Compared to the critically acclaimed good kid m.A.A.d city,the response to Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is far more polarizing. It is unapologetically honest - a hard and deeply personal look at where one of hip hop's most prolific artists stands in the current era and political climate. There is palpable tension between what Lamar thinks, who he is viewed as, and what he actually believes.
The album is filled out with fantastic production, a mix of shakey and potent lyrics, and expansive ambition. Not every track sticks its landing. However, it can be argued that is what makes the album so compelling. It's imperfect and flawed, like our album's protagonist. Kendrick Lamar derives much of his power from his flaws.
Though I good go on and on about Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, today we decided to look back at the Compton artist's debut album. Why? good kid m.A.A.d city was the first full introduction many people had to Kendrick. Many of the narrative themes and personal battles presented here planted the seeds we have for the Kendrick we have today. So, let's take a deep dive into the Cali MC's most beloved album.
What is the meaning behind good kid m.A.A.d city?
Kendrick Lamar's debut album, good kid m.A.A.d city, introduced the world to a new breed of emcees who spearheaded the "new West" which promised a G-funk bounce with a prominent splash of consciousness not normally heard from past notable predecessors like Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and others who had put California on the proverbial map in the late '80s and early '90s.
Hailed as a freshman calling card as notable as the Beastie Boys's License to Ill, Led Zeppelin's self-titled release, Biggie's Ready to Die, the Sex Pistols' Nevermind the Bollocks, and the Ramones' self-titled project from 1976, good kid m.A.A.d city is equally as impressive for the narrative throughline as it is for its sonic composition - and was recognized as an instant classic, although it only enjoyed its fourth anniversary this week.
While it would be easy to just sit back and enjoy Lamar's oration over production by the likes of Scoop Deville, DJ Dahi and others, a closer analysis of the lyrics and accompanying skits reveal a narrative and story behind the album which holds up when viewed through a lens reliant solely on plot. Thus, names like K.Dot, Sherane, O-Boog, L Boogs, Yan Yan, and YG Lucky serve as characters with depth and motivations that rival cinematic and literary figures steeped into tradition and reinforces why it was billed as a "short film by Kendrick Lamar" on the album cover.
good kid m.A.A.d city is a coming of age story of "K.Dot" - a youthful teen in Compton battling maturation and gang violence - as he transitions into "Kendrick Lamar," the iteration of the emcee who has come to embody the uplifting voice we know today.
Although the story isn’t completely chronological - and a few "Kendrick" tracks appear which interrupt the aforementioned narrative - there is a definitive cohesiveness to the entire project which Lamar echoed in the press following the October 2012 release.
“This is a dark movie album," Lamar said in 2012. "I wanted to tap into that space where I was at in my teenage years. Everybody knows Kendrick Lamar, but he had to come from a certain place, a certain time, and certain experiences. I’ve been planning this for years. Everything was premeditated. I already knew what I wanted to talk about, what I wanted to convey. I had that album cover for years. I knew I was going to use it and that it was the best description of what I was talking about in the album. It’s a long time coming. Everything we dwelled on is coming to light."
As mentioned, good kid m.A.A.d city isn't packaged in a tidy bow. Lamar has always been forthcoming that it needs to be listened to multiple times to begin to see how all the coded pieces connect and can then be interpreted.
“There are twists and paybacks," Lamar said. "The story is about one day in the life of me and my homeboys. I really didn’t want to make it song-by-song. Each piece, I want to trigger certain points where you make a connection. Almost like a Pulp Fiction feel — you have to listen to it more times to live with it and breathe with it.”
good kid m.A.A.d city has been analyzed so much that it has even warranted a collegiate course that draws parallels between it and literary works from James Joyce, James Baldwin and Gwendolyn Brooks.
Personally, here's how I see it existing in a narrative structure where a good kid gets caught up in the pitfalls of a mad city.
Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter's Daughter
The album begins with the recitation of a prayer by a group of young men, "Lord God, I come to you a sinner, and I humbly repent for my sins." This sets up a religious motif that will recur throughout the album, however, the reference to a higher power seems ironic when the subject matter of the song becomes more apparent.
Like other Hollywood fare, we're introduced to a boy-meets-girl scenario as the "film" opens with K. Dot coveting a girl named "Sherane" who is colloquially referred to as Master Splinter's daughter in the title. I believe this is due to her father's connection to boys/sons wearing colors (how the TMNT wear colored rags on their faces) which donates a definitive gang connotation.
But this is not the beginning of the story. Rather, it serves as the basis for what the K.Dot character covets the most at this time in his life. In a place like Compton where nothing is promised, temporary bliss is something a teenager wants more than long-term stability.
In a later song, "Money Trees," we have the understanding that he and Sherane weren't inexperienced lovers with one another - with K.Dot rapping, "I fucked Sherane and went to tell my bros."
The song ends with the lyrics, "I'm two blocks away, 250 feet, 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." This eludes to a bout of violence that would come later in the story and serves as the crisis brewing between K.Dot and Kendrick Lamar.
Later still, K.Dot pulls up at Sherane's house and his mother tries to call him but instead gets his voicemail. We learn from his mother that K.Dot said he was borrowing her van for just 15 minutes. She warns him not to mess with “them hoodrats,” especially "Sherane."
Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe
"Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe" is the true introduction to the short film narrative - although the song doesn't advance the plot like in a traditional structure where an inciting incident sets the main character off on his journey. Rather, it is told from the perspective of present-day Kendrick Lamar, who isn’t happy with the state of hip-hop music and is particularly dissatisfied with people chasing radio co-signs and being placed in a cliché "box."
However, the song does conclude with a skit element that pushes the story forward: "Ay K.Dot, get in the car, nigga. Come on, we finna roll out. Nigga I got a pack of blacks and a beat CD. Get yo freestyles ready."
This skit is a bridge between this and the next song on the album which seems to show a side of the K.Dot character who feels his burgeoning rap career must reflect cliché hip-hop tropes.
The braggadocios refrain, "Martin had a dream/Kendrick have a dream," establishes the dichotomy between who K.Dot is in this moment, and how he views any major change (becoming Kendrick Lamar) as cataclysmic a shift as a simple man eventually becoming as legendary and spiritual as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
"It’s about me and my homeboys really getting in the backseat and starting our day," Lamar remember. "Sometimes we’ll rap, it takes away from everything else. That’s one of the feelings that the record produces.”
The Art of Peer Pressure
This song serves as a major plot point of sorts for the conceptual album after K. Dot's usual sober demeanor is altered when he and his friends smoke and drink and eventually rob someone they outnumbered and further their criminal exploits by executing a house robbery on a residence they've been staking out for two months.
In turn, K Dot's character reveals his internal struggle with lines like, "Really I'm a sober soul, but I'm with the homies right now," and "Really I'm a peacemaker, but I'm with the homies right now."
“If you looking at the album as a movie, that song is like the action scene—the story of him and his boys after the 'Backseat Freestyle' and what they’re about to do," said TDE President, Terrence "Punch" Henderson.
Despite K.Dot's antics, we still view him as a "good kid" and are relieved that he got away from the approaching police cars.
In the classic three-act structure, "Money Trees" exists in the second act and serves a refresher of the inciting incident and conflict that has already occurred for K.Dot: namely, recapping the robbery and his rendezvous with Sherane. But unlike on other songs that fall into similar hip-hop tropes like "Backseat Freestyle," K.Dot is much more self-aware - after the effects of the alcohol and drugs have worn off - and he has come to realize that like-minded behavior has serious consequences. Specifically, he remembers the death of his uncle at Louis Burger on Rosecrans Avenue in Compton.
This song also contains lyrics, "Everybody gon' respect the shooter, but the one in front of the gun lives forever," which highlights one of the prominent themes of the short film: martyrdom.
This statement is a similar sentiment to civil rights activist, Huey Newton, who once said, "You can kill my body, but you can’t kill my soul. My soul will live forever."
This lyric falls in line with K.Dot's "coming to Jesus" moment at the end of the film as Christians believe that those that have been killed and lived a righteous lifestyle will live forever with God in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Finally, in the outro, we once again hear from K.Dot's mother who says, "Kendrick, just bring my car back man. I called in for another appointment. I figured you weren’t gonna be back here on time anyways."
The song "Poetic Justice" occurs chronologically in tandem with the first song, "Sherane," and we revisit the same instrumental heard in the latter which cements this notion.
From a story standpoint, we begin to understand that the same men who confronted K.Dot in the album's opener, end up jumping him for no other reason then where he grew up. Suddenly, our morally conflicted hero understands how he is not immune to the acts he has perpetrated on others earlier in the day/night.
In the aftermath of the beating, K.Dot references the prior day, "For the record, I recognize that I'm easily prey, I got ate alive yesterday."
This song could be considered a turning point for K.Dot's transition into Kendrick Lamar where he questions how he can make it out alive if he's forced to choose between gang sets ("what am I supposed to do / when the topic is red or blue?”) - with the color imagery also serving to make reference between the growing unrest behind regular Compton residents and law enforcement who have been tasked with protecting those with unaffiliatibn - but who are still viewed as gangbangers.
"m.A.A.d city" finds K.Dot continuing to see the irony in gang life. If he doesn't choose a "set" and engage in illicit activities, he is a man without a country. On the other hand, seeking out refuge in a faction that champions violence makes him even more of a target. Thus, the "suicide" reference illustrates that the only way a person can take their own life in their hands in Compton is by ironically ending it on their own terms.
To cope with the pressures of not only his daily existence, but his newfound problems with the men that accosted him at Sherane's house, K.Dot and his friends engage in a liquid ritual one could call a "baptism by alcohol."
Whether it's the booze or the need to defend his personal reputation, the crew decides on retribution which results in the death of his friend's brother, Dave.
Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst
In the aftermath of Dave's death, K.Dot pontificates on three tragedies that have impacted him - all from the point of view of the victims. The first, Dave, reasons, "I find nothing but trouble in my life" whose sudden and violent demise is cemented when the verse cuts of mid-sentence with a "pop, pop, pop" from gunshots. The second, Keisha's sister accuses Kendrick of exploiting her life lived as a prostitute on his debut project, Section.80. Despite her pleas that her life has purpose and meaning, her voice fades out slowly as an aural compliment to Dave's death which happened suddenly and hers which erodes more like cancer impacting the body. Finally, we hear "Kendrick" for the first time as he questions who he was and what he was trying to achieve as K.Dot.
"'Sing About Me' is definitely a true song," Kendrick confirmed to MTV News. "First verse is speaking from my partner talkin' to me, speakin' on a story of how I was there when his brother passed and I got to watch him take his last breath."
This song - and specifically the latter third - marks a turning point for the K.Dot character when he comes to realize that he must make a change for the better and seek out a higher power. This is reinforced by the late, great poet, Maya Angelou, who tells him, "You need to be baptized, with the spirit of The Lord," and promises "the start of a new life. Your real life."
As the title would suggest, "Real" is K.Dot's realization that everything he thought were tenets of a meaningful lifestyle like "money, power, respect" - which he references as a trifecta both on this song and "Backseat Freestyle" - are fleeting and ultimately juvenile pursuits.
"Real is a reflection of what could have been. That's the start of me recognizing everything I was doing throughout that day, it wasn’t real," Lamar said. "Everybody has their own perception of what a ‘real nigga’ is. Most of the time a real nigga is a street cat or someone putting in some type of work and doing violence. That’s what we thought they was. Someone who’s about that life. But on that record, it was me getting an understanding of what real is."
All that is left for Kendrick Lamar to do is listen to the advice of his mother and father who urge him to make a difference in his community.
"My pops breaking down on that record, it shows the influence he had on my life," he said. "'Real is taking care of your family. Real is responsibility. Real is believing in a high power, believing in God. Real is having morals. Real is carrying yourself in a manner where you’re not influenced by anybody else. You have your own mind, your own outlook on life. You’re not doing what’s just the trend or doing what people want you to do.”
While some have speculated that the bonus track, "Compton," actually exists as the second song in the narrative, I have interpreted the ode to the city as a way in which the story can serve as a continuous loop like Leonard's character experiences in Christopher Nolan's Memento.
In the latter situation, it represents the Sisyphys-esque existence for a youth growing up in Compton who is doomed to repeat past mistakes until they have a similar experience and response as K.Dot.
“That’s the start of my life," Lamar said. "That’s the start of the positivity that I kept in. That’s the exact start. The movie ends after 'Real.' You’ll hear the cassette loading. It ends with 'Real.' The new chapter starts with 'Compton.'"