I Can Feel the Changes

I finally took some time to give a few serious spins to Kendrick Lamar's Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. Bad on me. Really bad on me. Good Kid is not simply one the best hip-hop albums I've ever heard, but one of the most moving pieces of art I've seen/heard in a long, long, long time. I sort of initially bristled at the notion of comparison to Illmatic--my personal favorite ever--but it is exactly the right comparison. Nas was able to do was conjure the chaos of inner city black America in the late '80s and '90s. Now Kendrick Lamar summons it nearly 20 years later (with more focus, by the way) and virtually nothing has changed.

Good Kid chronicles a 17-year-old's effort to visit a romantic interest, and the kind of violence that haunts such a pedestrian effort. This scenario is right out of my young Baltimore city life. I used to love The Wonder Years. But Kevin Arnold didn't have to roll five deep to go see Winnie Cooper. That was the street law when I young man, and it's depressing to hear that it still is today. But it shows how violence warps the most ordinary routine.

Lamar's album is, in part, about the consequences of forgetting that law. But more than that it's also about the people who enforce it. Everyone should listen to "The Art Of Peer Pressure." It is commentary on everything from Chicago to Steubenville. Everyone should listen to "Black Boy Fly." All I can tell you is the feeling behind "Two niggas making it had never sounded logical" mirrors my own feelings as a child.

A word on "bitch." I initially felt that the album was a beautifully produced work of misogyny.  That mostly came from me giving a quick, inattentive listen. Good Kid deserves a lot better. It is that rare rap record that actually abandons triumphalism, invulnerability, and wears the mask. Rappers like to claim to be broadcasters, not endorsers. Except it's usually clear that they think, say, guns are pretty cool. This was that rare rap record where I thought the reflection to endorsement ratio was roughly 20 to one.

This is a great album--one that I wish had been around when I was 13. Non-rap fans should give this a listen. it is some of the best word-smithing, sentence-crafting, and beat production that hip-hop has to offer. And it is how it feels to be a black boy in the mad city.  Hip-hop is obsessed with soldiers. This may be the first great record I've heard by someone obsessed with speaking as a civilian. And there have always been more of us than them.

MORE: Another quick note. Hip-hop has long been obsessed with "confessionals" and showing that gangstas have sensitive sides too. Usually this just comes off as whining. Puffy's "No Way Out" is a classic of Whine-Rap, as is almost everything Kanye West does. Rappers who whine tend to talk about Jesus a lot. 

Of course not all rappers who talk about Jesus are whining. Kendrick Lamar is the MC that every other whine-rapper thinks he is.  Their idea of making sensitive art is to cut a track say "HEY THIS IS ME BEING SENSITIVE. THUGS CRY TO GIRL. AND IT IS WRONG THAT I AM OBSESSED WITH WHITE WOMAN. BUT BLACK GIRLS BE BITCHEZ (DON'T JUDGE ME. JUST SAYIN.)" 

 Whereas Good Kid doesn't talk. It just kinda is. As great art always is.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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