This past week, news circulated that Georgia Regents University Professor Adam Diehl had chosen rapper Kendrick Lamar’s album good kid mAAd city (2012) as the subject of his English class Good Kids, Mad Cities.
The course description available on the university website reads: “Taking its name from Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 album, this course will examine the role of urban living on the development of young people. In Kendrick’s case, ‘the streets sure to release the worst side of my best’ (Lamar 58). By studying and analyzing various literature, films, and K. Dot’s album, we will consider what effects our characters’ surroundings have on who they become as adults. The cities we will be visiting, in our imaginations, are Dublin, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Assignments will include a substantial research paper, stemming from the topics inherent in our texts; students should also expect other writing assignments, such as short papers and online discussion posts.”
This is the latest example of hip-hop’s continuing inclusion in academia and acceptance as an art form worthy of close analysis. While it is an incredible honor for Kendrick Lamar, which I think he has rightfully earned, it strikes me as another reminder that so much of hip-hop is overlooked.
If I were to give a State of the Union address for hip-hop I would not begin the way we usually hear our presidents start. I wouldn’t say hip-hop is strong. I wouldn’t say we are doing well. We are still recovering from the cultural amnesia that struck our community after the golden age in the nineties. While many hip-hop enthusiasts see our current times as a renaissance, the issues and problems created by the rise and commercialization of the industry persist and are perhaps more firmly rooted than ever.
Too many people today think they are contributing to this supposed hip-hop renaissance by sharing the belief that Kendrick Lamar is a gifted artist, even if removed from the context of hip-hop. The problem with this erroneous belief is that it allows people to stop looking at hip-hop as a whole, and pushes more attention to a specific artist.
Given that a focus on Lamar’s album alone would exclude the context of hip-hop, it would be my sincerest hope that the class would also talk about NWA’s portrayal of Los Angeles in the late eighties with their album Straight Outta Compton (1988) or Nas’s masterpiece painting of life in Queensbridge housing projects with Illmatic (1994).
Countless other works, such as Notorious BIG’s Ready to Die (1994) and Outkast’s Aquemini (1998), maintain the same cohesiveness throughout that earned Lamar’s album so much acclaim. In the same way that the events in Ferguson have inspired some artists to speak up, release tribute tracks, or tracks inspired by the events, much of hip-hop is fueled by community and circumstances.
Lamar himself admitted in countless interviews that his album was nothing new. He grew up listening to concept albums, projects that had a central theme, and felt that particular style was missing in hip-hop today. His goal then was to reintroduce people to the power and presence to be achieved by centralizing and building cohesively.
Success in the hip-hop community isn’t something to be achieved overnight, or with a radio single, but through careful study and appreciation of the culture itself. Artists such as Kendrick Lamar grasp what so many of us let slip as we praise him: that to understand the music, you have to understand the culture and community. As Nas has said, hip-hop is the music of the streets, an invaluable archeological tool to understanding the communities and populations for which it speaks.
Listening to hip-hop without understanding its context is like looking at half a painting. Sure, you can appreciate it, but you might be missing something that changes the entire perspective.
Congratulations to Mr. Lamar and to all those who decide to look deeper.