This month marked the 7th anniversary of Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city. Recognised as a modern hip-hop classic, the record launched the genre to new artistic and commercial heights. Kendrick’s poetic lyricism and storytelling captured the history of rap and street life for a whole new generation of listeners. One particular track on the album, “The Art of Peer Pressure” serves as a microcosmic narrative for keen listeners searching for the deeper meaning behind the album as a whole.
Set in the humble streets of Compton, the song opens with a prologue from Kendrick telling listeners to sit our “bitch ass[es] down” to hear his tale. Vinyl pops crackle into your ears, and a G Funk melody sets the chill Californian vibe. However, this soon gives way to a deep bass drone and sinister atmosphere as Kendrick begins describing “one night with the homies”.
The story follows Kendrick and his boys “four deep in a white Toyota” cruising the streets of LA, looking for trouble. After a pick-up game of basketball, they drive down the infamous Rosecranz Avenue, heading towards the affluent suburbs of Westchester.
Based on his lyrics, the rough roadmap for this eventful night is as follows (Westchester High is included as a possible reference to the teenagers cruising for “light-skinned girls in all the little dresses”[x]1):
The alcohol and weed get passed around, and soon the boys find themselves outside a house quite unlike those back in Compton. They know the house, and emboldened by adolescent male energy, they decide to rob the place.
Kendrick then describes a break-and-enter burglary, followed by a prompt escape from the police. The song abruptly ends with a skit featuring the boys nonchalantly discussing their next steps.
At face value, a song like “The Art of Peer Pressure” is an easy target for rap critics blaming hip-hop artists for promoting a life of crime and glamorising anti-social behaviour. This completely misses the point of both the song, and Kendrick’s mission on good kid, m.A.A.d city.
At the end of Verse 2, Kendrick raps:
I never was a gangbanger, I mean
I never was stranger to the fonk neither, I really doubt it
Rush a nigga quick and then we laugh about it
That’s ironic, ’cause I’ve never been violent
Until I’m with the homies
In five simple lines, Kendrick captures the tension of life in a place like Compton. Despite one’s best efforts, it’s all too easy to fall into the trap set up by those we trust the most. It’s a never-ending battle between what you wish you could be, and what others want you to be/see you as. It’s no coincidence that the song’s title is also a reference to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.
As Kendrick told Complex:
Immediately when I heard the beat, I just want[ed] to take people on that ride, on that journey. It’s about being a teenager from L.A. and being influenced by your peers and who you’re hanging out with.
For Kendrick, it was important for him to tell the story from his first person perspective. When good kid, m.A.A.d city was released, he was 25 years old, with his adolescent years well behind him. Wisdom and benefit of hindsight allowed him to create an album that told this personal yet universal story. Upon release, it immediately struck a chord with listeners. He told GQ Australia:
That was our world. I remember when good kid came out, the people I grew up with couldn’t understand how we made that translate through music. They literally cried tears of joy when they listened to it – because these are people who have been shunned out of society. But I know the kinds of hearts they have; they’re great individuals. And for me to tell my story, which is their story as well, they feel that someone has compassion for us, someone does see us further than just killers or drug dealers. We were just kids.
As “The Art of Peer Pressure” tells a self-contained story about misguided youth, it reflects the overarching theme of the album – about a good kid trying to survive in a m.A.A.d city.
For some anointed ones, like Kendrick Lamar, they are able to make it out in a good way. Unfortunately, the reality of life on the unforgiving streets of Compton means that not all the kids escape those pressures.
This becomes a motif that reverberates throughout Kendrick’s later music too. On 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, the introspective and confronting track “u” is filled with self-doubt and themes of depression and guilt for having left behind his homies caught in the maad city. Even at the peak of his career, it is clear that there is no true rest or escape from the pressures of your upbringing.
Kendrick explained to MTV:
When I was on that tour bus and things is happening back home in my city or in my family that I can’t do nothing about, it’s out of my control, [and to] put it in God’s hands, I couldn’t understand that. That can draw a thin line between you having your sanity and you losing it. This is how artists deteriorate if you don’t catch yourself.”
“It’s real, man. Three of my homeboys [one] summertime was murdered, close ones too — not just somebody that I hear about. These [are] people I grew up with. It all, psychologically, it messes your brain up. You live in this life…but you still have to face realities of this. I gotta get back off that tour bus and go to these funerals, talk to my mom and talk to their aunties — the kids that lost their lives.
Or as Snoop Dogg says it elsewhere on that album:
You can take your boy out the hood
But you can’t take the hood out the homie
These ideas presented by Kendrick are common topics in both pop culture and academic study. From Boyz N The Hood (1991) to The Hate U Give (book: 2017, film: 2018), the idea of social pressures on black adolescents is an ongoing discussion. As social sciences highlight the convoluted intersections of racism, classism, poverty, culture and tradition, combined with hundreds of years of charged history…there is simply no clear cut solution2.
Kendrick Lamar gives a voice to his people. His songs are filled with nuance and creativity, and listeners can place themselves in the shoes of the song’s and album’s narrator. The larger significance however, is that listeners from all over the world can hear a highly personal and affective account of life in a place like Compton. Digging into the narrative creates a flow of empathy between the most unlikeliest of places and backgrounds. Everyone faces peer pressure, and everyone has their own m.A.A.d city, but Kendrick shows us what it’s like in his own, so we can all experience “one lucky night with the homies”.
1 For another in-depth look at the narrative road map of GKMC, check out this Genius forum post