What happens when you listen to one album, on repeat, for three weeks in a row?

Written by Kevin Koczwara (@kkoczwara)

It wasn't my bed.

I was overtired and struggling to get comfortable after hours of driving from Central Massachusetts to Queens, taking the subway to the Upper East Side and getting lost looking for my friend's apartment. After going out to eat and walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, all I wanted to do was sleep. Thankfully, my friend's roommate was out of town and he’d said I could use his bed, which was well-kept and comfortable. But I couldn’t fall asleep. I stared into the darkness and heard two echoing, gently-strummed guitar chords and stuttery, trebley beat. Kendrick Lamar wouldn't let me rest.

“I can feel your energy from two planets away/I got my drink, I got my music/I would share it but today I'm yelling/Bitch, don't kill my vibe, bitch, don't kill my vibe...”

The beat wouldn't stop. The hook kept playing on repeat. This had become my life. I had spent almost the entire month of September and part of October chasing Kendrick Lamar. And his music had seeped into my head and wouldn't don't let go.

I had been working on a story about the 26-year-old Compton, California rapper for a major men's magazine's website since September. Most of the work had come in trying to land an interview with him. While I did that, I spent much of the month listening to his album that came out last year, good kid, m.A.A.d city, and reading everything I could to read about him. I wanted to write about how Kendrick had gone from being a little-known critic's-darling to a million-seller on the strength of an album that brought the narrative, full-length opus back to the mainstream rap world without compromising artistically. The album is like a throwback to Nas's beloved classic, Illmatic. It's a story about growing up in a troubled inner-city environment, told by a clear-eyed, preternaturally astute observer. But unlike Illmatic, good kid, m.A.A.d cityis a story about how to get out.

 

Even with that, though, even with the impressive sales numbers and near universal acclaim, he didn’t enjoy the mainstream success, the household-name fame I thought he deserved, so I pitched the story to the editor at the magazine's website and the editor said, yeah, and that he wanted to know what Kendrick was listening to.

 

Even with that, though, even with the impressive sales numbers and near universal acclaim, he didn’t enjoy the mainstream success, the household-name fame I thought he deserved, so I pitched the story to the editor at the magazine's website and the editor said, yeah, and that he wanted to know what Kendrick was listening to.

A primer on being a freelance writer: You see or read something that you think is a bigger story than it’s being reported as (oftentimes it’s not being reported at all), or you come up with an unexplored angle on a story that is currently a "hot-read,” you pitch your idea to an editor in a letter explaining why this story is important and why you're the person to tell it, then the editor usually says something about getting access and you have to assure that you can get the interview, the face-to-face. If it works, if you get an assignment, then you’re given a deadline and a lot of work to do to for a small amount of money.

The process started promisingly enough. My pitch was accepted and Kendrick was scheduled to perform at the second day of this fall's Boston Calling festival. I planned and worked with the festival’s press people to try and schedule an interview, but was told that Kendrick's people had said there would be no time for interviews. I went to the concert in the hopes that I might somehow bump into my subject and that a natural-conversation-like interview would just happen. It did not. The show was good, though.

Back on the phone for a week of calling and waiting to hear back from Kendrick's people. After it became clear they were avoiding my requests, I went to his major-label record company, Interscope. It took a while and a few phone calls in and around a bureaucracy, but I got a contact for Kendrick's publicist.

All the while studying, listening to good kid, m.A.A.d city over and over and over again. It’s a fascinating album, and I got sucked way in. I would hear the words to the songs in my head throughout the day, catch myself repeating them under my breath in the line at the grocery store or at work.

“Pick your poison tell me what you doing/Everybody gonna respect the shooter/But the one in front of the gun lives forever...”

My younger brothers introduced me to Kendrick Lamar. They know I'm picky when it comes to music. I have certain criteria that needs to be met: Has an artist created something new and original? Is there a story? Does this record mean anything to anyone? Is there something beyond glossy production and catchy hooks? Is there real musical value? (This might not be explainable, but it’s like the definition of pornography: I know it when I hear it.) They know my criteria, so they picked out a song they knew I'd be able to really lose myself in. They picked "Keisha's Song (Her Pain)."

"And Lord knows she's beautiful/Lord knows the usuals leaving her body sore/She takes the little change she make to fix her nail cuticles/Lipstick is suitable to make you fiend for more/She play Mr. Shakur, that's her favorite rapper..."

Kendrick had set a scene here than won me over instantly. It was unforgettable. The details: a young prostitute getting a manicure. I knew I'd never go back. I had seen Kendrick give what I’d thought was a terrible Saturday Night Live performance earlier in the year. But now I saw, “Keisha's Song” had convinced me, that there was more there than I had known. 

Now it's September, five months after first hearing Kendrick, and I'm listening to good kid, m.A.A.d city on repeat every day. I’m prepping for an interview that I’m starting to have doubts will ever happen, but the album has become part of my life.

Part of the preparation that goes into interviewing a musician is immersing oneself in their music, their world, their thoughts, their mind, to the extent that that’s possible. I wanted to understand Kendrick, to feel what he was feeling when he wrote and recorded good kid, m.A.A.d city. I was looking for ins-and-outs, for a rhythm and flow that might help me understand him more deeply. This kind of immersion into an album is something that has been lost, in large part, since MP3s became more accessible, since Napster and then iTunes allowed people to download whatever individual songs they wanted, since the iPod made CDs obsolete.

In this new one-song-at-a-time musical environment, when skipping around from album to album, or artist to artist is as easy and instantaneous as swiping your finger across a screen, the importance of album sequencing has been lost. It’s less important, and so far more rare, that an album achieve a real feeling of narrative cohesiveness continuity. And this was a pretty difficult thing to achieve in the first place: How many ambitious “concept albums” have failed—fallen flat, missed the beat, lost their edge—precisely because of an over-devotion to grand idea of the “concept.” Have you ever tried to listen to The Early November's The Mother, The Mechanic, and The PathI don’t recommend it.

 

In this new one-song-at-a-time musical environment, when skipping around from album to album, or artist to artist is as easy and instantaneous as swiping your finger across a screen, the importance of album sequencing has been lost. It’s less important, and so far more rare, that an album achieve a real feeling of narrative cohesiveness continuity.

 

Kendrick avoided the pitfalls of thematically ambitious albums. He sat down and decided, Yes, this album will have a theme and linear movement, some sort of connection between each track, but without sacrificing any of the moment-to-moment pleasure of the listening experience. It worked. It worked so well that, for my first two weeks of listening to good kid, m.A.A.d city, I didn't know what any of the songs were called, or even where one song ended and the next one began. Time was liquid, like being in a trance, or a dream. And then it started getting in the way of my actual dreams.

New York wasn't the first time I was stuck in bed staring at the ceiling with Kendrick Lamar lyrics and beats thumping through my head. It happened almost nightly. I couldn't sleep. The night before a potential phone call from Kendrick, "Poetic Justice" wouldn't leave me alone. I was stuck there thinking about talking to Kendrick about this song, the girl, the beauty of it. Wondering what he was listening to at the time, what he was reading? What would I talk to him about? It had been almost two weeks since I first contacted his people, and after numerous emails and phone calls, I'd been told he might call me if there was time while he was shooting a video. I was nervous. I’m a nervous person on the phone under normal circumstances, especially if I feel like the conversation is rushed. He’d be talking to me in-between takes while filming scenes for a video? It was going to be rushed. How would I make this a good conversation, how would I talk to him about something real? How would learn anything true about him? So, instead of sleeping, I stayed up staring at the ceiling, reciting the chorus to his song over and over again in my head.

“And I know just, know just, know just, know just, know just what you want/Poetic justice—put it in a song…”

Kendrick never called.

My subsequent attempts to land the interview failed. His publicist started making demands that that I couldn’t promise on delivering. The trail went cold.

So what I was left with after this whole long frustrating trial, was Kendrick’s voice—his distinctive pronunciations, his flow, his modulation, sometimes processed through computer effects, sometimes just by his larynx, he whispers, he snarls, he speeds up and slows down, but always delivering his words, his stories, with a feeling that lets me feel it too. It stays running through my head. All the time. Still.

So even if I never learn what Kendrick's listening to, there could be worse things.

Related: 7 Ways Kendrick Lamar's "good Kid, m.A.A.d. City" Has Changed the Rap Game In the Year Since It Came Out