Kendrick Lamar Among the Wonks

I wrote a column today for The New York Times riffing off many of our previous conversation around Kendrick Lamar's Good Kid M.A.A.D City. The album is incredible. It is that rare work of art that gets better the more you hear it. I was tweeting last night with commenter David White about how incredulous I was about comparisons between Good Kid and Illmatic. David made a great point: The comparisons are the kind of hyperbole that leave you skeptical, until you actually sit down and listen to the album.

At any rate, what I most appreciate is how Good Kid evokes the wages of living in a world where lethal violence is the norm:

When your life is besieged, the music is therapy, vicarious mastery in a world where you control virtually nothing, least of all the fate of your body. I had a friend in middle school who would play Rakim every morning because he knew there was a good chance that he would be jumped en route to or from school by the various crews that roamed the area. But, in his mind, the mask of rap machismo made him too many for them.

"Good Kid" is narrative told from behind the mask. Fantasies of rage and lust are present, but fear pervades Lamar's world. He pitches himself not as "Compton's Most Wanted" but as "Compton's Human Sacrifice." He loves the city, even as he acknowledges that the city is trying to kill him. "If Pirus and Crips all got along," he says, "They'd probably gun me down by the end of this song...."

I must confess my bias. I grew up in Baltimore during a time when the city was in the thrall of crack and Saturday night specials. I've spent most of my life in neighborhoods suffering their disproportionate share of gun violence. In each of these places it was not simply the deaths that have stood out to me, but the way that death corrupted the most ordinary of rituals. On an average day in middle school, fully a third of my brain was obsessed with personal safety. I feared the block 10 times more than any pop quiz. My favorite show in those days was "The Wonder Years." When Kevin Arnold went to visit his lost-found love Winnie Cooper, he simply hopped on his bike. In Baltimore, calling upon our Winnie Coopers meant gathering an entire crew. There was safety in numbers. Alone, we were targets.
The point I tried to make in the column was that people who don't listen to rap, but regularly work on gun violence issues, should really give this album several listens. And I don't think the profanity is a real excuse not to. The album deserves to be engaged. Hip-hop expresses the id of young boys. I'm not really convinced that that id is any more horrifying than the rest of our mass entertainment. That is not a defense of misogyny. I think everybody sins. But somehow, black people always seem to sin worse.