"Grit" is one of those words that connote contradictory sentiments; "gusto" and "rawness" resides parallel to the pejorative "unruliness" and "dirt". In hip-hop circles, it's exclusively kept in positive terrain though, riding on the view that music which stays true to the grit of real life - even if it's bad - is at least honest.
For Kendrick Lamar, how does reflecting this "grit" play out? We are at times led to that even a short stark verse on violence will irrevocably slip into glamorisation – which is in turn the cause for all the ills in the world. So does a rapper choose to hush 'violent speak' and focus on another reality that bares little resonance to their roots?
As if to reset the mould on good kid, m.A.A.d. city, he doesn't take either of these positions. His personally set task is to rap a palatable social commentary, imbedded in reality that doesn't slide into crude positivism. And so he negates the problems that face the contemporary rapper in the most stellar way: a clean, velveteen production that doesn't strip away the rawness of the lyrical content; a fiery impassioned voice that doesn't neglect the album's overall cohesion.
What makes the album classic is its well-structured binary form. The album opens with 'Sherene aka Master Splinter's Daughter'. Its initial segment begins with a prayer before Lamar breaks into stream-of-consciousness style rhetoric, detailing the lust within in his young 17-year-old self. At the end of the track, his musings are interrupted by a tap on the window of his car by two hooded men and voice-mail message is played: it's his mother: "you got school tomorrow, you keep fuckin' round in them streets you ain't gon' pass to the next grade."
It's these two pressing ideologies that set interplay throughout the album – a boy fighting to do 'man things' in the streets with testosterone and peer pressure as fuel vs. a barely-of-age son to a woman who knows she can't offer him much material wealth but imparts the knowledge that she does have. Like the opening segment to a film, the story of young Kendrick is yet to be unravelled. The beauty of the album is that you find yourself asking which life will he choose – the street or the nuclear family?
One victory of good kid m.A.A.d. city is that the form naturally drives the content. "[Mama used to say], one day it's gon' burn you out," sings Lamar on 'The Art of Peer Pressure'. "I got the blunt in my mouth/usually I'm drug free/ but fuck it I'm with the homies"; he paints a picture of a criminal Californian landscape that he's become embroiled in. Lamar is able to literally describe the scene yet maintain a kind of third person detachment. His lyrical content alludes to, without needing to explicitly state, the doubt he's beginning to feel.
Still, there is an overarching pressure and mentality that doesn't allow him a premature escape of this world. On stand out Beach House sampling track 'Money Trees', he nonchalantly lays down the street mentality in a way not often heard. It's almost convincing – the street logic, is logical in a sense, and though the listener is vicarious spectator in Lamar's life he makes you feel how easy it is to be sucked in to the void.
Lamar's crisis of identity is made more explicit on the tracks 'good kid' and 'm.A.A.d city' which act as mid-preface to the 12 minute mellow marathon of 'Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst'. It's the first time he truly sees the pitfalls of the life he could lead if he becomes fully embroiled. Inspired by a real life tragedy, the track, though long, fits perfectly with the overall dialectic of the album. Lamar is in a higher state on consciousness, his worldview has widened despite that it was hastened by tragedy.
'Real' is the first song that's explicitly for the listener. Imagine Lamar closing the book he's just read to us, looking us directly in the eye as he imparts the moral message of the story - 'Real' is the message, rapped sweetly over an understated Terrence Martin production.
Final track 'Compton' is the embodiment of a life turned full circle, The stomping production, which can be compared to Rick Ross' '3 Kings', sounds larger than life – as though heralding a charge through a once impenetrable frontier. It's a new life, and Dr. Dre's feature on this track is testament not just to success but survival.
In some antithetical sense, Compton has become the conceptual capital of counter-culture. As if on a blue-eyed neo-negritude wave, middle-class kids born into the comforts of positive freedoms list the city as their hometown on Facebook, for image and idolatrous purposes. But for Lamar, the city is a very potent reality that commands to be portrayed in a way that will speak to both real and remote inhabitants.
Naysayers who thought that Lamar's shift from independent to major label would risk the grit found on Overly Dedicated and Section.80 have been proven wrong. This is because central to Lamar's philosophy isn't the mere exposition of talent but an inner sense of duty. On good kid m.A.A.d city, Lamar has paid his debt to the people of his city and has fulfilled an oath to those who don't have the power or means to speak: "when the lights shut off, and it's my turn to settle down, my main concern, promise that you will sing about me."