Illustration by Trevor Fraley
I. Good Kid
I heard the news outside a rap show, which seems fitting for this story. February 26, 2012, was the night of the NBA All-Star Game — something I rarely missed, but I missed it on this day to drive several hours north of Columbus, Ohio, to attend an Atmosphere show in Minnesota. There is something special about the NBA All-Star Game. Even though the NBA isn’t nearly as rigid as the NFL or the MLB, the All-Star Game represents a similar type of freedom: players playing for themselves, despite the disapproving gazes that might be watching their every move.
In 2012, Twitter was a different place than it is now, largely because it had yet to be ravaged by the anxieties and frustrations of a polarizing political cycle. It also had yet to have to fight in order to find language for the seemingly endless frustration of racialized violence that was then met with no justice. It isn’t that this wasn’t happening in the United States — rather, that there wasn’t the one notable case that built a unified front of rage and resistance on a large scale.
I mention Twitter to say that I heard the news first because I logged into my infant Twitter account in hopes of finding a summary of the NBA All-Star Game, but instead learned that a black teenager had been murdered in Sanford, Florida. The narrative in that moment was all faint noise with few facts — just occasional clarity cutting through a wall of static. It is almost absurd to say this now, but the news in its early stages seemed frustrating but not particularly singular. It was difficult to parse anything, and Twitter hadn’t yet gotten into its phase where reporters were utilizing it as a vital reporting force — something that became more common more than two years later, during protests in Ferguson after Michael Brown’s death. I started my drive home. Kendrick Lamar’s Section.80 — by that point only a little over six months old — was still in the road-trip rotation.
It is hard to say what stood out about Trayvon Martin’s murder and how it completely shifted the public conversation about black death in America, though I imagine it was the perfect storm of many things. He was young, still a 17-year-old high school student. He was not only unarmed but also returning from the store with candy and a drink to watch the second half of the NBA All-Star Game — not only was he young, but he also set out to do something that felt like a youthful activity. Martin was killed by a man who was not a police officer and not much of an authority figure. George Zimmerman was the coordinator of a neighborhood watch, but he was not authorized to follow or confront anyone he deemed suspicious. Martin was visiting relatives at the time of his murder and not participating in any criminal activity that warranted him being confronted.
Martin’s murder was also ripe for birthing the kinds of conversations we now see take hold in the aftermath of any death of a black person at the hands of someone white or in an assumed position of power: the conversation that revolves around all the possible ways the black person deserved to die. Martin wasn’t the starting point for this, of course, but he was at the center of the modernized discourse, updated by the internet (and Twitter in particular, with its brief character counts and the lack of nuance that sometimes affords). Since Martin was unarmed, young, and still dead, there was a hunger for a logic or reasoning that made his end justified: He was bigger than an average teenager, or he fought back when pursued and attacked by Zimmerman, or he was strong enough to have killed Zimmerman with his bare hands. Pictures surfaced of Martin with gold teeth, grimacing into the camera in his bedroom — photos like that of many teenagers, posted on their Facebook pages to create an image. To be black and watch the news cycle in that moment and the moments that followed felt, to me, like a rigorous dissection of a life that had already been torn from its loved ones. Nothing youthful was sacred, no mistake worthy of surviving.
The central question of Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City has always seemed simple to me: Can a good person become victim to their own circumstances and still survive? It’s a question the album poses to the outside world, but it’s also a question that has echoed through generations, and not just in black communities: in all marginalized communities, but also in poor communities, in communities that have fallen victim to failures due to structural or governmental inequalities. The value of this kind of analysis is that to be confronted with this question, you must understand that no single thing stands on its own. At the core of the person who went to jail for the robbery is, perhaps, a need for survival. At the core of that need for a survival is, perhaps, a neglect that disallowed opportunities for survival through legal means.
Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City was released in October 2012. Trayvon Martin had been dead and buried for nearly eight months, and by October, the national conversation around death and black people was once again shifting. I think now, often, about the time in between Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown’s deaths, and how everything at the end of one was building to what came after another. The aftermath of Brown’s death and Darren Wilson’s not-guilty verdict that followed created effective, fierce, nationwide mobilization and protest — led almost entirely by young people. At the time, it was both thrilling and terrifying — something that seemed like it could sustain for years or careen off an edge at any moment. But what built to that moment was what so many people felt after Martin’s death, the hovering ideas that converged once permission was eventually given by enough anger: This isn’t right and I have to do something about this.
Good Kid M.A.A.D. City was a soundtrack for the in-between of it all, providing a language for this complex anger. But, more important, providing a landscape in which there were flawed black people who had the nerve to live in their flaws, who had the nerve to live saddled with sins, who had the nerve to live, despite. The album is held together by a linear narrative of growing up in Compton, California, complete with skits, characters, and a fleshed-out backdrop drenched in gang violence and police violence and flawed men and unfaithful women.
Here is the first and only thing that has to be made clear: the Good Kid is good, despite the fact that he is not good enough. The Good Kid washes blood off his hands and holds his child while standing in the moonlight. The Good Kid sells what he must to feed an open and hungry mouth, but he buys his grandmother’s groceries. The Good Kid succumbs and survives in equal measure. One of the problems with the ways we chase binaries in our culture is that we demand a hero to be a hero and a villain to be a villain and nothing in between. The Good Kid is both hero and villain, sometimes within the same hour. America loves its narrators but wants them to be reliable or to tie a story in a bow for an audience. What makes Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid narration so fascinating is its malleability. Not just because it tracks the growing up of a sole person throughout multiple anxieties and emotional perspective shifts, but also because it doesn’t commit to a story ending happily as much as it commits to the repercussions that come with chasing a happy ending at all costs. It is hard to build a happy ending for a people — especially any people you might consider your people — when you have an intimate knowledge that nothing is promised to you except death.
What works about the central question singing under the narrative in 2012 still works now. It’s easy to talk about how Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City is an album that commits itself to articulating the fullness of a black life. Removed from the sonic format, the album is a literary text more than a collection of music. It reads like a novel, or a scripted play, with derailments and windows out of the lyrical content that aid in world-building. What rings most true now is that Good Kid is an album about mercy. In the way that a baptism is, ultimately, about mercy. Or the way that someone who is dying may place two hands on the face of a living person who wronged them is, ultimately, about mercy. Black humanity — particularly when it meets a violent end — still exists on a razor’s edge of allowed and unallowed mistakes. What works for me about Good Kid is the idea, when it’s all over, that you might live through your sins. Or you might not live through your sins, but you can be proud of what you carry to the grave.
II. M.A.A.D. City
I have not touched the streets of Compton as Kendrick Lamar Duckworth has touched the streets of Compton, and it is vital to have prophets of their own geography. Lamar was a member of a family with gang ties, but also a straight-A high school student. We do what we must to survive, in any arena where we must survive. All of this is to say that the work of the world-builder is to build a world that could be anywhere, no matter where the world itself is. The way Octavia Butler built a world that felt, to some, imminent and urgently touchable. The work of Lamar wasn’t just to archive Compton, but to do it in a way that kept Compton true to itself while making it also feel like anywhere.
One way to do this is with an intense focus on the self, particularly in a coming-of-age narrative. “Backseat Freestyle” is, at its core, a flashback — Lamar rapping as he might have at 16. As you might have at 16, or how we’ve heard someone rap at 16 and perhaps shook our heads and nodded them in equal measure. “The Art of Peer Pressure” details not just a home invasion, but also the tentativeness of a teenager caught in between what they want to do and what they feel like they must do. “Swimming Pools (Drank)” is about the pressures of a life of regrets, driving adults to drink.
Kendrick Lamar was, at least in several moments on the album, reporting on the existence of life and the consequences of a life that may be sometimes impure. But beyond that, he was relaying experiences that, specific geography aside, could have taken place anywhere. Yes, the landscape of Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City is Compton, but the true landscape is the human interior — the mind and heart of the characters inside of the city, which makes the city secondary to the internal mental and emotional battles themselves. The city isn’t the actual city of living, as much as it is the city of turmoil that rests in between adolescence and adulthood. It is an album of not just one home, but several: It is an album of ghosts, both dead and living—parents leaving frantic and worried voice messages on a machine, asking our protagonist to please, please stay alive just a little bit longer.
A lot of the album works within the imagination because Lamar himself is such a malleable figure. He is a West Coast MC who translates well across coastal lines. In interviews — at least back in 2012 — he was both confident and a bit awkward. A shyness that would suggest he was on the verge of being ready to take over the world, but wasn’t there yet. The distance between Lamar the Good Kid narrator and Lamar the real-life person was so much shorter in that moment that the album felt more relatable. Here, in the flesh, is a young person archiving his life for our consumption, and the young person looks like, talks like, and seems like a young person we might see in a classroom, twirling a pencil while staring at the world outside, trying to make sense of it before it makes sense of him.
We were lucky to get Lamar in this moment — a rapper young enough to have hip-hop ideals tied to the West Coast, but also young enough to have lived through the coastal divide of the mid-1990s and the unifying forces that came after the violence it left in its wake. Idolizing Tupac enough to know that there could be someone who would want you dead, and so you must tell your stories before they do — before you might not be there to tell your stories for yourself and someone else does it for you. Someone who has maybe never touched the edges of your concrete. Someone who might not take care with the characters in your narrative: your dead, your assaulted, your afraid. The city of the interior is the one that must remain unassailable. Everything else is simply geography.
Two weeks after Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City was released, Barack Obama won a second term as president, defeating Mitt Romney in a fashion that was both tense and not — with most of the night feeling like Obama was fully in control. Like almost everyone, I look back now on that election cycle and wonder if we’ll ever see one like it again, particularly due to how it existed in a year of growing frustrations around race, violence, and the dismissal or ignorance around needed stories.
Months later, in the summer of 2013, after Obama had secured his second term, been inaugurated, and settled into a mode of understanding he was never going to have to run again, George Zimmerman was acquitted in the murder of Trayvon Martin. Two days later, as unrest grew across the nation, Obama made the tame but now infamous comment. The one about how, if he had a son, his son would look like Trayvon. What followed was a somewhat confusing outrage. People accusing the president of dividing the country or using his race as a marker of something greater. The reaction — which still echoes today in some circles — was largely confusing because Obama, in context, was simply stating a fact. His son would be a black child. One who would perhaps — if Obama were not president — operate the world with a similar set of growing joys and growing pains as Trayvon Martin did. Trayvon Martin who, it bears saying, is more than just a dead boy. Trayvon Martin who played football and went to space camp and also grimaced in photos while wearing gold teeth the same way I would put up two middle fingers in photos during my teenage years without any thought that my death might be made less because of it. It bears the question: If we cannot be whole people in death, where are we expected to be made whole?
The problem I think people were having with Obama’s statement was that they were having a hard time imagining what he was saying. It seemed to them that he wasn’t saying, “I would have a black son,” but instead, “My son would look like this boy that you think deserved to die, because he wasn’t a good-enough kid.”
In the picture that endures, there is Trayvon Martin’s father, Tracy Martin, in the courtroom crying as the verdict is announced, while Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, stares stone-faced, directly ahead. In a picture from a time before this one, Tracy puts his arm around his living boy and kisses him on the cheek while Trayvon half-smiles and half-frowns, the way any teenage boy might in a photo of his father kissing him on the cheek. In a picture from a time before that one, there is a young Trayvon and Sybrina Fulton in front of a Christmas tree, both of their smiles a mile long — the type that tend to dance along tired faces on a Christmas morning. It is one thing to pull a son into a metaphor, and it is another to have had a living son and then a dead son.
The voicemails woven throughout Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City are from a couple we are to believe are Kendrick’s parents. The one that endures is a skit called “Real,” in which Kendrick’s mother telling him that she loves him. Telling him that the neighbor lady has the answers for how he can accept God into his life. She tells him that she’ll leave the key for him, should he decide to come home. If he makes it through the night alive.
That’s a skit on an album, not real life. I do remember, though, 2012 being a year of inescapable and hovering fear that sat thick in black art and black narratives. How, even when attempting to escape in music, there was a mother afraid that her son might not make it home. How there was then a president imagining a son who might not make it home. How there was a real mother, in a long line of many real mothers, knowing for sure that her son would not make it home.
The essential point of Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City is a song that doesn’t attempt to build the album’s narrative structure. “Don’t Kill My Vibe” is a song in which Kendrick Lamar isn’t concerned with the album’s story, but he is deeply concerned with its message. What endures in this song as a landmark for the nuance needed when assessing a full life is direct. It is a mission statement for the entire album — one that is simple to hear but not often simple to accept, depending on whom we are asking to do the accepting:
“I am a sinner / who’s probably gonna sin again”
Lord, forgive me. Lord, forgive me.