I Got a Story to Tell: Narrative Techniques in Hip-Hop and Rap Music PART III
In this final installment of my brief exploration of literary hip-hop, I’d like to discuss one of the biggest names in the genre today: Kendrick Lamar. Lamar’s 2012 major label debut album, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, was well received by fans and critics alike, and many of the album’s themes come to a head in one of the title tracks: “m.A.A.d. city.” Check out the audio here: And the lyrics here.
One of the largest aspects of traditional literature that appears in “m.A.A.d. city” is the setting. The city of Compton, CA becomes integral to the fabric of the story, with the song’s narrator (essentially Lamar himself—the piece is semi-autobiographical) stating early on that it “seems like the whole city go against me” and another voice eschewing personal relationships for a person’s origins: “fuck who you know, where you from?” The city becomes almost a character in the piece itself, and it is clear why the title refers to the setting, as is the case with classic novels like “The Old Man and the Sea,” or “A Tale of Two Cities” (imagine Dickens writing about South-Central Los Angeles rather than London).
A theme that becomes very prevalent in the song is that of trauma. The entire album, and “m.A.A.d. city” especially, explore themes of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, brought on by the gang violence and drug use. PTSD is often explored in literature about war, and Lamar describes things that would not be out of place on a battlefield: a person “with his brains blown out,” bodies on top of bodies,” and a his first drug experience, which left him “foaming at the mouth.” It is clear that on this “trip down memory lane” that a series of traumatic experiences tied to the city of Compton have had a profound influence on the character of the narrator. He even mentions PTSD and its tie to war directly, by saying, “this is… not the drill sergeant, but the stress that weighing on your brain,” perhaps a reference to the critically acclaimed war film Full Metal Jacket. Lamar shows the effects of his PTSD by fragmenting the narrative into two distinct pieces, as well as telling many aspects of the story out of order, a technique employed by other PTSD-war novels such as Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony.
With the non-linear narrative, fragmented main character, and bridge between high culture (film, literature, spoken word poetry) and low culture (gang violence, gangster rap, etc.) Lamar achieves what I call Hip-hop Postmodernism. His story is one that could easily be told in other media and be hailed as a literary exposé of life in South-Central Los Angeles, and he tells it with the same prowess as any great storyteller.