Back when Breaking Bad was the big thing, there was a meme on social media which suggests if it was set in the UK its protagonist, Walter White, would have got free healthcare and that would have been the end of the show. Not (semi spoilers) what actually happened, where Walter set up his own meth business, made millions of dollars, wrecked his families lives and risk his life and the people around him throughout the whole series. Although this jokey meme is a bit too simplistic, it does reveal that if American society wasn’t so f*****, some of their best cultural exports would be a lot more dull. I will demonstrate how worse some things would be if that instead of born and raised in the streets of Compton, Kendrick Lamar would have actually been based in the delightful streets of Norwich.
Compton may have become a cultural hub for hip-hop in America, but it is equally known; through its music more than anything else; as a city riddled in relative poverty, crime; exacerbated by the existence of the criminal gangs Bloods and Crips; and the crack epidemic in the 1980s. Twin that to the Black Lives Matter campaign, which stresses about the amount of black lives being lost through shootings by both criminals and law enforcement in cities like Compton; it was clearly a gritty place to be brought up; and a clear influence for Kendrick Lamar’s albums, and particularly songs such as “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” and “Alright”. However, instead of being based in Compton, in this article, we will assume instead, that Kendrick Lamar had actually been brought up in the city of Norwich, which in 2006 was named one of the safest cities in the UK, is relatively affluent, and as a rule, not being in America makes the whole social-political system and racial discrimination less terrible than Compton. Meaning Kendrick’s stories about his dead homies would most likely turn into something more similar to talking about his mates getting a bit too drunk on Prince of Wales Road.
This would turn “Section.80” and “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City” really into a bit of a Skins episode instead of the brilliant gritty tales of Kendrick Lamar’s life and observations of living in a comparatively violent crime ridden, poor public health, undereducated area of Compton. In Norwich on the other hand, Kendrick and his family would have healthcare to look after them, benefits or tax credits to not lead him or people around him to leading such crime or disease ridden lives (although that may change soon the way things are going) and racial discrimination he would suffer would not have been anywhere near as bad. Actually when I was at a pub there a few weeks back, someone called fifty Syrian Refugees being settled in Norfolk as “too many” so maybe he would suffer the same racial discrimination. I Digress.
This would mean the quite brilliant and now political anthem to the Black Lives Matter campaign “Alright” would never have need exist. Furthermore it would wipe out half the themes so potent and constant in “To Pimp A Butterfly”. Songs such as “Mortal Man”, “Wesley’s Theory”, “I”, and “Complexion” would not sound anywhere near as vital. In fact other songs on that album, such as “Blacker the Berry” may not even exist, as Kendrick would not have experienced the social background which would provoke such impassioned lyrics about race.
On “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City” songs like “Swimming Pools” “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” and “Poetic Justice” may sound vaguely similar, but other great songs on the album would sound relatively pathetic. “Art of Peer Pressure” would just become Kendrick staying out a bit later than his parents said he could; “M.A.A.D City” itself would instead of telling a tale about how he once saw his uncle shot at by a burger stand or about someone killed his cousin back in ’94; would have just been a story about his uncle getting beaten up once and about his cousins in juvenile court for shoplifting. And then “Sing about me, I’m Dying of Thirst”, Kendrick’s rhymes would not have been about dead friends and acquaintances, it would be about his friends who had ASBO’s once; and another who had to star in a pre-fame Ed Sheeran video for urgent cash. Therefore, my two favourite albums of the last five years, “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City” and “To Pimp A Butterfly” would have both sounded not half as brilliant if Kendrick Lamar had not been stuck growing up in a city which had been ruined by the American sociopolitical system.
Although the idea of “Good, Kid, M.A.A.D City” being about Norwich does humour me; and that good albums have came from talking about the lives in normal British cities (see Arctic Monkey’s “Whatever You Say I Am, That Is What I’m Not” in relation to Sheffield as an example), it is clear to me that if America was more similar to Britain, we would have lost great art, music and entertainment like Breaking Bad and Kendrick Lamar. So America stay a country of gun violence, racial tension, individualist to the degree of cutting people off and generally repulsive, and your culture will continue to be the only good result of it.