Lord forgive me things I don’t understand. I don’t get Kendrick Lamar. I like to pretend I do. I guess what I don’t understand is my relationship with his music, and what I imagine is his relationship with me as his listener, and, most importantly, his relationship with himself.
Am I the person his music is meant for? Probably not. Though I’m not sure who is— his music has achieved massive critical acclaim and almost as much popular success and is intellectual enough to hold a seminar on yet enough of a crowd-pleaser to grind to in the Terrace taproom. A song like “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” is less of radio-playable jam and more of a personal memoir-manifesto. Wondering about who is listening to the music only pushes me closer to my biggest question: who is speaking it? Someone is talking to me when I listen to his 2012 album good kid m.A.A.d city, and I have struggled, through countless repetitions of the album, and even academic work on it, to identify him.
Listen to the album from start to finish, as if devouring a good novel whole, in one interrupted and undistracted sitting. Wear headphones; close your eyes. Remember: the album is subtitled “a short film.” View it like a movie, as if the answering-machine messages and skits are verité documents out of Kendrick’s life, and realize that all of the voices are characters in a dramatic recreation of his experience growing up in Compton.
Alright. On the penultimate track, “Real,” Lamar casually tosses out the very serious question: “But what love got to do with it when I don’t love myself?” Doing so, he places himself at odds with his own person, and establishes the driving tension of the album. The central figure of good kid m.A.A.d city is a Lamar that is fragmented, contradictory, and of varying times and states of consciousness. With his identity crucially divided into outer and inner selves, and with a narrator encompassing varied distinct persons, it is unclear who exactly is relaying the story of gkmc to the listener. Such uncertainty may confuse readings of the album and undermine the cohesiveness of its text; for though there are many Kendricks in the songs, the ultimate vision of the album is Lamar’s self-communication and discovery of an identity independent of (yet shaped by) his upbringing in Compton.
To critically examine good kid m.A.A.d city, the first step must be to differentiate these narrative voices. Wading through the text and context of the album several Kendrick Lamars may be fished out of the lyrical mire, each with a particular role and place in the body of gkmc. On the most superficial level, there exists Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, the artist behind the album. A level beneath this Lamar lies the objective narrator of the album, Lamar-the-rapper, who shares this level with the guest artists. This Lamar in turn creates the Kendrick of the story, whose actions are described by the lyrics and also recounted in the skits.
Jump into “Backseat Freestyle,” where the rap is performed not by Lamar-the-rapper, but by the Kendrick-within-the-story during a van ride with his friends at his most immature, wishing for a “dick as big as the Eiffel Tower” (in one of the catchiest and illest verses of gkmc) and the usual “getto rap” goods of pussy, weed, money, and fame. I can almost feel Kendrick’s conscience from “Swimming Pools” shaking his head at himself. “Backseat Freestyle” provides a window into the psyche of Kendrick during his easily influenced youth. Spitting the rap to impress his friends during the van ride to Sherane’s house, and conforming entirely to the standards of that community, this immature Kendrick is firmly in contrast with an older Lamar in other tracks who reflects on his adolescent mistakes.
The anchor to all this persona-swapping is the foundational narrator of the first moments of the album, the contemporary Lamar, who is aware of his past and actively seeks to relate his story. He admits he is a sinner— who’s probably gonna sin again— and comes before God for forgiveness. But can he really be forgiven if he’s not even sure who he is? Kendrick wants us to know that this is a true story. He recognizes what he’s done but disassociates himself from his community. This present Lamar’s goal is to explain his troubled adolescence and separate what he views as his childlike innocence from the corrupting influence of his surrounding culture. From his words and music, Lamar aims to tell the untold stories of his youth and explore the forces that shaped him during his youth. Family members, gang members, friends, and lovers (most notably Sherane) all play a role in creating the Lamar that narrates the album.
Narrator-Lamar elucidates the effect of these relationships through the straightforward remarks made in “The Art of Peer Pressure.” First, the rapper Lamar states clearly that this a “true mothafuckin’ story told by Kendrick Lamar on Rosecrans” (a street in Compton) in order to place himself within the cultural context of the city. He claims his membership in the community and asserts the veracity of his “first person” narrative status. Later, though, in the first verse, he steps back out of the music’s flow to assume a perspective not expressed in the narrative line of the rap. This digression, where Lamar claims that “really I’m a peacemaker but I’m with the homies right now,” ruptures the expected conformity to the identity created by his “homies” and places Kendrick at odds with himself. In this sense, his self-description is not only a means of rupture from his forced inclusion in a societal group with which he does not identify, but a way for the listener to more clearly understand how Lamar understands himself. Instances in which Lamar breaks the lyrical continuity of good kid m.A.A.d city to describe himself serve to more profoundly assert his identity, and to challenge the institutional norms to which he is pressured to subscribe. Through the varied voices and layers of narration in gkmc, Kendrick Lamar seeks to resolve the tension between his varied inner selves and his environment.
The dissonance between his outward and inward perceptions of himself is framed most acutely at the album’s midpoint. The song “Poetic Justice” poses a fundamental question: do I know myself better than you do? Am I more than my actions? For Lamar, this is expressed in the query: “If I told you that a flower bloomed in a dark room, would you trust it?” In this verse’s garden, the flower is Kendrick, who sees himself as capable of beautiful growth even in the “dark room” of Compton. A dark room, of course, makes it impossible to see the flower, or know if it’s even there. Can I trust that? Trust an unreliable rapper who can’t even decide if he’s on his own side?
Ultimately, that’s the demand good kid m.A.A.d city makes of us, makes of me. Kendrick asks you to ride shotgun with him on a van ride through the city of his psyche. And while you’re driving, you’ve got to look in the rear view mirror and see yourself, and see what’s speeding away behind you. I look back with him and I can hear what he’s seen—the violence, the drugs, the gangs and poverty and Compton—but I can see myself making a journey as well. When I listen to Kendrick Lamar, even though I really have nothing in common with his life story at all, I still can hear myself reflected. His splintered voices form a chorus singing hallelujah Halle Berry and I’m caught up and I’m dancing and I’m singing along, dying of thirst in a dark room and I know him and I trust him I do. I don’t need to understand what he’s telling me. I just need to know who’s talking to me.