Snubbing Shakespeare: The literary merits of Good Kid mAAd City

23 Sep 2014

On the face of it, an album headline single proudly proclaiming, ‘I pray my dick get big as the Eiffel Tower so I can fuck the world for seventy-two hours’, seems a little out of place on the curriculum of a Freshman English class. The Grammy nominated and critically-acclaimed sophomore album of Kendrick Lamar took the Hip-Hop community by storm in 2012, elevating his name above all contemporaries within the genre. Good Kid mAAd City (GKMC) became an instant classic; recent accolades and its status a core component of an English syllabus serving only to exemplify its standing. Perhaps a question that can be genuinely asked now: has Lamar’s effort made the first step in reshaping the content of literary education?


It may be understandable for people ignorant of the genre of Hip-Hop to assume GKMC as a mere microcosm for its staples: Sex, Drugs, Guns, Violence and Misogyny. And, on the face of it, one’s suspicions may be confirmed.


Laid out like a Hollywood blockbuster, GKMC, like many of the great movies (Inception, Pulp Fiction, Fight Club) starts at the end. Lamar and his friends are praying to God although at this moment the path which led them to the parish is unknown. What slowly unfolds is an emotive narrative transitioning his perspective from ‘I want money and power’ and ‘God damn I’ve got bitches’ to ‘[receiving] Jesus to take control of [his] life’; all conveyed through his peer-pressure descent into Compton gangsta lifestyle, resulting in him being assaulted and witnessing his friend’s brother dying in his arms.


In a little over an hour Lamar’s semi-autobiographical masterpiece hit myself and many others harder than any Shakespeare play ever managed.


Exploring themes of crime, poverty, vices, human nature, religion and ultimately the raging battle within: instilled values vs peer pressure, GKMC is at least tantamount to classic literary pieces analysed by students, such as James Baldwin’s Going to Meet the Man. Does a question remain to be answered about whether the genre of Rhythm And Poetry deserves to be more represented and respected in literary analysis courses? For one, who says that literature must be confined to poetry and plays written long ago; surely it would be ignorant to argue that a dynamic could not be added to Post-War literature through analysis of Rap in classes. Where best to look to analyse and digest contemporary issues than contemporary literature itself. It could certainly interest many a youth who may roll their eyes at even the mention of Shakespeare. Reflecting on my time in school, I remember the insight and historical context analysing Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changing gave me when examining 20th century protest in the US; a welcome substitute for normal History class sources such as New York Times extracts. Does J. Cole’s heartfelt tribute to shooting victim Michael Brown in Ferguson, not evoke the emotions felt at the time in relation to the tragedy and contain them for an eternity, much like Dylan’s classic?


Maybe Lamar’s audio screenplay is just the beginning of a wave of new media in education. It seems perverse for everything in our vision to be evolving with time, representative of the age we live in, but for a core tenet of education to remain so archaic. Everyone should be encouraged to engage in viewing and analysis of shows like The Wire; bringing to light and internalising issues of poverty and struggle, the complexity of the true nature of crime: ‘what is the meaning of CRIME? Is it Criminals Robbing Innocent Motherfuckers Everytime?’. The Wire brings to the attention of any viewer the nature of the Greasy Pole environment that encapsulates today’s neo-liberal, busy society, and the depth behind every seemingly simple decision, business or personal.


A History/Politics/Sociology student trying to grasp the complexity of realpolitik? Why not watch Game of Thrones’ juxtaposition of anarchy and stabilising norms. Actions speak louder than words, and the true nature of anarchy could not be explained better or in a more entertaining fashion than the HBO blockbuster.


Our country's decision makers may have lived in a time where such change seemed revolutionary but, today, the neglect of new media in education just seems esoteric, arbitrary and backwards. I’m not advocating a total upheaval of traditional literature, rather a small addition broadening a narrow spectrum. The literary merits of many Rap albums are undeniable, no matter how much of a prude occupies the Westminster suit. From Nas’ NYC street tales, Kanye’s social commentary, to the GZA’s vivid descriptive imagery of society through analogies and metaphors, token analysis has proven the worth of Hip-Hop as literary asset. Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid mAAd City embodies the modern prowess of Hip-Hop as a medium that would be invaluable to a modern education. And even if one were to conclude that ironic, anti-drinking, pre-drink anthem 'Swimming Pools' couldn’t hold a candle to Shakespeare, it certainly bangs harder than Sonnet 29 on Subwoofers.


By Adam Isaacs

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