Golly, I Think I Just Felt Something I’ve Never Felt Before
We common men have always been intensely interested to learn—like the Cardinal who put a similar question to Ariosto—from which sources that curious being, the hip-hop artist, draws his material, and how he manages to impact us so completely, how he makes us feel what we had not thought ourselves capable.1
Such is the case when a 26-year-old with the lyrical prowess of a wizened OG rises among us as baby faced Kendrick Lamar did, pushing up and away from the gangs and drugs and petty crime of his hometown of Compton to find himself center stage, lobbing lyrical gems to sold-out houses. The question has never been Is Kendrick Lamar talented? but Where does that talent come from?
Standing in the penthouse at the W Residences, 50 floors above Manhattan, Lamar is a long way—geographically and spiritually—from Compton, where he grew up in the golden age of West Coast hip-hop, when the ominous Death Row Records arsenal included Kendrick’s childhood idols, the lordly Dr. Dre and the doomed Tupac Shakur. After several wardrobe changes and photo shoot dandyism, Lamar is back where he’s comfortable, in his hoody, slight and handsome with an aura of the amicable stoner from college—not the author of some of hip-hop’s darkest, most sophisticated material in a generation. Angling to gain insight into how Lamar gets in the headspace to draft his lofty lyrics, I ask what’s inspired him musically lately. Lamar pulls out his iPhone.
“There’s some music I’ve been listening to that I haven’t really been talking about. I haven’t been listening to any rap for the last six months. I bought the whole Isley Brothers collection. I got Erykah Badu in there—Miguel, of course—and James Blake. The first time I heard [Blake’s] Retrograde, I played it over 100 times in one day. And mannnnn—The Isley Brothers,” his hands cover his excited face, “listening to these lyrics. First of all I know all these songs, because they were playing in my house growing up. I know all the words, but I didn’t know what I was singing. But now, I realize they were talking about some serious relationship shit. Being in love, being out of love. It’s like some of the most intricate details. They were on some grown shit. When I was a kid I didn’t know—but now that I’m grown, I understand a woman’s feelings and my own reaction as a man, and temptations. And I appreciate it so deeply now.”
As a kid, Lamar pulled straight A’s at Compton Centennial High School, making his parents—who worked hard to safeguard his chances of success despite the odds—very proud. “I always say that this is reward from God [that my parents stayed] together. Because nobody does that anymore—it’s like one percent. In my neighborhood and in my friends’ neighborhoods, I was the only one with a pops and mom. Of course they could have crashed and burned plenty of times, but they stuck it out and this is their reward. Every child needs an active father they can see. That’s really big. They always said ‘We just wanted you to have a good life’ and I’m happy to be able to live well for them.”
From a very early age, Lamar was laying the groundwork for a successful career. By his mid-teens he released his first mixtape under the name K-Dot, earning him a record deal with Top Dawg Entertainment. Several years, mixtapes, and videos later, he doffed K-Dot and released an eponymous EP in late 2009. Simultaneously Lamar formed Black Hippy with friends Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, and Schoolboy Q, a contingent in the style of the old school rap crews that dominated the early ‘80s. His first major label release was good kid, m.A.A.d. city, an album as approachable as the most earwormy pop but insidious and rife with complex emotion.
When we talk about talent and how he got started writing his lyrics, he compromises himself with a stock answer about hard work, then calls himself out: “Man, actually—that’s the gift. God’s gift. I was talking to my partner Jay Cole—I was doing an interview. And they asked me: ‘How do you come up with this stuff?’ And I said I could give you a politically correct answer and say I worked for 10 years in the studio and it paid off, but this is, like, God’s gift really.
“The person that really brought it to my attention was my partner named Jason Estrada. He said ‘It’s a sin for you to not be doing what you’re doing. Just like killing or stealing, it’s a sin for you to not be on stage every night. Because that was God’s gift to you. And if you take a shortcut out and not work at it and just get an easy job, that’s like being ungrateful to God.’
“You know, like saying: ‘Thanks for your gift. I know I have it, but I’m too lazy to go in the studio every night, be on the road, play hole-in-the-wall clubs every night. I’m lazy. I’m just negative. I know I’m good—I might be better than everybody. I might be better than Jay-Z but I’m just lazy.’ That’s a sin. I would never credit myself by saying it’s just hard work. I do believe it’s a higher power.”
Answers like that are what further propel Lamar out of our reach. It’s not that he’s not being truthful, but the answer is vaguely unsatisfactory. In short, he’s saying: You’ve got it or you don’t. We the laymen, it is clear, will never become creative writers; even the clearest insight into how he conceives his ideas wouldn’t imbue us with any sort of talent by proxy.
Lamar flew at breakneck speed to the top of the charts and sold-out arenas after he released good kid, m.A.A.d city in October 2012. With its ominous synth and sly vocals, the tracks represent a new variety of post-Kanye urban pop that crosses the genre’s established boundaries, past dance music, into the realms of performance art. With predecessors like Tyler the Creator, the badge of new hip-hop is sure to include the avant-garde and the macabre—maybe a bit of Weimar decadence.
We move to the penthouse’s pseudo-mid-century sectionals and the conversation turns to Lamar’s shift in lifestyle. “Fame is very weird,” he says as he musses his playground cut, thought heavy on his mind. “When my album came out in October, I was still on my mother’s couch. Imagine the complete 360. It feels like a week ago [that] I was on that couch. I was still at home and feeling homeless. Now I’m in these fancy hotels, people know me, and it’s hard to adjust.”
That tension in Lamar’s equilibrium is evident in his career, defined by Top 40 hits that are wildly successful in one interpretation, dark and searching in another. In “Swimming Pools (Drank),” pitched-down monster simulacra intones alcoholic despair over synth growls while Kendrick exchanges verse with his own Jiminy Cricket-like “conscience.”
There’s a whiff of Bukowski in his playful constructs—approachable jam jars of youthful fantasy, swatting at blackened flies of bad behavior. He’s turned himself inside-out, and everyone wants a peek.
“Now I’m onstage every night and I’m meeting so many different people—I appreciate them for listening to my music, but I have to try to break who I’ve known myself to be for so long. I have to compromise for my career—I can’t just not take a picture with a person who supports me. I’ll never be that person. Sometimes you have a down day, but I’ll never display that side. Thank God for people who buy my records. I appreciate that.”
Lamar is taking fame in stride; his Instagram feed includes photos of him crowd surfing in a rubber pontoon with EDM firebrand Steve Aoki. Giant smiles, onstage swagger, backed by his crew—this is God’s country. Still, presenting a sculpted persona for social media is an adjustment for Lamar, who admits he relies on his crew for amplification.
“I’m not good at the Internet,” he laughs. “I’m terrible. My friends say ‘Your net game is horrible.’ I’m like ‘Man, I’m sorry.’” His laugh fades. “You know, there’s a reason, though. I think one of the reasons why Jay-Z will forever be on top of his game is because he’s always got this mysterious mystique thing about him. I think I wouldn’t be enthused to see Jay-Z tweet all the time. Like I don’t want to know everything about his personal life.”
A photo assistant brings us bottles of water and then, realizing they’re frozen solid, whisks them away. Lamar laughs, an awareness settles, and his next tangent seems apropos: “Kids are a trip. Kids that are so carefree and don’t care about nothing. I’ve learned more about myself in the last six to seven months than I’ve known in my whole life. I know that there is a big inner kid in me.” He softens. “I’ll sit and chill with a kid all day, and people be looking at me crazy. It makes me reminisce about me as a child and how far I came and what it took to get me to this place. I think me being so broad-minded got me on stage today. And it just trips me out to see a wild kid doing a backflip off the couch and me wondering where he’s going to be—like where that imagination is going to take him in the future.” Later that evening, Lamar takes the stage at a private Foot Action “Own the Stage” event in DUMBO, his energy and poise filling the room with teenage abandon. He’s funny, flirtatious, trading lines with Emeli Sande in a rendition of his sour-spirited but irresistibly hooky “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe.” But as he gracefully delivers the words, it’s apparent there is more to him than a young pop star—there is depth and complexity, and we wonder where it’s going to take him in the future.
1 Repurposed from Sigmund Freud’s “Creative Writers and Daydreaming”
Written by Elizabeth Valleau
Photography: Branislav Jankic at Branislavjankic.com.
Style Director: Long Nguyen.
Assistant Fashion Editor: ZaQuan Champ.
Groomer: Willis Cole.
Grooming notes: Energizing moisture gel and sensitive moisturizing balm by Sephora Men Skin Collection.