Kendrick Lamar's album Good Kid, M.A.A.D City (stylized good kid, m.A.A.d city; abbreviated GKMC) was my introduction to contemporary hip-hop. Prior to hearing this album, my understanding of hip-hop was based on whatever I heard on top-40 radio stations, along with Mac Dre-style Bay Area rap that was popular in Northern California when I was in high school.
I was a little late to the party with GKMC. I came to that album at the recommendation of a friend, and it completely shifted my perspective on what hip-hop was and what it could be. I previously assumed that this genre was rarely well thought out, that it had little to teach about life. GKMCchanged that perspective for me (which was wrong anyway—I mean, have you heard Illmaticby Nas or ATLiens by Outkast?).
Kendrick's album is nearly cinematic in its description, all while being heavily subversive. Among its sprawling lyrics and beats, Kendrick's ultimate goal for the album is telling a specific story. The album opens with a prayer:
Lord God, I come to you a sinner,
And I humbly repent for my sins.
I believe that Jesus is Lord.
I believe you raised him from the dead.
I will ask that Jesus come into my life
And be my Lord and Savior.
I receive Jesus to take control of my life
And that I may live for him from this day forth.
Thank you, Jesus, for saving me with your precious blood.
In Jesus' name, amen.
Kendrick never hides what he's doing here, and he wants you to know there's something deeper going on before even his first track truly opens up, which is about his teenaged self hastily making his way to a girl's house to . . . well, "get some." At the end of the song, Kendrick lets us know all is not as it seemed. This impromptu meeting would not end as he hoped:
And six steps from where she stay, she wavin' me 'cross the street,
I pulled up, a smile on my face, and then I see
Two ni**as, two black hoodies, I froze as my phone rang.
In the opening track of GKMC, he drops us right in the middle of an everyday story from Compton—one of sex and violence and murder, but also one of hope and redemption, of breaking out of the cycle of vengeance that controls our actions if we are willing to step back and shine a light on our circumstances.
René Girard is one of my favorite thinkers of the twentieth century. Recently deceased, his work has dramatically influenced contemporary thinking on the human condition, how societies function and maintain their identity and equilibrium, and how atonement theology is related to those mechanisms. Girard's not foolproof—he tends to overemphasize his system in such a way that all of Scripture and anthropology can be filtered through what he calls "mimetic theory" (don't let your eyes glaze this over; we'll get there in a bit) and the "last scapegoat" theory of atonement. However, I think his insight into the way humans—and ultimately societies—behave is useful.
At the risk of oversimplification, Girard's mimetic theory functions as follows (for a more thorough treatment of Girard's atonement theory, see my post "On the Atonement" [so titled] here):
• Human beings are mimeticcreatures. In other words, the way we learn things is by mirroring (hence, mimesis). This applies to language and action, but also ultimately to desire. The things we want (not just objects, but social desires, physical desires, and so on) are formed by the things we see that others want.
• The consequence of mimetic desire is conflict. Two humans that share the desire for the same object find themselves at odds with one another, given the finite nature of the object in question.
• This conflict eventually, inevitably leads to violence—first between individuals, then among communities. Violence is inherently contagious, mimetic. That is, violence builds among individuals, leading to a cycle of vengeance that grows ever stronger (I push you, you hit me, I hit you harder, and so on). This cycle of vengeance eventually leads to violence on communal and societal scales—the payback for violence between communities grows larger and larger, eventually leading to societal breakdown.
• As conflict grows this large, societies become unsustainable. Societies cannot function under the duress of too much conflict, and for a civilization to remain functional, it must find a way to de-escalate conflict and violence. Thus, the scapegoat mechanismis born. When human societies seek equilibrium, they do so by searching for a "reason" behind the conflicts, something that can be blamed for the blatant discord between communities. This blame often falls to marginalized, easy-to-target individuals or groups (often minorities, but Girard's theory allows for essentially anyoneto become a scapegoat) as long as that person or group can "reasonably" be held responsible for the conflict at hand. This does not mean that the person is actually responsiblefor the conflict, only that the communities in question can easily convince themselves of the responsibility of the scapegoat.
• The scapegoat, historically, is often murdered or banished from the community, which leads to a final de-escalation in conflict. The scapegoating of the marginalized ends up working like a "release valve," wherein the functional societies are founded upon a common enemy, as their violence is focused on a singular individual or minority group. Further, societies can rarely see their actions as anything other than true and noble, given the fact that their communities actually function better after the scapegoat has been chosen and punished.
GKMC is nearly cinematic. Kendrick is a master storyteller, and he weaves a story within and between his songs. Sometimes Kendrick embodies his younger self, sometimes a version of himself that wants fame and fortune, sometimes the Kendrick that simply wants out of Compton. Out of the staccato, back-and-forth personality changes, a clear narrative emerges.
First, teenage Kendrick is hanging with his friends, and all seems (relatively) normal. "The Art of Peer Pressure" shows a young Kendrick who is influenced by a group of friends (the voice that plays his mother on the album would call them "hood rats") to break into a house and steal whatever they can get their hands on. One cannot say that he is necessarily troubled—he's simply embodying an unsurprising level of rebellion given his circumstances.
After this episode, Kendrick makes his way to Sherane's house—the girl mentioned earlier, where he is met by two antagonists bent on pushing him around:
'I'm gon' ask you one more time homie, where is you from?
Or is it a problem?'
'Ey, you over here for Sherane, homie?'
'Yo, I don't care who this ni**a over here for.
If he don't tell me where he from, it's a wrap, I'm sorry.'
Hold up, we gon' do it like this, okay?
I'ma tell you where I'm from, okay?
You gon' tell me where you from, okay?
Or where your grandma stay, where your mama stay,
or where your daddy stay, okay?'
Matter of fact, get out the van homie!
Get out the care before I snatch you out that motherf***er, homie!'
Later, we find out that the two antagonists roughed Kendrick up in this exchange, which leads to anger and vengeance from the group of friends he was hanging with earlier.