Writer in Residence

On Kendrick Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d city

By Irfan Ali

Music has always been part of my DNA. I consumed it with the same intensity as I did literature, and at no less voracious a rate. Large swaths of my adolescence were spent lying on the floor, eyes closed and headphones on, letting myself get fully subsumed by the soundscape. As it did for many others, music had a specific function in my early life: it was the filtering medium through which I was able to distill and understand my emotions. Though maturity has thankfully led to me developing enough emotional literacy to no longer need the proxy, that’s ironically been the most true in recent years in relation to one specific musical project: Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 sophomore album good kid, m.A.A.d city

Apologies to my friends who’ve heard this story ad nauseum, but late 2014/early 2015 was the most challenging time in my life, one that brought me perilously close to suicide. This culminated in April 2015 when, while trying to reflect on and understand what had driven me to that point, I came to an epiphany that allowed me to make sense of some of the most difficult questions I’d been grappling with.

Right after the epiphany struck, I started compiling a list of everything I’d been doing in the weeks beforehand, figuring that if I was ever knocked out of that newfound understanding, I could revisit some of those items to jumpstart my journey back. ‘Listening to good kid, m.A.A.d city on repeat’ topped that list.

That wasn’t a coincidence either. A few years earlier, my friend and mentor Emily Pohl-Weary had, when I’d asked her how to organize a poetry collection, advised me that a structure would reveal itself and that, once it did, I’d know what gaps needed to be filled. The day after my epiphany I knew implicitly that my collection had to tell the story of how I’d arrived at it and began writing. When I finished the first draft, it became clear to me how similar my own experiences and the art that came out of them mirrored those of Kendrick recounted on the album. Both begin as romances that veer off into other territory. Both focus on the damaging expectations of traditional masculinity. Both have faith as a major driver within their narratives. And both culminate in self-confrontations through which the protagonists are able to finally understand what it means to love.

Like all great art, good kid, m.A.A.d city continues to resonate years after its release. In fact, I’d argue that it’s even more relevant now. The Covid-19 pandemic has, amongst other things, highlighted the dangers of traditional and uncritical forms of masculinity. Whether it be in soaring rates of domestic violence, the performative aggression of right-wing militias, political strongmen eschewing science in the face of a deadly virus, or men’s fears that they’ll look less manly ‘hiding’ behind a facemask, these masculinities are literally killing people right now. 

good kid, m.A.A.d city functions as a sort of roadmap for those struggling to navigate these expressions of masculinity. Though its narrative focuses on a young black man’s struggles in South Central LA, its essence I feel is universal. Its impact on me, an asthmatic brown kid from North West Toronto, certainly indicates as much. 

If you find yourself grappling with questions of self-love or masculinity, especially now, maybe take a listen. Clear a space on the floor, lie down, plug in your headphones, close your eyes, and give the album your full attention for its 68 minute runtime. Maybe it won’t be as important to you as it was to me. But, at the very least, you’ll get to listen to some really good music.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Irfan Ali is a poet, essayist, writer, and educator. His short poetry collection, Who I Think About When I Think About You was shortlisted for the 2015 Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers. Accretion is his first full-length work. Irfan was born, raised, and still lives in Toronto.