Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The “To Pimp a Butterfly” artist comes from a long line of Compton rappers, but none have represented the city like he does today.
Throughout the 1990s, the tiny city of Compton, the hub city of Los Angeles county, was synonymous with gun violence and gangsta rappers— a reputation that became so outsized that the city was reduced to caricature for it. Today, it’s taken more seriously, not just because of it’s precipitous drop in violent crime, but for the soaring rise of its native son Kendrick Lamar, the often-grinning rapper who on January 14 was awarded the key to the city from its mayor, Aja Brown.
“Mr. Lamar's achievements further Compton's legacy of ingenuity and excellence. Kendrick Lamar represents Compton's evolution, embodying the New Vision for Compton: Purpose, Prosperity and Progress," said Brown in a press release. Lamar will receive the prestigious award during a special city ceremony on February 12.
Compton has evolved a great deal from the Crips-and-Bloods image it earned based on tales spun in songs by rap groups like N.W.A. and Compton’s Most Wanted. These groups seemed to follow in the L.A.-Noir tradition of narrative styling, but it wasn’t all attitude and exaggerated crime sagas.
The musical universe that emerged out of Compton provided America with a vivid glimpse into what the War on Drugs looked like in terms of blood and bodycount. In fact, the Iran-Contra affair may have seemed inconsequential to many people if these hip-hop dispatches didn’t report how the Nicaraguan drugs imported through that scandal were ripping cities like Compton apart.
By 1991, Compton was running a murder rate of roughly 90 per capita, an extremely high number for a city that has never had more than 100,000 residents. Between 1999 and 2004, it was averaging 49 murders per capita. By comparison, that number is about the same as that of Baltimore—population over 620,000— which is the city’s highest homicide rate ever. Where Crips and Bloods once fought over turf in Compton and across Los Angeles, they were now fighting over control of the local cocaine market.
Compton’s songs also exposed the nation to the worsening scourge of rampant police racial profiling and brutality (in case the 1965 Watts riots hadn’t made this clear enough). This map below, created by the real-estate data start-up project Neighborhood X, shows how the songs of artists like N.W.A., DJ Quik, and Kendrick Lamar have somewhat shaped the narrative and literal landscape of Compton.
(Map provided courtesy of Constantine Valhouli, co-founder of Neighborhood X. This map originally appeared in The Los Angeles Times.)
But what falls through the verisimilitude of these Compton artists’ verses are the stories of African Americans who never got caught up in the drugs and violence. N.W.A. may have put Compton on the map, but the perhaps unintended consequence was that they made it into a place that not many people would want to visit. N.W.A.’s Compton projected the image of a wasteland filled with abandoned warehouses and parks carpeted with bullets instead of grass.
In reality, Compton was home to a great number of thriving working-to-middle-class African American families in the 1980s and ‘90s. The city was and is filled with single-family, ranch-style homes with huge front and back lawns. In the Oscar-nominated movie Straight Outta Compton, you see N.W.A. rapper Eazy E. in the opening segment getting chased by police through a neighborhood that could easily be mistaken for a rosy suburb. Compton still has its share of blighted housing, but overall it is not a slum.
Suge Knight—perhaps the largest, bully-est, villain-est, gansta-est avatar for Compton, his birthplace—did not grow up in a ghetto. As pointed out in a Rolling Stone profile of Knight, he grew up in a two-bedroom house to two “strong, loving” married parents. There has been plenty of poverty and crime in the city, but that need not be the city’s definition.
Which is why Kendrick Lamar is a such an apt representative. His songs complicate the Compton narrative by telegraphing both its dreams and its nightmares. His 2012 album, G.O.O.D. Kid, M.A.A.D City, was the tale not just of cold-hearted gangbangers lionized through Crip/Blood mythology, but rather kids who have the same fears, anxieties, dreams, and aspirations of kids in any other city. His follow-up album, To Pimp a Butterfly, is the saga of a kid on the verge of turning his life around, but manically worried that he’s unprepared for success.
That’s exactly where the city of Compton is today. It was placed on the map in the 1980s as a mad city, but now it’s on the cusp of a turnaround. In 2012, the city’s murder rate dropped to half of what it was in 2000. Crime in general has dropped so low that the housing market is surging. Its mayor, one of the youngest in America, seems determined to turn Compton into a buoyant new Brooklyn.
All of that good news could, of course, suddenly make Compton unaffordable to live in for many black and Latino residents. Like Brooklyn. If that day comes, then Compton would become a victim of its own success—exactly the kind of quandary that Lamar is brilliant in rhyming about. The message that his Compton parables impart is that it’s OK to be unsure of what the future brings. The old Compton that seemed to have little hope or vision about its future could have been mistaken for dead, but Lamar wants us to know that Compton is still very much alive.