The Anniversary

good kid, m.A.A.d city Turns 10


Before Kendrick Lamar retreated inward and declared “I choose me,” he chose to channel every resident of his small corner of California. A concept album about a single day in teenage Kendrick’s life, good kid, m.A.A.d. city presents Compton as a treacherous wonderland that variously devours and nurtures its young. Inspired by Los Angeles’ linked canons of gangster rap and hood movies, and eager to complicate that history, Kendrick and his collaborators plop a new Compton on top of the familiar one, smashing together past and present.

Kendrick’s Hub City overflows with echoes and ricochets. His songs don’t just represent or reintroduce his mythologized hometown; they conduct it. Like Professor X patched into Cerebro, Kendrick projects his antsy mind into the heads of his neighbors, kin, and rap influences and harnesses the psychic feedback. Ghosts of homies and relatives speak to and through him as he hits laced blunts and licks. Gangbangers and cops stomp him out. Voicemails about missing dominos and realness accumulate in his inbox. “Seem like the whole city go against me,” he murmurs on “m.A.A.d. city,” the line capturing both the blunt force of this ambient pressure and its concussive recoil. Kendrick was far from the first rapper to spotlight the casualties and bystanders of LA’s gangland conflicts — laments for the fallen are a staple of West Coast rap — but he was the first rapper to completely fold such hauntings into his style. Every line, melody, and scene of his “short film” is a seance, Kendrick summoning local spirits and contorting his elastic voice to transmit their tales alongside his own.

Released 10 years ago this Saturday, the album touched down at a time when rap was divided along now moot fault lines: mixtape versus album, underground versus commercial, web versus radio. Few rappers bridged these worlds, and the ones who did were deeply polarizing. Nicki Minaj, the best rapper of 2012, backed out of her Summer Jam performance because Peter Rosenberg said her pop rap hit “Starships” was not “real hip-hop,” a microcosm of the reception of Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded. Drake was already a meme and a superstar; a Take Care single or feature seemed to go platinum every day. Drill mutated in real-time as talking heads and critics wrung their hands. Lil B became a college lecturer. Azealia Banks resurrected hip-house and called Jim Jones a fellow Harlem bitch. Kanye and JAY-Z riled arenas into frenzies performing encores of “Niggas in Paris.”

good kid, m.A.A.d. city ignored everything around it. With a cosign from Dr. Dre and the full resources of Interscope and Aftermath, Kendrick and TDE doubled down on their bona fides, and the ploy worked. The album’s one-two punch of autobiographical specificity and coming-of-age relatability quickly catapulted Kendrick to still shocking levels of visibility and acclaim. Off one album that’s short on hits and crammed with skits and knotty rhymes, Kendrick went from blogger fave to rap messiah. 

Listeners immediately and prematurely deemed good kid, m.A.A.d. city a classic on arrival, but 10 years later the assessment stands. Vince Staples’ wry anti-gangster rap, J. Cole’s anguished survivor’s guilt, Chance The Rapper’s black boy joy, JID’s conscious trap, among other currents, all trace back to Kendrick’s intimate yoking of narrator and homeland. He didn’t fuck up the game with one verse until 2013, but he proved the viability of a building core audience in an atomized landscape, a dynamic that has intensified in this era of invisible stardom.

To this day, the album remains the fulcrum of Kendrick’s mythology, the trunk from which every collective idea about the rapper and his music branches off. Though he’s rapped as Jesus, Lucifer, and Erik Kilmonger, declared himself the king of New York and a Black Israelite, and repeatedly shared his love of fucking, huge swaths of rap listeners still think of him as the consummate good kid. Even the abrasive psychodrama of this year’s Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers hasn’t shaken the legend. Because of this album, he is forever rap’s Peter Parker: an anxious chatterbox fighting enormous odds.

He started calling Compton a “mad city” and himself a “good kid” as early as 2009’s Kendrick Lamar EP — which marked his transition from K. Dot to Kendrick Lamar, artiste — but it took years for the phrases to expand into widescreen allegories. “K.Dot was just rapping,” he told XXL in 2012, explaining the name change. “Kendrick Lamar reminisces when his older cousins, 16, 17 years old, had their little girlfriends over there, being in a relationship with them and they whooping they ass and shit in my living room while I’m playing Sega.” By Section.80, he identified as an observer and questioner, planting himself in the “dead fucking center, looking around” on “Ab-Soul’s Outro,” but he still struggled to tell his origin story with the clarity and gravity with which he experienced it.

According to TDE producer Sounwave, the earliest version of good kid, m.A.A.d. city was completed in 2010 then scrapped, a pattern that repeated at least three times by Kendrick’s count. “I wanted to tell that story, but I had to execute it,” Kendrick told Billboard in 2017. “My whole thing is about execution. The songs can be great, the hooks can be great, but if it’s not executed well, then it’s not a great album.” That perfectionist streak, which TDE exec Punch has attributed to TDE working alongside Dr. Dre during the Detox sessions, pushed Kendrick to pack every image and melody with purpose and sentiment.

The focus considerably sharpens his songwriting. His flows glide over, weave through, and pummel these tracks while minding the guardrails of his day-in-the-life concept. Instead of embracing volume like his influences Lil Wayne and Eminem, he commits to density. Fact, fancy, and mouthfeel constantly converge as he raps. There is an almost cartoonish quality to the way the writing warps reality. Animosity grows “as big as a building.” Heads “crawl” into nooses. Banana clips split banana pudding. Alcoholics live their lives inside their bottles. Kendrick’s story of redemption through rap and community keeps his zany poetics from veering into complete abstraction, but the real and the surreal are always intertwined. 

As literary critics and English teachers have praised Kendrick’s storytelling, they’ve tended to ignore his style and musicality, which are as much of the story as his raw dispatches about hood life. None of the autobiography works without the freeform buoyancy of his rapping. Realism informs Kendrick’s writing, but like the many movies that influence it — Boyz N The Hood, Pulp Fiction, Training Day, Children Of The Corn, Poetic Justicegood kid, m.A.A.d. city is never strictly about reality. Kendrick is a dreamer and a parabolist sifting through the fog of trauma and nostalgia in search of clarity and purpose. Although he uses real names and details from his life, and the album artwork comprises creased polaroids from his childhood, the goal is emotional rather than journalistic truth. It doesn’t matter whether he actually held a cul-de-sac hostage or staged a robbery at his job. He just wants to make sense of a world where such episodes really happen. These songs are visions as much as diary pages.

The production is just as dreamlike and heady. Taking cues from the cinematic soundscapes of Dr. Dre and the aquatic blends of the Dungeon Family, Kendrick and the producers load the tracks with layered vocals, supple basslines, and lush strings that enhance the mise-en-scène of Kendrick’s jittery vignettes. Every beat prioritizes fluidity and immersion, complementing Kendrick’s frequent mentions of water. The polished arrangements are as imagistic as Kendrick’s writing: the bass guitar on “Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter” ripples across the drums like moonlight over a lake; the misty keys on “Real” drift over Anna Wise’s harmonies like fog; the hydraulic bounce and “Bird In The Hand” sample of “m.A.A.d. city” immediately portal you to somewhere in South Central, hopefully an address where you’re welcome. Every little detail reclaims Compton as a material place where real people live and die and dream.

Some people even survive, a sentiment evoked by the finale, “Compton.” Breezy non-album single “The Recipe” is a better song, but the celebratory retromodern beat that Just Blaze beat supplies for “Compton” matches the occasion. Kendrick made it out the mad city with his heart still beating. That success would fray into survivor’s guilt and resentment in his subsequent music. “A good kid? Yeah that’s only in my mama’s eyes,” Kendrick raps on Ab-Soul’s These Days… from 2014, already tired with his anointing. That exhaustion with fame and expectations would grow as his stock rose, and become a pillar of his deeply self-conscious music. But in the confines of this bracing and hopeful album, the good kid’s victory is forever sweet.

We rely on reader subscriptions to deliver articles like the one you’re reading. Become a member and help support independent media!

more from The Anniversary

Please disable your adblocker or subscribe to ad-free membership to view this article.

Already a VIP? Sign in.