On the single Poetic Justice, which came out in 2012, Kendrick Lamar (he’s named after Eddie Kendrick, a singer in the soul group the Temptations) raps that he “write[s] poems in these songs dedicated to you, when you’re in the mood for empathy, there’s blood in my pen.” The words are reminiscent of his childhood idol 2Pac, who once spat out, “When I write rhymes, I go blind and let the Lord do his thang.”
While we live in a time where rap music prioritises choruses about waking up in a Bugatti, the 27-year-old from Compton has focused on storytelling. In spite of having a soundscape as “now” as a re-tweeted Jezebel article, he has more in common with the older guard of rap (Jay-Z, Dr Dre, Notorious BIG and 2Pac) than with fresh mixtapes by teenagers from Chicago.
Yet Kendrick Lamar was once such a teenager. In 2003, at 16 years old, he entered the scene with the mixtape Youngest Head Nigga in Charge (aka Hub City Threat: Minor of the Year). Even at this early stage, he rapped with pulsating self-confidence, a rap astronaut ready for take-off: “The shite I write is brighter than blue gems.” But it wasn’t until the 2010s, when he signed to Dr Dre’s record company, Aftermath Entertainment, before the spaceship actually left earth.
“Things that come out of my mouth, it’s not really something I can take credit for. A lot of people can’t put words together and connect like this, so it’s really a gift.”
The album Good Kid, MAAD City took Kendrick Lamar to the highest level of hip hop. Today he’s one of the biggest rappers in the world, and he is sitting in a hotel room at Dream Downtown, on West 16th Street in Manhattan. He’s really here to talk about the trainers he’s made in collaboration with Reebok, but you have to use your allotted eight and a half minutes the right way. So, instead of asking about shoes, I wonder if he writes his rhymes down or if he keeps them in his head (“I tend to write everything down”) and how long it takes for him to finish a song (“It can take half an hour, and it can take three months”). And about what he reads.
“I won’t say I read a lot. I communicate with people. I always had that as a key. So now, when I actually can travel the world and talk to different cultures that I’d never seen in my life – I come from a small scene in Compton – it broadens my knowledge of the world, more than a book can do,” he tells me.
His rap is equal parts technical brilliance, wit and swagger. But underneath it all, there’s a hard-set anger brewing. On stage, he often appears to be in full confrontation with his demons. When he played the Grammy Awards in 2014, dressed in white in front of a wall of light, his rhymes were as aggressive as a heavyweight boxer.
“Aggression, sadness, pain, happiness. It’s a bit of everything, as you evolve as a human being, what you put on soul and put on wax. It’s really a gift from God. I can say it comes from my community and being inside a rough environment but, at the same time, things that come out of my mouth, it’s not really something I can take credit for. A lot of people can’t put words together and connect like this, so it’s really a gift,” he says.
“I can definitely see some type of influence from poetry. Music comes from poetry. Rap comes from poetry. Poems are something that you can feel and that people can relate to. Rap music has always been a culture that started from urban communities, and now it’s all over around the world, and people can relate to and be inspired by it. So it’s just a connection, you know, when you think of rap, when you think of poetry.”
There are moments in the career of an artist from which there’s no turning back. When it seems impossible that he or she could ever be forgotten, and instead have written themselves into the history books. In the case of Kendrick Lamar, it’s easy to find that moment: 14 August 2013. This is when Big Sean released the single Control, with Lamar as a guest rapper. In the second verse of the track he compares himself to 2Pac – “I’m Makaveli’s offspring” – and Notorious BIG – “I’m the king of New York” – before he rubbishes eleven of today’s most revered rappers: J Cole, Big KRIT, Wale, Pusha T, Meek Mill, A$AP Rocky, Drake, Tyler, the Creator, Jay Electronica and Mac Miller, plus Big Sean.
The world of hip hop went ballistic. “Good lord… @kendricklamar just like… Bodied everyones entire year’s worth of raps,” Just Blaze tweeted. “Heard @kendricklamar verse and damn near #Sh!tOnMyself!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! HIP HOPS LYRICALLY COMPETITIVE NATURE LIVES AGAIN!” wrote Monie Love. Bun B settled for lower-case letters and wrote that, “Every rapper is supposed to feel like Kendrick feels.”
Later, in an interview with the New York-based radio station Hot 97, Kendrick Lamar said that “it’s not about the culture, it’s not about what side we on, it’s about being great as Biggie, as Pac, the two cats that I referenced. I feel like I’m a student. I’m a student of the work that they did.”
This spring, he releases the follow-up album to Good Kid, MAAD City. Billboard named the lead single, i, the best song last year. Nothing suggests anything else than wider stardom for Kendrick Lamar. But Makaveli’s offspring is still a student. And when he writes rhymes, he goes blind and lets the Lord do his thang.
This interview was published in the S/S 2015 issue of Bon, available in select newsagents.