Oh my my. If only you knew the struggle I endured to try and pick the best Kendrick Lamar song of the past decade. I’ve been considering it even prior to the conception of this blog series, and since then I’ve bounced between the politically volatile ‘The Blacker the Berry’, the artful storytelling of either ‘The Art of Peer Pressure’ or ‘Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst’, the hook-laden depth of ‘Good Kid’, or purely fun tracks such as ‘Wesley’s Theory’ or ‘Backseat Freestyle.’ As of writing this, I’m still not certain that there’s any such thing as a right decision, so I’m just gonna roll with my gut as usual.
Aaand ‘m.A.A.d city’ it is!
The track focuses in on the violence of gang life, specifically Piru Bloods and Compton Crips (two rival west coast gangs) – at one point comparing every front porch in his hood to a middle eastern war zone. It commences with a series of threatening verses, “Fuck who you know—where you from, my n****? / Where your grandma stay, huh, my n****?”, and works its way into a real story from Lamar’s childhood where he witnessed someone get killed, even going so far as to bleep out the names of the people involved. Lamar has been quoted about that specific passage saying, “I’m bleeping out a name. These stories are serious and in-depth, I’m not going to go out here and really, really slander and put my real ones out there that have been in some real situations. Those close to me know what I’m talking about.” There are numerous references that I’m hardly qualified to elaborate upon (and thus will not foolishly attempt to extrapolate personal meaning from), but I’ll say this: Kendrick is the real deal. Growing up in the world of violence and eventually triumphing to tell his story, I don’t think there’s a soul who can question his authenticity, legitimacy, or reputation. It’s something that even an outsider to that kind of lifestyle can respect.
The song’s biggest hook comes about 2:30 in, upping the ante with a tempo change accompanied by urgent strings that add flair to an already fiery piece. MC Eiht’s guest verses are a perfect fit both flow and theme-wise, and from there it’s off to the races. Few moments in music – regardless of genre – get my adrenaline flowing like the second half of ‘m.A.A.d city’. One of the most crucial lines in the song comes when Lamar half-admittedly raps, “If I told you I killed a n**** at sixteen, would you believe me? / Or see me to be innocent Kendrick you seen in the street with a basketball.” It’s a commentary on how people see him as the good kid who emerged from essentially a war scene, but how they still don’t know the full extent of his past and what he had to do to make it out alive.
‘m.A.A.d city’ packs the intricate storytelling, addicting song craft, and frightening reality of Lamar’s music into a six minute opus. Other songs might go into more depth or have catchier hooks, but none of them represent the complete package like this second of two title tracks on good kid, m.A.A.d city. It’s proof that hip-hop can be both relevant in the mainstream and entirely true to its roots, and it’s accomplished with a kind of fervor that only the greatest rapper of the last ten years could pull off.