No matter how a music journalist does his or her work in 2014, the folding of Vibe’s and XXL’s print editions earlier this month shouldn’t represent a shriveling of reader interest so much as a shift in the way readers explore music media. Especially with regular and semi-regular publications — as opposed to online dailies — careful planning and editing are at a premium, and ultimately, The Plug is supposed to mirror that process, following the aforementioned mags in our own digital way.
Ideally, The Plug will be a source for extensive hip-hop coverage that’s engaged and well-researched, among other reader-respecting qualities. There’s no reason to feel like you have to read it all in one sitting; however, let it be known that a great many hours went into each aspect of this edition (not to mention the first two), and that has us confident that your time won’t be wasted.
In this volume, we review 17 new hip-hop releases, pick apart the majority of Cam’ron’s studio work, and talk to the instructor behind Georgia Regents University’s new course on Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city.
Trappers and Philosophers: Put it in a Song
By Michael Madden
Four weeks in, Georgia Regents University English professor Adam Diehl estimates that he’s mentioned Compton’s Kendrick Lamar, by name, in 90 percent of the “Good Kid, Mad Cities” class sessions he’s taught this fall. Yes, the course focuses on the incredibly dense and structurally ambitious Kendrick album that came out in October 2012, good kid, m.A.A.d city. Yes, this is already happening.
By now, Kendrick, 27, is Scorsese in ’76, Tiger in ’00, LeBron in ’07: a young gun already so accomplished that his mark on his field can’t be erased. GKMC is one of the main reasons for this. In reviews upon its release, a number of music journos were compelled to make literary connections — James Joyce’s gargantuan Ulysses was a common comparison. Whether or not that was stretching it, GKMC is an artistic work that no one in hip-hop has matched since, one that’s equal parts immediate and cerebral. This shit is vital.
Diehl, 31, has “always been one to refer to hip-hop in class,” and he ultimately believes GKMC can help his students write better. With a voice a little like that of 30 Rock actor Jack McBrayer, Diehl tells me over the phone that he didn’t think particularly highly of Kendrick at first. “I had been hearing the buzz about Kendrick for months [during the run-up to GKMC],” he says. “I thought the songs were interesting on the radio, but I couldn’t really get my head around [the hype]. The more times I heard ‘Poetic Justice’, the less sense it made, and then same thing for ‘Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe’.”
Eventually, the album (to borrow a phrase used by MC Eiht on 1993’s “Streiht Up Menace” and again on Kendrick’s “m.A.A.d city”) woke his punk ass up. “I finally listened to the whole album through YouTube and decided, ‘This sounds pretty intricate. I think I should buy it and give it a chance.’ I made a copy for my wife, and we both listened to it all fall last year, almost every day.” Diehl says he knew within a week of first hearing the entire album that he wanted to teach at least one of its songs — he started with “Swimming Pools (Drank)”. Within a month, he knew he wanted to teach the whole thing.
“Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”, the 12-minute two-parter that touches on family, violence, prostitution, and religion, is Diehl’s favorite GKMC song to dissect. “There’s no way you could deny ‘Sing About Me’,” he says. “It’s just overwhelming. I’ve heard persona raps like ‘Stan’ by Eminem, but for Kendrick, it’s even more immersed in his album, because here’s Keisha’s sister [asking], ‘Why did you make a song about my sister?’ If you listen to the album, you get maybe 75 percent of that song, but you really need [2011’s “Keisha’s Song (Her Pain)”] to be able to understand the middle third.”
Deft analysis like that is why Diehl had no problem convincing his superiors at GRU to let him teach the album. But it’s not like his students get to listen to it over and over again in class all semester.
Kendrick subtitled the album A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar, so Diehl would be remiss not to include at least one film in the syllabus. Sure enough, he chose John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood, and, he says, “is good kid, m.A.A.d city, just not with quite as many episodes.” Diehl has also implemented works by James Joyce (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), James Baldwin (including the short stories “Going to Meet the Man” and “The Rockpile”), and Gwendolyn Brooks (poems including “The Mother” and “Kitchenette Building”). “All those writers,” he says, “are telling stories about escaping from the madness of the city but still being able to tell the stories of the city. I think that’s what Kendrick is doing as well.”
Despite the complexity of Kendrick’s lyrics, the most literary part of the album might be the skits. “The skits with his mom and dad on voicemail,” Diehl says, “seem so real because [Kendrick] allowed them to be themselves, and they still have a lot of concern for their son. You get to the end of ‘Real’ and his dad is saying, ‘Anyone can carry a gun, but being real is God. Being real is carrying responsibility for yourself.’ [The album is] a starting point for a long discussion about the inner city, and about violence and especially gang violence, and young black males and why they’re plighted different from their white, Asian, and Hispanic brethren.
“The running theme about trying to rise above the status quo in Compton [is] what I’ve envisioned the whole class to be about. What everyone in society needs to see is [that] these are real people. They’re in a war zone. It may not look like Baghdad or Kabul, but there are police helicopters flying over these neighborhoods every day. There are SWAT teams breaking down doors every day. That’s a life that most people, including me, are not accustomed to at all. But it’s still America and [these people] are citizens.”
Frankly, Compton is way too notorious for a place with a population under 100,000, and you can start to grasp the impact of the bloodshed if you explore a tool on The Los Angeles Times‘ website called The Homicide Report. You can do this with any area of Los Angeles County, but with Compton, there comes a heightened sense of stagnation: These things aren’t getting resolved.
Out of the non-GKMC works studied in Diehl’s course, Boyz n the Hood most resembles GKMC. Tre Styles (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and his girlfriend Brandi (Nia Long) are united in being sick and tired of everything that plagues their South Los Angeles, but whereas she seems to accept it for what it is, he’s vengeful. Ricky (Morris Chestnut) has an outlet in football, and his running speed comes to be a metaphor for the stranglehold of the violence. Doughboy (Ice Cube) is Ricky’s pessimistic older brother, losing faith in God and generally shaking his fist at the world between sips of his 40.
The film is now a classic, and because of it, many GKMC listeners had a vivid idea of what Compton is like going into the album. It also makes Kendrick’s situation more vivid. In calling himself a good kid — in those words — Kendrick elevated himself above the stereotype of the young, black, male Comptonite. Two questions follow: How has he accomplished this? And can he keep it up?
“i”, the polarizing, Isley Brothers-sampling Kendrick single that may or not be on his upcoming album, has been described as his “Happy”. Personally, I like the song, although I usually prefer his grittier work. My favorite Kendrick song is the Jay Rock- and Anna Wise-featuring “Money Trees”, which, like “Backseat Freestyle” off GKMC, only reveals itself to be as smart as it is in the context of the album. On its own, it can sound like arrogant robbery-rap, plain and simple: “Me and my niggas tryna get it, ya bish/ Hit the house lick, tell me is you wit it, ya bish?/ Home invasion was persuasive/ From nine to five I know it’s vacant, ya bish.”
Ultimately, a sense of purpose unites “i”, “Money Trees”, and the rest of Kendrick’s material to date, whether it’s with a story of young love, an anecdote of gang violence, or a humorous skit. With “i”, Kendrick is seconding a Hunter S. Thompson quote, though with a more personal bent: “Good news is rare these days, and every glittering ounce of it should be cherished and hoarded and worshipped and fondled like a priceless diamond.” Whether bringing good news or bad, Kendrick is just tryna get it.