It’s rare that we witness a championed hip hop sensation somehow exceed the lofty expectations bestowed upon him — but that’s exactly what Kendrick Lamar managed to do in 2012.
The Compton phenomenon was already hailed a rap savior by his peers after being ceremoniously passed the “King of L.A.” torch by West Coast legends Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre and The Game — a gesture that brought him to tears. He was on the heels of Section 80, a critically acclaimed project that granted the budding star a cult following, propelling him into the forefront of hip hop’s “new school.” The ink was barely dry on a joint venture deal that linked Lamar’s homegrown label Top Dawg Entertainment to Interscope and Dr. Dre’s Aftermath imprint. The crown was firmly placed on King Kendrick’s head. The only question that remained was, with all eyes now locked on him and his highly-anticipated debut album, would he be able to deliver? Would his reign fizzle out and end in disappointment or could one of the greatest artists of this generation be just getting started?
Good kid m.A.A.d city is less of a conventional hip hop offering, and more of a conceptual short film for your ears, complete with three acts, multiple timelines, and riveting skits that take you straight into the heart of Compton through the eyes of K Dot himself. The album begins with 17-year-old Lamar borrowing his mother’s van to see a girl named Sherane with “nothing but “p**** stuck on my mental” and ends with the spiritual realization that money, power, and respect don’t make him a real man. What happens in-between is an impactful coming-of-age narrative detailing the haunting and violent events that led to his transformation. Houses are ransacked for expensive belongings. Rival gangs brawl in the streets. A gunfight leads to one of Kendrick’s best friends bleeding out on the pavement. The fractured memories of his childhood in Compton resemble more of a warzone than a hometown and Kendrick quickly realizes that strictly being a “good kid” doesn’t save him from the temptations of crime and constant danger that awaits around every corner.
One of Kendrick Lamar’s many revolutionary successes on GKMC is the use of vulnerability in his storytelling. The majority of this project’s audience will never experience the same kind of fear, pain, and hopelessness that is routine for the youth of Compton, but Kendrick wields these emotions in a way that makes listeners understand and empathize with his traumatic tales. He accomplishes this feat by utilizing a variety of different perspectives in his verses, particularly on the timeless track “Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst.”
The 12-minute marathon finds Kendrick spitting from three diverse viewpoints, including his own, all seeking to accomplish the same goal — making it out of the city that raised them alive. The first verse is told through the eyes of Kendrick’s grieving friend whose brother was shot dead the day before. He desires vengeance and although he realizes that his retaliation will only perpetuate the cycle of violence and murder his peers are trapped in, the loyalty to his gang and his brother ultimately win out — resulting in the gunshots that cut his verse hauntingly short. The song then shifts to the perspective of a prostitute, who’s denial of the dangerous nature of her occupation causes her voice to eventually fade away into obscurity. Kendrick continues this emotional outpouring, concluding that these tragic stories are the reason he makes music — to become the voice for the voiceless.
The brilliance of GKMC also lies in its widespread appeal amongst casual and hardcore music fans alike, without compromising its hard-hitting story and overarching message. The project’s second single “Swimming Pools (Drank),” while using its catchy hook and bridge as a guise for a radio-friendly party anthem, actually finds Kendrick reminiscing about the alcoholism that infested his family home when he was younger and the daily mental struggles that accompany a person who finds their “relief in the bottom of the bottle.” “Ya bish” became a viral slang term littered across social media timelines worldwide after its use on the standout cut “Money Trees.” The track is much more than a trending topic, however, as Kendrick spends the song straddling the fence between enlightenment and a path of violence where the result is either killing or being killed. “Everybody gon’ respect the shooter / But the one in front of the gun lives forever.” Kendrick uses these clever devices as a Trojan horse to allow fans outside of his upbringing a chance to connect with his art in some fashion while still giving them a glimpse of his harrowing position.
Kendrick Lamar’s newly-acquired mainstream fame on the shoulders of GKMC revealed Top Dawg Entertainment as one of the most promising record labels in the music industry. From the mysterious mind of Ab-Soul to the groovy gangster Schoolboy Q, the label housed a diverse cast of characters that appealed to all unique tastes of hip hop’s ever-growing audience. Jay Rock even cemented himself as a fan favorite after devouring his placement on “Money Trees” — considered by many to be one of the best verses on the album (and by me, one of the best features of the entire decade). The label has since grown to astronomical proportions, broadening their horizons by signing world-class R&B artists like SZA and SiR, and even garnering comparisons to a modern-day Death Row Records from Snoop Dogg himself. Ever since Top Dawg and the Black Hippy Collective snatched the spotlight in 2012, they’ve refused to give it up, remaining the quintessential record label in the modern rap landscape.
GKMC wasn’t your typical universally celebrated body of work. The project was a gangster rap album without the glorification, with Kendrick instead opting to cover dense, dark subject matter surrounding topics that may leave some listeners uncomfortable. The reception ended up being so overwhelmingly positive that it allowed Kendrick to take major risks on his future projects without sacrificing sales. 2015’s To Pimp A Butterfly was such a stark left turn from anything the superstar had ever attempted before, combining lush jazz instrumentation with quirky funk influences that became unrecognizable to his previous offerings. The album still did massive numbers — moving 363,000 units in the first week and debuting on the pinnacle of the Billboard charts for the first time in his career. The same could be said about 2017’s DAMN, as its genre-jumping tracks and thematic complexities didn’t slow the project down from winning a Pulitzer Prize for Music, the first non-jazz or classical work to earn the accolade. The success of GKMC lifted Kendrick onto a pedestal where he couldn’t be touched, no matter what kind of experimental path he chose to explore.
The lasting impact of a masterpiece like GKMC can’t be measured just by critical reception or album sales — but on the careers it birthed and the conversations it sparked. The project has spent more weeks on the Billboard 200 than any other traditional hip hop album ever, proving that, even more than seven years later, its significance remains immortal. If Section 80 was the impressive introduction, GKMC was the emphatic declaration that proved Kendrick Lamar was here to stay.