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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. Dave’s brother calls Kendrick, lost and confused, struggling with the burden of loss.

“And I love you ‘cause you love my brother like you did,” he admits — and what’s a tragedy without love?

“Just promise you’ll tell this story when you make it big / And if I die before your album drop I hope — ”

The sound of the gunshots, three punctuations out of step with the beat, are both expected and shocking. In this delusion of life, where death clings like disease, love seems to be worth both killing and dying over. It is the intertwining string and the dividing blade.

If the end of the intro track “Sherane” is the album’s climax, then this song is its culmination, its eulogy for the way of life that is Compton.

The “Dying of Thirst” half of the song reinforces the unyielding perception of violence in Kendrick’s life. The motif is strong for two interlinked reasons: The more obvious explanation is that our tragic hero is awash in sin (“I am a sinner, who’s probably going to sin again”), and is literally dying out of need for holy water to cleanse his soul.

The second is a monument to his collective grief. In paying tribute to a fallen brother, the custom is to pour a sip of one’s drink into the earth out of respect for the fallen. Kendrick has lost so many that he himself is “Dying of Thirst.”

Epilogue: Compton

The last words here don’t need to be spoken by Kendrick, but are rather a soliloquy from his mom, before the events of track one — a message left on his phone.

“If I don’t hear from you, by tomorrow … I hope you come back, and learn from your mistakes. Come back a man, tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton. Let ’em know that you was just like them, but you still rose from that dark place of violence … ”

Just another day in Compton.