With the amount of praise that’s come Kendrick Lamar’s way of late, you’d be forgiven for thinking the guy can actually fly. So when the 28-year old new king of West Coast hip-hop went and did exactly that in the video for ‘Alright’, it was hard to tell where the special effects ended and the superpowers began.
The politically charged video, released on June 30, found Kendrick floating over parts of LA and San Francisco and rapping on lampposts (“Kendrick Lamar spotted on traffic light,” ran a headline on an lalive.com story about the shoot) as familiar street scenes play out below. Then he comes crashing back to earth when a white policeman guns him down.
It’s another milestone moment in what is rapidly proving to be a momentous 2015 for the rapper. In March, he pulled off one of the most ambitious records in hip-hop history in ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ – an album of such dazzling scope and complexity, it reportedly sent Kanye West scampering back to the drawing board on his own latest opus, the highly anticipated follow-up to 2013’s ‘Yeezus’.
“I wanted this record to be talked about the same way Bob Dylan or The Beatles or Jimi Hendrix are talked about,” Kendrick says in an East London studio. “When my time has come on earth, I want it to live longer than me, for the grandkids and their kids.”
Where Kendrick grew up, longevity wasn’t really much of a consideration. Born and bred in Compton, Los Angeles County – spiritual home of gangsta rap and a focal point in murderous Crips and Bloods rivalry – he escaped the life of a gangbanger after a friend was fatally shot; he was approached in a parking lot by another friend’s grandmother, who asked him if he accepted God (he was eventually baptised in 2013).
Signing to Top Dawg Entertainment at the age of 16, Kendrick worked up a string of solo releases under the K-Dot pseudonym, forming the Black Hippy posse with labelmates Ab-Soul, Schoolboy Q and Jay Rock. Dropping the K-Dot moniker, he alerted Dr Dre to his talent with ‘Ignorance Is Bliss’, a track from 2010 mixtape ‘Overly Dedicated’, but it was the following year’s ‘Section 80’ that proved his breakout release, leading to a deal with Aftermath and the release of his major-label debut, 2012’s ‘good kid, MAAD city’, which introduced him to a wider audience as hip-hop’s pre-eminent chronicler of inner city strife. Then, in August 2013, he contributed an incendiary verse on Big Sean’s ‘Control’, which lived up to its promise to “murder” almost every new rapper on the planet still drawing breath (including Big Sean), and lit a rocket under the arse of hip-hop in the process.
“I’m not one of those people that say, ‘When I get rich I’m gonna keep it extra 100 and be on the block all day,’” says Kendrick, who recently bought a (modest) new pad in nearby Eastvale, in Southern California. “No! It’s like this: you from the hood, you wanna get out the hood. The initiative is to get out, for somebody to get out to show us some type of way of life.”
Still, Kendrick is proud of his hometown – after all, it’s Compton that brought his beloved G-funk to global attention, via the music of Dr Dre. But whereas for many people his age, going home means nothing worse than two days of dad jokes and the incessant quizzing of your dietary regime, for Kendrick, there are bigger things to worry about.
“You gotta be a stupid motherfucker, man, to have success and still wanna hang on the block,” he says. “I don’t give a fuck who you are, you dumb. You playing with fire, and you haven’t accepted change.”
It’s the end of May when NME meets Kendrick in London, half a world away from his former LA stomping ground. He’s in good spirits, and why not: he’s just hit Number One on the US singles chart for the first time, with a guest spot on the latest Taylor Swift blockbuster, ‘Bad Blood’. The collab prompted ‘sell-out’ accusations from some, but for Kendrick the move made perfect sense. “I appreciate Taylor Swift for supporting not only my music but the hip-hop culture as a whole,” he told the Associated Press last year. “There’s really no gap. It’s music and it feels good.”
During the photoshoot, he breezes through a repertoire of worldly-wise poses; a philosopher-king surveying the lay of the land beforehim. Clad in off-white, unbranded sportswear, he talks in a mellow lilt just a few notches above a whisper, like a cat drowsing in the midday sun. Kendrick might be rap royalty, but nothing about the guy shouts.
“The positive outweighs the negative, I can tell you that,” he says of his newfound superstar status. “I can take care of my family. I get to socialise with people outside of what I know and meet different cultures. Growing up in an urban community, you don’t give a fuck. That’s just how the mentality is. But you gotta learn to respect different types of people. Andthat was a lesson to me, I had to get out of my own nutshell.”
As even a cursory spin of ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ suggests, adapting to the trappings of fame has not been easy for Kendrick. The monster success of ‘good kid, MAAD City’ delivered him from the evils of Compton, but the new album wrestles with a dilemma of a different sort. To paraphrase Snoop Dogg’s wry cameo on ‘Institutionalized’: you can take the boy out the hood, but can you take the hood out the homie?
“You take a person out the neighbourhood, give ’em a record deal, give ’em advance money,” Kendrick says. “What do you do with that money? Put more guns and drugs in the hood? I always remember what 50 Cent said when he got his first advance: he said he took that money and he bought dope. It’s really just like that. I was still on my momma’s couch when I got signed. You’re trapped in the mentality of not knowing the responsibility you have when you get fame. It’s something that I recognised early.”
Not that Kendrick, who swapped rhymes with Fiddy on ‘We Up’ in 2013, is judging his peers. He’s simply acknowledging how a hood state of mind can become a prison for rappers. But making it off the streets intact brought other problems, too. Survivor’s guilt stalks every moment of ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’, and especially the harrowing ‘u’, where he drunkenly berates himself for being out on tour when another friend from back home was shot, and for not being around to support his teenage sister when she became pregnant.
When ‘good kid…’ blew up, Kendrick became a role model to thousands of kids, who looked up to the author of modern-day ghetto gospel like ‘Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst’ for spiritual guidance. Kendrick admits it was difficult to fulfil this role while still battling his own demons. “[Being a leader] wasn’t even an ambition, to be real with you,” he says. “It’s something I didn’t wanna take responsibility for. Nobody do, especially when you’re still searching for answers for yourself. I don’t have the answers! I tell people that all the time. I’m still learning, but I think that’s what makes people connect with me. I don’t point the finger.”
While preparing to make ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’, Kendrick looked to other black cultural and political leaders for inspiration, like his hero Tupac Shakur, plus Marcus Garvey, Huey Newton and Nelson Mandela. On tour in South Africa, he even made a visit to the prison complex at Robben Island where Mandela was incarcerated under apartheid. The whole experience affected him profoundly.
“My teachers always made Africa seem like this hellhole place,” he says. “It’s like they didn’t want you to go, so when I get out there and I see all these beautiful people, I see these kids living in tents and they still had these smiles on their faces. And then you have this whole other side, as far as scenery – it’s this paradise that nobody never spoke of at school. I got a whole new perspective on life from going out there, it was refreshing.”
Perhaps the trip helped inspire one of the record’s more divisive moments: ‘i’’s attempt to reclaim the N-word as a source of pride by exploring its (allegedly African) roots: “Well, this is my explanation straight from Ethiopia / N-E-G-U-S definition: royalty; King royalty – wait listen / N-E-G-U-S description: Black emperor, King, ruler, now let me finish / The history books overlook the word and hide it.” The legendary comedian Richard Pryor, who’s name-checked on the album, once wrote about his own life-changing experiences in Kenya, whereupon seeing what he perceived to be the dignity and unbroken spirit of its people, he vowed never to use the N-word again in his set. But Kendrick says not using it at all might be a stretch too far at this stage in his career.
“I don’t know if I can stop,” he says. “The closest I can do to stopping is putting the root word, negus, on my album. But I don’t know if I’m there mentally to stop saying the n-word yet. I dunno, maybe one day. That’s 27 years of reversing that word, I probably been saying that since I was one year old.”
At times, experiencing ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’’s 79 minutes of gruelling catharsis can feel like being locked in a cupboard full of skeletons and left to fight your way out. But the record is so much more than a personal voyage of discovery. Billed by the prominent critic Robert Christgau as a “strong, brave, effective bid to reinstate hip-hop as black America’s CNN”, it speaks eloquently to the increasingly angry, despairing mood among African American communities in the States right now. ‘The Blacker The Berry’ echoes popular outrage at recent police killings of black citizens, for instance, while ‘Alright’ touches on police violence in a more general sense: “We hate po-po/Wanna kill us dead in the streets for sure”.
So when we’re informed that politics is off the menu as a topic of conversation before sitting down to chat with Kendrick, it’s hard not to feel short-changed. Swedish journalist Mats Nileskär – the guy whose Tupac interview Kendrick samples at the end of the record – persuasively suggested that these songs double as a soundtrack to an emerging civil rights movement in the US. Surely their author would have a word to say about that?
“No politics!” barks Kendrick’s manager, who’s been lurking silently in the background throughout our interview, when I try and smuggle a question in under the table. “Kendrick’s here to promote his album.”
“But surely the album is political!” I sputter indignantly. “Isn’t it relevant to…”
“No politics,” the manager replies, with an air of finality.
Perhaps Kendrick feels burned by past comments made on the subject? Asked about the police killing of Michael Brown that sparked civilunrest in Ferguson, Missouri last summer, he told Billboard: “What happened to [Michael Brown] should’ve never happened. Never. But when we don’t have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us?”
The remark prompted outcry among online commentators – including Azealia Banks, who branded it “the dumbest shit I’ve ever heard a black man say” – but Kendrick says his reluctance to speak on political affairs has nothing to do with the incident. “I don’t care,” he says, frowning for the first time today. “My life is already written. Everything I’m doing is a rerun of what God already played out for me – I don’t do no apologies. Everything I said I meant, period. Those who get it, they understand. Those are the people that need it. If you don’t, then obviously you’re not going through that, so you don’t really care.”
Prominent among the criticisms of Kendrick’s comments was that, although his claim that change must “come from within” is all very well and Christian, it ignores a system that is stacked overwhelmingly against people of colour in the States. What about reform of the nation’s police force, for example? Or its gun laws? Or its institutionally racist penal system, alluded to in Kanye’s ‘New Slaves’? Does none of that make Kendrick want to lend his support to the wave of protest currently sweeping the country?
“It all depends on what lending your support is,” says Kendrick, who appears to take a dim view of politics in general. (“People in high places are just the biggest thugs,” he ventures at one point.) “A lot of people say lending your support is going out there and talking, protesting. Personally I’d rather do the groundwork inside the city. I feel like there needs to be more action instead of talk, we need to be at the youth detention centres, the boys’ and girls’ clubs and the parks. It’s about showing your face to these kids.”
Kendrick is as good as his word on that front: he was honoured by the California state senate this year for his charitable work in Compton. Another, higher-profile return to the hood came with the video shoot for swaggering lead single ‘King Kunta’, where he preached his message of empowerment from the rooftops of the swap meet, the recently closed thrift store where rappers would go to hawk their wares in the early days of gangsta rap.
“That was just the first time the homecoming was broadcast,” says Kendrick, with a touch of pride. “It’s like that every time I go back. Thing is, I can never be the artist who raps, ‘Niggas hate me in the hood ’cos I’m rich,’ because I never really felt that type of hate. There was always a mutual understanding.”
It’s tough to square the modest, unassuming figure of today with the madness that surrounds his every move in 2015. There may be no going back for Kendrick Lamar, but perhaps you can’t take the hood out of the homie after all.
Kendrick Lamar will be taking the main stage at Reading and Leeds this August – Leeds on Friday Aug 28, followed by Reading on Sunday Aug 30. Tickets are available here.