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.