Kendrick Lamar: The Hottest -- and Most Conflicted -- Rapper in the Game (Video)
A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Should the city burn slowly or spontaneously combust?
Inside a coffin-like glass and concrete rehearsal space on the fringes of Las Vegas, Kendrick Lamar and Imagine Dragons deliberate this question, among other logistics of their Grammy Awards collaboration.
The performance -- a duet, in the Grammy tradition -- features a mashup of the Dragons' apocalyptic anthem, "Radioactive," nominated for record of the year, with Lamar's "m.A.A.d City," the angel dusted aorta of the rapper's seven-times nominated album Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. "In a perfect world, it would be like the Hunger Games and at the end, me and Kendrick would light on fire," says Dragons' lead singer Dan Reynolds. The discussion veers to flying white chalk clouds, epileptic strobe lights, Molotov cocktails, cannons, a waterfall … A minder from the Grammys production team and members of each camp add suggestions, including an interactive police riot. Strings -- real or synthetic -- are nixed because Kanye West brought out the violins a few years earlier. Ludacris, too.
Imagine Dragons huddle up. The conundrum is that fake strings are mocked in rock, but "considered cool" in pop. A pensive silence ensues.
"Don't go against your own shit," Lamar instructs them. "I don't want anybody to do anything fake."
If Lamar were to crystallize his philosophy into 140 characters, this could be it. The dizzying lash of his anthems comes from acrobatic rapping, alien melodicism and characters that resist text-message aphorisms and in-the-club cliche, no matter what mostly media-concocted "feuds" are attached to his name. Lamar's rhymes are flesh and blood and flawed.
His highest-charting single, "Swimming Pools (Drank)," mines a personal struggle with peer pressure and familial alcoholism to basically invert Snoop Dogg's "Gin and Juice." It might be the heaviest single since Eminem's "Cleaning Out My Closet" to climb to No. 16 on the Billboard Hot 100. If major-label rappers often reduce themselves to pro-wrestling-sized personas, Lamar wields a complex austerity better suited to a Roman philosopher king or Shaolin monk.
Currently, he's understated in a long-sleeved white thermal, gray designer sweatpants, and crisp Nikes. No jewelry. Later that night at the Beats by Dre CES afterparty, he performs in a plain rolled-up sweatshirt, blue jeans and Timberlands.
"I'm most comfortable when I'm Plain Jane in my Nike Cortez and my white T's," the Compton-raised 26-year-old says later. "That's who I am and the era I came from. I always have to remind myself of that. I thought I wanted jewelry and cars, but as soon as I got a taste, I realized it wasn't fulfillment. A thrill is being as creative as possible and supporting the people I love."
Most rappers alternately crave and shun the spotlight like a whimsical despot. It's even more expected from platinum-selling "best rapper alive" candidates, ordained by Dr. Dre, and up for best new artist, album of the year, and best rap album (against Drake, West, Jay Z and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis.)
Lamar instead listens intently and cradles his chin in "the thinker" pose. Sometimes he air drums. Every 10 minutes, he retreats into the corner, idly pacing the thin burgundy carpet like a playwright meditating on a red herring. He's the artist as keen observer and lucid dreamer. It's easy to mistake the isolation for aloofness, but it's symptomatic of someone permanently immersed in thought.
"I'm like that all day," he says of the turbulence. "It drives me crazy sometimes. I try to shut off my mind, but I can't."
"Kendrick is wise, he's like an old Buddha or Yoda Junior," offers Dave Free, an accomplished producer, longtime friend, and the current general manager of Lamar's label, Top Dawg Entertainment. "He's always been this way."
Any hint of ego seeps out primarily through the music. You don't call yourself "King of New York," as he did on last summer's controversial "Control," without some heaven-sent belief in your talents. But he's determined to wall himself off from the pestilential demands of industry. Yes, he's in a bunker with a mostly Mormon rock group from Sin City, who are trying to sell him on the finer points of the Blue Man Group's stage show. But he can still return to the Westside of Compton and be "K.Dot" as though none of this ever really happened. Mostly.
In theory, Lamar and Imagine Dragons should interact with the awkwardness of a first date on eHarmony, but there's a mutual respect. Lamar raves about Imagine Dragons' "energy and stage presence." Imagine Dragons treat him like a sage. They do a dry run of the Grammy performance. Lamar moves with an intense glare and lynx-like grace. The Dragons head-bang, thwack drums and rifle off guitar licks sculpted for arena shows, not subwoofers blaring gangsta rap on Rosecrans Boulevard.
If there's a communion, it's through their shared fascination of a city under siege, being destroyed via natural or man-made means. Lamar raps his verse about driving past burger stands where people got their brains blown out. One of his early memories was the chaos of L.A.'s 1992 riots, so he intuitively grasps what Joan Didion and Nathanael West understood: Los Angeles' deepest image of itself is the city burning. Imagine Dragons' vision belongs to Vegas -- the city as phosphorescent tumor -- a place that could recede into the Mohave with a random pull of the wrong lever.
More ideas are bandied about: a "tribal feel," "extras onstage." Imagine Dragons will wear all white against a pitch-black backdrop -- unless they won't. Free suggests more colors, but the Grammy producer pipes in. "Colors feel like too much fun," he says.
"That's why it's perfect; You don't have to ride the line," retorts Free, articulating TDE's mission statement to shatter convention. "You don't have to wear baggy jeans to be gangsta."
* * *
"Where you from?" Kendrick Lamar asks before sitting down for an interview with The Hollywood Reporter in his hotel suite at Las Vegas' Cosmopolitan Hotel. When the answer isn't specific enough, Lamar repeats himself, shouting out Westside Compton with his lips pursed and an extra emphasis on the you. He's not asking a question, he's looking for the correct password.
"Tree Top Piru …" -- a reference to an infamous Compton Blood sect that clearly is not in the business of accepting journalists as members. After a long nervous pause, Lamar laughs, flashes a childlike gap-toothed smile, and invites this writer to sit down.
The question, "Where you from?" beats at the heart of Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. Where Lamar was raised, it's not a matter of pleasantries, but a pop quiz with potentially fatal ramifications.
His Aftermath/Interscope debut depicts a day in the life of Lamar in the summer after 10th grade. He borrows his mom's minivan to navigate an asphalt labyrinth littered with sinners, redemption, home invasions, malt liquor and cheap hallucinogens. The ghosts of dead friends haunt every cul-de-sac. There are 40 Blood and Crip sets that bang in the 10 square miles of Compton. And Kendrick plays the chronicler of those caught in the crossfire, bounded between Stephen Dedalus and Tupac.
"I wanted to speak from the perspective of my block and neighborhood, but in a different manner," Lamar says. "Anyone can talk about bottles of champagne and getting signed, but I wanted to relate how I grew up and what I saw every day. Where I come from, it's not always about joining or not joining a gang. By nature, whatever neighborhood you're in, there's a certain affiliation. You might have a cousin over here, an uncle over there …"
Few spots are further from Compton than the Cosmopolitan. The lobby is a blinding jujitsu of crystal and mirrors. You feel like you're trapped in an upside-down champagne glass. Lamar's room overlooks the neon fog of the southern strip. There are pseudo-artsy black-and-white photos adorning the walls. This place has seen enough debauchery to make a Borgia blush, but Kendrick mildly sips a bottle of water.
His story fits the American Dream blueprint to an almost unthinkable degree in the 21st century. Kid emerges from poverty and bloodshed thanks to stellar parenting, celestial talent and an absurd work ethic. He does it without artistic compromise or self-caricature. No shoehorning in pop hooks, trendy sounds or even a single Dr. Dre beat. And now he's sitting in a hotel room that costs more per night than most monthly mortgages.
Yet the experience is bittersweet. Perched 30 stories above the strip, Kendrick is thinking mostly about the summers he spent in Vegas visiting his grandparents. They had been enticed by dollar signs in the desert. Says Lamar: "When you're 9 or 10, you're really carefree. Everything is overexaggerated. You only see the colors."
He continues, partially lost in the nostalgia (up close, Lamar looks significantly younger than 26, especially when he laughs). "Vegas is a beautiful city, but some resentment comes from it luring my grandparents here with the dream of getting rich," Lamar explains. "It took them from our family in L.A. and they passed away, all the while thinking they'd get wealthy here. They could've just stayed home with us."
Family and place operate as Lamar's north star. He mentions his sister, mom and dad, who leave voicemails on Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. The realism comes from his pops. The early awareness of a bigger world outside of Compton comes from his mother.
"I was always a bit of a dreamer," Lamar says. "After those long crazy nights in high school, I'd go back to my room and sit up staring at the ceiling, thinking that I could get out of this craziness if I ever found something that I loved."
Rap was a lunchroom hobby that became an obsession and calling. Recorded at 16, his first mixtape circulated to Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith, one of the few in Compton with an industry foothold. To many, Lamar's ascent appeared to happen overnight. In reality, it followed a decade of experimentation with sounds and vocal tics. The tributaries can be traced back to influences like Eminem, Outkast, Tupac and Biggie, Nas, Jay Z, Lil Wayne and DMX.
There were several ghostwriting gigs and a clutch of mixtapes. A buzz slowly built that eventually landed him in the Santa Monica offices of Interscope Records. With the imprimatur of Dr. Dre's Aftermath imprint, Lamar became the next great rap hope. While most contenders to the throne hedge their bets and recruit the biggest names and producers du jour, Lamar doubled down on a cinematic concept album done mostly in-house -- one that combined Pulp Fiction with Menace II Society and a little bit of Martin.
"I didn't want to flood it with features just because I had the opportunity," Lamar says. "That would have been the easy way out. It would've felt like a cop-out. I would've felt unsuccessful."
That's one reason why the immediate success of Good Kid, M.A.A.D City in November 2012 surprised industry observers. You're supposed to use social media to build a cult of personality and bastardize your original rawness for the sake of pop appeal. You're expected to model, act or seek mogul-dom. In an attenuated industry, you're not supposed to move albums until you've sold Clear Channel on your first single. Kendrick did none of these things, but he debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart, selling 220,000 albums in its first week out, the best-selling debut for a male artist that year.
It triggered a 16-month coronation parade that included sold-out shows across the globe and cameo verses that briefly shut down the Internet. The ego can only be walled in so much. Lamar is polite and modest in person, but once he steps in the recording booth, his competitive streak leans more Darth Vader than Yoda.
Pusha T, A$AP Rocky, Drake, Mac Miller … The name-dropping on "Control," a Big Sean track with verses by Lamar that boast, "I got love for you all but I'm tryna murder you" and "What is competition? I'm tryna raise the bar high," drove LeBron James to tweet, "This is real hip-hop at its best." Russell Simmons called it an "instant classic." Even former Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who found himself mentioned, gently chided Lamar about the need for mentorship. Rumors of bad blood surfaced between Lamar and Drake and innumerable enraged responses came from New York mixtape rappers.
"It wasn't premeditated, it just came to me when I was writing that bar," says Lamar. "The crazy part is, I didn't think it would ever go to where dis records were coming at me. I thought people would be like, "He threw some challenges out there, that was dope.' "
The root concept of "Control" was mostly drowned in the commentariat deluge. Rap is built on braggadocio. If you think you're the best, but don't say you're the best, then you're probably not the best. Kendrick Lamar anointing himself was a righteous investiture. So the only logical way to end 2013 was by opening for Kanye West on his Yeezus Tour -- playing the Stoic King to Kanye's wrathful Zeus.
"Kanye taught me to never to downplay your ideas," adds Lamar. "I learned to always stay as creative as possible and never have any boundaries. Those things that people called 'rants' onstage are real conversations that we had behind closed doors -- about business and how when you get to a certain level people won't want to see you break through because they only see you as a rapper."
For now, there are no plans to act, start a clothing line, do razor commercials or even introduce a stable of artists. He says he's into being the best rapper alive, but there's the tacit understanding that he wants to stand for something, not merely get the gold in lyrical gymnastics.
There are ideas for his next record, but he mostly demurs when asked about it. "I'm still seeing what I feel like," says Lamar. "When I really catch it, I'll be out there with it." He doesn't acknowledge anticipation, but he knows it exists. Whenever the album does drop, it's bound to be the most debated hip-hop release of that year. It also stands to serve as a test: to see if Lamar can continue to expand his territory without bending to industry dogma.
In the interim, there are the Grammys and the city that may or not turn into a fiery hellscape. Neither winning, losing nor the opinions of others seems to make Lamar remotely nervous. He takes another sip of water, exhales, politely excuses himself, and goes out alone to the balcony to contemplate the glow. He's already figured out who he is, where he's from, and what feels true. The rest of the questions can be answered later.