t a deadbeat father as one might assume from hearing him for the first time.

It’s also important that at the beginning of the album, the only identifiable voices we hear other than Lamar rapping, are his parents. Regarding the prayer at the beginning, there’s no way to know whose voices we’re hearing. But with his parents, we’re implicitly told who they are from context and how they are related to him.

Throughout the album, their role in the overarching narrative changes. In the first, they provide comic relief narrative reference points. The reference points are important to the coherence of the drama because many of the events in the album occur out of order. Much of the prelude and first act function as character development and do not further the story. They also provide a great wealth of backstory that can be overwhelming. (Much of the backstory goes unnoticed upon first listen.) The skits involving K. Dot’s parents provide grounding for the listener reminding us of the events from the first track and that they are still unresolved.

Later on, his parents have a more symbolic function, and contribute more than mere rhetorical devices. When they call him during the penultimate song “Real”, they provide K. Dot a source of guidance and support at a point where he’s at his lowest and most vulnerable and impressionable after the death of his friend. His father provides some sage advice:

Kenny I ain’t trippin’ off that Dominos anymore, just calling.

Sorry to hear what happen to your homeboy, but don’t learn the hard way like I did homie.

Any nigga can kill a man, that don’t make you a real nigga.

Real is responsibility, real is taking care of your motherfucking family, real is God, nigga

Their voicemails by the end have more surface weight and significance. It’s important to note that their appearance in “Real” is the first time we have heard them since the ending of the song “Money Trees” when his mother pleads with him to bring the car back.

For most of the first half of the album, through the interspersing of character portraits, contextualization, and skits with K. Dot’s friends (found in the song “The Art of Peer Pressure”), and his parents, there’s a relief from the atmosphere of tension and anxiety in “Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter”. At points, those events seem like an afterthought.

Probably one of the most distant songs from that track is “Poetic Justice”, which is the only other song about Sherane. It’s a love letter of sort, where we get insight into the relationship between her and K. Dot. In contrast with the depiction of Sherane and his infatuation with her in the opening, there’s more of a feeling that K. Dot may actually be in love with her.

He tries to relate to her in terms of the broken home that she comes from. He wants to comfort and let her know that she isn’t the only person that has experienced rough times: “I mean I write poems in these songs dedicated to you when / You’re in the mood for empathy, there’s blood in my pen”. In this song he truly wants to relate to and embrace her and all the pain and baggage that she carries. Knowing these strong and complex feelings K. Dot has for Sherane, and hearing the sincerity of this ode to her, contextualizes the frenzy of energy and infatuation he is caught up in on his way to see her. It challenges the “young and dumb” depiction of a sex-crazed boy that is given in the first track.

But not too long after K. Dot spills his heart out in the last few lines, we are immediately reminded of “Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter” as the atmosphere of that track returns; a haunting reminder of the implications of his involvement with Sherane. At this point, the voices of the two people in hoodies are heard interrogating K. Dot, who is paralyzed in fear.

Because the idea of these two men have been left in the realm of the abstract with the cliffhanger ending of the first track, suddenly hearing their voices adds an element of surprise and fear. Everything from their voices, to their reactions to K. Dot’s paralysis, to the clapping that accompanies the line “one more time, where is you from?” brings the utmost realism to the situation and brings the fear that he is experiencing into the mind of the listener. It’s jarring because by this point, one could have easily forgotten or downplayed the unresolved ending to the first track.

This continuation of the plot ties the prelude and first act together and makes way for the dramatic crux of the album. The two songs that follow, “good kid” and “m.A.A.d city” take the tense and ominous atmosphere of “Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter” and develop it into a frenzied mania. That initially fleeting sound world becomes the core sound of the entire second act. The two title tracks, almost functioning as one song, go uninterrupted by any skit or relief and as a result become almost overwhelming.

The first song, “good kid”, is musically parallel to “Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter”. The grinding dissonance of a minor second between the choir voices in the background and the horn, along with the bass line played by an electric bass, is reminiscent of the dissonance created by the layering in the first track. The choir creates the same effect as the organ in creating a tense atmosphere.

But one distinguishing features of this song is its harmonic layout. Unlike the first track, which utilizes the verticality of harmony to create tension, the main source of tension in “good kid” comes from its utilization of a horizontal harmonic plan. In this case, that plan comes in the form of an f minor blues. The form of the blues is altered from 12 to 16 bars by means of extending the turnaround. (The turnaround of a traditional blues occurs eight bars into the 12 bar form. It functions as a means to get back to the i chord from the V and is usually the source of catharsis, which is normally associated with the blues.)

The song also has a chorus between the verses. By extending the turnaround and delaying the return to the i chord, harmonic tension is created due to the withholding of a resolution. The rate of harmonic change also speeds up at the turnaround along with the rhythmic intensity of Kendrick’s rapping. This use of harmony and rhythm helps elevate the tension created by the harmonic verticality to the level of mania and frenzy.

On top of this frenetic atmosphere, Kendrick lays down three verses that, for the first time, address the problem of being a good kid living in a city like Compton. Until this point, many of the things he spoke of reinforced the overall views of the culture of the city. Living in Compton, K. Dot cannot escape persecution from not only people like the two gangbangers that stop him outside of Sherane’s house, but also the Los Angeles Police Department, who assume because of the color of his skin, he is involved in gang activity.

He’s trapped in a culture of violence that is a self-perpetuating cycle reinforced by the people living in the city and the police. The feeling and mood evoked by the presence of the LAPD, whose role is to protect and serve is, ironically, the same inescapable feeling of fear and frustration K. Dot feels after he is jumped by the two gangbangers.

In the next song “m.A.A.d city”, K. Dot takes the theme of self-perpetuating violence and develops it. This song is broken into two sections, which almost function as two different songs. In the first section, the haunting words of the gangbangers run through the chorus as an eerie reminder of the events from the end of the first act. Given the seriousness of the subject matter though, the music of this section is rather trivial.

The beat of this track is the same one that’s found in the third track on the album, “Backseat Freestyle”, which is anthem of boastful chest beating. This type of beat is typical of the mid- to late ’00s and early ’10s, most notably found in dance songs such as “Teach Me How to Dougie” by Cali Swag District, and in one of Lil Wayne’s signature songs, “A Milli”. But Kendrick starts the song with a disclaimer on the tone and intention of the song, despite the seeming frivolity that the beat may suggest. “Brace yourself, I’ll take you on a trip down memory lane / This is not a rap on how I’m slingin crack or move cocaine”. The beat along with a repeating ostinato creates a feeling of frantic anxiety as it has the energy and drive of a dance song.

In this song Kendrick speaks of the violence and horrors that have surrounded him since his childhood. He speaks of seeing “a light skinned nigga with his brains blown out” when he was nine years old. He had to live with the burden of knowing the killer. He paints the mentality of violence in Compton very bluntly comparing it to living in Pakistan, a country that suffers from great violence due to war and tribal disputes. This song is laden with stories of violence and the precautions one has to take to avoid it.

After one verse, the song is interrupted by a short instant of static and then the voice of the rapper MC Eiht saying “Wake yo punk ass up”. MC Eiht was the leader of the ’90s rap group called Compton’s Most Wanted. This song is a direct and the most overt nod to the hip-hop of the ’90s. The beat, though sampled from a song from the ’60s called “Don’t Change Your Love” by the Five Stairsteps, it stylistically sounds like a song from the ’90s.

The relationship to this era runs deeper than stylistic similarities. The music on top of the beat samples a song by B.B. King called “Chains and Things”, which was also sampled by an Ice Cube song “A Bird in the Hand”. Kendrick also makes a reference to this song, quoting it in the first line “Fresh outta school cause I was a high school grad”. Through sampling and the appearance of MC Eiht, Kendrick draws a direct link from his music to the hip-hop of the ’90s. He draws from the tradition of West Coast hip-hop and places himself within that lineage.

Aside from the symbolic function, MC Eiht’s appearance serves to tell the story that Kendrick could not. He tells the story of the person who stayed in the hood their whole life and thus was engulfed by the violence and chaos. His cautionary tale plants the seeds of a case for escaping the hood. If K. Dot wants to remain a good kid and live his life the way he wants to live it, he’s going to have to escape. This case for escaping will develop in the final act to the point where K. Dot has to decide between doing so, or destroying his life through violence.

The main dramatic narrative of good kid, m.A.A.d city reaches its highest point in these two title tracks developing themes and motifs first presented in “Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter”. In a way, this branch of the narrative ends with these two tracks. Because of the nature of the story Lamar wants to tell, which is a coming-of-age story, these ideas have to come to an end. The anxiety and tension came into full fruition and from that, the seeds for the major theme of the final act were planted. In order for the transformation of K. Dot into Lamar to occur though, that major theme of escaping Compton will have to have a foundational support.

That support will come from themes presented in the skits and character development of the first act. These themes are the seeds for the fulfillment of the coming-of-age story in good kid m.A.A.d city and are immensely important for this work falling into the tradition of the Bildungsroman. This idea of the Bildungsroman is a major thread of coherence and continuity runs alongside the dramatic narrative to tie the structure of the album together.

Conflict, Tension and Fulfillment

In order for a coming-of-age story to be classified as a Bildungsroman, there has to be a conflict between the integration of the self and the integration into society, a tension between the fulfillment of desire and the fulfillment of social obligation. (Rationale, “The European Bildungsroman,”) In the case of good kid, m.A.A.d city that conflict is at the core of the concept. It is the conflict of K. Dot wanting to remain a good kid while living in Compton, where social assimilation means being consumed by the self-perpetuating cycle of violence. This conflict can be found early in the album with the contrasting character portraits of present day Lamar in “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” and the K. Dot in “Backseat Freestyle”.

In “Backseat Freestyle”, K. Dot expounds the general attitude and values of the hood. “All my life I want money and power, respect my mind or die from lead showers”. It’s the very mentality that the gangbangers of Compton live by. When K. Dot says it though, it’s of a need for a 17-year-old teenager to feel validation in his masculinity. He feels that displays of power will earn him respect from people in the society.

This mentality is the same one of the two gangbangers outside of Sherane’s house, but unlike K. Dot, they live by it. They allow it to control their actions and the way they live. They confront him, not only because he is there to meet Sherane, but also because he’s from another neighborhood and they don’t recognize him. They beat him up not because they view him as a threat to their neighborhood, but because they can. They want to exert their power over him as a display of power that is akin to chest beating, and to validate themselves as men and protectors not only of their household, but also of their turf or neighborhood.

This mentality is also found in the antics K. Dot and his friends get into in the track “The Art of Peer Pressure”. Though we are introduced to K. Dot’s friends in the prayer at the very beginning of the album, we aren’t formally introduced to them until this track. They spend their time with shenanigans and tomfoolery in light-hearted fun. We also learn that they also rob people and assault those with associations they don’t recognize.

This very thing that K. Dot’s friends do, is what ends up happening to him, not out of fun and jest, but out of malicious intent. Him and his friends commit these crimes not out of any necessity or need. They commit them because it’s something to do and it’s what people around them generally do. They are buying into the hood mentality of Compton out of convenience and boredom.

But when juxtaposed with the gangbangers K. Dot encounters, it shows that the childish acts that he and his friends do can eventually lead to something more serious and malicious, the deeper one gets (often times unknowingly or unconsciously) into the life of a criminal. If he and his friends aren’t careful, the mentality that they loosely hold on to can become infectious and take over the very fiber of their beings.

K. Dot’s friends are not to be viewed solely as metaphors or symbols as Sherane or the gangbangers can be viewed. They are characters that influence K. Dot’s actions and thoughts and thus are an extension of him. This idea is perpetuated by the fact that we don’t ever hear K. Dot’s voice in a skit until the end of that final track of the album, where he’s heard telling his mother he is borrowing the car for 15 minutes – the words that set the whole story in motion.

In “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe”, Lamar has little concern for validation in who he is, or approval from society. He lives in a world where people around (mainly other rappers) him equate success with money and fame. But they value these things for the same reason K. Dot and the gangbangers value do, out of insecurities with who they are.

We live in a world, we live in a world on two different axles

You live in a world, you living behind the mirror

I know what you scared of, the feeling of feeling emotions inferior

Because Lamar is secure in who he is and what his morals are, he seeks to bring about a greater change in the world, especially amongst the rappers whom this song is referring to. “My New Year’s resolution is to stop all the pollution”. This idea of change is something that K. Dot’s father mentions in his voicemail on “Real”.

Come back a man, tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton. Let ’em know you was just like them, but you still rose from that dark place of violence, becoming a positive person. But when you do make it, give back, with your words of encouragement, and that’s the best way to give back. To your city…

These words of encouragement inform not only Kendrick’s intention in this song, but also his intention in making this album. By telling his story and his struggle to overcome the hood mentality of society, he becomes a beacon of hope for those “good kids” just like him that find themselves in similar situations. He also challenges that mentality in making this album, seeking to bring about a greater change in the society. K. Dot and Kendrick are both at odds with their societal environs, but because of his experiences and self-realization, Lamar doesn’t need to succumb to those destructive social values that K. Dot struggles with. Through his coming-of-age journey, K. Dot will question the society in which he lives and begin to seek an alternate solution.

This conflict between self-fulfillment and the self-actualizing desire of societal integration is fully played out in the title tracks “good kid” and “m.A.A.d city”. K. Dot begins to question the madness that surrounds him. He comes to the realization that he cannot exist as he does in Compton for much longer, or he will be destroyed. He refers to himself as “Compton’s human sacrifice”. This is the first time in the album where he makes this realization, but it takes the death of his friend in the skit at the end of “Swimming Pools” to push him to act on these desires of escape.

In “Swimming Pools” K. Dot ‘s friends bring him to a party to escape confronting what had just happened to him at the hands of the hooded ones. But as he tries to drown his problems in alcohol, his conscience speaks to him informing him that hat he has reached a deadly limit of consumption and is on the verge of throwing his life away. Faint message goes in direct conflict of the chorus of the song:

Nigga why you babysitting only two or three shots

I’mma show you how to turn it up a notch

First you get a swimming pool full of liquor then you dive in it

This chorus embodies the desire and will of the people at the party. This collective desire goes in direct conflict with the will of K. Dot’s conscience, which is trying to lead him away from destruction. At this point though, K. Dot doesn’t submit to his will or the collective will of the party. His inaction is a symptom of the inner conflict. He doesn’t want to drink more, as the people at the party suggests he do, but at the same time he doesn’t want to confront the core problem of his existence in Compton. He’s paralyzed by this conundrum and it takes the death of his friend to be spurred into action.

K. Dot’s encounter with death, in the killing of his friend, and also the contemplation of his own death, in consuming too much alcohol, leads him to confront all of his problems and confront death face to face. This comes on the track “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”, in the form of the contemplation of two people in in his life: a friend of his whose brother died, and the sister of a girl named Keisha, whom he knew. (Lamar tells the story of Keisha in his previous album Section.80. She’s a girl damaged by society. She’s forced into a life of prostitution, which ultimately kills her.) Both of these people are damaged by the society in which they struggled to survive. The first person is caught up in the life of a gangbanger and cannot escape. Keisha’s sister is caught up in a life of prostitution, which she was forced into out of necessity of survival.

At the end of their respective verses they are killed, one by shooting and the other from a sexually transmitted disease. He tells their stories as means of giving himself something for which to live. He has to live on in order that he can shed light on their stories and at the same time, give them the gift of eternal life.

In contemplating the stories of others, it gives K. Dot the courage to confront his own. It’s here that K. Dot begins his steps toward becoming Lamar. The plot, dramatic narrative, and psychological development all come together in this track and push him towards self-realization. In the skit following this contemplation, K. Dot and his friends have reached their lowest point, and are contemplating going on a suicide mission to avenge the death of their friend and brother.

K. Dot’s neighbor, who goes unnamed, overhears their plot and openly asks the searing rhetorical question “Why are you so angry?” She diagnoses them as dying of thirst; one that is unquenchable by earthly means. She offers them the option to be reborn through the holy water of redemption through Jesus Christ.

K. Dot’s neighbor, voiced by Maya Angelou, only appears once, though her influence can be heard from the opening seconds of the album. She leads K. Dot and his friends in the sinner’s prayer that is found at the beginning of the first track. In showing them an alternative to their hood mentality she not only gives them an escape route from the hell of their current circumstances but she also gives them a productive way to deal with their anger and frustration that has overtaken them; the same anger and frustration that fuels the insecurities behind the malicious intent of the gangbangers of Compton. In choosing to be reborn again, they have given themselves a spiritual escape from the evils of Compton.

It’s important to note that Angelou is the voice of Lamar’s neighbor, because of her role and importance in the collective black community and because of her role in the life of the legendary west coast rapper Tupac Shakur. She met Tupac on the set of the movie Poetic Justice (from where the song on the album “Poetic Justice” takes its name). She talked him out of a confrontation with another man on the set. The talk she had with him is in direct parallel with the one she has with K. Dot and his friends.

Juxtaposing with K. Dot’s situation, Tupac, who ultimately chose the path offered by the streets of the hood, loses his life as a result. At this point in K. Dot’s life, though, he hasn’t made any choice and is still stuck at a crossroad. When presented the option, he takes his neighbor’s advice to heart and ultimately makes it out of the hood alive. He is reborn as Kendrick Lamar.

Several stages of development had occur for K. Dot to emerge from his Compton centered cocoon as the new being, Kendrick Lamar. Just as a butterfly emerges after four stages of development so did Lamar. He went from the stage of harmlessly mimicking and emulating his environment (stealing and harassing people for fun), to being confronted with the same behavior of that environment in a not so harmless fashion (confrontation with the gangbangers) to being faced with the irreversible consequences of living by the code of that environment (the death of his friend by gunfire) to being offered a life-saving drink from the fountain of salvation (the interaction with the neighbor).

First a case is built upon emotional and intellectual grounds, but it takes a transfiguration of the spirit to complete the coming-of-age. The final two tracks on the album “Real” and “Compton” are a celebration of the self, and its triumph over the infectious mentality of society. This triumph is what drives the fiber of his being. From this we can understand the Lamar on the song “Control”. He is out to stake his claim on hip-hop and change the world. This sentiment from “Control” is the same one echoed in “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” and echoes the advice that his father gives him in “Real”.

In completing good kid, m.A.A.d city, Lamar tells his story of coming-of-age in the belly of the rough city of Compton. He serves as a beacon of hope, for those kids that find themselves in the same situation, while giving those that have died from the violence of the city the gift of eternal life. The story of Lamar is more that just a personal statement or expression. It’s a cultural statement that seeks to bring light into a city corrupted by darkness. In overcoming his personal struggle and overcoming Compton, Lamar is now poised to stake his claim on the world of hip-hop and nothing will stand in his way.


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Wynton Kelly Stone Guess, born in Louisville, Kentucky, is a London based composer currently pursuing a Master in Music in composition at the Royal College of Music.