The work of the rapper Kendrick Lamar should enjoy heavy rotation in the White House these days. In this time of Tucson, Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn., Lamar's major-label debut album, Good Kid, M.A.A.d City, gives us a broad reckoning with the meaning of everyday gun violence unfolding far from the tragic spectacle.
Good Kid has earned its share of praise from critics and hip-hop fans, but it perhaps has the most to offer to those shocked into action by the senseless massacres we've endured over the past few years.
This particular moment has shined a light on a gun lobby that argues for maximum firepower and minimum responsibility. If history is any judge, the moment will pass, and most of us will find ourselves again lost in our daily and particular business. When that time comes, there will be others of us who live in places where senseless shootings remain a corrosive constant.
Lamar's album begins in such a place and tells the story of a teenage boy pursuing a girl with a mix of affection and lust. The character's ordinary ambition differs little from that of teenagers who once piled into their parents' cars and turned the drive-in into a bacchanal. But Lamar's lover's lane runs through gang-infested Compton, Calif., and the makeout point is a deathtrap.
Hip-hop originates in communities where such hazards are a given. Rappers generally depict themselves as masters, not victims, of the attending violence. Their music is not so much interested in adhering to our preferred values as constructing a fantasy wherein the author has total control and is utterly invulnerable.
When your life is besieged, the music is therapy, vicarious mastery in a world where you control virtually nothing, least of all the fate of your body. I had a friend in middle school who would play Rakim every morning because he knew there was a good chance he would be jumped en route to or from school by the various crews that roamed the area. In his mind, the mask of rap machismo made him too much for them.
Good Kid is narrative told from behind the mask. Fantasies of rage and lust are present, but fear pervades Lamar's world. He pitches himself not as "Compton's Most Wanted" but as "Compton's Human Sacrifice." He loves the city, even as he acknowledges that the city is trying to kill him. "If Pirus and Crips all got along," he says, "they'd probably gun me down by the end of this song."
On one of the most affecting songs, The Art of Peer Pressure, he engages in a series of criminal escapades. It's reminiscent of NWA's Gangsta, Gangsta, except that Lamar is a boy out to impress his friends. The character's drug use is not so much a choice of pleasure as it is a puerile bid for attention: "Look at me," he raps. "I got the blunt in my mouth."
I must confess my bias. I grew up in Baltimore during a time when the city was in the thrall of crack and Saturday night specials. I've spent most of my life in neighborhoods suffering their disproportionate share of gun violence. In each of these places it was not simply the deaths that have stood out to me, but the way that death corrupted the most ordinary of rituals.
On an average day in middle school, fully a third of my brain was obsessed with personal safety. I feared the block 10 times more than any pop quiz. My favorite show in those days was The Wonder Years. When Kevin Arnold went to visit his lost-found love Winnie Cooper, he simply hopped on his bike. In Baltimore, calling upon our Winnie Coopers meant gathering an entire crew. There was safety in numbers. Alone, we were targets.
The world I lived in, and the preserve of Lamar's album, was created not by mindless nature but by public policy. It is understandable that in the wake of great tragedy we'd want to take a second look at those policies. But in some corners of America great tragedy has bloomed into a world that does not simply raise the ranks of the dead but shrinks the world of the survivors. Good Kid shows us how gun violence extends beyond the actual guns.
Here is an album that people grappling with policy desperately need to hear. It does what art does best in that it bids the monotony of numbers to sing.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a senior editor at the Atlantic.
© 2013 New York Times