When Moonlight snatched the Best Picture award from La La Land director Damien Chazelle, who was already quivering with excitement to share his latest Bird Parker anecdote on the Oscar stage, it was more a statement about art than race. However, the racial and cultural aspects of the true winner are impossible to ignore, and are what really made it my personal favorite movie of the year. While being a captivating rollercoaster of a movie, Moonlight’s soaring achievement was its depiction of the troubled youth of Chiron, the poor, black, and gay protagonist. I walked away from that movie feeling for only the second time in my life that I really understood what the millions who share Chiron’s abysmal upbringing have gone through.
What was the first time, you ask? About four years ago, I felt the exact same way; not about a film, but an album. This album, as you may have gathered from the title of this article, is Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City. Good Kid is a melodic, innovative, and emotional masterwork that almost singlehandedly got me to fully embrace rap music as a musical genre. But perhaps more importantly, it caused me to think about poverty and race in America in a completely new way, and maybe even understand it in ways that my white, suburban upbringing did not previously allow me to.
To me, Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City is the musical equivalent of Moonlight: a work of art that gives a human, relatable look into a downtrodden side of American society to those, like myself, who haven’t experienced it. These are the only works that strip away the hyperbole and show listeners, or viewers, that real life requires no exaggeration. That is the essence of their excellence.
Both Good Kid and Moonlight have a lot in common. Both served as the coming-out parties of their then-relatively unknown auteurs. Both are vibrant depictions of poor black culture; the gorgeous cinematography of Moonlight director Barry Jenkins is matched by the vivid imagery of Kendrick’s lyrics. Additionally, the cornerstone of both Jenkins and Lamar is their storytelling ability. While Moonlight’s portrayal of three stages of Chiron’s young life is more fluid and chronological, Good Kid presents a new story in each of its 12 tracks, all concerning a different aspect of life in Compton, California. Both present compelling and descriptive stories that are seldom told, and the similarities in their subject matter only start here.
Jenkins and Lamar are kindred spirits in many ways. Jenkins was born in Liberty City, Miami, to a crack-addict mother and an absent father. The highlight reel of his impoverished upbringing includes boiling water on the stove to use for bathing. While the Compton-raised Lamar had the luxury of two caring parents, he was no stranger to violence, as he witnessed his first murder at the ripe old age of 5. Therefore, both their masterworks are largely autobiographical. The wannabe-innocent young man forced into a dangerous and ugly world against his will is the protagonist of both Good Kid and Moonlight. The fact that these characters are based off their creators just adds to their relatability.
Works of the same style just don’t have this relatability and realism. Kendrick comes from the same family of rappers as men like 50 Cent, Schoolboy Q, and the Game. Though all these artists consistently write about poor black life, their insights are buried under “gangsta” bravado, boasting, and exaggeration. When every rapper you’ve ever or never heard of brags about how many “stacks” they have, listeners naturally assume that the rest of their lyrics are hyperbolic, even if they aren’t. There’s not as big of a sample size for movies of this subject matter, but most that do exist are painted with the same brush as their musical counterparts. The distinction between these artists and the ego-shedding Lamar and Jenkins are clear within minutes of consuming their art.
Good Kid and Moonlight are far from carbon copies of each other (if they were, this article would be titled “How Barry Jenkins Ripped Off Kendrick Lamar”). While a major theme in Moonlight, there is no explicit or direct mention of sexual orientation in Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City. However, the theme of not fitting in or belonging with the people you know is prevalent in both. This theme, largely ignored by their contemporary artists, is something that everyone, not just black kids from the inner cities, can relate to.
One of the most pivotal scenes in Moonlight is when Chiron’s lone schoolboy ally is forced to violently turn against him by a group of sadistic bullies. When watching this scene, it’s impossible not to be reminded of one of the standout tracks from Good Kid, “The Art of Peer Pressure,” which also describes a teenager being coerced into performing dangerous and criminal acts. Good Kid and Moonlight are obviously far from formulaic, but this represents the technique to their effectiveness: take a universal theme (like peer pressure) that everyone understands, then bring it down to the micro-level of their Compton/Miami neighborhoods. This “formula” is repeated with issues like family ties, drugs, and romance, and is the key to the relatability of these two works – even to those who have never heard of Liberty City.
The crowning achievement of Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City is the song “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” a 12-minute epic that many critics (actually just me) would call the greatest rap song ever made. The song is a storytelling marvel, with each of its three verses representing a different tragic tale of Compton youth. There’s no doubt that this style is profoundly unique, but these three stories are not unlike the paths of Chiron, father-figure Juan, and his mother Paula in Moonlight. Lyrics like “tired of running…I’m dying of thirst” could have been written by Chiron. Perhaps, in a way, they were. Kendrick is speaking not for himself, but for all who share his troubled past, just as Chiron is not one fictional person but many real ones.
As a white kid from suburban Massachusetts, I’m never really going to know what it’s like to grow up in impoverished, crime-ridden areas as an African-American. But that’s the beauty of both Good Kid and Moonlight. They are so descriptive, so personable, that they can make more “privileged” people get at least a small understanding about the experiences of their subjects. And just as important, they are both compelling and enjoyable enough that the non-immersed will tune in in the first place.
I know what you’re thinking; “enjoyable” is hardly the word to describe stories about drug addiction, violence, racism, and internal torment. But that’s the real magic of these two works of art. Whether it’s the catchy rhymes on “Swimming Pools,” the incredible acting of Mahershala Ali, or the drama of both stories, both would be fascinating even without any larger meanings or racial themes. This “enjoyability”, combined with the universality and realism of their messages, is what puts Good Kid and Moonlight light years ahead of their peers.
When Moonlight was finally announced as the true Best Picture winner at the 2017 Oscars, it was a lot like when Ryan Gosling finally opened up his jazz club in the would-be victor, La La Land. Both were triumphant victories for the little guy, and both came when the audience was just hoping their respective productions (the Oscars and La La) would end. But it was far more than that. It was the first huge victory for a potential new Golden Age of a type of art that began in 2012 with Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City.
Now, it’s music’s turn to carry the torch. Maybe Kendrick himself will be the one to one-up Moonlight, or maybe it’ll be someone we’ve never heard of. Either way, “gangsta” rap is not getting it done anymore. Truly transcendent pieces like Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City are so much more valuable than Schoolboy Q’s half-assed attempts to be Tupac. As long as Kendrick spends a little less time writing abysmal Taylor Swift guest verses, who knows? Maybe he’ll be taking the Grammy away from her in 2018 with another masterwork.