Stories stick with you—it’s not for nothing that so many lessons directed at children are presented as fables. But Lamar's stories won’t be parables. The conscious rapper out to save us all—that’s not him. That's not to say he’s without a conscience. When asked if he thinks his fellow ’80s babies aren’t living right, he responds: “It’s not that we aren’t living right, we’re just not aware of how we’re living. My whole thing is to make people focus. I’ve done some fucked-up shit, and I make myself think about it: ‘Damn, why did I do that?’ I think that’s what my music does.”

 

The crowd at Jones Beach rocks to “A.D.H.D.,” vibing to the sound of a party where you’re drunk and high and a little upset without quite knowing why, and you sense that everyone around you feels the same—a kinship born of shared solitude. But it’s a tenuous connection, and so you keep smoking and drinking in hopes that the feeling will last. Of course, it can’t and it won’t.

 

A Wiz crowd is high. Theyʼre not finna participate in nothing. They just want to listen and feel good.

 

The moment passes and the spark goes out. After finishing a few more songs, Lamar leaves, clearing the way for Mac Miller to do what he does. Back in the bus, he changes from his stage clothes into a button-up with Looney Tunes characters—Bugs, Taz, and Daffy—peeking out from the breast pocket. It’s the sort of thing someone could’ve purchased from the Warner Bros. Studio Store at their local mall in the ’90s, when malls still had Warner Bros. Studio stores. (Section.80 will remember.) “A Wiz crowd is high,” Lamar says of the lackluster response. “Theyʼre not finna participate in nothing, they just want to listen and feel good.”

Ultimately, Lamar's music doesn’t offer many moments to just feel good. Something else is always happening below the surface, and you can’t shake the nagging feeling that you need to pay closer attention. The details of his narratives resonate most with a particular audience—those ’80s babies, glutted on TV and Adderall. They’ve shared similar experiences, have the same points of reference, and though many of their vices encourage superficial engagement, one of their own is making music that requires a slower pace and a deeper commitment.

He tells one last story before the night is over, a story about “Keisha’s Song” from Section.80. The lyrics paint a vivid picture of a teenage girl who becomes a prostitute. Across three verses, he narrates her struggle—and even connects her back-seat exploits to Rosa Parks—moving the listener from Long Beach Boulevard to the car interiors where she turns tricks, before describing her murder at the hands of a john. It’s an amazing, heartbreaking song. And then, before the last repetition of the hook, he emerges from the story to reveal the artifice behind it, like a magician coming out from behind the curtain: “My little sister eleven, I looked her right in the face/The day that I wrote this song, set her down and pressed play.”

So did it work? Did she understand?

“I can’t say that she understood what I was talking about,” he says, sounding untroubled, even a little amused. “She likes a good song, but she’s young. It might be a little too introspective for her. She understood where I was coming from, as far as a big brother and having respect for me.”

Those who need good kid, m.A.A.d city the most exist in a sweet spot that even a member of Lamar's own family has yet to reach. Those anxious for the LP, an audience ranging from Dre to Lady Gaga, will receive it like a tonic. For those looking for something more fun, or immediate, look to Lamar's sister. She hasn’t grown into the music yet, but someday she’ll catch up.

And when she does, her brother’s music will be waiting.

This feature is a part of Complex's "good kid, m.A.A.d city" Week.

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