When Kendrick Lamar Duckworth was in seventh grade, he was quiet. His former English teacher, Mr. Inge, tells me that K. Dot was a “solid" student who did his work, but mostly, he says "young Kenny" was one of the silent ones. That’s striking because, ever since he came in this game, the Top Dawg MC has been making plenty of noise.

On Feb. 13, just two days before the 58th annual Grammys—where Kendrick's up for 11 awards—he received a different golden honor: the Key to the City of Compton. Standing before Hub City’s Martin Luther King Memorial on Saturday afternoon, Mayor Aja Brown introduced K. Dot as “a great man,” a “visionary,” and “a change agent.” And when he hit the podium to accept his framed key, the 28-year-old artist momentarily flashed back to seventh grade Kenny. He was speechless. 

Image via Andres Tardio

“I’m overwhelmed,” he told the crowd. “Y’all have to give me a second. I just have to sit for a second and watch you all.”

K. Dot was taken aback, he said, by the kids who “killed” their performances that morning. He was referring to local dancers (Divas of Compton) and students from his alma maters (Vanguard Middle and Centennial High School) who had just performed a medley of his hits. That noticeably touched Lamar, but it was also an important moment for his young fans. Take Latrey Dumas, a 14-year-old student at Centennial, for example. 

Image via Andres Tardio

"I could relate to what Kendrick Lamar has been going through,” he told me backstage before his band performed “Alright” and “King Kunta." "He’s been through a lot of killings, he’s witnessed a lot of things. I haven’t actually witnessed that, but I’ve been close to it and it’s kind of tragic…but he’s making it work.

The To Pimp a Butterfly star managed to make it work onstage that morning, too. After soaking it all in for a few seconds, he was speechless no more. “Coming back here today and seeing these kids out here, we share similar stories,” he explained. “Having this Key to the City is not just a representation or glorification that I have of Compton. This is a representation for all of us.” 

Image via Andres Tardio

While the youth watched their hometown hero in awe, Lamar’s peers peeped game, too. YG, for instance, came to show support. And TDE’s longtime engineer MixedByAli sat behind Kendrick during the program. After the event, he couldn’t help but praise the good kid who’s grown into an influential figure right beside him. "Kendrick’s always been a leader within the camp,” Ali said. "Watching him, from where we came from, inspires me and everybody around us, to want to be more, to do more for our people, and to be the best that we can be.”

With a key to his hometown and a big Grammy night ahead of him, K. Dot’s at the top of his game. But all of his success is only further fueling his drive for “more programs for these kids” and “more job opportunities” in his hometown. “Please believe it,” he said to close out his speech. "It will not stop. This is just the spark of everything.”

Clearly, quiet Kenny's found his voice and it’s making an impact.