Kendrick Lamar: "You don’t ever hear a grown man talking about how he took a loss"
When Pharrell Williams describes you as “this era’s Bob Dylan” and your latest record was the most anticipated and widely acclaimed hip-hop release of 2012, you’d be excused for being blinded (permanently) by the hype. Not Kendrick Lamar.
As TheVine found out when we sat down with the 25-year-old during his whirlwind Australian tour last month (read our Brisbane review here on TheVine), LA native, Lamar is decidedly humble, fully aware of the expectations surrounding him and is taking it all in his stride.
Kendrick, how are you, how’s Australia been treating you so far?
It’s been amazing, there’s a lot of energy in this place.
It’s been a phenomenal year for you. Good kid, m.a.a.d city recently went gold, that must be amazing feeling?
Yeah, it’s crazy. Crazy man.
Is going gold something that you ever would have expected happening, even a year ago? It’s been a meteoric rise.
I mean, you always keep that in high pursuit, but when it finally arrives it’s a surreal moment, to actually know that you have a gold record. But it was a whole lot of grind to get here. This didn’t happen over night.
Good kid, m.a.a.d city is a genuine self-portrait of a man growing up (and all that entails), but also of the community that man grew up in. A community filled with gang culture, violence, drug abuse and crime. Yet, as opposed to most West Coast rappers, rather than getting angry about your situation, you get analytical. Was this a deliberate choice when writing the album?
Yeah, definitely. You know, you’re used hearing about the glorification of that culture or the anger of it, so at the end of the day, I wanted to bring something different to that story. I wanted to show that there’s more to where I grew up and that culture, that there are some thinkers out there and it’s not just about the glorification of that culture. I wanted to bring another perspective to it, like you said. I wanted to analyse the situation. Knowing the history and the background of kids that grew up in the ‘80s—[who] didn’t have fathers ‘cause they went to prison; or their mothers were on drugs because of the crack epidemic that came in real heavy in LA and birthed all these babies with deficiencies, hyperactivity and ADHD, which was causing that energy in the city—that was my whole thing. To just analyse it and break it down. I really did want something new and to bring a different perspective that the world could actually embrace.
You’ve often spoken about how you grew up with both your parents, which was unusual compared to many of your contemporaries, and how that had a positive effect on you as a person. But how did growing up immersed in the aforementioned environment effect you on a personal level?
On a personal level—and I don’t know if this is a good or bad thing—it taught me to always have my guards up and to be aware about what was happening around me. And in this business that I’m in, I’m exposed to so many people walking on the street and if I see just a regular person looking at me crazy, my instinct is that he has some type of animosity or [is] even against me. But most of the time that’s just a regular fan. So that’s been a really hard transition for me to make mentally. But that’s what my upbringing, for better or worse, instilled in me. It’s a mean world out there and this is a mean business, so I really just have my guards up.
So you’re environment has helped you traverse the landscape of the music business?
Yeah. In the music world I’m a more of a realist and that stems from certain situations that have happened in my life or that were formed in that environment – it puts some tough skin on you. So when I go into these labels or meetings with people who I know don’t really care about my wellbeing—they just care about the dollar—it allows me to be a little less worried about it. It ensures that I don’t get caught up in the fabrication of that lifestyle.
It’s interesting that you use the term “being a bit more of a realist”, because I was curious as to whether growing up, your music was means of emotional escapism. Or a way of physically escaping the life and environment that you’d always known?
Man it was both; definitely a physical way of escaping my environment, even a mental way. You know, actually just sitting inside of a room and thinking about something other than what was going on outside of that house. I was just thinking about what was coming out of that pen and onto the paper. Or what I could produce on that beat. That was a mental way for me to vent. In a literal physical sense, I was able to escape by actually going outside of the house and being in the studio, locked in and meeting different people and being able to get out of that environment for that day or for that few hours. It also meant that I got to experience people whose lifestyle was a little more fortunate than mine was and that had a real positive effect on me.
Now that you have had some success in your musical career and you have escaped that environment, how do you look back on Compton now?
Compton now…I would say that the only positivity we do have is really this album. Because that’s one thing where we embrace the fact that we have a culture and history in great music and we pride ourselves on that. And I think that’s the only thing that could bring back unity as far as the different neighbourhoods and gangs and that’s all we have to latch onto. You know, since the early ‘90s, since NWA, we always pride ourselves by saying this is Compton, this is where we are from and these guys are they ones talking about our life and they respect that. So as far as where that place is at right now, music is the only thing I can see that could bring it back to where it needs to be.
That assessment is a heavy load to carry for someone as young as you, which brings me to the notion of outside expectations. In October XXL Magazine referred to you as the “poster boy for West Coast hip-hop”. West Coast hip hop music has such a storied and important place in hip hop history. How does that sit with you?
It sits great. It sits cool with me just because I know where I come from, I know the history, I know the background from the early ‘90s even into the times when I was born. I studied that as well. It ain’t nothing that I will be intimated of when the opportunity was presented to me, because I felt confident enough to know about that legacy and the history that I have to uphold. Even in my skills I was confident and I said it to myself that I’m qualified.
Section 80 was such a break out record for you. That felt like the moment where you really become a significant figure on the hip-hop landscape. From your perspective, what are the major differences between creating that album and having now released good kid, m.a.a.d city?
Section 80 was less about me. That was the biggest thing going into good kid [which made it] so personal – I told stories about skeletons that I’d always kept hidden. So that became the real test, do I really want to break these stories out for a better cause for kids to relate or just be putting my business out there? So that was the main difference that I had to focus on and something that I had to think about for a long period of time.
You demonstrate a remarkable vulnerability on the latest album and you’re not afraid to go against what is the expected norm from most rappers. You’re not afraid of showing fear or discussing things that might be off limits for many MCs, for fear of how they might be perceived. Why was that?
Yeah man, it was just something that came with the timing. I always thought that you hear about the person shooting someone or beating someone up, but you never hear about that cat that’s in the hood that’s being jumped. You never hear about that person that’s trying to escape it, but he’s in it and he deals with it and he retaliates. You know, you’ve never heard a record about a black dude in an urban community getting his ass beat. It’s always fabricated stories about “I did this” or “I did that”, but you don’t ever hear a grown man talking about when and how he took a loss. Because it’s so macho. Especially on the West Coast. Here you just espouse the glorification of the violence to earn some street cred.
So I think this record just came out at a time where I was breaking out and feeling confident in myself to tell another story. Because when you think about it like this, for that ten percent that is talking about it, there’s a whole ninety percent that aren’t even part of that lifestyle. But are still living there and nobody has covered those people on the West Coast. So I embraced that fact.
It takes a confident person to be able to go into that place. Is it only at this point in your life and career that you’ve felt you are able to discuss these type of things?
Yeah, it took some confidence. But definitely now, given the reception to the record, especially from the kids in Compton and LA, they are saying “thank you for telling our story”. And that’s really important to me.
You have that line in Money Tree, that says “everybody gonna’ respect the shooter / but the one in front of the gun lives forever”. And that’s that idea about talking and thinking about that victim as opposed to the person shooting.
Exactly. And the victim he don’t have to worry about the consequences, he’s gone to wherever he’s going to go, but his conscience is clear. But the shooter on the other hand, they got to live with that every day until it’s their time to go. And it’s those parallels that are interesting to me when I make my music and tell me stories.
Did you always know you were going to escape?
Did I always know? I always knew I was someone a little bit different than my partners. It seemed like I was the only one that was conscious of what we were doing and I think I dreamed of something just a little bit different. Whereas they felt like they would always see this and be part of it. And I guess there was always part of me that believed that to a certain extent, but I always knew there was something bigger than just Compton. You know, I’d heard of Australia, I knew it was there. But to my friends they were like, “there ain’t no fucking Australia, this is it”. But I always knew there was something else out there for me.
One of the hallmarks of your music is that you’re a masterful storyteller and rhyme with an intricacy that belies your age. The other day Pharrell (Williams) tweeted that you were “this era’s Bob Dylan”. That’s a weighty comment to come from someone as influential as Pharrell. Do you think you can live up to it?
That’s some very, very high expectations, but I would say this, anything is possible. If I continue to do the work and put the effort in, continue to travel the world and see different people and places and not be boxed in, then I think I will definitely become a household name I think.
Dylan had a way of galvanising and inspiring the masses through his music, often via a social or political standpoint. Is that a role you can see yourself playing in the future?
You see it’s tricky when you’re doing that, when you speak on those issues (political and social) and that’s what makes him so great. Because they key is to talk about those things, like Dylan did, and not come across as preachy. People wanted to listen to him and what he had to say, they weren’t all like, “I don’t want to hear that shit”.
And I think that’s the reason people were attracted to Good kid, m.a.a.d city and a song like HiiiPower, because HiiiPower doesn’t come across as preachy. It comes across as a story about a kid that wants to know about these individuals that I’m talking about and I’m just trying to learn like you [the listener] and I think that’s what Bod Dylan did when I go back and listen to his music. He told those type of stories. So if I branch off in that direction, with that type of subject matter and people listen, then that’s when I’ll know that I’ve captured my true artistry. Because I will have captured a listening demographic with subject matter that normally scares people away.