When good kid, m.A.A.d city first dropped, Kendrick Lamar was careful not to feed into the talk around the album being a classic, not yet. "It's classic worthy, you know?" he said. "But it has to stand with the time and have the years behind.”
It was a wise thing to say in an age where albums are either hailed as classics or trash minutes after they leak. The world may now have the attention span of a Vine video, but truly great art still demands sustained attention. In fact, a classic album only deepens its hold on you over time, offers additional layers to peel back years after you thought you'd already uncovered even its most hidden secrets. A classic album not only remains an immovable landmark of that moment in history, but it also ages with you, moves with you into the future.
That's why now, more than two years after its debut, I won't hesitate to call Kendrick's GKMC a classic. I remember driving to my man's house that October, listening to the album in the whip for the first time with the windows down, the L.A. weather completely ignoring the Earth's insistence that it was fall, and by the time even "Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe" ended my heart already felt the album would become a classic. And when I got to my man's house, and he opened the door, eyes wide, the first sentence out of his mouth, "Yo, have you heard this fucking Kendrick album?!?!?!?!" I felt like a moment, a classic moment. If Vegas took bets on this kind of thing, I would have bet my daughter's college fund on GKMC standing the test of time.
Still, though, while my soul was already picturing still listening to "Money Trees" in the retirement home, my head was pumping the brakes. I had a literal professional obligation to wait before making any grand proclamations. So I played the album...and played it...and played it. I listened to it to get hyped at the gym, I listened to it washing the dishes, I listened to it after my father-in-law died. I'm listening to it right now. And somewhere in between the 200th and 4,000th listen even the most logical, rational, Spockian-emotionless part of my brain accepted GKMC as a classic. I should have written this article then, but it just never felt like the right time—I had more pressing, very important things to write about - until now when J. Cole's 2014Forest Hills Drive re-ignited the conversation around GKMC.
In many ways, the fact that we're still debating/talking about GKMC years later, in comparison to a new album, is proof of its longevity. Kendrick really did set the bar every other emcee of his generation would be measured against. But while I could spend this space talking about lyricism and production, or even commercial and cultural impact, those are really just more surface level qualifiers. As I've revisited the album I've realized something deeper, I've realized that GKMC is one of those extraordinarily rare albums that has become even more relevant now than when it dropped.
I've heard even some intelligent people claim that GKMC isn't really a concept album, which is perplexing. The concept is right there in the title: What does it mean to be a good kid in a city engulfed in poverty, violence, and pain, pain that stretches back generations? How do you stay clean while crawling through a world soaked knee-high in blood? It's a question nearly every image, note, and lyric on the album are aimed at addressing, and as the death toll in Chicago reaches horrific levels and simply looking like the "wrong" person in the "wrong" place could mean a death sentence, it's THE question currently facing America. The young black man Kendrick embodies on this album, the people he sings about so powerfully, are the people America has failed. They're the people taking to the streets in Ferguson, they're the people no longer alive to protest their own death.
For many, the solution to gang violence and the onslaught of death by police is simple; be good. Never do anything wrong and nothing wrong will ever happen to you. I can only assume those people live in a good city. Being "good" isn't so easy when you're sitting on the lap of your gang-banging uncle at 3-years-old, when nearly all of your friends, the people you grew up with, are staging break-ins, when your mom needs food stamps to feed your family, when a lunch run to Louie's for a burger could mean watching someone's brains splatter across the sidewalk, when even if you don't join a gang the police still treat you like a gang-banger; what hope is there really, even for the good kid?
"Dope on the corner, look at the coroner / Daughter is dead, mother is mournin' her / Strayed bullets, AK bullets / Resuscitation was waiting patiently but they couldn't / Bring her back, who got the footage? / Channel 9, cameras is looking."
To live in a maad city is to be an 11-year-old, as innocent and good as anyone could possibly be, who winds up on the Channel 9 news after a stray bullet steals their life. It's really happening.
"No better picture to paint than me walking from Bible study / And called his homies because he had said he noticed my face / From a function that tooken place, they was wondering if I bang."
To live in a maad city is to get jumped on your way home from Bible study, or football practice because something thinks they might recognize you. It's really happening.
"Every time you clock in the morning, I feel you just want to kill / All my innocence while ignoring my purpose to persevere as a better person / I know you heard this and probably in fear / But what am I supposed to do with the blinking of red and blue / Flash from the top of your roof and your dog has to say woof / And you ask, "Lift up your shirt" cause you wonder if a tattoo / Of affiliation can make it a pleasure to put me through / Gang files, but that don't matter because the matter is racial profile / I heard them chatter: "He's probably young but I know that he's down" / Step on his neck as hard as your bullet proof vest."
All of the conversations I've been having over these last few tragic months, about white privilege and police brutality and personal responsibility and how devastatingly the American system has failed so many, in particular, young black men, all of those conversations can be routed through good kid, m.A.A.d. city. Years after he first wrote them, the stories that Kendrick tells on GKMC have become the stories dominating headlines, minds, and hearts across the country, which makes me want to say that the album has proven to be prophetic. But Kendrick was prophesying, of course. He was merely revealing a reality that so many already knew, and so much of America is just now starting to see. Do we really need CNN when, as Chuck D said, rap has been CNN for black lives all along?
There are, of course, people who will claim that this album isn't a classic, that it's over-hyped, that all of those connections I laid out above aren't really there. Most of the time those people are right—you can bet that if ten people run towards something, the 90 people who follow them are merely mindlessly following—but in this case they're wrong. It's exceedingly rare, but every so often, once in a generation, maybe less, an album really does come along that deserves all the praise heaped on it. This is that album.
That doesn't mean you have to personally love this album. Last time I checked this is America; you're free to like or dislike, connect or not connect, with whatever art you want. Frankly, I love this album so much I'll be a little mystified by your dislike, but I don't really mind because Kendrick's masterpiece isn't going anywhere.
It may not be today, it may not be next year, but one day you'll respect, the good kid, m.A.A.d. city.