The West Coast Illmatic: good kid, m.A.A.d city & The Evolution of Hip Hop Storytelling
One journalist compares Kendrick Lamar's recent show-stopping "good kid m.A.A.d city" to Nas' "Illmatic" and points out more similarities than we may realize.
“One afternoon in early 1943, before the regular six o’clock crowd had gathered, a black soldier sat drinking by himself at one of my tables. He must have been there an hour or more. He looked dumb and pitiful and just up from the Deep South. The fourth or fifth drink I served this soldier, wiping the table I bent over close and asked him if he wanted a woman.”
The bar was called Small’s Paradise. Serving the drinks and connecting the patron with an escort was a young student of the streets. His fellow Harlem hedonists had dubbed him "Detroit Red." That moment was Red’s first real foray into the criminal underworld. The man who would later be called Malcolm X was around 17 years old.
Plenty goes down during your late teenage years. There are decisions to made, first experiences to be had, the consequences of either could dictate the rest of your life. These years of angst, naivety, and unpredictability can provide our most captivating or most embarrassing stories.
Rapper Nas’ first album, Illmatic, covers the same years of his life, as does the major label debut of his apparent heir in Hip Hop’s nexus of narrative storytelling. Kendrick Lamar released Section.80 independently through TDE last year. It hinted at what someone of his lyrical caliber and acute understanding of generational anxieties could produce on a fully backed release.
Like Illmatic in 1994, it hasn’t taken long for good kid, m.A.A.d city to resonate with critics. “It doesn’t take a decade’s worth of work to signal greatness; sometimes a few bars herald a second coming,” author/critic dream hampton recalls in her initial Illmatic assessment. Unlike that album, G.K.M.C. has also managed to shoot up the charts from the jump.
While the critical and commercial enthusiasm about G.K.M.C. is well-deserved, there is something entirely more interesting at play. Having a similar age, equally astronomical expectations, and the “memory lane” and “sleep is the cousin of death” references aren’t all the two albums have in common. More than anything, these two projects share a novel’s knack for narrative. Not all great emcees can be great storytellers. Other rappers, then and now, have either been unable or unwilling to use storytelling as convincingly as Illmatic and G.K.M.C. do.
There are a few dozen major points of comparison worth considering about these two artistic triumphs but the most obvious is the use of story. You could compare production boards or lyrical dexterity or speculate on the historical ramifications of each project. Much of that territory is sticky, fruitless, abruptly titled in the direction of the incumbent, or all three — as is trying to measure the career of a relative rookie (even if you go hypothetically bonkers) to a shoe-in for the Hall of Fame. This isn’t about which album or artist is better. In focusing specifically on story, something far more compelling is revealed.
Hip Hop fans too frequently fall into the same traps that conservative pundits do when assessing what’s real and what’s fiction in the art form. The emcees don’t help by insisting that they live what they say. It’s all beside the point. Every story, even memoir and autobiography is selective and biased and skewed in its own way. We aught to be able to look at the two as writers, their work as narrative and their narrators as characters.
Kendrick Lamar tells the story through "K-Dot" (other narrators include Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Anna Wise, MC Eiht, Dr. Dre, and Jay Rock) and Nas through "Nasty Nas" (occasionally early traces of God’s Son, Nastradamous, Escobar may appear alongside Pete Rock, Q-Tip, and AZ). We’re looking at the album as a whole, as it was intended, not as individual songs. These albums are more than mere sums of their parts.
“Y'all know my steelo with or without the Airplay”
“You’re trying to keep it deprived and only cosign what radio does”
Illmatic and good kid, m.A.A.d city share a similar authorial intent, use some of the same narrative devices, describe a grittily nuanced setting, and send their heroes through parallel conflicts. Neither considers their project a part of the majority. The two albums share in their script a disregard for whetting the industry’s appetite, while not completely dismissing those who fold to its whims. They distinguish themselves from their peers without pointing fingers.
During album-intro “The Genesis” Nasty speaks directly to his game plan as author. His brother Jungle calls what’s on the radio bullshit and Nasty tells him to chill. K-Dot’s soundtrack consists of Ciara, Young Jeezy, E-40, 50 Cent and Usher — all heavily spun artists during the time G.K.M.C. takes place. These artists command minimal, if existent, respect from Hip Hop purists the way both Nas and Kendrick Lamar do. Nasty hypothetically insists he would tell the same story with or without a record contract just as Kendrick Lamar did on parts of his independent debut. Nasty’s debut verse is sampled from Main Source’s “Live At The BBQ” and K-Dot references “Keisha’s Song” from Section.80, gauging their career status before releasing these seminal projects. This acknowledges the steep stakes that exist despite neither being willing to cower and confide in an industry playbook to meet them.
Both emcees posit their story in a way that avoids the common pitfall of using industry knocking as come up fuel, while still insisting their music exists separately from what’s trending. Besides, they realize raps are cheap. Nasty never talks to snakes cause the words of man kill. K-Dot’s New Year’s Resolution is to stop all the pollution, he thinks there’s too motherfucking much talk already.
Part of the action both narrators provide is indirect. Marc Lamont Hill called Nas an “informal ethnographer,” who provided a narrative that ran counter to the sweeping conclusions the media and masses informally made about life in the ghetto. “Nas is able to account for people who historically have been rendered anonymous,” Hill writes in his essay on Halftime in last year’s Illmatic book Born To Use Mics. People ill equipped to tell their own stories become the burden of the bard.
Nasty reinforces the frail, with lyrics that’s real. K-Dot counts lives all on these songs, “Look at the weak and cry, pray one day you’ll be strong.” They turn to the lives of neighbors out of a sense of responsibility to their community and to the completeness of their own story. That K-Dot feels he’s “Fighting for your rights, even when your wrong,” illustrates the same sort of prescribed advice that Nasty bestows onto the little bastard he meets and coaches to rise above, keeping an eye out for jakes until that day comes.
“Niggas don’t listen man, representin’ it’s Illmatic”
“Everybody sit your bitch ass down and listen to this true motherfuckin’ story”
Illmatic and G.K.M.C. draw on skits for function not filler. “The Genesis,” “Life’s A Bitch,” and “Represent,” all leave ample room for Nasty Nas to bring other characters into the mix, adding to the story out of rhyme. K-Dot’s assailants, friends, parents, and spiritual guides all make appearances in the space between songs. Around 10 full minutes of G.K.M.C. is set aside for skits. Like the lyrical sections, every second is used to carefully advance the narrative or position the story in context.
The ordering of the songs and length of the album is as deliberate. These projects don’t have throwaway tracks. If a song or a verse didn’t fit, it’s either left off (Nasty Nas stitched together some stanzas from demo songs like “Just Another Day In Projects,” “I’m a Villain,” and “Nas Will Prevail,” while other parts of those songs never made it to Illmatic) or thrown elsewhere(G.K.M.C.’s Deluxe Editions has bonus tracks and no edition features Lady Gaga). What’s said has as much to do with what isn’t. Had Kendrick Lamar put his lyrically underwhelming coast anthem “The Recipe,” his down tempo celebrity-envy track “Black Boy Fly,” or his cornball rendition of a victory lap song (“Now Or Never”), the story might have dissolved. It would belittle K-Dot as primary raconteur. It’s impossible to imagine Illmatic going a nudge longer than its nearly 40-minute, 10-track length. The songs on both albums are thematic in that they belong with the other tracks, in the exact order outlined. None of the “singles” (although no song on either project was a crafted single in the strict radio-thirsty sense) are at their best away from the comfort of the other songs.
“Dwelling in the rotten Apple, you get tackled or caught by the devil’s lasso”
“Compton USA, made me an Angel on angel dust.”
Throughout both projects, Nasty and K-Dot provide boots-on-the-ground dispatches from their neighborhood trenches. In a sense they are also informal geographers, drawing maps of places that have been rendered navigationally anonymous. Although neither was first to describe their ghetto circumstances, their level of detail spawns stand alone characters out of their settings.
Nasty gives a Google Maps view of his world around the Queensbridge Housing Projects — 40-side & 41st-side of Vernon, Riker’s Island, Elmira, H.D.M., Bellevue, and North 95 (interstate). Rosecrans, Alameda, Dominguez High, Paramount, Westchester, Alondra, Bullis, and the 405 (freeway) are included in the mapping of K-Dot’s Compton.
Coloring in the Dickensian details of Queensbridge, Nasty has windows facing shootouts (from a Tec, M-16, 45, gauge, glock, nickel plated nine, Mac-11, or four-pounder). He’s a Moet drinking (as well as Dom P, E&J, Hennessey, Cognac, Alizé, Heine’s, and Beck’s), marijuana smoking (called oo-wops, Phillies, hash, Buddha), street dweller (watching cee-lo through peepholes, sitting in building lobbies, scoping the numbers man from park benches).
K-Dot explains how to roll that kush (or reefer, shenanigans, butt-nakeds, sherm sticks), crack that case (of Champagne, Remy Red, Hennessy, Goose), because that’s just how Compton (with house parties and house robberies by Pirus, Crips, and cops conjuring lead showers with heaters, choppers and banana clips) rolls (in traffic, tires screeching, hands on the wheel, swerving with power steering past drive by shootings, Pirelli’s skirting). K-Dot is hot boxing in the cul-de-sac and Nasty is getting bent up in the project stairwell.
They each love their city, maybe even to death, but they also recognize the disadvantage it brings. The city that found K-Dot and put him on stages is also the same place that took his cooperative MC Eiht under, forcing him to follow the rules. The same goes for Nasty who doesn’t go against the grain, simple and plain — careful to make sure the right man bleeds (read: no innocent bystanders or missed opportunities). Another K-Dot compatriot Jay Rock, explains that prostitutes and drug sales abound but it’s all good. He goes on to warn that Compton residents will steal your watch then tell you what time it is and take your J’s then tell you to kick it where a Foot Locker is. Nasty would rob foreigners as a youngster and even rip up their green cards, adding misery on top of their misery. K-Dot recognizes the streets will probably also release the worst side of his best. They adapt to crime. It won’t adapt to them.
“The smooth criminal on beat breaks”
“Hash realities we in made our music translate”
Villainy can bring some benefits but both characters see the results as short sighted. For Nasty, there are clothes, bankrolls and hoes, but then what? His buck that bought a bottle could’ve struck the lotto and taken him out of the projects. He could use a gun but would be robbed of freedom as a wanted man. K-Dot could look over the city with vanity and the music louder, but looking at his dyed-black flower, he knows he isn’t fooling anyone. Money trees might be the perfect place for shade, but K-Dot wants more in retirement. He’s out to ensure he’s worth singing about when it’s all over. They concede these conflicted interests between their short and long cons.
Any day could be Nasty’s last in the jungle of Queensbridge, making his mic-check a matter of life or death. Not only self-concerned, picturing his peeps not eating can make also make his heartbeat skip. K-Dot’s hungry for anything unhealthy and if nutrition can help him, he doesn’t care. His stomach is already in knots as it is. If he makes it out alive, his mom expects him to give back to his city. They’re both going to have to rhyme their way out of dodge. Their tasked with overcoming their neighborhood and then rewarding it in eulogy. Fortunately, there’s local precedent for the mic to double as lifesaver. Nasty can trace MC Shan’s path out of QB. K-Dot can reap the benefits of N.W.A.’s harvest, sustaining Compton. Hope is nearby
The authors of Illmatic and good kid, m.A.A.d city made deliberate choices to distinguish their purpose as auteur. In that pursuit, they employ analogous storytelling tools and turn their hometowns into brutal but just creatures. The challenges their protagonists face are comparable, but their behavior is as disparate as their story’s shape.
“Fuck ‘rap is real,’ / watch the herbs stand still”
“It’s deep rooted the music being young and dumb / It’s never muted, in fact, it’s much louder where I’m from.”
The good kid, m.A.A.d city is as linear a Hip Hop story as we’ve seen in recent memory (I see you Undun and Death Of Adam). Maybe ever. The plot is more straightforward, the characters more rounded and the ending more resolved than other, narratively ambitious releases or its predecessor, Illmatic. There’s a reason that its cover art is adorned with the label of “short film.” It’s also short in the timeframe it spans. Only a day or two, probably consecutively, pass during K-Dot’s journey. Time is Illmatic for Nasty Nas. It’s not important. These specifics could be taken from any given day or days and that’s beside the point.
Illmatic’s story has no clear beginning or ending. It starts and ends in the midst of things. G.K.M.C. flows down the conflict-climax-resolution river with conviction in keeping the story afloat on the surface throughout. Illmatic relies on abstraction at times and pays less attention to an arc of the story, instead topically and thematically weaving above and below the waterline of the narrator’s bars.
G.K.M.C. comes clean with the immediate details, only occasionally referring to the outside world. Nasty takes a big-picture look at Queensbridge, his life and the world at large. K-Dot focuses on a specific chain of events, encasing strict moments of his life, and any links to the wider world are left to the listener to fasten. Nasty directs a section of anecdotal episodes not at the beginning and not at the end of a show’s lifespan. Both have sequential cinematic explosions. K-Dot’s is an isolated saga, driven by his hero’s ethos.
“I bag bitches up at John Jay / and hit a matinee”
“I’ll take your girlfriend and put that pussy on a pedestal”
These characters are conflicted at times. It’s challenging to determine when Nasty finishes feeling one way and starts to feel another way. With K-Dot it’s clearer. One segment of the streets where both narrator’s opinions are more lucid is in the attention they afford to females.
Nasty shot his way out of his mom dukes. He occasionally hears a few chicks scream, sees young bitches being grazed by bullets, and meets female crack heads who have to smoke nice rock. He thinks so seldom of the women in his neighborhood that the specific females he mentions besides his mother are limited to Jerome’s niece and a Cinderella reference.
Contrarily, K-Dot has made a habit of voicing the struggles of the women in his life. This comes from the heightened sensitivity that leads him to recognize that he has to right his wrongs if he wants to stop hearing about the cold nights when his lover curses his name. His lady-loving chum Drake wants less fighting and more talking and is willing to come clean to get there — even though he’s second string to a girl who spends most of her leg spreading on another man. K-Dot even musters up the tact of possessing momentary storyteller’s guilt about whether it is his place to tell a woman’s story at all, briefly mulling himself exploiter. K-Dot knows the way he feels is taboo in Rap, but he doesn’t seem to care. He recognizes that he is supposed to capitalize on women when he can, but would rather underwrite their uplifting when possible.
Nasty boxes (and bags) up crazy bitches, checks dames, pulls numbers like pagers from fly ladies, new chicks, cokehead cutie pies, and keeps a honey for sexing. Ultimately though, he won’t plant seeds. He’s not reckless enough to forget that’s an extra mouth he can’t feed.
K-Dot remembers when condom wrappers weren’t cool but other than that he pales in comparison as the carefree womanizer. It takes an entire summer for him to chirp a girl up (the chaser not the chased) before finally sealing the deal. Then he nearly crashes from a sext she sends him as he drives a Dodge Caravan (not a ‘64 Impala) to get it in. By the time K-Dot shows up to finally collect his booty bounty for all the effort he’s put in, it’s a setup. When has it been kosher for any rapping crusader to be deceived by a female?
He claims he’s a professional porn star, but only when off the Goose. At his most braggadocios, even though he’s not embarrassed, he admits often finishing fast and prays to grow the size of the Eiffel Tower so he lasts longer. When K-Dot does take your girlfriend, he’s going to suddenly treat her with a huge amount of respect (“put that pussy on a pedestal”).
“I’m like Scarface sniffin’ cocaine, holding an M-16 / see with the pen I’m extreme”
“I’m like Tre, that’s Cuba Gooding / I know I’m good at, dying of thirst”
K-Dot admits that he’s easy prey, having been eaten alive one day prior. He plays it safe, avoiding conflict, wearing track attire because he’s become so accustomed to having to run away. He likens himself to walking home from bible study as gang bangers and cops mess with him in equal measure. He’s the victim. A chump fresh out of high school (by way of graduation) and sleeping in the living room of his mom’s house. He gets fired from his security guard job after caving into peer pressure. He’s more D’Angelo Barksdale than Avon or Marlo Stanfield. He’s shaky at best.
Nasty dropped out of Cooley High. When he’s vexed he lets the .44 blow at cops. He shoots up parties and aims guns in all of his baby pictures. He’s sometimes Brother Mouzone, sometimes Bodie. He’s far from a victim. At his lowest, Nasty Nas is stressed out. The black cloud over him, prevents him from seeing tomorrow. He struggles to maintain but if he hits rock bottom he’ll still become the Son of Sam. His two-day breaks from the block to recharge are about as vulnerable as he gets. He wears his only physical defect, his chip-toothed smile, proudly. Even when he’s not living the full-fledged gangster lifestyle, he dreams that he is. K-Dot’s only inclination to live that life comes from coercion, a cowardly reaction in itself.
Hesitation is Nasty’s only emotional shortcoming. He held off kick starting his Rap career in the parks at age ten because he thought no one would understand. He figured he’d go over their heads (maybe even causing injuries from shock and awe). Nasty shows a little anger when his locked-up friend’s mom cries. All that makes him want to do is murder. He sees none of his violent, sexual, drug, or alcohol tendencies as vices even if he’s lamping because a crime (of his) couldn’t beat a rhyme (of his).
K-Dot is conscious of abusing his limit, resorting to coaching himself into a smashed state to be cool with taking advantage of any glossy eyed broads he can. He develops a new appetite for failure from this faulty logic. He glumly confesses his self-medicated excuse for defeat is in the bottom of the bottle or the greenest Indo leaf. K-Dot’s an underachieving carouser and lightweight party goer.
Nasty smokes hash while losing his virginity. He guzzles booze and pisses in your elevator for fun. K-Dot smokes weed for the first time and foams at the mouth. He drinks some Hennessy after being on the wrong end of a setup and yaks out the window.
Really, K-Dot is drug-free, a peacemaker, a believer of bad karma, and a sober soul that’s never been violent besides a handful of times with the homies. Nasty ain’t the type of brother made for you to start testing. Give him a Smith & Wesson and he’ll have you undressing. K-Dot’s secret is that he knows his audience fears feeling these inferior emotions he’s portraying. He’s apparently sacrificing his own reputation for their benefit.
K-Dot is indecisive in the face of big questions. He remains agnostic even as he’s dying of Holy thirst with his crew. Atheism is the easier conclusion for Nasty, who notices all the old folks praying to Jesus, soaking their sins in trays of holy water, but he doesn’t believe in none of that shit. Their facts are backwards. He was already sent to hell for snuffing Jesus by then anyhow. It’s unlikely that K-Dot is willing to snuff anyone, much less the son of anyone’s God.
“Not stories by Aesop”
“My point intended is raw”
Nasty ends Illmatic with raps that should be locked in a cell. He’s ready to go to jail for his lyrics. His rhymes are capable of inciting a riot. K-Dot is relieved at luckily avoiding his first offense from a burglary. If, as Sohail Daulatzai’s Born To Use Mics essay “A Rebel To America” suggests, N.W.A. declared war, and Illmatic was the blueprint for the insurgency, good kid, m.A.A.d city is the journey for self-sovereignty after the dust has settled.
K-Dot adds to Nasty’s hyperrealism layers of directness, divulgence and dénouement. Nasty Nas is half-man, half-amazing, an idealized version of self that’s been a Hip Hop default from the genre’s inception. K-Dot is just a man, any self-glorification burdened by the ugly truths, choices, and contradictions of his late teenage years.
good kid, m.A.A.d city is a relaxation of the rap ego. It introduces a hero who can learn from mistakes and alludes to a buoyant individual, affirmed as an adult by surviving a tumultuous adolescence without having to hit rock bottom to get right. The K-Dot character is a traceable evolution, not a revolution, in Hip Hop storytelling.
Stories do not tell themselves. Emcees make choices about what details to hide and what to show. They often choose to show what’s convenient. The post-Illmatic major label Hip Hop stories have amounted to a half-assed assessment of the American experiment. It hovers even shallower to the surface when the author is young and eager to fit an overused mold, when ironically, they’re at their storytelling prime. Sketching two-dimensional characters will always result in a flat story. It’s rarely, if ever, the human story.
Illmatic took Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s “The Message” to the next level, surveying street life and adding Nasty Nas as a character. It wasn’t significant just for Hip Hop. It was significant for telling the story for what it was like to live in New York City housing projects at the tail end of the crack era. Nasty humanizes that history in his reportage.
good kid, m.A.A.d city, isn’t just the next step of storytelling in Hip Hop. It’s an artifact typifying how a teenager dealt with the temptations of his devilish city immediately before the great recession hit. K-Dot is perhaps the roundest character in Hip Hop lore, set against a backdrop borrowed from the diagram of the genre’s strongest storytelling album. K-Dot’s character goes where other rap stories, like Rick Ross’ “Memoirs of a Rich Nigga,” haven’t the breadth or the guts to go. Forget about what’s real and what’s fiction. This is raw disclosure.
Rawness isn’t lacking in Malcolm X’s storytelling. After getting busted for a slew of Boston burglaries, having fled folks hunting for his head in Harlem, he went to prison. The harem world that sucked the young Detroit Red first into prostitute steering, then reefer peddling, running numbers, bootlegging liquor, wearing guns as neckties, and treating narcotics like food we know of because he described it so vividly.
The story of how he navigated that setting took more. He had to tell his own story, as accurately as he could — those vivid streets, his wickedness and his weakness side by side — to communicate his truth. A true story in fiction or memoir, a line Hip Hop will forever smudge, is more than a recounting of events. It’s the emotion. It’s the truth about the fact. It needs all the pieces.
As he readies in his story to head to prison, Malcolm X breaks to state his authorial intent:
“I want to say before I go on that I have never previously told anyone my sordid past in detail. I haven’t done it now to sound as though I might be proud of how bad, how evil, I was. But people are always speculating — why am I as I am? To understand that of any person, his whole life, from birth, must be reviewed. All our experiences fuse into our personality. Everything that ever happened to us is an ingredient.”
Until this October, Hip Hop didn’t have the courage to include some of those ingredients in its story.
Alex Dweezy Dwyer has written about Hip Hop for eight years, coincidentally the same year he got his first passport stamp in Paris. He's since lived in Rio De Janiero, Madrid, visited many other countries and spoken to many emcees. He currently lives in Chongqing, China but calls Los Angeles home. Follow him on Twitter @adweezy.