It’s also interesting, though, how rap music is as much a part of the text as it is a source for the record’s producers. Jeezy pops up on the aforementioned “The Art of Peer Pressure,” while E-40’s lyrics “had us thinkin’ rational.” Kanye didn’t just open the door for Kendrick’s conflicted feelings (“Projects is torn up, gang signs thrown up,” from “We Major,” appears on “m.A.A.d. city.”) Kendrick and his friends dream of living lives like rappers do. And he sees this as a problem (“A Louis belt will never ease the pain”) but he’s also caught up in it. Because he feels it, too.
Kendrick’s a smart rapper because he directly addresses violence and addiction and materialism by recognizing their appeal, and even smarter for being uncertain that this is enough: “Would you say my intelligence now is great relief?” His characters confront these things, things most “conscious” rappers run from or criticize without empathy, the things that much-vilified street rap covers (and glorifies) on a regular basis. Kendrick’s characters live through it, and he embraces that inner conflict, and still draws conscientious conclusions, even if he never quite seems comfortable with them.