Music Geography 101: Kendrick Lamar (Compton, CA)

I recently assigned my Geography 101 course a writing project whereby they select a song with geographically-oriented content and report on all of that song’s inherent regionalisms. In the body of their assignment text, I include a list of suggested songs for anybody who may be interested in them or may have difficulty selecting a song on their own. The following is one of them.

Kendrick Lamar – “Compton State of Mind”

A few short years before Kendrick Lamar made modern music history with Good Kid m.a.a.d City and To Pimp a Butterfly (two records that social scientists and journalists are going to still be pontificating on for decades), he was just another “good kid” trying to make something out of himself in a city notorious for holding people down. It’s hardly shocking that most people cannot imagine Compton without N.W.A. springing to mind, even though almost twenty-seven years have passed since they changed the world. Also, Ice Cube remains busy starring in family-friendly blockbusters and directing ESPN documentaries (to be fair, he did great work putting together the 30 for 30 on the cultural legacy of the Los Angeles Raiders).

My personal exposure to Compton was limited to Blue Line metro rides through there and about four friends who lived or had grown up there (three of whom were Latino; the black one was a librarian and Oi! punk fan who had been childhood friends with Easy-E. Go figure.) So what was it about Compton that still thrills so many outsiders? Like it’s anchor city to the north, it is full of violent contradictions and even in an era of heavy gentrification still presents itself without compromise. Kendrick Lamar has no pretensions about his hometown, and in his messy mix tape appearance, he raps his way through it. Fittingly, he would close out his 2012 masterpiece with another song called “Compton” featuring (who else?) Dr. Dre. But here, despite being destined for hip hop greatness, the “good kid” becomes the aural tour guide we never knew we needed.

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