17 years old Kendrick Lamar depicts the life of an African-American teenager in the suburbs of Compton, California, riding in the minivan of her momma (Paula Oliver). GKMC or good kid, m.A.A.d city is the first major label album by Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar released on October 22, 2012 regarded by many with critics alike as an icon in modern rap. This autobiographical montage revolves around the conditions and influence under which he grew up, touching on the themes of peer influence, substance abuse, long systematic discrimination and more.
The story is of a teenage Kendrick’s normal day around the street of Compton with his friends. It is divided (here) into 4 main acts describing the narrative arc of the album. The album is an introspective one backed by a storyline. That is, GKMC is a ‘concept album’. As per Wikipedia,
A concept album is an album whose tracks hold a larger purpose or meaning collectively than they do individually. This is typically achieved through a single central narrative or theme, which can be instrumental, compositional, or lyrical.
Kendrick breaks down the meaning behind the cryptic title of album in an interview by LA Leakers in 2012 saying there are 2 meanings for m.A.A.d — ‘My Angry Adolescence Divided’ and ‘My Angel’s on Angel Dust’. The thoughts and perception of an adolescent is a major theme thorough out the album. My angel’s in the second meaning refers to his peers and the people in his neighbor he spends time with (that we are all born pure), while ‘Angel dust’ is a common name for phencyclidine (PCP) (Originally drugs).
Let us now, break the tracks down one after another.
Act 1: The Setup
The first three songs on the album introduces the listener to the characters and setting of the story. A true story.
Track 1: Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter
The very first lines of the album starts with the sinner’s prayer, setting the tone for the album. (context provided later in the album)
In terms of narrative, it is a flash forward into the middle of the story. Kendrick drives his mother’s car to hookup with Sherane at her home, whom he met at a party a few months back. He had known about the gang-banging history of her family. Master Splinter (fictional character from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle comics) in the name of the song probably refers to Sherane’s ‘hoodrat’ status (slang common amongst the American black neighborhoods). He was about 2 blocks away from her home when she waved her seeing him coming. He smiles right before noting that there were 2 guys with her wearing black hoodies (probably her brothers). His phone rings right at the moment and the track cuts to an outro. A cliff-hanger, as though a cinematic sequence.
Kendrick is frozen at this moment and cannot answer his phone and the message goes into his voice mail. It is the first of many telephone skits throughout the album. Teenage Kendrick is out with their family van and does not answer the phone a number of times due to the problem he is going to get into as the album progresses. His mother wants to get to an appointment for food stamps to feed her family.
Telephone skits gives the rawness of the setting and the build up for next track in the album plus providing context to the album as whole in a greater sense than individual tracks.
Track 2: Bi*ch, Don’t Kill My Vibe
The songs actually shifts narrative temporarily. This track can be thought of as the opening credits, a montage of images that foreshadow his future as the credits roll. Present day Kendrick expresses the condition of hip-hop, talking mainly about the ill acts of rappers in the current rap game.
With all disrespect, let me say this
Die in a pitiful vain, tell me a watch and a chain
Is way more believable, give me a feasible gain
Rather a seasonal name
‘Watch’ and ‘chain’ are symbols of riches in hip-hop and ‘seasonal name’ refers to a short term vision. Teachings artists to create a long term impact with their music and about the stereotypical materialistic mentality amongst the rappers and ‘successful’ people in general.
Look inside of my soul and you can find gold and maybe get rich
Look inside of your soul and you can find out it never exist
He has a golden (pure) soul and segregates himself from others. These lines are also a reference to Plato’s Myth of Metals wherein the soul of rulers are of gold. The Outro is again a skit where his peers comes to pick him up with some CD instrumentals and it continues in the next track with a freestyle in a car backseat.
Track 3: Backseat Freestyle
Starting the real narrative of the album, 17 years old Kendrick raps about the beliefs and attitude of young and corrupts of the m.A.A.d city. He and his friends are driving in a Toyota around the city of Compton, looking for trouble. The lyrics are absolutely non-sensical and immature. Cleverly using persona of a teen, Kendrick vividly paints the picture of the youth attitude in the setting, irony put to its best use. Definitely amongst the most creative tracks on the album.
Martin had a dream
This line definitely refers to Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’. Immediately going next to rap about money, power and ego; in stark contrast with MLK Jr. It is equally important to pay attention to Kendrick’s voice as the album progresses. Here is the egoistic and immature voice of his where you can sense ignorance (which transforms as the album progresses). Kendrick cleverly addresses a whole lot of things wrong with the youth in gang culture and in an extended view. In a sense, it is already addressing the peer influence that is extensively discussed in the next track.
Act 2: Conflicts
Having laid the scenes and characters, we’re introduced to the conflicts and problems of the character in the story.
Track 4: The Art of Peer Pressure
The song continues the story, Kendrick and his friends in the Toyota and riding round the city. They rob a house in the neighborhood that they’ve been scouting for about 2 months. They could barely escape the robbery as someone saw them and reported.
Although, the whole album narrative is primary based around the idea of peer pressure, this track specifically highlights it with Kendrick brilliantly describing their actions and intentions, advancing the narrative, also complementing them with lines of deep introspection. Artistically, this track is an example of his elite story-telling ability. With every line, the listener can see clear story unfolding itself conveying the attitude of the characters and mood of the environment. He talks about gang-culture, bullying, mob mentality etc. A rare subject for the genre.
Smokin’ on the finest dope,
Drank until I can’t no mo’,
Really I’m a sober soul
But I’m with the homies right now
I never was a gangbanger, I mean
I never was stranger to the fonk(folk) neither, I really doubt it
Rush a n**ga quick and then we laugh about it
That’s ironic, ’cause I’ve never been violent
Until I’m with the homies
rushing- here means beating up
Towards the end of the track, they’ve been trying to rob a house. Despite camping for 2 months, there was someone in the house who saw them while robbing. They quickly ran away, got in the car and escaped. Lucky night!
We made a right, then made a left, then made a right
Then made a left, we was just circlin’ life
Car chase scene after the robbery, metaphorically depict the lack of direction in their lives.
In the outro skit, they plan to drop off Kendrick back to his house and meet back around midnight after Kendrick returns from visit at Sherane’s house (linking to track 1).
Track 5: Money Trees ft. Jay Rock
The next two songs does not actually advance the story any further but recaps it so far, presumably while he drives to Sherane’s home. Money Trees essentially symbolizes their ambitions and dreams of getting rich, getting shaded under the money trees. Living a low income getto (suburban) life, black-on-black violence, ‘by any means’ mentality etc. are some themes of the song.
Back to reality, we poor, ya bish
Another casualty at war, ya bish
Two bullets in my Uncle Tony head
He said one day I’ll be on tour, ya bish
That Louis Burgers never be the same
Reality snaps back on verse 2. These lines dictate the harsh reality they lived in. The war referred here is the gang fights in the m.A.A.d city. Kendrick lost his uncle (Tony), a supportive figure, at the Louis Burgers in gang violence. This leads to one of my favorite lines from the entire album:
Everybody gon’ respect the shooter
But the one in front of the gun lives forever
First, paying respects to the dead. The one who pulls the trigger is always feared but Kendrick says that the victim is the one who will always be remembered. Interestingly enough, there is another instance of this on Track 10 — Sing about me, I’m dying of thirst and by telling their stories on the album, Kendrick actually immortalizes the dead.
Jay Rock features on the last verse of the song, who does an excellent work of summarizing their lives and thoughts. Raw, reckless, arrogant, aspiring and ignorant. Young kids trying to achieve something substantial, something real while around in such harsh environment and influence.
Bit*hes sellin’ pu**y, ni**as sellin’ drugs
But it’s all good
Broken promises, steal your watch
And tell you what time it is
The first two lines always reminds me of movie Moonlight, of a vicious cycle, of systematic oppression. Head to the genius.com community page to read further on this amazing Jay Rock feature.
Track 6: Poetic Justice ft. Drake
As Kendrick approaches Sherane’s house, he starts lusting about her. This is an appreciation song for her, expressing his love and in turn metaphorically compares her with hip hop and his love for the culture. Poetic Justice actually means a virtue is ultimately rewarded or vice punished with an ironic twist of fate of the character (basically Karma). Interestingly, there is also a movie with the same title starring Tupac Shakur one of Kendrick’s idol and a hip-hop legend.
Although Kendrick never misses on clever wordplays and tricks with his lyrics but this track no less than a ‘lyrical miracle’! An exceptional piece of literature. For instance,
Makin’ sure my punctuation curve, every letter here’s true
Livin’ my life in the margin and that metaphor was proof
The 4 literary mechanisms here punctuation, letter, margin, metaphor-all describes traits of Kendrick (explained here https://genius.com/1148769) also the words margin and proof refers to Fermant’s Last Theorem whose proof was too large to fit in the margin. Cheers, Professor Lamar!
If I told you that a flower bloomed in a dark room
Would you trust it?
Essentially, if one has to condense the whole narrative arc of the album to one sentence, this would be it. Flowers do not bloom in dark. Kendrick is the flower that bloomed (good kid) in a dark room (m.A.A.d city). So many clever lines in the song, literally a poem. Another one,
But I could never right my wrongs
‘Less I write it down for real
The outro skit resumes the story back at the end of first track where two guys with black hoodies with Sherane sees Kendrick and starts interrogating him.
Act 3: The pivot
This part of the album, the narrative arc reaches its peak where Kendrick comes to terms with the conflicts and events lead to develop the character from teenage K Dot to a rather mature Kendrick Lamar.
Track 7: good kid
The next two tracks are basically the album title split. Comprehends what it is like being a good kid in a maad city. Notably, the track has no explicit language, a good kid indeed! He finally confesses to himself about the harsh reality. He feels like he is trapped by himself. Three verses on the song touches three different subjects.
Look inside these walls and you see I’m havin’ withdrawals
Of a prisoner on his way
The first verse is about his experiences in the City of Gangsters without gang affiliation. Red or blue in the verse refers to the two dominant gangs of the city — Crips and Bloods. He is always assumed to be affiliated with the other gang and almost always harassed by the gang members being under the protection of none.
The second verse has a composition similar to the first one except it deals with the police brutality. Cleverly using the same red — blue motif to indicate the police siren in this verse, Kendrick mainly talks about racial profiling and mistreatment of the police. Especially in the city of Compton, being a person of color, no matter the age, the police will treat you as a gangbanger. The police just refuses to listen to him and looks right through the efforts of him trying to be a good kid.
And you ask: “Lift up your shirt,” because you wonder if a tattoo
Of affiliation can make it a pleasure to put me through
Gang files, but that don’t matter because the matter is racial profile
Verse 3 is about the only escape one can find in this environment of gang violence and police brutality — drugs. Those are the grow-up candy they’ve always known.
All I see in this room: 20’s, Xannies and these ‘shrooms
Grown-up candy for pain, can we live in a sane
Society? It’s entirely stressful upon my brain
Track 8: m.A.A.d city ft. MC Eiht
Brace yourself for the hardest track on the album, for the beat will straighten your spine. This song further expands on the themes of the previous track, with a much louder and hysterical tone. The song paints the most vivid picture of the deadly environment they lived in. The mood of this track is the peak of noise and madness in the city. Besides the mentions of all the chaos and violence of street life, Kendrick uses clever alliterations striking the listeners like bullets for an immersive experience.
The first verse features the high tone voice of a desperate Kendrick on the verge of a breakdown, rapping about some fatal occurring’s of his lifetime. A near death experience when he smoked a laced blunt, shooting that killed his uncle and the conditions they lived in — sleeping with a gun, a doctor on speed dial.
A wall of bullets comin’ from AK’s, AR’s, “Ayy, y’all — duck!”
That’s what Momma said when we was eatin’ that free lunch
Aw man, goddamn, all hell broke loose
You killed my cousin back in ’94, f*ck yo’ truce!
There is a beat-switch in the song and the 2nd half of it is just the perfect m.A.A.d city, with the 90’s Westcoast gangster rap aesthetic which features the OG rapper from the 80's — 90's era from Compton, MC Eiht continuing about the culture he grew up in. To borrow the specific words from a YouTube comment, MC Eiht’s verse on the track is so frosty, a popsicle would apologies to melt. A particularly interesting line on the song by Kendrick is
Kendrick a.k.a. “Compton’s Human Sacrifice”
Comparing with the crucifixion of Christ, the city of Compton sacrificed Kendrick and he will bring a change with his music. In the outro, one of his friends hands him a bottle of alcohol so as to ‘ease’ his pain after he got jumped by the two guys at Sherane’s house leading us to the
Track 9: Swimming Pools (Drank)
The song presses on the issue of alcoholism and social pressure, peer pressure being a recurrent theme of the album. The track is quite deceiving actually. At first, it sounds like a club anthem but a careful listen will highlight the underlying meaning of the song.
Some people like the way it feels
Some people wanna kill their sorrows
Some people wanna fit in with the popular, that was my problem
The lines are self-explanatory. The song is very captivating with great chorus and high replay value — making it perfect for album single.
All I have in life is my new appetite for failure
And I got hunger pain that grow insane
Tell me, do that sound familiar?
If it do, then you’re like me
Makin’ excuse that your relief
Is in the bottom of the bottle and the greenest indo leaf
These lines denote escapism. How people around him and he himself are used to drown themselves by drinking and get used to failure.
Skit at the end of the song is the actual pivot of the album narrative. Him and his homies went out to get a revenge from the two guys that interrogated Kendrick. The plan was to fire a few warning shots and jump them when they started running. On their encounter, one of Kendrick’s friends — Dave gets shot and dies on the spot. This is the ultimate turning point in the narrative.
Act 4: The Resurrection
The character finds resolution in this act as the album reaches the climax and concludes.
Track 10: Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst
The 12 minutes long track, divided into two parts, marks the beginning of the climax of album narrative — the emotional core of the album. After witnessing the tragedy of someone so close, Kendrick finally breaks down.
Part 1: Sing About Me
The first part of the track has 3 verses, each of the first two verses reflecting on two of the real incidents that caused him to pull himself out of the gang culture. Also paying a tribute to the victims of the system and immortalizing the defeated — recall the one in front of the gun lives forever from Money trees (track #4)
In the first verse, Dave’s brother talks to Kendrick about the death of Dave, ultimately facing the consequences of gang affiliations. A part of Dave’s brother realizes that being affiliated with these gangs starts a vicious cycle of death but he was too involved to back down now. This scene is very similar to the movie Boyz N the Hood — one that Kendrick seemed to have been inspired from. He says, Kendrick is fortunate to be not (so) involved into this and has a dream of his own. He goes on to avenge Dave’s death and requests Kendrick to tell the story [through his songs] when he becomes big. The verse ends abruptly with gunshots signifying how Dave’s brother is consumed by the system (possibly his death too) and the beat continues as if signifying life goes on.
Just promise me you’ll tell this story when you make it big
And if I die before your album drop, I hope — [Gunshots]
Second verse is from a POV of a young girl complaining to Kendrick — about him using her sister’s story in one of her songs [“Keisha’s Song” from Kendrick Lamar’s 2011 Album, Section. 80]. Keisha’s Song is a tragic story of a young prostitute who as raped and killed. She calls out Kendrick saying how can he judge her for her past? She herself has to do the same to survive. Listening to her voice, it is evident that she has accepted her fate and reality of the situation. Exclaiming out of rage and despair — the only emotions left in her, she warns Kendrick to not show fake sympathy neither for her nor her sister and make dollars of the story. Her voice eventually fading away at the end signifying she too was consumed by the system.
And I’m exhausted, but f*ck that “Sorry for your loss” shit
My sister died in vain, but what point are you tryna gain
If you can’t fit the pumps I walk in?
Third verse is Kendrick reminiscing his life and possible future, reflecting to these events and answering them. Kendrick wants to be the representative of these politically and culturally voiceless.
And your sister’s situation was the one that pulled me
In a direction to speak on somethin’
That’s realer than the TV screen
By any means, wasn’t tryin’ to offend or come between
Her personal life, I was like “It need to be told”
Cursin’ the life of twenty generations after her soul
Part 2: I’m Dying Of Thirst
He repeats the phrase ‘dyin’ of thirst’ a number of times implying its intensity as well as it’s various meanings. One is thirst for revenge and other is thirst for holy water. Emotional vocals in the background and deep instrumentals.
Tired of runnin’, tired of huntin’
My own kind, but retirin’ nothin’
Stressing on the idea of black-on-black violence and the vicious never-stopping spiral of deaths.
This part of the song is a continuation of the skit at the end of previous track when Dave died in the shooting. The others turned desperate for a revenge and are about to leave. Dave’s brother snaps and he’s tired of this cycle of death and retaliation as an old lady from neighborhood saw guns in their hands and stops them to talk, voiced by non-other than Maya Angelou herself. This also is another subtle tribute and homage to his idol Tupac Shakur, for Maya Angelou had a very similar influence and encounter with him too on the set of movie (you guessed it right!) — Poetic Justice.
She recites and they follow along, the ‘Sinner’s Prayer’ — which is first heard when the album starts. This marks the spiritual rebirth of Kendrick Lamar, his emergence from the dark times of his life, faith in a higher positive power as well as his allegiance into hip hop.
Kendrick, in an interview revealed that this track took well over a whole year to complete from ideation to completion while he worked on the whole album in parallel. Definitely a masterpiece in storytelling, a personal favorite off the album.
Track 11: Real ft. Anna Wise
This song is the celebration of one’s real self. This introspective and rather philosophical track extends on the question on what really matters? Specially addressing the underprivileged population of where he comes from have very wrong perception of wrongs and rights and often do not get a chance to learn any better.
The reason why I know you very well
Cause we have the same eyes, can’t you tell?
… I should hate everything I do love?
He attempts to provide the right answers for the conflicts throughout the narrative, stressing and questioning the pursuit of material, putting faith in higher power, believing in a positive and hopeful future and loving yourself. Kendrick says that he knows and sympathizes with their love for such materials and then proceeds to ask if he should hate everything he loves?
The final skit at the end from his father (Kenny Duckworth) and mother (Paula Duckworth) is a worthy listen on the album too. It provides with the final resolution to what is Real? and concludes the album.
Track 12: Compton ft. Dr. Dre
That’s it! Credits are rolling as we hear the celebration of the city where Kendrick grows up. He is signed to a record label and he starts his career as a rapper. The perfect way to end the album indeed with Dr. Dre himself — a west coast legend.
Now for anyone who knows Kendrick and the fact that he was signed to Aftermath label before GKMC, could have anticipated a Dr. Dre feature on the album. The song has actually an interesting history as it was Kendrick’s first ever work with his idol and inspiration Dr. Dre, which they made the first time they met.
This coming of age story of Kendrick Lamar is an uncompromised piece of artistry. It has intricately crafted layers of street poetry packed with very clever cultural references, impressive rhyming schemes and meticulous wordplays. It was met with immediate fame and critical acclaim. Breaking numerous other records, GKMC is now the longest charting hip-hop studio album in Billboard 200 history, spending more that 450 weeks (more than 8.5 years!) on the charts. It launched Kendrick into the world of international stardom.
With such quality of introspection and subject matter, the audience expected him to sustain the kind of music he made but we could have not guessed what was coming next. GKMC acts as a preface and what seems like a complete story within itself is continued by the character in the album that follows. Kendrick drops the hip hop classic ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ in 2015 that picks up the story where good kid, m.A.A.d. city left off.
Caterpillar is the prisoner of the streets that conceived it. It consumes everything around it and protects itself from the m.A.A.d city. Butterfly is the talent, beauty and thoughtfulness within the caterpillar. With appealing themes such as self-love, hate, race, politics, fame, capitalism etc., this is the legend of transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly, that is dense, complex, mournful and chaotic — an artistic masterpiece.
An Additional read
Kendrick himself is accredited as the art director for the album. This fact reflects well upon examining the additional media that comes along with the album: music videos, cover art etc. The cover art itself sets the mood for the album. It is a family polaroid where we see no-one’s eyes except for Kendrick. His uncle holds a liquor bottle with one hand and throws a gang sign with another while an infant Kendrick dangles off his knees trying to make sense of the world around him. The handwritings on the cover art are actually of Schoolboy Q, a fellow TDE artist and not his own.
Kendrick in an interview stated he had the title of the album as well as the cover planned for a long time. He had the concept in his mind years before he actually started writing it. Kendrick says ‘It[cover] is really just like a self portrait. I feel like I needed to make this album to move on with my life. It was a venting process to tell these stories I never told..’
Thank you so much for reading thus far. This album was the first one I actually listened to between the lines and it has since then opened many doors for music in general for me to listen to and explore. Hope you liked the article. Furthermore, you can refer to the sources of this article to take an ever deeper dive into this album.