On the fifth anniversary of Kendrick Lamar’s ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city,’ California athletes reflect on the epic ‘Sing About Me’
DeMar DeRozan, Chiney Ogwumike and Arron Afflalo remain emotional about Lamar’s most powerful song
I used to be jealous of Arron Afflalo / He was the one to follow.
— Kendrick Lamar, from 2012’s “Black Boy Fly”
Now in his second stint with the Orlando Magic, shooting guard Arron Afflalo, recently of the Sacramento Kings, was one of the key pieces in a 2012 offseason blockbuster: then-superstar center Dwight Howard’s trade to the Los Angeles Lakers. Five years ago, Affalo’s name wasn’t only ringing off in the city internationally known as the home of Walt Disney World — it was also popping off in his hometown of Compton, California.
On Oct. 22, 2012, Afflalo’s fellow Compton native, Kendrick Lamar, had released his much-anticipated second album, good kid, m.A.A.d city (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope). Among big hits songs like “B— Don’t Kill My Vibe,” and “Poetic Justice” (featuring Drake), “Black Boy Fly” was a bonus record — an homage to hometown heroes whose talents survived the streets of South Central Los Angeles: He was the only leader foreseeing brighter tomorrows / He would live in the gym / We was living in sorrow. Lamar rapped these lyrics, remembering the days when Afflalo was the star of their Centennial High School basketball squad: Total envy of him, he made his dream become a reality/ Actually making it possible to swim/ His way up outta Compton/ With further to accomplish.
Caption: Fan-made video of Kendrick Lamar’s “Black Boy Fly.”
Lamar and Afflalo knew of each other, even if they didn’t run in the same crews. Aside from being a star athlete, Afflalo was the school’s biggest supplier of music. “If you heard [50 Cent’s] ‘In Da Club’ coming from a car stereo in Compton in 2003,” he told The Players Tribune, “there’s a really good chance that CD was burned by Arron Afflalo.” Business was so booming that teachers and students alike flooded him with requests ranging from Marvin Gaye to The Hot Boys. One student in particular made an appeal for Jay-Z’s 1996 debut Reasonable Doubt. That classmate was Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, who would eventually become a seven-time Grammy winner with 22 nominations.
Good kid, m.A.A.d city, five years old this week, is of course a modern hip-hop classic, one of the true cultural linchpins of the 2010s. The project is a product of a teenage Lamar’s fascination with The Autobiography of Malcolm X as well as his own experiences on Los Angeles’ Rosecrans Avenue, the Louis Burgers where his Uncle Tony was murdered, Gonzales Park, and street corners where gang members served as gatekeepers. It’s a gospel of a Compton life — stories that don’t make it to CNN, and rarely ever leave the neighborhoods. The album reflects growing up in Compton “one thousand percent,” said Toronto Raptors All-Star guard and Compton native DeMar DeRozan. “It takes you back to exact moments of growing up in there. Everything was the norm. Growing up, that’s just what we knew.”
The album’s standout track is an epic bit of storytelling called “Sing About Me. I’m Dying of Thirst.” The song was produced in 2011 by the three-time Grammy-nominated Gabriel “Like” Stevenson of the Los Angeles-based hip-hop trio Pac Div while on Mac Miller’s Blue Slide Park tour. “He hit me back in a couple hours like, this is crazy,” Like recalled Kendrick’s text message after hearing his beat. “I’m writing to it right now in a room with lit candles. I’m like, word, that’s tight,” he said, laughing.
An appropriate setting given the haunting chorus: When the lights shut off and it’s my turn to settle down/ My main concern/ Promise that you will sing about me/ Promise that you will sing about me. The overall narrative of the song is all too familiar to Lamar, Afflalo and DeRozan. The three verses emerge from three different perspectives. The rage inflicted on black bodies unite them. The tales of gun violence, societal ignorance of women’s pain, and survivor’s remorse are common in the United States and around the world.
“[Kendrick and I] grew up in the same environment,” Afflalo says. “I didn’t really get a sense of nobody else seeing big things in their life the way I did. It’s fulfilling to know there was another young kid, at the same school, that had the same types of dreams. If not bigger.” Those dreams, though, were cultivated through nightmares.
Dumb n—-s like me never prosper/ Prognosis of a problem child, I’m proud and well-devoted/ This Piru s— been in me forever/ So forever I’ma push it wherever, whenever/ And I love you ’cause you love my brother like you did/ Just promise me you’ll tell this story when you make it big/ And if I die before your album drop, I hope… **gunshots**
— Kendrick Lamar, from 2012’s “Sing About Me”
“‘[Sing About Me]’ is the song version of an epic movie,” said Chiney Ogwumike, a rising ESPN broadcaster and forward on the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun. The 2014 No. 1 overall pick and Rookie of the Year is a native of suburban Houston. She was a star sophomore at Stanford University — 200 miles north of Compton — when good kid, m.A.A.d city dropped five Octobers ago.
And she’s right. In many ways, good kid, m.A.A.d city is a remix of Tre Styles’ (Cuba Gooding Jr.) viewpoint in 1991’s landmark Boyz N The Hood—a young black male who grew up in the ‘hood and witnessed its daily joys, pains and fears from the frontline. It’s a comparison Lamar embraced on the song’s second half “Dying of Thirst.” Whereas YG’s 2014’s seminal debut My Krazy Life pinpoints the revolving door of gangbanging and street life seen through Doughboy (Ice Cube).
“The whole purpose … is to describe that lost child that you don’t hear about,” said Ogwumike, focusing on the song’s first verse. Featuring a conversation between Lamar and “a friend” (voiced also by Lamar), following the murder of the friend’s brother, the moment recalls the legendary Either they don’t know Tre and Doughboy conversation following Ricky’s death in Boyz. Twenty years year, Lamar’s friend reasons in the song, America still didn’t know didn’t show or didn’t care what happened in his ‘hood and to his brother.
“It’s crazy, because you never notice it until you’re on the outside, when you’re able to look back at it,”said DeRozan. “I went to a Crip high school [Compton High]. I grew up in a Crip neighborhood. I talk just like him. I walk just like him. I do this just like him. It’s instilled in you, and you follow those rules in a sense of what comes with it. It’s crazy. A lot of people don’t make it out.”
“But now,” Ogwumike said, “you do hear about this child. Now … because of these protests.”
DeRozan said a lot of people should just sit down and dissect “Sing About Me.” “They should understand what he’s talking about. This is an everyday thing! It’s still going on all over the world. There’s all types of inner cities.”
The verse is deeper than rap. It’s what Keisha Ross of the Missouri Psychological Association describes as historical trauma. Life in the ghetto is traumatizing. I’m fortunate you believe in a dream, Kendrick raps from the perspective of his slain friend. This orphanage we call a ghetto is quite a routine. Anger, hatred and aggression, she said, are both self-inflicted and inflicted on members of one’s own group. “A lot of people know Kendrick Lamar for who I am today,” he said in 2013. “[But] for me to think the way I do, I had to come from a dark space.”
“I think of people I grew up with, that love basketball and love music in my community,” said Ogwumike. “It’s unfortunate because I feel like not a lot of people understand this day-to-day. A lot of hoopers come from certain situations where they are — or they know people that have been — affected by violence. It’s ingrained within sports culture. It’s a humbling reminder that you have to play every possession with a purpose. You gotta live your life with a purpose overall because you want people to sing about you when you’re gone.”
This is the life of another girl damaged by the system / These foster homes, I run away and never do miss ’em / See, my hormones just run away and if I can get ’em / Back to where they used to be, then I’ll probably be in the denim / Or a family gene that show women how to be woman / Or better yet, a leader, you need her to learn something / Then you probably need to beat her.
— Kendrick Lamar, from 2012’s “Sing About Me”
If the first verse is an example of the suddenness of the loss of black life as it relates to men, the second leans into the harrowing experience of how black women are expunged from society. While it’s tempting to think of it as a 2017 version of Tupac Shakur’s 1991 “Brenda’s Got a Baby.” the verse is actually a continuation of the cautionary tale “Keisha’s Song (Her Pain)” found on Lamar’s “final warm-up,” 2011’s Section.80. In it, Keisha is a prostitute who is raped and murdered. In “Sing About Me,” her sister (voiced by Lamar) responds, furious that Lamar would use her life for gain. This, too, is based on real life.
“I met her … and she went at me about her sister, Keisha,” Lamar told MTV days after the album’s release, “basically saying she didn’t want her … business out there and if your album do come out, don’t mention me, don’t sing about me.” Keisha’s sister falls down the same path. How could you ever just put her on blast and s—?/ Judging her past and s—?, he raps, Well, it’s completely my future / Her n—a behind me right now asking for a– and s— / And I’ma need that $40 / Even if I gotta f—, suck and swallow.
She doesn’t die in a hail of gunfire. And with beings such as Shaniya Davis, Sandra Bland and the 276 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram as tragic contemporaries, Keisha’s sister, her voice, her pain and the resentment for the only society she knows just fades away. Almost as if she was never here.
“When you have a man who uses his platform to show how women are independent, but then also face even more adversity than their brothers — it’s everything,” Ogwumike said with a sigh. “That was superpowerful to me, about how she’s trying to make a way for herself in any way possible. But that way may end up being her demise. It needs to be told. It needs to be destigmatized.”
And you’re right, your brother was a brother to me / And your sister’s situation was the one that pulled me / In a direction to speak on something / That’s realer than the TV screen / By any means, wasn’t trying to offend or come between/ Her personal life, I was like ‘It need to be told’/ Cursing the life of 20 generations after her soul/ Exactly what would happen if I ain’t continue rappin’/ Or steady being distracted by money, drugs and four-fives …
Kendrick Lamar and DeMar DeRozan are friends. They’re both from Compton. Their high schools are separated by three miles. What links the two creatives isn’t recognizable off the rip — both suffer from survivor’s remorse.
For Lamar, stories of those who never escaped Compton are spirits tattooed on his soul as his career continues to ascend, as his all-time great portfolio has fans including former president Barack Obama, Beyoncé, Compton’s own Serena Williams, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Dave Chappelle. These tattooed spirits will never see the birth of the “new Compton” led by Mayor Aja Brown. Why did they have to die while I live? How could God let this happen … Did they suffer?
For DeRozan, a three-time All-Star and 2016 Olympic gold medalist, success does little to erase the pain of the past. In many ways, it only intensifies. “It’s something I deal with,” he said. “I lost a lot of friends that was with me when I was younger, but I took a different route … Then you get a phone call hearing something happened. You start to say, ‘Damn, if I just would’ve took them with me, or if they would’ve stayed with me, this wouldn’t have happened.’ ”
good kid, m.A.A.d city, a half-decade later, is a form of counseling for DeRozan. It’s way deeper than words over beats. It’s his life on what has become the metaphorical wax. But perhaps more than any lyric from the song, its final lines resonate more than anything as he prepares to enter his ninth season in Toronto — 2,500 miles from the place he first called home: Compton.
Am I worth it, Kendrick ponders. Did I put enough work in?
“That’s everything,” DeMar said. “You get to a point where you start questioning yourself sometimes. People don’t feel my pain, and my passion that I’m putting into it. But in the midst of questioning yourself, you find a new inspiration to keep pushing, and be even greater to get that point across.”
He pauses for a second. “I take that approach in everything that I do.”