In 2012, good kid, m.A.A.d city brought hip hop’s finest new storyteller to the attention of the masses. Kendrick Lamar’s major label debut tells the story of a kid growing up in Compton, Los Angeles, circumnavigating the pitfalls of gang life, whether by accident or design. The cover art meanwhile provides two stories, perhaps offering us a glimpse into an alternative future.
It’s a cinematic roman-à-clef that comes at you out of sequence—memory isn’t linear, after all—and the two photographs chosen for two editions of the album conjure up different but connected memories from the immediate past: one is a family scene from a kitchen, and the other, a van sitting in the driveway of Lamar’s old house. While personal to the artist, these pictures from the early ’90s have a familiarity to the beholder too, even if they’re not our own memories.
Exhibit one, for the initial 12-track release, is a picture we’re to assume is of the baby Kendrick surrounded by three older figures who may be relatives. According to Marcus J. Moore’s excellent new biography The Butterfly Effect: How Kendrick Lamar Ignited The Soul Of Black America, that is indeed Lamar in diminutive form, with two teenage uncles and his grandfather sitting to his left. In an interesting visual twist, the eyes of these other figures are blacked out with identity-obscuring oblongs, while the toddler—who you’d expect to be the protected party here—stares into the lens. A few years after this photo was taken, Kendrick, aged just five, would witness a teenage drug dealer gunned down before his eyes, and the year before, he’d seen mass rioting in the streets following the infamous attack on Rodney King by LAPD officers.
On closer inspection, the photograph is communicating dangers via signifiers, such as a bottle of alcohol sitting on the table—something he’ll addressed on ‘Swimming Pools (Drank)”; meanwhile, the uncle whose lap young Kendrick is sitting on is throwing a surreptitious gang sign with his left hand. Potential downfalls are hiding in plain sight in a picture as symbolically rich as Holbein’s The Ambassadors. “That photo says so much about my life and about how I was raised in Compton and the things I’ve seen,” said Lamar.
Exhibit two, mounted on the cover for the deluxe version of good kid, m.A.A.d city, is not as easy to read. Lamar’s mother’s van, parked on the street in front of their family home, appears on the cover, shot through a fisheye lens. Intriguingly, while this photo offers less in the way of visual portents, the house itself has become a shrine to fans. Type “Good Kid M.A.A.D City House” into Google Earth and you’ll find the rapper’s childhood home in Compton, and pictures of fans assembled outside like they’re at Graceland. Furthermore, scrawled under the battered Chrysler are the words “a short film by Kendrick Lamar,” adding to the hauntological vibrations.
“I fought not to have that on the cover!” says designer Don Clark on a Zoom call from his Seattle office. Clark set up the design agency Invisible Creature with his brother Ryan in 2006. “At the beginning I felt a photo of a minivan wasn’t worthy of an album cover, but I’m not always right. Because then his art creates this thing that becomes greater than any of us. That’s the sweet spot I love when working with other artists, when it takes on a life of its own.”
“With Kendrick, it was like ‘This is exactly what I want.’”
Clark was initially reluctant to talk about good kid, m.A.A.d city because of his lack of conceptual input into the design. Invisible Creature took 4×6 photos supplied by Lamar and scanned them, adding crease marks to the corners to give the packaging a more distressed appearance, and then superimposed the pictures onto various textures until they found a background that most resembled an old Polaroid. But otherwise, the direction all came from Lamar himself. Within the space of a five-minute conference call, the musician, who was just making a name for himself at the time, had laid out exactly what he wanted in fine detail. His objectives were clear for every inch of good kid, m.A.A.d city, visually and audibly.
“Sometimes, like with Foo Fighters for instance, they didn’t know what they wanted at all,” says Don, referring to the design for 2007’s Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace. “So it was up to us, which can be a little bit nerve-wracking. But with Kendrick, it was like ‘This is exactly what I want.’ You kind of get the sense at the beginning of a project that I’m not going to be as hands on with this one. I might just be the tool to get the project done, which is fine. As commercial artists, that’s what we get paid to do.”
There are ten polaroid photos laid out across the deluxe gatefold edition, again all chosen in sequence by Lamar. Clark also disapproved of the graffiti-style font at the base of the sleeve, but he’s willing to concede that that cover has become a fan favorite, and that it has an enigmatic quality, too: mystery, after all, is in short supply these days as cover art becomes utilitarian and avatar-like, a one inch box on a tiny smartphone screen to click on or swipe away.
“Another amazing thing about Kendrick Lamar is that he doesn’t care what people will think and his art speaks for itself, and I appreciate that audacity.”
The alternative 12-track cover still makes more sense to Clark though, and a couple of serendipitous details add to its ability to communicate: the Parental Advisory sticker is analogous to the photo’s message, and use of the black strips across the eyes of the adults was actually at the insistence of the label. “That was more of a legal thing,” says Clark. “Interscope and the family wanted to do that to obscure their likenesses.”
Other than obfuscating the identities of the grownups in the room, Interscope was happy to allow their new signing complete artistic freedom to unleash his vision, a gamble that obviously paid off given that Kendrick Lamar is one of the most acclaimed rappers of all time, a state of affairs that really began with good kid, m.A.A.d city.
“From the beginning they let him do what he wanted,” says Clark. “He was also [Dr.] Dre’s guy and I think that had a lot to do with it. That’s another amazing thing about him in that he doesn’t care what people will think and his art speaks for itself, and I appreciate that audacity.”