Kendrick Lamar realized his life had changed while backstage at one of his sold-out shows. “Let’s see,” he says, trying to paint the picture. “Dre’s there. Snoop is in the room. Beautiful women are in the room. Homeboys are in the room, and everyone’s just mingling, man. It’s one of those moments when you’re like, I’m really a rapper now.” He laughs to himself, the way one does when describing the convergence of fantasy and reality. “Shit like that trips you out,” he says. “Even just walking onto your tour bus and seeing a full-blown studio in there, you’re like, Damn, I’m really doing this shit.”
The 25-year-old emcee adores his tour bus, which is fortuitous given he spends most of his time on it. “It’s a big-ass hangout when we’re on the bus,” Lamar says. “It’s me and my homeboys, just clowning around and shit, or watching motherfucking SportsCenter all day.” If that sounds like goofing off, Lamar can be forgiven. After releasing four mixtapes, a self-titled EP, and an independently produced album called Section.80, as well as writing hundreds of songs, Lamar finally dropped his major label debut, the autobiographical good kid, m.A.A.d city, in October 2012 through Top Dawg Entertainment/Aftermath Entertainment/Interscope Records. The album, which debuted in second place on the Billboard 200 and has sold nearly one million copies, chronicles a single day in Lamar’s teenage past, as he artfully dodges his neighborhood’s G-force pull—girls, gangs, and green—and ultimately finds salvation in his music. It also shows off Lamar’s profound dexterity as a lyricist, with the rapper rhyming in hip-hop’s fabled double and triple times. Pitchfork named it the best album of last year, and it made Lamar, who, in early 2012 opened for Drake on his Club Paradise tour, an instant headliner. “I couldn’t really appreciate it like I wanted to, because I was doing so much promo,” Lamar says of the week following the album’s release, in which it sold 242,000 copies. “It was a big blur.”
In the eight months since the release of good kid, m.A.A.d city, that blur has metastasized into Lamar’s day-to-day reality. He has toured the globe, appeared on magazine covers, performed on Saturday Night Live, amassed close to two million Twitter followers, and was named the number one “Hottest MC in the Game” by MTV in a list that provoked Kanye West to call the radio station Hot 97 to vent about his placement at number seven.
For someone who once rapped, “Sometimes I need to be alone,” Lamar rarely is. In person, you’d never know the fivefoot-six, baby-faced kid from Compton has reached stadium status. He’s laid-back, if not lethargic. His eyes always appear either half-closed or half-open. He is polite and speaks in hushed tones. He doesn’t wear the custom gold grills of Lil Wayne, the full-length furs of Yeezy, or the two chains of, well, 2 Chainz. When we meet, he’s dressed in black jeans, a gray hoodie, and a white T-shirt, and when asked a question, he repeats it before considering his answer. His biggest material indulgence, he says, has been a $10,000 Rolex watch, and even that was a gift. He spends our entire first interview, in the back of a Cadillac Escalade, politely ignoring the two tacos housed in a Styrofoam container on his lap even though he’s admittedly famished.
He might not look like your typical rap star, but Lamar, a rabid student of hip-hop’s history, sees in himself the potential to be one of the best, and knows the commitment that it takes to get there. “I salute people like Jay-Z,” he says. “How many tours has he been on? How many verses has he put down? How many interviews? How many radio shows? People forget that. They can’t fathom how a dude from the Marcy Projects is sitting next to Barack Obama, so they make up all types of crazy shit and forget the facts: This nigga dedicated every single day of his life to this, and what he has wasn’t just given to him. It’s no mistake he’s at where he’s at.”
Lamar’s success is no accident either. Unlike many contemporary pop stars, he isn’t the product of a formula. “For him it’s about the passion,” says rapper J.Cole, who plans to release a joint album with Lamar in the near future. “He loves the art of rap and that’s what really separates the greats from the rest.”
As a kid, Lamar was quiet and observant. But his parents, who moved the family from Chicago to Compton before he was born, led a robust social life. People were in and out of the house, and Lamar spent most of his childhood around tipsy, talkative adults. Always attentive, always listening, he soaked it all in. “Being around older people helped me develop my vocabulary,” he says. “They got drunk a lot and they partied a lot, but they had great conversations. I always hung around older people because I understood more about the world than most kids my age. I picked up on things and practiced them in my conversations, in my writing. Fortunately, it grew into an art.”
Before he wrote his first rhyme, while still a student at Centennial High School, Lamar dreamed of basketball immortality. “Everybody wants to be Jordan in the motherfuckin’ ghetto,” he says. But it was Compton’s rich hip-hop pedigree that ultimately drew him in. He grew enamored of rapping after seeing Dr. Dre and 2Pac shoot the video for “California Love” near his home. As a young emcee, his first instinct was to carve himself into the landscape of hip-hop’s Mount Rushmore. “When a kid starts to rap, he’s basically mimicking his favorite rapper,” Lamar says. “I thought Jay was tight, I thought Pac was tight, also Em and Snoop. Who wouldn’t want to pen their raps after Jay-Z? But as you gain more of a passion for the music, it eventually manifests into your own unique voice.”
That voice found its way to Dave Free, a local producer and DJ who introduced one of Lamar’s early demos to Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, the founder of Top Dawg Entertainment, then a fledgling enterprise. “Most guys Kendrick’s age were rapping about girls and cars,” says Free, now a co-president at TDE, the record label (distributed through Interscope) that still represents Lamar. “He did that, too, but there were also moments when he would reference things that were real. He was being truer to himself, and it allowed for a genuine connection.”
In 2009, Lamar decided it was time to grow up. Until then, he’d been rapping under the childish nickname K.Dot. It’s what his friends around the neighborhood called him, but it wasn’t indicative of the kind of music Lamar (born Kendrick Lamar Duckworth) wanted to make. “I called him up one morning, and I was like, Man, you should change your name. You should name yourself Kendrick,” says Free. “And he just said, ‘Lamar. Kendrick Lamar.’” With song titles like “Let Me Be Me” and “Wanna Be Heard,” The Kendrick Lamar EP reincarnated the artist as a rapper who relied more on storytelling and realism than on boasts and disses. “I’ll always be K.Dot out in the hood and to my homies,” says Lamar, “but using my real name is symbolic of me showing people who I really am.”
Next up was Section.80, a 16-track calling card that dropped just as Lamar’s blog hype reached a crescendo. It was the work of a rapper with big ideas who largely ignored the gats-and-glocks legacy of the West Coast rap game for more sensitive concerns. On “No Makeup (Her Vice),” he pleads, “Damn girl, why so much? You ’bout to blow your cover when you cover up/ Don’t you know your imperfections is a wonderful blessing?” The album was a critical success and minted Lamar as a rising star, but it wasn’t until Dr. Dre—who heard Lamar’s music through Eminem’s manager Paul Rosenberg—expressed interest in working with him that things really took off. “The first time Dre put me in the booth, it was really about living up to expectations,” Lamar says. “I wasn’t nervous, but I had to prove myself—not just to him, but to myself. I wanted to make sure I belonged.” On that first visit to Dre’s studio, the godfather of gangsta rap played Lamar the beat for what would become “Compton,” the coda of good kid, m.A.A.d, city. “How long can you guys stay?” Dre asked. “I’ve got my sleeping bag in the car,” replied Lamar. The song, a passing of-the-torch coronation, was finished by daybreak.
At the heart of good kid, m.A.A.d city, which Dre executive produced with Tiffith, is the struggle between Lamar and the temptations inherent to his hometown, a city made infamous by Dre’s group N.W.A and the G-funk rap that emerged from Compton in the late ’80s. But the album is not about shunning temptations; it’s about managing them. From taking his mother’s Dodge Caravan to hook up with a girl on the album opener “Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter,” to cruising the block in a hotboxed car and looking for trouble with friends on “The Art of Peer Pressure,” Lamar keeps these distractions at arm’s length. “I got the blunt in my mouth/Usually I’m drug-free, but shit I’m with the homies,” he raps on the latter song. Girl problems and rolled joints are rites of passage for any teenager, but for Lamar, coming of age in a city whose call-to-arms is called “Fuck tha Police” presented a more sinister pathway.
“You’re always around it,” Lamar says of Compton’s notorious gang culture. “It’s easy to get swallowed by it, because it grabs your attention at such a young age—just the thrill of it.” Lamar, who recounts several encounters with gang members on the album, says he used music as a way to temper the seduction, but even then the specter loomed. “Even cats in the studio were affiliated, so even if I wanted to, I couldn’t turn my back to it. More than anything, it became a question of, What am I going to dedicate myself to?” He chose to dedicate himself to a life beyond Compton. “The escape was mental,” says Lamar, who eventually quit the city that molded him. “It’s not necessarily about going to New York or Atlanta. It’s saying, You won’t trap me. I can do something positive with myself.”
Lamar quickly discovered that the disorienting flash of fame comes with its own set of self-destructive enticements. “When you’ve got the spotlight on you, everything—drinking, women, drugs—is at your disposal times 10, so I have to be that much stronger,” he says. “Every day is a struggle.”
Days after our initial interview, Lamar is back in Los Angeles, preparing for his first headlining world tour. (Fellow Top Dawg artists Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, and Jay Rock, who, with Lamar, make up the supergroup Black Hippy, will join him on the U.S. dates.) Over the phone, he describes performing on stage as something approaching transcendence. “It’s different than being in the studio,” he says. “That’s just something I’m good at. But when I’m on stage, it feels like I was put on this earth not just to have people listen to my music, but to make them smile for that hour and 30 minutes. It feels like my calling.”
It usually sounds disingenuous when a superstar claims to be driven by his art, rather than the accolades, the money, or the groupies—but not coming from Lamar, who doesn’t smoke, rarely drinks, and, according to his friends, hardly ever goes clubbing. His talent, he believes, was bestowed upon him by a higher power, and his dedication to his craft is a way to give back. “It would be a sin to waste it,” Lamar says. “Even if I had a 9-to-5 job, to not devote myself to this gift would be a slap in the face to the Man who instilled it in me.” And while Lamar has already achieved greatness, he refuses to rest on his laurels. “You know what Kendrick said when his album went gold?” asks Free. “The label offered to ship him a plaque but Kendrick said, ‘I don’t wanna see no fucking gold plaque. Ship that shit to me when it’s platinum.’”
This and more in The Wild Issue, out now at The Bullet Shop!