“Will you let hip hop die on October 22nd?”
This is the question Kendrick Lamar asked at the end of “The Heart Pt. 3”, recorded in a twelve-hour span in Las Vegas as he approached the end of a 34-city tour. The song came out the next day, a final plea to the masses to support his major label debut under Interscope Records. It was a dramatic statement, both then and now, reviving the ‘hip hop is dead’ trope that the previous generation of rappers declared in the mid-2000s. Technically speaking, Kendrick Lamar is part of the generation the statement was targeted towards. Embodying the term served to set him apart from his peers, casting himself as an anomaly devoted to the origins of the art.
But simultaneously, Kendrick piled an anxious weight onto the imminent Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. It was a dually audacious statement, implying not just that hip hop was declining, but that this album was the saviour of the genre (not to mention that he references being seen as Tupac reincarnated, a pressure he goes on to fully explore on Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers). At the point of the song’s release, the album had prematurely leaked on the internet, so some listeners already had impressions made. For those waiting for Monday, expectations would have tripled. Is this album really going to be that good?
In the end, perhaps the question was actually rhetorical. From October 22nd, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City would go on to be immortalised not just in the decade’s best releases, but rap history period. Ten years on in 2022, the album is a beloved classic, earning the right of every superlative under the sun.
At the time of its release, the decade and its trends were just getting started. The Young Money roster were the hottest rappers out, Macklemore was making waves in the charts, and Rihanna was still making music. Hyphy and pop-rap collabs were growing in abundance, with labels still in much control of what the masses were drawn to. Here comes Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, an anti-radio concept album immersed in voicemail skits, tense narratives and a man scarred from his troubling environment. A few weeks ago, Rolling Stone named it the Greatest Concept Album of All Time, and it’s hard to disagree.
Good Kid, M.A.A.D City soaks itself in a thrilling story of Kendrick’s day-to-day in Compton, California, resulting in some of the best songwriting in modern music. Opening track “Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter” tells the tale of a real ex-girlfriend luring him into trouble with her older cousins, a track which induces goosebumps with its direct details and foreboding production. “The Art of Peer Pressure” is an even finer piece of storytelling, which recounts Kendrick joining his friends in hitting licks, implicating himself in crimes so he can gain their approval. It is a reality not just for young Kendrick, but many teenagers worldwide, resulting in a message with infinite shelf life.
“We made a right, then made a left, then made a right,” is just one of endless microscopic details that make Good Kid, M.A.A.D City more than an album—it’s a motion picture, just like the subtitle on the artwork states. It’s that vivid songwriting that makes you literally visualise the events in your mind as the lyrics unfold. Kendrick and his friends evading the police; Sherane’s cousins towering over a defenceless Kendrick; the shootout that leads to Dave’s death; Kendrick’s dad searching for his dominoes—all scenes projecting onto the walls of your mind.
The beauty of that is how every mind will be imagining the lyrics in a different way. No one picture will be the same. One could be seeing a chalk-white suburban house at the corner of a road, another could see a sand-walled property further up the road with no driveway. As we delve into Kendrick’s mind, we also delve into our own, curating his memories around our own. His understanding of the world combines with our own, resulting in an album that can be visualised at every second.
A greater power in play is the effect of the skits. Of course, they are essential in progressing the narrative. However the greatest untold detail is Kendrick’s lack of presence within them. Kendrick doesn’t speak at all during any of the skits, bar from the very end when he tells his mother he’s borrowing the van. Even in this isolated incidence, there is no interaction with anyone else. This allows us to be Kendrick, granting the ability to put ourselves into the scene and live out the memories the same way. Think Dora the Explorer’s post-question pauses, but actually earning a response. It creates a much greater connection with the narrative as a listener, because you don’t feel like you’re being spoken at, but rather spoken to. Yet there’s this constant frog in your throat that prevents your voice from being heard—all leading back to the key consequence of being young, defenceless, and impressionable.
A full decade later, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City remains the poster album for concept records and flawless storytelling, an honour even the iconic To Pimp a Butterfly can’t surpass. Many of us can feel like products of our environment, toying with vices to mould into supposed normality. Good Kid, M.A.A.D City breaks the fourth wall of gangsta gap, removing all glamour to expose its detriments. Verse 3’s opening lines on “m.A.A.d city” summarise the duality that Kendrick’s been living. “If I told you I killed a n***a at sixteen, would you believe me? / Perceive me to be innocent Kendrick you seen in the street / With a basketball and some Now and Laters to eat?” It leaves the listener with much to ponder; whether a part of Kendrick enjoyed the vices of the mad city, and whether he truly was a good kid or not. Only the greatest of rap albums can turn over so many stones and still leave plenty unturned.
Did we let hip hop die on October 22nd? Ten years on to the day, the answer is most certainly a no.