Late one morning last month, it's muggy and the Carson sky is spitting rain. Not that Kendrick Lamar notices. The rapper has been holed up all night in his label Top Dawg Entertainment's windowless studio, in a nondescript house on a quiet cul-de-sac. He leaves tomorrow for a two-month headlining tour, his first. He's just decided that a small change might be necessary for his major-label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city, which was just released. He hasn't slept.
Lamar, 25, shuffles over to a couch as a sweeping beat plays on the speakers. "Turn that down some," he directs Sounwave, one of his imprint's producers. He's distracted by the sound of his own voice, he explains.
Dressed today in a tomato-red Diamond Supply hoodie and black sweats chopped off at his shins, his sweet, drowsy demeanor suggests he needs a nap. But Lamar's mind is clearly churning with ideas, perhaps about his crammed schedule, as well as the heap of professional and personal expectations he carries.
Lots of people want a piece of Lamar right now. This interview was hard won, having been set up and canceled almost half a dozen times. Since late 2010, when Dr. Dre announced on Power 106's morning show that he wanted to work with this young man from Compton, the frenzy around him has grown steadily. Section.80, his first full-length studio release, was at the top of many year-end-best lists, including this publication's. He and Top Dawg Entertainment brokered a deal with Interscope, and he played Coachella's main stage with Dre and Snoop Dogg in April. His label mate Schoolboy Q says he's a genius, and he's buddies with Lady Gaga.
But Lamar's not just another buzzing rapper: Critics believe him to be the most intelligent, nimble, lyrically gifted young rapper in hip-hop. Perhaps even the "young" qualifier is unnecessary — topping veterans like Nas, Jay-Z and Kanye West, he recently won lyricist of the year at the BET Awards. It's not a stretch to say that many expect good kid, m.A.A.d city to be as well realized as classic major rap label debuts like Illmatic, Reasonable Doubt and Doggystyle.
That pressure is exacerbated by the weight Lamar loads on his own shoulders. He feels an overwhelming responsibility to be a positive example for the rest of the "good kids" growing up in the "mad city" of Compton, where he was born, raised and shot at before escaping the fates — jail, the cemetery — that befell many of his friends.
And then there's the nagging internal competition. "I think my vice would be outdoing myself," he says. "I'd probably go crazy if I couldn't. I'm scared of that day when I feel like I haven't [surpassed] my past work."
Lamar was born in Compton in 1987, three years after his parents moved there from Chicago. "They decided to move to this small, fucked-up city with $500 and make it?" he asks. "That says a lot." The cover of good kid, m.A.A.d city shows a grainy Polaroid of Lamar as a little boy seated in the lap of one of his uncles, who is throwing a gang sign. Another uncle and his grandfather are also in the picture, and a baby bottle sits on the table next to a 40-ounce.
Though Lamar has told the story of his youth repeatedly — quiet child with young, wild and free parents — the photo is hard evidence. His parents are still married, and Lamar is close to them both, but his memories reveal a kid being reared by kids.
"My school was a 10-minute walk from where I stayed. I was in first grade, and my mom walked me there and said, 'I want you to walk home by yourself.' And I was, like, 'You gonna be at home?' She was, like, 'Yeah,'" he remembers. "That was my fear, that she wasn't going to be home." Sure enough, he arrived to an empty driveway. What he takes from this story, however, is a lesson: Don't rely on someone always being there for you.
Lamar's songs are full of passion and pain. On good kid, m.A.A.d. city track "Compton" — in which he and Dr. Dre trade verses — the mercury in Lamar's voice rises as he speaks of a conflict that's long trailed him: "I'm tryin' to stay grounded like four flats/But I know flats and Piru Crip tatts." Yet in conversation his voice is hushed, whether discussing his struggle with his spirituality or his feelings of loneliness. He says the title of his new album represents loneliness and wanting to be accepted, a feeling with which Lamar says he identifies, even now. "It's very easy to get lonely in this game. Your closest friends might not be able to understand your worries and your problems. All they see is what they see on TV," he says.
Still, only once does any darkness flicker in his eyes, when he mentions that his birthday is a day after Tupac's.
Lamar calls his music "moody," which is putting it mildly. He switches personas mid-song, growling and barking and choking on his words, growing hysterical one moment before flattening his voice to almost comical effect. His songs can be as exhilarating as sitting shotgun in a car going at high speeds, which applies to the tracks that were released early. Though advanced copies of his album were not made available by press time, the work will not feature the song Lamar and Lady Gaga made together, called "Partynauseous." The reason for that, she wrote on her fan site, was because she "was not willing to compromise musically to the changes his team was making to my music."
One wonders if at times this ride doesn't exhaust Lamar. "I'm constantly thinking. I understand when artists have sleeping pills, 'cause your mind is constantly moving. You gotta be 10 steps ahead of yourself in this business."
Outside the studio an hour later, tufts of ominous-looking clouds have formed a thick cover. A memory surfaces of the first interview we did, at this same studio, early last year. The sky had been overcast then as well, and Lamar had talked about the time when he was a young boy watching Tupac film the video for "California Love" in Compton.
It's fitting, because as we leave Carson the radio plays Tupac's "All Eyez on Me." He left his roots to come to L.A., and Lamar too no longer lives in Compton. "My heart and mind are there. But my whole thing is to inspire these kids and let 'em know I'm not there anymore. I come from the same place [they] come from and made it out in a positive light."
Another 'Pac line comes to mind: "I moved up out of the ghetto, so I ain't real now?"
Lamar might be fighting the same demons Tupac was, but instead of being on the defensive, he's opting for a different battle strategy. And for now, he's winning.