Kendrick Lamar was just two years old when N.W.A focused the eyes of the world on his hometown of Compton, California, and began taking potshots at the mainstream. But unlike Dre, Eazy, Cube, Ren and Yella, the hottest rapper to emerge from Los Angeles in a generation wants to inspire hope – he’s anxious to assure that his second album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, will not belabour the well-worn gangsta and urban warfare stereotypes usually associated with the west-coast hip-hop capital.
“I want to shed the light on my city, bring the positive back to it,” the 25-year-old says earnestly, sitting in a Los Angeles studio. “I’m at the point where I could walk through the streets in the hood and get that respect. It’s going to benefit the kids at the end of the day that they have somebody else to look up to instead of homeboy on the corner, you know? I’m only one person in the world, in the city. I’m a dreamer, but I’m a realist at the same time. That kind of change is only possible with time, and that time is way beyond me. You can’t erase the past.” He pauses, then adds: “All I can do is spark the idea.”
It wouldn’t be presumptuous to imagine that those coming of age within a neighbourhood where death and destitution loom so heavy might have a conflicted relationship with their hometown, but Lamar insists he has no regrets being raised in a volatile environment. “I got the best of both worlds. I got to see reality for what it is, but my pops allowed me to still be a kid, even though all of these things were happening around us. He would sit me down and say, ‘These might seem like hard times to you, but you don’t know what hard times really is. You need to take responsibility and cherish each day.’”
These days his father advises him on the perils of succumbing to the temptations associated with the music industry: “He told me, ‘Don’t do nothing that you don’t want to do.’ Here’s the thing about the industry: when people hear that a person sold their soul, it doesn’t mean that you physically sold your soul to the devil, it’s you doing something that you don’t want to do. You’ve got to live with that the rest of your career.”
It’s been a long time since the streets, blogs and hip hop’s biggest players stood collectively behind a fresh Compton artist, but while he is still considered an up-and-comer, he’s certainly not a new kid on the block. His nine-year rap career began at age of 16 with his first mixtape, Youngest Head Nigga in Charge, which got him signed to LA label Top Dawg Entertainment. Keeping on the grind, he released three mixtapes before reverting to his real name with 2009’s Kendrick Lamar EP; this was followed by the highly acclaimed 2010 mixtape Overly Dedicated, which grabbed the attention of Dr. Dre. In July 2011 he released his critically acclaimed debut album, Section.80, and found himself championed as hip hop’s saviour by everyone from Pharrell Williams and Lil Wayne to Lady Gaga. Snoop Lion went as far as to call him “the new king of the west coast”.
As a result of his ballooning success, Lamar is in a powerful but precarious position. Not only is he the dubbed spokesman for Compton and west coast rap, but he’s also the self-proclaimed mouthpiece for his generation (“People say I speak for Generation Y / Why lie? I do” – “Ab-Soul’s Outro”, from Section.80). He insists he feels no pressure; he’s just being him. “I’m most comfortable talking about things I’ve known, things I’ve learned, things I’ve experienced, things I don’t know,” he says. “All of that comes with living and being a human being with emotions. I’m not just speaking for one demographic of people. This is a universal feel.”
Riding high after his support slot on Drake’s Club Paradise tour, he signed his first major-label deal in March, and his singles since then have been jointly released by Top Dawg, Interscope and Aftermath. July’s “Swimming Pools (Drank)” notched up three million YouTube hits within a fortnight. With his hardcore fanbase no doubt wondering if the once fervently independent rapper will fall prey to pressure to bang out hits, Lamar promises that good kid, m.A.A.d city hasn’t watered down his off-kilter formula, but does acknowledge the necessity of balancing mass appeal with artistic credibility. He cites hip hop legends to prove his point: “Jay-Z, Biggie, Tupac; they all managed to have that balance without losing their integrity in their music. They all studied it long enough to be ahead of the game. As a student of the game, I’ll do just that.” With an unwavering confidence, he adds, “I’m not really worried because I know everything I make is going to be palpable and everyone is going to feel it.”
Having set aside the presentday mindset of the (indirectly) social and political narratives of Section.80, Lamar uses good kid, m.A.A.d city as an opportunity to rewind the clock and delve into his personal past, tapping into his humanity and reflecting on the choices he made that led him to this pivotal point in his career.
“When you put your real emotions and your real life out there and make a different connection, (rather) than going out there and killing a man, that’s doing something bigger. There was a whole lot of trial and error to figure out what I actually wanted to do. When I started I just wanted to do what was right in front of me at the time – what I saw on TV, what I saw in the streets, like gangbanging or flashy cars. But then I grew up, became a better artist. There are better ways to express yourself and have a better meaning behind it. That’s something that I had to understand.”
The rapper promises to keep innovating, keep pouring out his distinctly weird, left-of-centre hip hop (with the help of his TDE in-house team of producers, including THC and Sounwave, and long-time engineer MixedbyAli). His anything-goes production rings loudly and distinctly against the dull clank of his competitors’ banal beats. “I think it’s a good representation of this new wave of hip hop we’re bringing out of the west coast,” he reckons. “It’s a whole new sound but it still has that same feel and that same swang to it. A new cast is coming up out of here. We’re still keepin’ it G but at the same time we’re changing the game just a little bit by doing us. The sound completed what I’ve been doing over the years, a whole new sound.”
In stark contrast to the bi-coastal beef that characterised hip hop in the mid 90s and claimed the lives of two of its greatest MCs, Lamar has found that, as with A$AP Rocky, his massive internet fanbase has broken down the boundaries once and for all. “I realised that when I sold out my first show on the east coast, in Brooklyn. They treated me like I was one of theirs. Houston, they treated me like I was one of theirs, Dallas, New Orleans, all of these places treated me like I was their own and vice versa. You come to LA and they get the same treatment. It’s just about people loving music nowadays. Kids don’t care what it is, whether it’s major label. You can be a little boy on YouTube making a song, and people will just accept it like that – they don’t care what the reason is behind it.”
He’s even helped to musically invigorate his boss, Dr. Dre. On good kid, m.A.A.d city’s lead single, “The Recipe”, Lamar trades verses with Compton’s most famous Doctor, in the manifestation of a childhood dream – one of his formative experiences was witnessing, at the age of eight, Tupac Shakur and Dre film their video for “California Love”. “It’s a really dope situation. He’s someone who went against all odds and still managed to come out on top. He recognised all the hard work and development I’ve put in. He respects everything I’ve been doing. He just wants me to keep doing me. It feels good to know that the grind and dedication really paid off. That’s one of the best feelings of doing the whole music thing.”
Cushioned between his own childhood idols, and surely on the verge of becoming one for many others, it’s unsurprising that he’s deadly serious about his strategy for his future. “You’re playing with the champions now, so you’ve got to step your game up. You’ve gotta put in that extra effort and work ethic in order to compete. That’s something I’ve been aware of many moons ago.” Without hesitation he confirms what everybody else already seems to know. “I’m ready for it.”
good kid, m.A.A.d city is out on October 22 on Top Dawg/Interscope/Aftermath
Film by Renata Raksha and Peter Moran
Text by Aimee O'Neill
Photography and Film by Renata Raksha
Styling by Kitti Fontain