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Notebook: Kendrick Lamar pens a Compton tragedy

By Elliot Alpern, Senior Arts Editor
Published December 11, 2012

“I hope the universe loves you today,” he speaks, and the words pool into a thick foundation of grief, remorse and concession.

The lines could’ve appropriately fallen on the lips of many of literature’s classic characters: Hamlet, contemplating the nature of destiny, or Romeo petitioning for fortune.

Yet this short soliloquy isn’t inscribed within the dusty tomes of old theater scripts; it’s pressed within the crisp plastic of Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city — a hip-hop tragedy for the modern age. Woven into the beats is a visceral tale of pain and loss, a narrative carved out of the desolate patch of concrete that is South Central L.A.

And unfortunately it’s easy to miss — songs like “Backstreet Freestyle” belie the existence of anything below the “Damn I got bitches” surface. But make no mistake, Kendrick is as much a playwright as he is lyricist.

I present to you: good kid, m.A.A.d city, Act 1: The end

Curtains open to Compton. Yet this dusty, choking swatch of city isn’t the Compton of now, but the Compton of soon. The Compton of eventually ...

Kendrick Lamar is 17, red blooded, a teenager in every explicit sense of the term. He’s seduced by a girl — a long con, a ruse perpetrated through Nextel conversations in a heat-stroked summer.

“It’s deep rooted, the music of being young and dumb / It’s never muted, in fact it’s much louder where I’m from.”

He’s wary, justifiably so — the girl’s cousin Demetrius is a known gang banger, but as it is with being young and dumb, these things pale in the spotlight of lust. A text (the contemporary pigeon or messenger), a reply, and …

“Passing Alameda, my gas meter in need of a pump / I got enough to get me through the traffic jam.”

The bumper-to-bumper scene is one of most applicable symbols — the tension, the grind, the front-to-back friction in shimmering heat. Kendrick is “enthused by the touch of a woman,” drunk on the moment, too impaired to think straight.

“I pulled up, a smile on my face, and then I see / Two niggas, two black hoodies, I froze as my phone rang … ”

The actual sound is jarring, the plot climaxing all too soon (Kendrick perhaps a bit too enthused), and we are flung back into the past of a Compton timeline.

The story picks up again with “The Art of Peer Pressure.” It’s clear that this here is the continuation — the simple beat and spoken word echo the intro track (the cleverist of juxtapositions: It’s both a literal sequel and chronological foreshadowing).

Act 2: It’s 2:30 and the sun is beaming

“Rush a nigga quick and then we laugh about it / That’s ironic ’cause I’ve never been violent, until I’m with the homies.”

True to the title, Kendrick laments how being with his gang forces him into being the antagonist he’s not. The crew cruises down Rosecrans, “hotboxing like George Foreman.” The intent is latent, lethargic; they do nothing but wait for the inevitable something to occur.

In their dangerous, kinetic boredom, they happen to rob a house, a “first offense” for Kendrick’s record. The song fades to dark. We learn in the outro skit that Kendrick plans to go to a girl’s house later — the same interest from the first track, yet still in the relationship’s fledgling moments.

Interlude: Breathe Slow

Though the plot is barely touched upon in “Swimming Pools (Drank),” the outro skit gives us the provocation, the act that will set in motion Kendrick’s own fate. As the crew’s slow-roasted crime spree stretches to a botched drive-by shooting, the rapper’s friend Dave is himself shot and killed.

Act 3: Dying of thirst

“I woke up this morning and figured I’d call you / In case I’m not here tomorrow.”

The song “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” opens with the same deceptively simple beat, the words solemn and affective.