Inside Kendrick Lamar's Unreleased Classic, "Cartoons & Cereal"

Every diehard fan knows "Cartoons & Cereal," but how much do you really know about Kendrick Lamar's classic?
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Sometimes I forget that "Cartoon & Cereal" exists, but every time I remember the record it feels like Christmas morning.

Last Tuesday was Christmas.

As you know, Kendrick recently dropped his video for "Alright," which is only six minutes long but is better made and more dense than the new season of True Detective. From the cinematography to the symbology, there is just so much to chew on. Still, what stood out the most to me isn't even a part of ”Alright” the song. Everyone is seemingly obsessed with that little unreleased snippet in the beginning (aka "The Frontseat Freestyle") but I’m too busy freaking the fuck out about "Cartoon & Cereal" making a cameo to care.

"Cartoon & Cereal" has always been Kendrick's cult classic. It’s not on any project, it doesn’t have a video and seems to get overlooked by the general population in favor of album material, but it's one of the most important songs in Kendrick's discography. Among those who really know K. Dot, the diehard TDE fans, "Cartoon and Cereal" is a classic, the quintessential Kendrick song. All the reasons we love K.Dot are on display. The song is rich with themes - that dichotomy Kendrick loves between good and evil, between innocence and violence, drives it - the construction and progression is so unique, and on top of everything else, it just fucking knocks. That might be the most important part. I mean seriously, everytime I listen to this song I get chills. Even Gunplay is on another level. This is one of those songs that makes you stop whatever you are doing and listen. From start to finish it’s absolutely gripping. Dare I say it’s Kendrick's magnum opus.

When I heard "Cartoon & Cereal" on "Alright," it floored me. It was like finding a lost puppy and then discovering it was actually Jhene Aiko's lost puppy and I returned it and she was very grateful I returned it. Hearing it in the midst of “Alright” was an affirmation of its amazingness. It legitimized a song which had always felt like a track that was relegated to lurking in the shadows. It also made me realize something...I really don’t know that much about this enigmatic, mysterious cut. So I sharpened my internet research skills and got to work. 

Why Wasn't "Cartoon & Cereal" on GKMC?

Just about the only thing I knew about "Cartoon & Cereal" (other than having memorized Gunplay’s entire verse) was that it was supposed to be the opening track on GKMC but got pulled because it leaked. No, wait, maybe it was sampling issues. No, I'm pretty sure it was because it leaked, and a quick look into Kendrick's Twitter history confirmed my theory. 

But more research only made things more confusing. If it leaked, then why did Punch tell Complex this?

“[It didn’t make the album because of] basic sample issues. It’s simple as that. If we were to try and re-do the sample, it would take away the original feeling of it. We didn’t want to risk it. That’s just one of those records. That’s one of those b-sides that’s going to be around and ain’t really attached to nothing. If it wasn’t for [the sample issue], it would’ve been on there.”

While he’s definitely right about "C&C" always going to be around, evidenced by me writing this three years later, I had to raise an eyebrow at the sample clearance explanation. I guess they aren't mutually exclusive, a song can leak and also not be cleared, but it just seems strange. And then, when I stumbled across an interview from Kendrick’s 2012 Club Paradise Tour, Kendrick seemed to suggest it was actually a planned release. Is he talking the track up, putting that rapper spin on it, or did TDE actually officially release it? There's no evidence of that, it's not on iTunes, any of TDE's YouTube or social media channels, etc. I couldn’t find the answer but the mystery only adds to the intrigue.

Kendrick Wanted to Do a Video

In that interview Kendrick also mentions plans to do a video shoot for "Cartoon & Cereal." I have to assume it just never happened, that video above is an unofficial fan version, but he seemed pretty certain of it. So is there an unreleased "Cartoon & Cereal" video sitting in a vault somewhere? In all likelihood this is just a rapper blowing smoke, trying to get us excited, but there is part of me that wonders...what if?

Nobody Expected Gunplay (even Gunplay didn’t expect Gunplay)

The more I learn about Kendrick and his work through investigations and interviews the more I realize that the man truly has a vision, flashes of brilliance. He’ll hear something, whether it be Josef Liemberg’s growling voice or a random Knxwledge beat at a photo shoot and almost immediately, he knows not only that he wants to use it, but knows exactly where it needs to go. (See also, his sudden creation of the "Frontseat Freestyle" for the "Alright" video.) Gunplay’s inclusion on "Cartoon & Cereal" is just another example of it. 

"That was my idea [to put Gunplay on the song]. People thought I was crazy for it. I just know his flow and his cadence is crazy and his consonants is crazy. [I knew] he’d do it justice and that he did. He’s definitely crazy man."

From that, the tweet and his reaction, even Gunplay sounded surprised that Kendrick asked him. I expect a lot of people were doubting a Gunplay feature. It'd be a strange call even now, but remember, this was 2012, when Gunplay was barely even know as anything but "that skinny guy in Rick Ross' not-very-good group." Putting that guy on your supremely-anticipated album is borderline insane, yet now I can’t imagine another rapper on this. This is one of the only times someone gives Kendrick a run for his money. Everyone wants to debate Jay Rock vs. Kendrick on “Money Trees,” but “Cartoon & Cereal” is much more compelling. Gunplay’s desperation, the anger and pain in his voice, the almost shockingly complex lyricism, it all fits the vibe. And he didn't just get Gunplay for the verse, he sampled a line from that verse as the hook, which we hear repeatedly well before we even hear that verse, one of the more unique song structures I can think of. For Kendrick to think outside the box, grab someone like Gunplay and have it work so well proves he sees things other don‘t.

Speaking of Kendrick as a Visionary

In that same Complex interview where Punch talks about the sample clearance issues and Mr. Duckworth praises Gunplay, Kendrick added this.

"I got something else for that, a different space for that [to go]. We’re going to find something crazy for that one. We had [an issue with sample clearances] but I don’t want to let that record die."

Now again, this could very well just be a rapper blowing smoke and hyping his own shit to make it seem much more thought out and complex than it really is, but what if maybe, just maybe, Kendrick has been planning something like this for years. What if three years ago he knew he would use “Cartoon & Cereal” again on a future project, that he'd been waiting for the right opportunity all this time? We know he loves to splice in unreleased material and old songs, and this is just another example. It also makes me wonder (because I’m super greedy and never satisfied) if there's even more to this story that we don't know. 

Why Now Then? Why “Cartoon & Cereal”? Why Alright?

After I got over my initial rap nerd orgasm - "HOLY SHIT 'CARTOON & CEREAL!'" - my mind went to why? Why now? Kendrick’s not one to do things haphazardly. There’s always a reason. These two songs had to be linked in someway. But how could an ominous song which oozes desperation, despair and hostility fit the arc of a song that is so triumphant? Just look at this bar:

"Not to worry, every warrior will come and see euphoria / And that's a covenant I put on every tribe"

As Kendrick explains, in a world (and song) where darkness and hopelessness choke the life out of you, music can serve as a beacon of hope. He promises everyone that he will be that beacon of hope, a deliverer of that “euphoria.” It’s a task he really takes to heart. Just listen to him break this bar down for RapGenius. That line and Kendrick's explanation fit right along with the whole idea of “Alright.” Even in the most dire circumstances, with the sound of gunshots drowning out the sound of cartoons, there is still room for hope. Even in a world where blacks are systematically oppressed, Kendrick wants to tell his people everything will be alright. Most artists on Kendrick’s level want to shy away from taking a strong stance, to not upset the system that keeps them fed, but Kendrick’s mission is to be a leader. It's been his goal since 2012, likely before, and now he's finally in a position to make it happen.

That’s why he included “Cartoon & Cereal” on "Alright." Because it's a song that shows how far he's come, a song that displays his life's story and his life's work, a song that will go down as a classic, even if no one acknowledges it outside of Kendrick Lamar fans. 

[Lucas Garrison is a writer for DJBooth.net. His favorite album is “College Dropout,” but you can also tweet him your favorite Migos songs at @LucasDJBooth.]

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