This Compton MC is ready to lead—who's gonna follow?
This feature is a part of Complex's "good kid, m.A.A.d city" Week.
Kendrick Lamar can’t remember how old he was the day he first saw the two men who would shape his future. But the memory is important to understanding the MC now, 25 years old and entrusted with the proud musical legacy of his hometown.
He’s seven, maybe eight, and living in Compton, which is lucky because this is the place where 2Pac and Dr. Dre are shooting the video for “California Love.” It's the original version of the video, a version that no one will see, because it won’t be released. Shot before Hype Williams took Dre and Pac beyond Thunderdome, this particular iteration is about the here and now—Compton, circa 1995. "They were rolling around, getting shots of the city," Lamar recalls. "It was a physical thing. They were touching people, not riding on dirtbikes in the desert."
Lamar's father, who’s played rap for him since the boy first came home from the hospital, hears about the shoot and gets his son. The video is filming down the way from the house where his family moved to escape the violence of Chicago’s Southside. Young Kendrick knows the artists, as everyone does, but he’s a child living in the moment and that’s all it was at the time—a moment.
“I wasn’t thinking about music then,” says one of the most important MCs of his generation. “I was thinking about playing basketball and going outside. Cartoons. Kid stuff. But obviously it’s memorable because it came back around.”
He's thinking about music now, the culmination of a long grind. At 13, he began rapping. Three years later he recorded a tape called Youngest Head Nigga in Charge. L.A independent label Top Dawg Entertainment heard it loud and clear.
After plying his trade in L.A.'s rap underground for the better part of a decade, Lamar found his voice on TDE releases like 2010’s Overly Dedicated mixtape, which caught the attention of Dr. Dre, 15 years after the young MC first encountered the rap legend on the streets of Compton. The California Love came full circle on Lamar's breakout debut album, 2011’s Section.80, which was inspired by a vision of 2Pac. In the video for his song “HiiiPoWer,” Lamar explains that Shakur appeared to him on September 13, 2010—the 14th anniversary of Pac’s death—saying “Don’t let me die.” That same song closes with Lamar shouting out “Thug Life” and also includes this honest assessment of an aspiring Compton rapper’s prospects: “I’m standing on the field full of landmines/Doing the moonwalk, hoping I blow up in time.”
It’s easy to get into trouble, and rap stopped me from running around.
The blow-up continues apace: Now Lamar's signed to Dre’s Aftermath Entertainment, a subsidiary of Interscope. He has recorded with and written some remarkable verses for Dre, who hasn’t sounded this alive since he first linked with Eminem in the late '90s. Lamar is unabashed about ghostwriting for Dre, but adds: “He don’t gotta listen to me. He’s 30 years in the game.” Modesty aside, the little boy from Compton is all grown up and now he’s carrying the banner for West Coast rap—but not in the way you might think. Lamar isn’t just building on the legacies of N.W.A, 2Pac, and Dr. Dre; he’s expanding and reinventing those legacies for a new generation, and in the process creating his own.
The MC that so many rap fans are counting on to release a classic, to save the game from pop-flecked dance music and big-budget mafioso posturing, has been looking backward to make sense of where he is now.
So where is Kendrick Lamar? Or better yet, when is he? Not in 2012, that’s for damn sure. “Iʼm not interested in rapping about what I’m experiencing now because I havenʼt soaked it all in yet,” he explains. “Maybe my next album, when I see more of the world, when I can sit back and think, ‘OK, Iʼve done it’—maybe then I can talk about these things. Now, Iʼm still in Compton.”
He’s crafted an album—good kid, m.A.A.d city— that asks listeners to follow him through the city that raised him. Not the Compton of post-N.W.A. gangsta mythology, but the real place where real people live and make mistakes and grow up.
“You go to certain suburban neighborhoods in L.A. and mention that you’re from Compton,” Lamar says with a smile, “people will want to hide everything they have on them, get away from you thinking you’re going to rob them. It’s funny; it doesn’t piss me off. The reputation is real. Just like with any other ghetto in the world.”
“Harsh realities we in made our music translate,” Lamar raps on “Compton,” the good kid album-closer where he trades verses with Dre, whose work on N.W.A.’s landmark 1988 LP Straight Outta Compton ushered in gangsta rap as we know it today. But the very success of that style spawned widespread distortions and clichés. As Lamar observes in the song’s sixth verse, “Now we can all celebrate/We can all harvest the rap artists of N.W.A/America target our rap market, its controversy and hate.”
Lamar offers an alternate view of Compton, as seen by someone who grew up there but wasn’t defined by the stereotypical violence and gangbanging. “Some friends of my parents were involved in gangs, and some weren’t,” he says. “People think Compton is all about colors. It’s deeper than colors. You might think that’s a Blood neighborhood, everyone must wear red, I gotta wear red. No. Nowadays, people wear whatever they want to wear, especially the kids.”
The acronym in the album’s title stands for “my angry adolescence divided,” an adolescence caught in between. “What am I supposed to do/When the topic is red or blue,” he raps on "good kid," the album's first title track. “And you understand that I ain’t/But know I’m accustomed to?” The entire album can be understood as his answer to that question. All Lamar can do is tell you where he’s coming from with as much candor and compassion as he can muster. So he stands in the dead center of his city, looking around at all the lives Compton contains.
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Compton is the place where Lamar used to see Suge Knight hanging at the swap meet. It’s also the place where his parents moved after Chicago’s Southside became too dangerous. They did their best to keep him out of trouble—and for the most part succeeded. “I was never lectured about gangs by my parents,” he says. “They’d say something here and there—‘Don’t do that, leave it alone,’—but there was never any finger pointing.”
Despite their efforts to shield their son, the madness found him anyway.
“I was maybe 5 years old. My uncle was selling dope outside my momma’s house, and I was on my bike. One of my uncle’s partners was serving outside the gate, and some dude hopped out while his back was turned, and boom. Seen him drop. You see that stuff on TV as a kid; I saw that in real life: somebody get their brains blown out.”
People think Compton is all about colors. It’s deeper than colors.
But Lamar lived to tell the tale and keep learning his lessons. When he messed up, his parents let him know. Like the time they banished him from the house. “My folks, they werenʼt the type to hug and kiss in front of me,” he says. “They looked more like best friends than husband and wife. Theyʼd walk in this room right now, and my pops would smoke, my mom would be chilling, vibing out, listening to music, listening to us. They werenʼt overprotective. They let me go. When I say go, I mean go. Because they knew that I was gonna do it anyway. Thatʼs something that you canʼt stop, and you gotta understand that as a parent. Your kidʼs gonna do it anyway, whether you like it or not. So whatever it was, they let me do it because they understood that. But one particular time, I tried to come back and they werenʼt fucking with me.”
He won’t detail the indiscretion, but whatever the mistake, it resulted in a locked door that stayed locked for an entire summer.
The months in exile took their toll. “I ended up doing little shit. I might sneak in the backyard and cut the grass. Like, ‘Let me back in this motherfucker. I’m trying.’”
“I wanna raise my kids the same way,” he says now. “I’ll let them go out there, and try to not be overprotective, but I’ll put that plug in their ear that they have to be responsible, because life is real.”
It’s summer 2012, and inside a tour bus parked among the other tour buses outside the Nikon at Jones Beach Theater on Long Island, Lamar is waiting. He’ll be on soon, opening for Mac Miller and Wiz Khalifa, but he shows no pre-show nerves. Just the opposite. Sitting up front by the windshield, in a large upholstered chair that makes his small frame appear even smaller, Lamar plays with the ring on his pinky finger, slipping it nearly off and on again while twisting it from side to side. Medusa’s face adorns the ring, and her fearsome gaze shifts forward and back as he worries the metal.
Beyond the bus, the seats are filling up. The teens gathered to watch Mac and Wiz are suburban girls and boys so young, it’s hard to imagine their parents letting them out of the house in such tiny shorts and Taylor Gang T-shirts.
I went into this album to answer questions. So there won’t be any questions asked.
“My crowd is a little bit older,” says the rapper with the boyish face. He wears a Mighty Ducks T-shirt tucked into dark denim, and it would be surprising if it were an earnest reference to Anaheim’s hockey franchise. The teens in the audience wouldn’t have been born when Disney’s The Mighty Ducks hit theaters in 1992, but Lamar was.
His own story is like a novel, a fact that he’s embraced while constructing his own mythology: the tale of witnessing Dre and ’Pac at a tender age, only to be visited by both later in life, one as a mentor, the other as a prophesying specter.
“I get asked a lot of similar questions, questions about how I was raised,” he says, and he knows the questions are inspired by his songs. He wants his new album to function as “a prequel” to early releases like “Wanna Be Heard,” “Faith,” and “H.O.C.”—from his self-titled 2009 EP and Overly Dedicated. “Them songs have reasons behind them,” he says. “I went into this album to answer questions. So there won’t be any questions asked.”
All the songs he mentions find the artist reflecting on who he is and how he’s perceived. “I don’t think you fully understand who I am,” he says on “Wanna Be Heard,” before explaining that he “used to wanna rap like Jay-Z” until he “realized that Jay wasn’t me.”
It’s a recurring theme in his work, the desire for transparency between artist and listener. “You probably heard ‘Wanna Be Heard’ and wondered who I am,” he raps on “The Heart Pt. 2,” Overly Dedicated’s first track. Lamar is hardly unique in this respect. There’s a long tradition of great storytelling MCs, from Slick Rick to the Notorious B.I.G., and Lamar is the latest member of its ranks. “The total package of a story, and the artist being surrounded by the story, is more memorable,” he says. “That’s the advantage story will always have.”
Lamar's particular take on the art of storytelling—seeing the past as a window into the present—separates him from many of peers. Consider Drake, who mostly raps about his current position on the timeline of his life as he lives it now. His raps have the urgency (and nakedness) of a diary entry read immediately after it was written. Lamar's approach is the opposite. To fully grasp the MC in 2012, you have to have known him when he was 12.
You can feel young Kendrick Lamar inside the tightly-knotted, image-crowded verses of “Cartoon & Cereal,” the expressionistic track he released in February of this year. The song offers a perfect entry point into the artist’s mindstate right now—both ahead of his time and firmly rooted in the past.
“Cartoon & Cereal” drops the listener into a child’s confusion as filtered through a media matrix. A boy sits in front of a TV in his Compton home, the noise and color from the television bleeding into the violence outside as he watches Darkwing Duck, just as the clipped and layered sound bites fit into the song’s complicated anatomy. “Don’t be like me, just finish watching cartoons,” the boy’s father tells him, leaving him to chill with an animated bird whose catchphrase is “Let’s get dangerous.”
Kendrick Lamar the songwriter has a novelist’s eye for detail, a poet’s appreciation for form as content, and an avant-garde filmmaker's willingness to bend reality for his artistic ends. In “Cartoon & Cereal” there’s the immediate bloodshed happening in Compton, and then there’s the world beyond the city that’s available through the TV, a kind of portal that every kid in front of every television set in every city can access together, all at the same time.
My music is for the world, not just for Compton, or myself.
Darkwing Duck ran from 1991 to 1992 on ABC—a sweet spot for the disaffected ’80s babies who are Lamar's true audience. He calls them “Section.80.” This very specific reference creates an opening in the song, a door through which an entire generation can enter. Because he watched the same TV as Lamar, a listener from a middle-class East Coast suburb can join the MC’s movement.
“My music is for the world, not just for Compton, or myself,” he says. “My fans look at me as a leader because I represent myself as a leader.” Kendick’s goal is to foster a deeper connection with his listeners and take his music beyond the boundaries of regional geography. Though Dre and ’Pac are larger-than-life figures in rap, both are inextricably linked to the West Coast. Lamar has different aspirations.
Section.80, a release remarkable for its intelligence, immersive narratives, and considerable empathy, makes his ambitions plain from the outset. The album opens with a track called “Fuck Your Ethnicity.” It’s hard to imagine a more direct statement of purpose. “Now I don’t give a fuck if you black, white, Asian, Hispanic, goddammit,” goes the hook. “That don’t mean shit to me, fuck your ethnicity.” Not that Lamar is “color blind,” or some other neutering cliché. His lyrics are replete with Black Panther imagery, pyramids, hieroglyphics. His songs tell his story, with a specific mythology, but they’re also inclusive in the sense that they’re open to any listener willing to put in the work to comprehend what’s going on.
Listen to the T-Minus-produced “Swimming Pools (Drank),” the single that’s received the biggest push in the run-up to the good kid release. As with “Cartoon & Cereal,” this song finds Lamar looking back—“Now I done grew up/’Round some people living their life in bottles”—but this time with the aid of a tuneful hook.
“Sonically, I knew ‘Swimming Pools’ would pull people in. It’s catchy as fuck, but it’s got lyrics in there,” Lamar says. “It’s not too crazy where you won’t be able to understand it, but it’s crazy enough where it’s something you want to keep listening to because you it feels like something else is happening, too.”
Pay attention only to the chorus, and you might miss the song’s critique of getting fucked up. That the message is slightly buried doesn’t bother him.
“If a person is going to be mad at me, it’s going to be a new listener who will listen to that song and think I’m on some party shit. Then they’ll get the album and think, ‘I don’t wanna fuck with this cat. He’s insane.’ Eventually, you’ll go back and listen, and say, ‘Oh, OK.’”
He speaks about the importance of balancing heady content and hummable hooks before cracking open his creative process in a single illuminating moment of ability, mumble-rapping the entire first verse of “Swimming Pools” without hesitation, then explaining how he had the whole song as “funny shit,” a melody of nonsense conjured in the booth, before he knew any of the actual words.
He admits, “It’s not nothing you can learn.”
Lamar idles in the wings of the Jones Beach Theater while ScHoolboy Q, also signed to TDE and a member of the Black Hippy crew that includes Lamar, Q, Ab-Soul, and Jay Rock, finishes an A$AP Rocky-less rendition “Hands on the Wheel.” Some of the audience near the front recognize the ode to recklessness, but 30 yards beyond the lip of the stage the energy dissipates—people continue to settle in, chatting with friends from homeroom. Their cartoon memories are more SpongeBob SquarePants than Darkwing Duck.
Q finishes his set, sweating, and Top Dawg, the head of TDE, approaches Lamar. The older man is large and moves at his leisure. As the opening notes of “Fuck Your Ethnicity” play, he whispers something in Lamar's ear. Lamar listens, then takes the chewing gum from his mouth and presses it onto a girder to his left before bounding on stage barking the song's staccato introductory hook.
He runs through a well-received selection of his discography, but it's not until "A.D.H.D." that he fully wins the audience. The beat drops on the first syllable of “Comes with an 808/A melody and some hoes” and the crowd becomes Section.80. They’re awake now, swept up in the song’s moody haze.
For a kid in the 12th grade listening to Kendrick Lamar who knows the story, gets my album, and realizes the whole arc behind it, behind each song, that’s something he’ll never forget.
“A.D.H.D,” the song that put him on the radar of rap fans worldwide last year, takes place in a drug-laden house party. Lamar speaks to and about his audience, Section.80—loners who can’t relate, kids who feel alone at parties and numb themselves with drugs, compounding their feelings of disconnection. The angst he describes isn’t vastly different from generic teenage ennui, but by invoking ADHD—first added to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1987, the year of Lamar's birth—his focus sharpens, and we have Section.80 in all its twisted glory.
Mind you, Lamar doesn’t get high. He doesn’t get drunk. He prefers to stay clear-eyed and observe the habits and contradictions of his generation (including himself). The better to turn them into compelling narratives for listeners to lose (and find) themselves in. This is difficult to do in a three-minute rap song heard on the radio, or streamed while idly browsing the Internet—especially if you suffer from attention deficit disorder. Following the action in his narratives requires focus, but it’s worth the effort. Maybe that’s why Lamar cut short a listening session for his new album in Chicago because he thought the assembled scribes were too busy chatting to give his work the attention he felt it deserved.
“So many popular songs come out on the radio, and five years down the line, you forgot your favorite song that was out in 2005 or 2004,” he says. “You forgot that Nelly made the song that you were always singing when it came on the radio. But for a kid in the 12th grade listening to Kendrick Lamar who knows the story, gets my album, and realizes the whole arc behind it, that’s something he’ll never forget. He might not remember the exact song he was in love with until he hears it again, but he’ll always remember how I stamped myself, and what it was about.”
Stories stick with you—it’s not for nothing that so many lessons directed at children are presented as fables. But Lamar's stories won’t be parables. The conscious rapper out to save us all—that’s not him. That's not to say he’s without a conscience. When asked if he thinks his fellow ’80s babies aren’t living right, he responds: “It’s not that we aren’t living right, we’re just not aware of how we’re living. My whole thing is to make people focus. I’ve done some fucked-up shit, and I make myself think about it: ‘Damn, why did I do that?’ I think that’s what my music does.”
The crowd at Jones Beach rocks to “A.D.H.D.,” vibing to the sound of a party where you’re drunk and high and a little upset without quite knowing why, and you sense that everyone around you feels the same—a kinship born of shared solitude. But it’s a tenuous connection, and so you keep smoking and drinking in hopes that the feeling will last. Of course, it can’t and it won’t.
A Wiz crowd is high. Theyʼre not ﬁnna participate in nothing. They just want to listen and feel good.
The moment passes and the spark goes out. After finishing a few more songs, Lamar leaves, clearing the way for Mac Miller to do what he does. Back in the bus, he changes from his stage clothes into a button-up with Looney Tunes characters—Bugs, Taz, and Daffy—peeking out from the breast pocket. It’s the sort of thing someone could’ve purchased from the Warner Bros. Studio Store at their local mall in the ’90s, when malls still had Warner Bros. Studio stores. (Section.80 will remember.) “A Wiz crowd is high,” Lamar says of the lackluster response. “Theyʼre not ﬁnna participate in nothing, they just want to listen and feel good.”
Ultimately, Lamar's music doesn’t offer many moments to just feel good. Something else is always happening below the surface, and you can’t shake the nagging feeling that you need to pay closer attention. The details of his narratives resonate most with a particular audience—those ’80s babies, glutted on TV and Adderall. They’ve shared similar experiences, have the same points of reference, and though many of their vices encourage superficial engagement, one of their own is making music that requires a slower pace and a deeper commitment.
He tells one last story before the night is over, a story about “Keisha’s Song” from Section.80. The lyrics paint a vivid picture of a teenage girl who becomes a prostitute. Across three verses, he narrates her struggle—and even connects her back-seat exploits to Rosa Parks—moving the listener from Long Beach Boulevard to the car interiors where she turns tricks, before describing her murder at the hands of a john. It’s an amazing, heartbreaking song. And then, before the last repetition of the hook, he emerges from the story to reveal the artifice behind it, like a magician coming out from behind the curtain: “My little sister eleven, I looked her right in the face/The day that I wrote this song, set her down and pressed play.”
So did it work? Did she understand?
“I can’t say that she understood what I was talking about,” he says, sounding untroubled, even a little amused. “She likes a good song, but she’s young. It might be a little too introspective for her. She understood where I was coming from, as far as a big brother and having respect for me.”
Those who need good kid, m.A.A.d city the most exist in a sweet spot that even a member of Lamar's own family has yet to reach. Those anxious for the LP, an audience ranging from Dre to Lady Gaga, will receive it like a tonic. For those looking for something more fun, or immediate, look to Lamar's sister. She hasn’t grown into the music yet, but someday she’ll catch up.
And when she does, her brother’s music will be waiting.
This feature is a part of Complex's "good kid, m.A.A.d city" Week.