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.

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.

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