Album of the decade: Kendrick Lamar’s ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’
Like ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X,’ the 2012 opus overflows with black rage, fear of abandonment, and a sobering understanding of death and rebirth
True, Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 opus good kid, m.A.A.d city is the longest charting hip-hop studio album in history. Yes, it was the 13-time Grammy winner’s major label debut. But good kid is the album of the decade because it is The Autobiography of Malcolm X for our time, overflowing with black rage, hopelessness, fear of abandonment, and a sobering understanding (and sometimes reckless disregard) of death and rebirth.
Like Malcolm X’s autobiography, good kid, m.A.A.d city chronicles the life of a young black man, organized by fear and motivated to survive. Feelings of powerlessness lead to ambitious and aggressive decisions. Both fought to gain control over situations that threatened their sense of self and their lives.
And as with Malcolm X, a name change is an important signifier. “I learned, when I look in the mirror and tell my story, that I should be myself and not peep whatever everybody is doing … If I’m gonna tell a real story, I’m gonna start with my name,” Lamar, who had previously performed as K-Dot, told Vulture on the eve of the album’s release.
good kid’s cover art shows baby Kendrick sitting on a family member’s lap. The album itself begins with a teenage Lamar chasing after a girl named Sherane and ends with him witnessing the death of a friend and undergoing a spiritual awakening. He rockets through a galaxy of themes: love, lust, loyalty, fear, anger, divinity, spirituality, toxic masculinity, gang politics, gun violence, racial profiling, teenage innocence, police brutality, survivor’s remorse, hope, self-awareness and mortality.
Massive critical and commercial acclaim followed. “Swimming Pools (Drank),” “Poetic Justice” featuring Drake, and “B—- Don’t Kill My Vibe” (which later featured a remix with Jay-Z) were all hit singles. The album’s arrival and immediate impact was the West Coast’s biggest moment since The Game’s The Documentary in 2005, and was instantly recognized as a game-changer, with outlets calling it everything from a “shot at history” to “probably the year’s most significant hip-hop release.” And while it didn’t go No. 1 upon release — the album dropped the same week as Taylor Swift’s Red — every Lamar-headlined project in its wake would. With iTunes transforming the music industry into a singles-driven space in 2012, Lamar’s good kid was not only a shift from the norm that demanded to be heard in its entirety, some argued it saved the album format.
Still, there is plenty of competition for the mythical title of album of the decade. Beyoncé’s Lemonade or her 2013 industry-shifting, self-titled album, Rihanna’s ANTI, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange or Blonde, Adele’s 21, Solange’s A Seat at the Table, Freddie Gibbs and Madlib’s Bandana, Anderson .Paak’s Malibu, Jay-Z’s 4:44, David Bowie’s Blackstar, Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music, Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy, Noname’s Room 25, Jamie xx’s In Colour, Tame Impala’s Lonerism, SZA’s Ctrl, D’Angelo and The Vanguard’s Black Messiah, Travis Scott’s Astroworld, Miguel’s Kaleidoscope Dream, Vince Staples’ Summertime ’06, Waka Flocka’s Flockaveli, and a host of others, have stated their cases.
While good kid’s importance is widely recognized, its place in end-of-the-decade rankings varies widely. Rolling Stone puts it at No. 66! Vice settled at No. 28. Pitchfork gave it No. 18, claiming every autobiographical rap album in its wake “walks in part in its footsteps.” XXL didn’t rank its top 50 projects but noted good kid was “about as instant a classic as you can get.” Billboard ranked it as the decade’s 15th best project and NME and the Associated Press bestowed it No. 5 honors.
For many, including Lamar himself, his third album, 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, takes precedence. It boasts what many believe is the most important song of the decade in “Alright.” Esquire and Independent both made this testament to the anger and isolation black America felt in the wake of the deaths of people such as Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Mike Brown, Eric Garner and Jordan Davis, as their top album of the decade. Lamar himself told Billboard in 2016 that good kid was great work, but not his best. “To Pimp a Butterfly is great,” he said. And that he would’ve been upset by 2014’s notorious zero-for-seven Grammy’s snub “if I knew that was my best work, if I had nothing new to offer.”
The truth is multidimensional. Starting with 2011’s Section.80 and most recently with 2018’s Black Panther soundtrack, for which he served as executive producer, Lamar delivered a catalog of albums over the last 10 years that makes him one of music’s most important figures. His Pulitzer Prize for 2017’s DAMN. made him the first non-classical or jazz artist to earn the prestigious distinction. Every project he’s put his name on in this decade has shifted the culture.
So does Butterfly or even DAMN. check off more of the best-of-the-decade criteria than its predecessor?
“good kid, m.A.A.d city definitely set the table [for Kendrick’s decade]. And I’m a jazz guy so I’m always going to ride for To Pimp a Butterfly,” said Marcus Moore whose biography, The Butterfly Effect: How Kendrick Lamar Ignited the Soul of Black America, is aiming for a 2020 release. “But without [good kid], there’s no way he could have made To Pimp a Butterfly or DAMN.”
In the end, what separates good kid from its competition, both by other artists and by Lamar himself, is its connection to one of the most important autobiographies ever written. Malcolm X’s and Lamar’s lives are not exact parallels, in the vein that no two lives who walk the world rarely are. Malcolm X’s father, Earl Little, was a fiery minister and Black Nationalist supporter of Marcus Garvey. Little was found dead on trolley tracks in 1931 and his family long believed the white supremacist organization, the Black Legion, was responsible for his death. His mother, Louise, suffered a breakdown following her husband’s death and in 1939 was committed to a state hospital, where she remained for 26 years.
By contrast, Lamar’s parents, both of whom are featured on good kid, are vital figures in his life story. They sought to both teach their son about street life in Compton, California, and also protect him from it. “They wanted to keep me innocent,” he told Rolling Stone. “I love them for that.”
Lamar read Malcolm X’s autobiography as a teenager, and in a 2017 interview with Vice, he spoke of the late civil rights icon in a near religious manner.
“His ideas rooted my approach to music,” Lamar said. “That was the first idea that inspired how I was going to approach my music. From the simple idea of wanting to better myself by being in this mindstate, [the] same way Malcolm was.”
X bounced around Michigan, Boston and Harlem before his incarceration. Lamar and turn-of-the-century Compton were joined at the hip, as evidenced by the bevy of local landmarks he name-drops: the intersection of El Segundo Boulevard and Central Avenue, Alameda Street, Gonzales Park, Lueders Park, Bullis Street, Food 4 Less and Church’s Chicken. Growing up in poverty for Lamar, and moving from the streets to foster homes for Malcolm X, meant resources were scarce. Hopelessness and helplessness were inevitable realities. Whether it was the Midwest and Northeast before the civil rights movement or Compton after the L.A. riots, both were conditioned to being repeatedly degraded for merely existing. The trauma was constant, as were the coping mechanisms.
“I had gotten to the point where I was walking on my own coffin,” Malcolm X wrote, reflecting on his hustling days when he was known on the street as Detroit Red. “Drugs helped push the thought [of getting caught] to the back of my mind. They were the center of my life.” “For the record, I recognize that I’m easily prey/ I got ate alive yesterday,” Lamar wrote on the title track “Good Kid.” “I got animosity building, it’s probably big as a building/ Me jumping off of the roof is me just playing it safe.”
Malcolm X and Lamar both understood that the way society is set up, success was never meant for them. Two flawed protagonists in their own stories, they felt backed into corners and responded with desperation and anger. Malcolm X talked of cocaine making decisions for him, constantly carrying a gun and fantasizing about committing violence on a black cop who loathed him.
By high school, when good kid takes place, Lamar was already running with a crowd that committed home invasions and eluded the police. They got him drunk, after being beat up by local gangbangers, and high, after breaking and entering (“flocking”). “Cocaine laced in marijuana/ And they wonder why I rarely smoke now,” he recounts on “m.A.A.d city.” “Imagine if your first blunt had you foaming at the mouth.” Like Malcolm X before his conversion to the Nation of Islam, death stayed just out of arm’s reach for Lamar. His mom would find bloody hospital gowns of friends who got shot at their house — or Lamar would cry in the front yard after surviving a shooting.
good kid’s “The Art of Peer Pressure” shares a demonic soul with Malcolm X’s recounting of his days in Boston. Malcolm X wrote about feeling unrecognizable as Detroit Red. Yet, there he was, running the streets of Boston with his best friend, Shorty.
In “Peer Pressure,” Lamar and his friends L-Boog, Yan Yan and YG Lucky had just finished playing basketball. Now they were chain-smoking blunts in a Toyota, hollering at girls and pressing guys they saw wearing the wrong gang-affiliated covers. Red and blue had, from a ‘hood politics perspective and the police, become colors that signaled colors long representing factions counterintuitive to Kendrick’s survival. “I never was a gangbanger, I mean/ I was never stranger to the fonk neither,” Lamar raps. The group of teenagers commit a home robbery only barely escape police. Lamar knows he barely escaped. The song’s most important bar, though, is “One day it’s gon’ burn you out, but I’m with the homies right now.” In that moment, breaking the law doesn’t matter. Nor does the possibility of getting killed by gangbangers.
Both men know there is no long-term play in this lifestyle. But young black men also know they need companionship to stand toe-to-toe with depression. They share an unspoken pledge that says, “We may not survive, and this world may not care about us or our pain, but at least we’re in it together.” All that mattered was the camaraderie.
“The really interesting thing is how K-Dot and Detroit Red [wrestle] with black rage. Rage about feelings of nothingness in their present or future. Rage about feeling their lives are meaningless. And having to fight to matter and fight to survive,” said Justin S. Hopkins, a clinical psychologist in Washington. “They both turn to drugs to deal with this unbearable pain. And muster a sense of agency and control over what feels impossible. By so doing, [both] cope with constant fear and annihilation.”
Both good kid and The Autobiography of Malcolm X highlight experiences with pain. And how exhausting it is when one feels that pain doesn’t seem to matter to society at large. “Am I worth it? Did I put enough work in?” Lamar asks on “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.” The record is an epic multidimensional confessional that finds him rapping from the perspective a slain friend’s brother (who eventually gets murdered himself), the sister of a young woman condemning Lamar for telling her sister’s story through song (she, too, dies after years of working the streets as a prostitute) and finally himself dealing with the burden of survivor’s remorse. You learn not to care about yourself when the world doesn’t.
Turning points define both works and the lives they chronicle. For Malcolm X, it took being sentenced to 10 years in prison before a spiritual awakening set the course of his life on a completely different trajectory. By the time he reemerged into society in 1952, Detroit Red was long dead, and the world would soon come to know, loathe, love and fear Malcolm X, who would help propel America into a decade of racial reckoning.
Growing up, Lamar, had seen a “light skin n—- with his brains blown out,” as he noted on “m.A.A.d city,” and his Uncle Tony was shot twice in the head outside of Louis Burgers in Compton, which he depicted on “Money Trees.” The true pain of which could never be resolved any sort of monetary success or commercial acceptance. But watching his friend Dave die after a shootout with guys who had jumped Lamar earlier in the day set in motion his own reality check. While he is walking around in a haze of anger and grief and carrying a gun, a neighbor, voiced by none other than Maya Angelou, persuaded him and his surviving friends to let God into their lives and leads them in reciting the Sinner’s Prayer. The conversation is poignantly similar to one she had with Tupac Shakur on the set of Poetic Justice 20 years earlier. “Now everybody serenade the new faith of Kendrick Lamar/ This is King Kendrick Lamar,” he booms on the album’s victory lap, the appropriately titled “Compton” featuring Dr. Dre.
Many people never arrive at that point. Lamar and Malcolm X survived multiple life-threatening experiences. Tuition at the school of life’s various experiences and journeys had been charged in anything but money. They grew to accept that vulnerability and their spirituality and newfound faith was a means of survival. That they were more than the pain and trauma they lived with.
“Both of them go to the depths of their trauma and learn how to acknowledge the deep sense of loss and vulnerability that they feel,” said Hopkins. “They start building a foundation for their own self-worth despite all the things that were attacking it all along. It’s a beautiful and triumphant story.”
Their stories spoke of resilience, acceptance and bravery from the perspectives of young black men who had seen hell and found some peace before they got to heaven. Even if, in Malcolm X’s case, he was — as he predicted in the final pages of his book — assassinated before he could hold a copy of his life’s journey in his own hands. The results resonated deeply in the generations they spoke for. For Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who first read The Autobiography of Malcolm X in 1968, the book became gospel for him.
“His story couldn’t have been more different than mine — street hustler and pimp who goes to prison, converts to Islam, emerges as an enlightened political leader — but I felt as if every insult he suffered and every insight he discovered were mine,” the NBA’s all-time leading scorer wrote in his 2017 memoir Coach Wooden and Me. “He put into words what was in my heart; he clearly articulated what I had only vaguely expressed.”
Four-time NBA All Star and Compton native DeMar DeRozan expresses the same sentiments when discussing the impact of good kid, m.A.A.d city. “A lot of people who come from a lot of trials and tribulations can’t vocalize the traumas they’ve been through,” he said. “Listening to that album, it’s therapeutic. You’re hearing things you went through. Things you seen, things you may feel but you don’t know how to express in words. But Kendrick did.”
“He promoted it from the perspective of a kid trying to get out, but involved,” said Travonne Edwards who shared mutual high school friends with Lamar. (Edwards attended Dominguez High School and Lamar attended Centennial High.) He now works in elementary education in Phoenix while also covering the NBA for The Athletic. “These were like things that I dealt with. It was like the Spider-Man meme. Every person in [Compton] is trying to make something of themselves, but they have obstacles, just like everyone else.” He added, “I’m going to be real with you, dude. If I would have went to Centennial, I probably wouldn’t be alive.”
Malcolm X’s life story was one of transition. From Malcolm Little to Detroit Red to “Satan” (as fellow inmates dubbed him when he’d curse God and the Bible) to Malcolm X to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. And though his ideology and the targets of his rhetoric changed over the last 13 years of his life, Malcolm X had come to know who he was. He was a black man his family could be proud of, who articulated a philosophy of how the black man should act and what he should demand of America. In the final chapter of his autobiography, titled 1965, he said, “I have given … so much of whatever time I have because I feel, and I hope, that if I honestly and fully tell my life’s account, read objectively it might prove to be a testimony of some social value.”
Lamar, now 32, engaged and the father of a baby girl, is nearly a lifetime removed from the 17-year-old who lived, bled and cried the story that eventually became good kid, m.A.A.d city — it, too, a testimony of social value. And near the end of good kid, it’s Kendrick’s mother, Paula Duckworth, who delivers the underlying message behind the album on “Real,” and one Malcolm’s legacy would carry longer than his physical ever would. “Come back a man. Tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton. Let them know you was just like them, but you still rose from that dark place of violence, becoming a positive person,” she said. “But when you do make it, give back with your words of encouragement, and that’s the best way to give back.”
Unlike Malcolm X, Lamar is far less outwardly fierce — away from a microphone, at least. He rarely conducts interviews and therefore the evolution of his philosophy must be read through his art. At the root of both To Pimp a Butterfly and DAMN. was the value of black existence — the hope, the despair, the odiousness, the fury, the pride and everything in between. And both albums build from the process of self-enlightenment introduced on its 2012 sibling.
“good kid, m.A.A.d city represents that first level of self-awareness where you’re just starting to reparent yourself, revisit your inner child and have that first access point of self-discovery and self-awareness,” said wellness advocate and author Devi Brown, who has interviewed the Grammy-winning MC multiple times throughout his career. Malcolm and Kendrick represent, in her words, the archetype of a platform that converted pain, confusion and violence beyond their emotional and moral jurisdictions. Yet, both used that not only for radical change in themselves, but what they shared with the world. “You realize how much you have to unlearn. How much of life is dictated by things out of your control.”
“[Kendrick] puts his life in his music. Everything. The good, the bad and the questionable. That’s why it resonates with so many people, because he’s giving listeners something positive to aspire to. Yet, he doesn’t shy away from the negativity that almost took him under,” said Moore, the biographer. “Malcolm earned that trust by speaking truth to power, and by doing so in searing fashion. Though he masks certain things in poetic fashion, Kendrick’s work is remarkably honest and hits the same way. No matter when you play it.”
Lamar’s death is not required for good kid to be the modern-day version of The Autobiography. The album, like the book, is an evolving piece of art. Birthed in the same struggle for purpose and cultivated through a series of environmental roadblocks and self-induced insecurities. Both produce different experiences as they age, but more so as we age. Certain lessons are only unlocked through putting one foot in front of the other.
Like Malcolm X, only the mistakes have been Kendrick’s. Thankfully he’s still here to tell his story.