Few hip-hop stars have arrived as fully formed as 25-year-old Kendrick Lamar. Hailing from the MC hotbed of Compton, Lamar has been cranking out increasingly adventurous mixtapes since he was a teen, at first under the name K.Dot (a moniker he later abandoned). But with the release last fall of his proper major-label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d. city(Interscope/ Aftermath/Top Dawg Entertainment), Lamar took his show widescreen. He subtitled the album A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar, and there is something palpably cinematic about it. It’s a deftly nuanced work filled with richly painted vignettes, complicated characters, and shifting perspectives that begins with a 17-year-old Lamar trying to find his way as he is being pulled in multiple directions by his friends, parents, hip-hop fantasies, girls, and the culture of Compton, and ends with him figuratively taking the baton from Dr. Dre while wondering if what he has achieved is a victory or simply part of a cycle. (Another Compton legend, MC Eiht, appears on the track “m.A.A.d. city.”)
On the back of the hit singles “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and “Poetic Justice,” good kid, m.A.A.d. city reached No. 1 on both the Billboard Rap and R&B/ Hip-Hop charts. This past March, Lamar was even anointed “Hottest MC in the Game” by a panel of experts empowered by an authority no less than MTV (formerly an acronym for “Music Television”).
Nevertheless, to reduce good kid, m.A.A.d. city to a pop phenomenon is to, in part, ignore the thrust of its instant-classicness: Like some of the best records in the history of pop, it’s an album that not only tells a compelling story, but a near-definitive one of a specific time and place, offering a window on the varying complexities of turn-of-the-century Compton, where the gangs, drugs, and guns are all still plentiful, but the kids now also have a generation of grade-A hip-hop to fall back on in struggling to navigate it. In fact, songs on good kid, m.A.A.d city like “The Art of Peer Pressure” deal directly with the glorification—and the growing urban mythology—of the rags-to-riches gangsta-rapper narrative that surrounded Lamar as a kid. But good kid, m.A.A.d city is also an intensely personal album that draws its power from Lamar’s frequently ambivalent—and conflicted—relationship with the people and world that he is chronicling. In one of several voicemail interludes that punctuate good kid, m.A.A.d city, Lamar’s mother offers him some advice: “Tell your story to these black and brown kids,” she urges. “Let them know you was just like them, but you still rose from that dark place of violence, becoming a positive person.” Near the end of the capper, “Compton,” the true complexity of that story is brought into full relief as Lamar slyly raps, “Harsh realities we in made our music translate / To the coke dealers, the hood rich, and the broke niggas that play … Roll that kush, crack that case, 10 bottles of rosé / This was brought to you by Dre … In the city of Compton / Ain’t no city quite like mine.”
Singer, songwriter, and fellow raconteur Erykah Badu recently caught up with Lamar by phone at the airport in Denver. Badu was at home in Dallas, Texas, and Lamar, who has seemingly been in constant motion while touring the world over the past year, was enjoying a rare unscheduled breather, having just missed his flight.
ERYKAH BADU: Can you describe how it feels to be in this cyclone of good fortune that you’re experiencing right now? How are you handling all of it?
KENDRICK LAMAR: I always thought money was something just to make me happy. But I’ve learned that I feel better being able to help my folks, ‘cause we never had nothing. So just to see them excited about my career is more of a blessing than me actually having it for myself. My folks ain’t graduated from high school or nothing like that, so we always had to struggle in the family—and I come from a big family. But as far as me handling this, it’s a weird feeling because it’s like a blur right now. I think my worst problem is actually living in the moment and understanding everything that’s going on. I feel like I’m in my own bubble. People tell me all the time, “You’re crazy, going there by yourself,” because it wouldn’t have soaked in yet that I’m supposed to be quote “Kendrick Lamar”—whoever this guy’s supposed to be. I still feel like me. So it’s really about me trying to adapt—that’s like the toughest thing for me right now. I feel like I’m in my own world.
BADU: Is it a good world?
LAMAR: It’s got its pros and cons. I still know who I am and I haven’t let everything consume me. But on the other end, I have to know when I’m me—when I go out in public, to the person that sees me on TV and has a conception of who I am. That’s the only catch. That’s the flip side to it. But I think whatever pressure I feel all comes from me, from within. I always was that person who was hard on myself and challenged myself no matter what I was doing, whether it was passing third grade or playing basketball. I think it was a whole lot of pressure building up for this first album. But I looked at that kind of thing as excitement, you know? Since day one, since the first time I touched the pen, I wanted to be the best at what I do. So I’m just taking it one day at a time.