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.