A discourse on the writing and themes of Philadelphia pop-punk in Suburbia I’ve Given You All And Now I’m Nothing and Compton hip-hop in Good Kid, M.A.A.D City.
Stories are the oldest form of entertainment. Over the centuries, the captivation has developed into new artistic mediums, but the root is still there: testimonies of life, narratives of experience. The staff at Mind Equals Blown understands how stories have laid the foundation for some of our favorite music over the years, and while every account has specific circumstances and an individual perspective, we realized that some of us have more in common than we think. Of course, that’s why we’re drawn to others’ stories in the first place.
So why not compare albums in terms of their themes and lyrical style? Just because artists grew up in different cities, went to different schools, hung out with different cultures of people, and continue to play to different crowds every night doesn’t mean they don’t go through the same things. This is the basis for a series called The Chronicled Connection. In each edition, we will choose two albums that seemingly diverge in form or context, but have more in common than meets the eye, and that’s because of the descript, relatable stories they tell.
Suburbia I’ve Given You All And Now I’m Nothing / The Wonder Years:
Suburbia I’ve Given You All And Now I’m Nothing begins with a clip of Allen Ginsberg reciting the line, “My mind is made up / there’s going to be trouble,” from his poem “America”. With the album title being a direct re-working of the poem’s disarming first phrase, a thin line appears between inspiration and imitation.
However, the imagery on Suburbia doesn’t give the sense of being directly derivative of Ginsberg; primarily because The Wonder Years’ Dan Campbell is aware of the fact that he’s telling a set of stories that are a world removed from Ginsberg’s post-cold war, beat “America”. Campbell repeats and augments phrases to draw a link to the feelings of emotional turmoil that Ginsberg described, and further, to note their persistence across circumstances and generations. The confusion and frustration that resonate throughout “America” are all over Suburbia despite the former’s decidedly more discursive and political leanings. After 40 minutes of attempting to draw out the poem’s themes Campbell ultimately laments his inability to capture the beauty of the album’s muse, singing “I had dreams of myself / as the Allen Ginsberg of this generation / but without the talent, madness or vision / I guess it’s looking hopeless” in the album’s closing track.
And yet, Suburbia thrives in its appreciation of context. Like Ginsberg, Campbell writes with a perspective that looks outward as a respite for its introspection. While he remains the narrator, he is cognizant, and deeply interested in his surroundings. On “I’ve Given You All”, he sees his sorrow reflected by the scenery of Philadelphia, tragically describing the homeless and vagrant people that he has become familiar with. It’s the supporting characters, in all their humanity, that give Suburbia breadth and cohesion. The drug-problem waitresses in “Hoodie Weather”, the directionless friends on “Summers In PA”, are all important to the story because of the personal awareness that they inspire in Campbell. His willingness to draw meaning from the extras and the side plots is his greatest strength as a storyteller.
Because of this, Suburbia feels less like an album that you passively listen to and more like one that you become experienced with. The characters and scenery, and the emotional reactions that they evoke, become more familiar with each listen. When Campbell sings “I kind of always knew / we’d write a song about this” about the death of a friend, it is immediately reminiscent of his stories about late nights at Denny’s and how there’s something about weeknights in the summer with the same people five songs earlier. The empathy it inspires is more nuanced than an “I’ve felt that before” moment because the album is built on contextual details, and centered around a multidimensional character living in vivid situations.
Suburbia is a story worth listening to for many of the same reasons that “America” is. The narration is active and intricate, and the situations grow massive in the lens of the writer.
Written by Gene Buonaccorsi
Good Kid, M.A.A.D City / Kendrick Lamar:
Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City begins with a prayer. The line “Lord, I come to you a sinner,” comes from a teen impersonation of Kendrick Lamar, and the unsettling stench of wrongdoing is immediately bellowed out. There is a moral compass by which this record operates, with trouble insinuated from the very whiff of Lamar’s verses. And it’s not a mere repetition of West Coast hip-hop, nor is it an angry finger wagged in the face of Compton gang life and overconsumption. Instead, it’s a real-life tale of a boy, a town, and the important choices bred from relationships and influence.
Being inspired by idols is a childhood typicality, and for Lamar, hip-hop players from his hometown rule the land. Seeing 2Pac and Dr. Dre during his adolescence perhaps was the spark that brought Lamar to where he is today. But it would be nothing if not for avoiding trouble. As Pirus and Crips share the crown with rap, there’s an evil construct of royalty that – as he explains on “The Art of Peer Pressure” – seeped through his friends and was then extended to him. But the entire town metaphorically turned its back on the rapper at a young age. He says “Seems like the whole city go against me” in “M.A.A.D. City”, hinting at a war not just in gang violence, but of an entire culture that tried to ruin him. Lamar took his jazzy, low-keyed style from the city’s rap stars, with that being the furthest inclination he aspired to continue.
Because the rapper exhibits an ability to consume his surroundings without always doing so in a physical sense, they’re able to cling with him as his youth prevails. And it’s not that he hasn’t given in. He’s far too subtle in his warnings for this to be a “how to” guide. Instead, the events are told more or less as they occurred. When audio skits aren’t the telling factors, Lamar is grinding through his past with no remorse, and it’s quite powerful. In “Swimming Pools (Drank)” he parades around the party life, and in “Sherane A.K.A. Master Splinter’s Daughter” he depicts a sin-filled relationship in an elated way. The situations bring choices that most people have had to make as they evolve, with friendships and acceptance being the keys to happiness. By the record’s finale, he is referring to himself as “King Kendrick Lamar”. He could be at last receiving such a name because he made the right decisions, or because he found his own happiness.
Lamar learned through experience the dangers of corrupt culture and peer pressure. And by presenting his past in full form, he brings vibrancy to a scary place. Good Kid, M.A.A.D City is a horror story told with a full spectrum of human emotions; all necessary for people to feel what growing up is like in his “America”.
Written by Tim Dodderidge
The Final Story:
1) “Came Out Swinging” and “Sherane A.K.A. Master Splinter’s Daughter”:
Suburbia starts off with a song of interior struggle. Unlike The Upsides, where Campbell looks at his surroundings to draw out whatever type of sadness he’s going through (the call-outs and the typical not-fitting-in ailments), the frontman deals with himself. He points out a lack of complacency as he exclaims, “I left a real job and a girlfriend,” and imprints the placement of one man in the society he lives in before really digging deep into that society.
Lamar uses the opening track on Good Kid, M.A.A.D City to examine himself as well. However, he uses a relationship with a girl as the gateway to sinful Compton culture. By leaning towards family and human relationships before his metaphorical relationship with the city in general, he’s able to find a human connection point early on. The prayer skit in the beginning of the song juxtaposes a lustful relationship with a young Sherane, a love that is – with figurative language of his profession – “deep rooted, the music of being young and dumb.” The Master Splinter reference points out her “hoodrat” status, leaving an initiation point for Lamar to wind back to later in the record, with evil hopping from person to person and aiming to infest the entire town.
Perhaps Campbell shows maturity by reflecting on his own ailments, but more than anything, his inner emotions help draw in the listener with relatable context about his life specifically. Lamar does the same, starting instead with the beginnings of a childhood of temptations instead of Campbell’s 20-something realities. Both are songs of struggle, and both pull off the lid of what soon turns into a full-blown perspective on growing up.
2) “I Won’t Say The Lord’s Prayer” and “The Art of Peer Pressure”:
With Lamar’s opening track giving a wide-eyed notion of the way relational exchanges cause Compton to continue falling deep into crime and abuse, he continues to tell stories of human influence to show its drastic effects. “The Art of Peer Pressure” really speaks for itself. Even from the record’s title, the rapper defines himself as a “good kid” who has moral regards – that is, unless it’s “me and the homies.” That’s when he shows where he crossed the line on his own values by doing drugs and robbing houses during his adolescence.
The Wonder Years discuss societal influence as well, and from Campbell’s own experiences, the negative effects of bible bashing in the Philly area. It’s the opposite of Lamar’s pressing problem of being torn between having friends and making the right choices, but the other spectrum shows the exact same extremities. Instead of people making their own choices (and in M.A.A.D City, a lot of poor ones), he describes “scare tactics” as he says, “They don’t ask you to think / just to repeat after me.” With imagery of churches and their run-down appearances, he showcases elements of suburbia that feel outdated, along with the human parallels of “outdated morality.”
The divided takes on religion bring a wide scope of opinions and thoughts from both writers. For Campbell, he sees lots of negatives. Rather than being an inner battle against the influence of organized religion, it stills seems to have influence on him, rubbing him away from it in general. Lamar is more on the other side, especially considering the opening prayer for forgiveness; it’s almost as if following a figure like Jesus Christ could help him from falling into the same trap as the “misguided” Compton residents, or accepting that everyone falls short – even the city’s straight-A angels. Either way, it’s the righteousness that seems to drive him.
What the stories on both ends of America demonstrate is the influence of culture and humanity, and the developmental makeup of locations. Ideas, beliefs, and morals make people who they are, and people make places what they are.
3) “Suburbia” and “M.A.A.D City”:
These two songs are realistic and detailed; yet they’re drastically negative depictions of Philly and Compton. The common characteristic is crime, and wrongdoings as the cause of societal downturns and the eventual corrosion of an area. For the short musing of “Suburbia”, it’s the arson of a bowling alley that represents lots of things, but most of all it helps Campbell in looking back and seeing the reality of human nature. In fact, he even uses such actions to explain the town as well. “The whole town feels dead,” he says, as if it’s a living organism, “I can’t blame it.” The frontman practically sympathizes with the place, which runs back to the opening track and Campbell’s regression.
A lot of the problems in “Suburbia” were caused by time: the economy not being good for the area, and generations changing. In “M.A.A.D City,” Lamar realizes that the passed-down gang culture could lead to the demise of Compton (and himself) if he doesn’t go down a different path. And, between his intense ramblings describe haunting corruption and violence, Compton native MC Eiht jumps in and provides more than just extra lines about shootings and drug abuse. He provides a generational connection, not just as a 90s star: the town’s culture is passed down from father to son, and Lamar hopes for more kids ending up like him (“Our next generation maybe can sleep / With dreams of being a lawyer or doctor / Instead of a boy with a chopper,” he says).
4) “And Now I’m Nothing” and “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”:
The latter may not be the album’s closer, but Lamar uses it as his epic, emotional finale, with “Compton” more of the credits song. It wraps up a lot of the rapper’s thoughts into one package; a good chunk of the record is talk of his experiences, and this track is more of a reflection and opening to the overall context, tackling things like home, aging, salvation, and even death. In “And Now I’m Nothing”, Campbell continues to detail his life, but he intertwines lines about the city and his home with some lyrics about success and aspirations.
For Campbell, the ender is a light way to finish an often-excruciating Suburbia. “It’s a nice tradition,” the vocalist says of stealing baby Jesus from a park’s manger scene. Instead of getting dense with the topics of growing up and moving on, he packs a smaller load as he moves from his parents’ basement into his friend Richie’s house. The progression is a positive note to mull on, but the last stanza leaves a few things to ponder. As the failed “Allen Ginsberg of this generation” and more of the continuation of this century’s intimate pop-punk scene, Campbell uses his struggles throughout the album to explain how getting better doesn’t have to end, nor does The Wonder Years have to hit an end note so soon. It’s a spring of togetherness, but it hasn’t dried up like his hometown has. And he’s right about the band, too, as the follow-up, The Greatest Generation, hits a ton of untapped potential.
Good Kid, M.A.A.D City touches upon inspiration as well. Whether it’s the West Coast rap Lamar grew up with or just the people who have closely impacted him during his lifetime, there’s a long, winding road to where he got today and what kind of role he’s taking up in modern day hip-hop. The hook “And if I die before your album drop I hope / Promise that you will sing about me” reminds of the all-too-common cycle of death and remembrance. By using both a positive and negative story of people he knows, he’s able to give true portrayal of their lives rather than taking on the role of a director.
In the last notes of “Sing About Me,” Lamar cries out “I’m tired of tumbling, tired of running.” While he isn’t caught up in the storm anymore, so many people – not just in Compton, but also around the world (even in Philly) – still are, and he seeks the world’s wholeness as he does his savior. His stories are the part of him that’s endless, and, like the writings of Campbell, they’re a way to continue the unraveling of humankind. It may not always be in East Coast pop-punk, West-Coast hip-hop, or any correlations of the two, but growing up is, and always will be, a part of everyone.
Written by Tim Dodderidge