The Narrative Guide to Kendrick Lamar’s ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’
Last year, Kendrick Lamar released his major label debut album good kid, m.A.A.d city and the rap Internet collectively shat their pants.
It wasn’t just scrawny white boys with a passion for snapbacks who found their trousers soaked with excitement, though. Critics who have a limited lexicon heralded it as rap’s return to form, while others lazily labeled it as the West Coast’s Illmatic. It was a record so great that in ten years, if these
critics content farmers are still around, they’ll be compiling listicles celebrating its anniversary.
The other day, while passively hating on the rest of the commuting public for using the same transportation as myself, I found myself listening to Kendrick’s masterpiece. As I listened, I no longer found myself on the coffee machine jockey’s convoy to the coast; instead, I was riding through South Central Los Angeles, tarnished with sympathy for Kendrick’s dad and his Dominos. In between wondering if Kendrick’s father ever satisfied his want to sink ships of over-priced pizza crust into seas of garlic and herb sauce, I wondered if anyone had ever compiled the narrative bastion of GKMC into an easily digestible guide.
If anyone ever has, I’m sorry. This is the Internet and unfortunately, it’s illegal to superglue our interns to laptops to search through every miniscule rap blog for a mention of Kendrick Lamar.
For everyone else, let’s start at the beginning….
But first—TL:DR—the story starts at the end. GKMC’s narrative focuses on K.Dot's transition to Kendrick Lamar as he tries to break free from Compton. The story isn’t completely chronological, as we’re told stories from K.Dot’s perspective, with a few Kendrick tracks peppering the storyline throughout.
The Prelude – Introducing Us To Compton
“Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe [Skit]”
GKMC opens with “Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter.” In terms of narrative, though, this isn’t the beginning. It’s like the opening scene in Annie Hall, except instead of Woody Allen encapsulating all the neurotic aspects of my personality into five minutes, Kendrick sets up the story of him and Sherane. We’ll get back to that later, though.
Instead, the prelude to the story starts right after “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” with Kendrick’s friends picking him up.
“K.Dot, get in the car nigga. C’mon it’s time to roll out. I’ve got a packet of blacks and a beat CD”
In the story, Kendrick is playing the character of K.Dot, his own persona based around his real life experiences growing up in Compton. The majority of the record focuses on K.Dot and his journey toward transforming into Kendrick Lamar. Anyway…because a packet of cigarillos and a beat CD sounds appealing, K.Dot jumps in his friend's Toyota and rides around town.
When I spent my weekday nights clustered inside a steamed up Vauxhall Corsa, I was happy with a scruffily-rolled stick of the devil’s lettuce and a trip to Tesco. But I’m not Kendrick. I’m a white kid from the suburbs where the only danger is coming home too late. Instead, Kendrick starts freestyling with a verse that seemingly represents the mantra of his community ("Backseat Freestyle").
“All my life I want money and power / Respect my mind or die from lead shower.”
Which leads us to…
The Beginning – K.Dot Sets Up The GKMC Narrative
“The Art Of Peer Pressure”
“Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter”
I’m going to put my Media Studies seminar to use and suggest that the narrative of K.Dot's transition to Kendrick truly starts with “The Art of Peer Pressure.” It’s clearly split into two separate songs. The first acts as a leading intro, backed up by Kendrick’s narration—“Everybody sit your bitch ass down and listen to this true motherfuckin’ story told by Kendrick Lamar on Rosecrans”—as they drive down Rosecrans Avenue.
The introduction to the track, with the mention of location, seems to represent a clear start to the story with the composition not sounding dissimilar to that of a film. It’s as if Kendrick is introducing the story of K.Dot.
After the “rolling credits,” the bulk of the track starts. We’re brought right out on to location with K.Dot and his homies as they “roll deep in a White Toyota…on a mission for bad bitches and trouble.” We follow them as they bump through Jeezy’s first album, and hotbox the car like “George Foreman grilling the masses.”
If the title wasn’t enough for you, we’re also introduced to the perpetuation of gangbanging culture through strong friendships. As they speed down the 405 past Westchester, K.Dot takes a huff of a blunt.
He doesn’t normally smoke, but shit, he’s with the homies. And, as we learn, being with the homies in Compton doesn’t just involve sparking a roll-up. Instead, it means rushing people in colors and robbing Nintendos from houses. Gang culture and the lifestyle that it perpetuates throughout the community is probably the most dominant theme across the album.
The track ends with K.Dot’s friends dropping him back at his house because they “know he trying to fuck on Sherane tonight.”
We fast forward here to the end of the album. Sounds confusing, right? But at the end of “Compton,” you can hear Kendrick asking if he can borrow his mother’s van, telling her that he’ll “be back in 15 minutes.” This directly coincides with “Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter,” where we listen to Kendrick’s mother leaving him a voicemail in which she says: “I’m sitting here waiting on my van, you told me you’d be back here in fifteen minutes!”
So, there we are, right back at the beginning of the album, which sits slap bang in the middle of the story. Does that make sense? So, in terms of narrative, we run through from “The Art of Peer Pressure," the skit at the end of “Compton,” and back to “Sherane,” with the skit at the end of "Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe" and "Backseat Freestyle" setting up the events that led to Kendrick getting blunted and taking his mother's car to visit Sherane.
The Middle - Realization of the Dangers of Compton’s Lifestyle
Where “Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter” introduces us to the story of Sherane as Kendrick drives to meet her, “Poetic Justice” seems to act as the simultaneous thought process inside K.Dots’s head. It also makes sense that the two tracks are linked, because at the end of the track, we revisit the instrumental heard in “Sherane.” The skit picks up the story directly after K.Dot pulls up outside her house and is greeted by “two niggas [in] two black hoodies.”
The run-in with the gangbangers kicks off the second half of the story. It’s like the bit in every good gangster story where the protagonist realizes that they need to break out of the death-ridden community they’re living in before it eats them alive. On “Good Kid,” the transition from K.Dot to Kendrick starts to take place.
Kendrick talks about almost being killed the previous day—“I recognize that I’m easy prey / I got ate alive yesterday”—and ponders over the gang color war that’s threatening Compton—“What am I supposed to do / when the topic is red or blue?”
K.Dot’s self-awareness of the situation that he’s finding himself in continues across “M.A.A.D City.” He talks about driving down “Rosecrans,” the cocaine-laced blunt that he smoked in “The Art of Pressure,” and being fired from his job for the robbery that he committed in the same track. We hear Kendrick tell how he saw someone killed at a burger stand. In an old cut, “P&P,” and in GKMC joint “Money Trees,” we know that Kendrick’s uncle was shot outside Louis Burger, so it’s pretty clear he’s talking about his uncle.
The Final Transition from K.Dot to Kendrick Lamar
“Swimming Pools” [Skit]
“Sing About Me / I’m Dying Of Thirst”
This brings us back around to “Money Trees,” a track that appeared earlier in the album. We hear Kendrick reassessing what’s happened so far. He talks about fucking Sherane and going to tell his bros. He’s also assessing the current situation in Compton and reflecting on the immortalization of his uncle after he was shot.
“Everybody gon’ respect the shooter / But the one in front of the gun lives forever”
The track makes me want to walk around the streets with “a heater under my dungarees,” purely because I’m English and to me, it just sounds like I’d be nice and warm. But to K.Dot, he’s trying to get out, and Kendrick is flashing back to the situation at the time.
At the end of the track, K.Dot’s mom calls him again and asks him to bring the car back. His dad has forgotten about the Dominos by now, suggesting that K.Dot has been out of the house for a while, driving around and trying to figure his life out, having just been jumped outside Sherane’s house.
He then meets up with his friends, and despite being brought up around alcohol abuse, he starts to drink to feel better ("Swimming Pools"). In the end, the drink starts to mentally poison Kendrick’s friends, as they plan to get revenge on the dudes that jumped him outside Sherane’s.
“They stomped the homie out over a bitch… I’mma pop a few shots, they gon’ run, they gon’ run opposite ways.”
It all ends pretty badly though, because Dave gets shot.
We’re then treated to perhaps the most enlightened track on the album, “Sing About Me / I’m Dying Of Thirst,” which is told from several perspectives. The first, from Dave’s brother—evidenced by the lyric “You ran outside when you heard my brother cry”—the second, from Keisha’s sister—a girl whom Kendrick referenced on his debut album—and the third, from Kendrick.
Dave wants Kendrick to sing about him and is proud of his passion, but by the end of his verse, he gets shot. He’s nothing more than a product of the dead-end cycle of Compton life. Keisha’s sister doesn’t want Kendrick involved in her life anymore, and she certainly doesn’t want him referencing her family on any more songs.
“And if you have a album date, just make sure I’m not in the song / 'Cause I don’t need the attention to bring enough of that on my own.”
She’s a product of Kendrick Lamar, the rapper, as opposed to K.Dot, the character in the GKMC narrative. The final verse sees Kendrick’s character start to take over as he apologizes, but also reflects on how music is starting to save him from the wrongs of the neighborhood.
“Your brother was a brother to me / And your sister’s situation was the one that pulled me in a direction to speak of something that’s realer than the TV screen….. Her personal life, I was like, 'it need to be told' / Cursing the life of 20 generations after her soul / Exactly what’d happen if I ain’t continued rapping.”
At the end of the track, we’re introduced to K.Dot’s next-door neighbor. She sees one of K.Dot’s friends carrying a gun, probably to avenge Dave’s brothers death—“Is that what I think that is? Why are you young men so angry?—and tries to invigorate K.Dot and his crew in an effort to send them on a new path of enlightenment, away from the sins of Compton.
It’s at this moment that the transition between K.Dot and Kendrick is complete.
On “Real,” Kendrick is completely comfortable with himself. He’s shed the character of K.Dot and the negative connotations of growing up in Compton. He’s real. He’s real. He’s really, really real.
The track ends with K.Dot’s parents calling him up. His mom tells Kendrick how she saw their neighbor offering him advice and mentions that Top Dawg came by to ask him to come to the studio. She tells him to take his music business seriously.
The album concludes with “Compton,” a track clearly told from the viewpoint of a resurrected Kendrick Lamar, free from the constraints of Compton.
“Now everybody serenade the new faith of Kendrick Lamar / This is King Kendrick Lamar.”
Before the track starts, a tape is rewound, which cements the idea that "Compton"—despite being the ending credits of the story—is the start of the narrative. It’s like the bit in Donnie Darko, where the film ends at the beginning, with the sum of its parts contributing to the storyline coming around full circle.
So, in the end, we learn that GKMC is a story told by Kendrick Lamar, with some tracks told through his new-found perspective and some through the perspective of K.Dot, giving reason to tracks like “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe,” which is unrelated to the narrative, and “Money Trees,” which appears at a random point in the storyline. It also gives reason to the non-linear storytelling technique of having a prelude to the album and a return to the skit at the end of "Compton."
Does this make sense? To sum up, the storyline goes…
“Compton” – Kendrick Lamar
“Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe [Skit]” – K.Dot
“Backseat Freestyle” – K.Dot
Introduction of K.Dot/Sherane/Kendrick Narrative
“The Art Of Peer Pressure” – K.Dot
“Compton [Skit]” – K.Dot
“Sherane” – K.Dot
Climax of the Narrative as Kendrick Gets Jumped and Starts to Question Compton
“Poetic Justice” – K.Dot
“Good Kid” – K.Dot
“M.A.A.D City” – K.Dot
“Money Trees [Skit]” – K.Dot
“Swimming Pools” – K.Dot
“Sing About Me / I’m Dying Of Thirst” – K.Dot / Kendrick Lamar
“Real” – Kendrick Lamar
“Compton” – Kendrick Lamar
While “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” and “Money Trees” take place in the present day from the viewpoint of Kendrick Lamar.
Is this right? I’ve spent so long typing this up that my cranium has turned to a mush of membrane. So I’m going to sign out and go listen to good kid, m.A.A.d city again. Cya!
Follow Ryan on Twitter @RyanBassil
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