By Chris DartCompton-based rapper Kendrick Lamar didn't want to become conscious rap's new hope, and in many ways, he's not. His latest offering, Section.80, has as many personal meditations on the nature of success, bitter rants and blunted trip-outs as it does calls to political action. That said, when he does choose to get political, Lamar is one of the most thought-provoking, insightful MCs of the last decade. "HiiiPower" (his J. Cole-produced tribute to the black leaders of previous generations) is the closest Generation Y has come to producing its version of "Fight the Power," while "Tammy's Song," "Keisha's Song" and "No Make-Up" are all sharp criticisms of a society that fails to take care of its daughters. As a technical MC, Lamar's complex rhyme schemes and emotional delivery put him in an elite class, and while he's most at home flowing at a deliberate speed on tracks like "Kush & Corinthians" and "Ronald Reagan Era," he's more than capable of picking up the pace on "Fuck Your Ethnicity" and "Rigamortus." Production-wise, Section.80 has a mind-blowing array of memorable instrumentals, from the sci-fi psychedelia of "ADHD" to the downtempo electro of "No Make-Up" and the heartbreaking flutes, strings and keys of "Keisha's Song." At the midway point of 2011, Section.80 has become the album to beat for album-of-the-year. I wish the best of luck to all the artists that plan on releasing albums in the second half of the year. They'll need it.
The title of the upcoming album is Good Kid in a Mad City. Where'd the title come from, what does it mean and why is it a phrase that comes up so regularly in your songs? That's my official debut album that I have in the cut that I'm still working and developing. "Good kid in a mad city," that's a representation of my life growing up in Compton. I feel like that's what it is being a young black male trying to escape the negative aspects of the city. Whether that's peer pressure from the homies, gang violence, police brutality or just growing up beside the ills of the world while still trying to represent yourself in a positive light, find yourself and not get distracted.
How did you manage to avoid all that negativity? I know some of your buddies fell in with gang violence and whatnot. How did you manage to keep out of it? I bumped my head a few times, man. The only thing that separated me from them was the fact I had a father – an active father. He wasn't perfect, he was still out doing his stuff, but at the same time, every time I bumped my head he was always right there to say, "You know what? I told you don't do this. I've done that. I've been there." [My friends] didn't have that. They was out there bumping they head, getting back up and cracking they head again and again until it was over. They're either dead or locked up in prison. I always had him right there in my corner. I have the utmost respect [for him]. We share similarities and he always had that mentor mentality, trying to focus me through the right light, and I found a positive light through music.
What would you say to kids who are in similar situations, living in tough neighbourhoods and possibly on the edge of falling into some negative stuff? I'd tell them you've got to find a light within yourself – find something positive. You're around so much negativity, there's always a time where you feel like that's the only thing that's crackin'. There's got to be something, whether it's music or skateboarding or playing basketball, focus on that one thing and put all your energy towards it and you'll see something positive happen around it.
You released two mixtapes under the name K. Dot, took some time off from music and came back under your real name. What sparked the decision to reinvent yourself and take a second stab at rapping under your real name? When I first started rapping, I just wanted to be the best lyricist out there. So what I did was I went back and started studying all these people that I thought of as pioneers – Jay-Z, Biggie, Pac, Nas – and developed my craft. But in doing that, all I had was a bunch of lyrics. I wasn't really an artist, where people could say, "I know him; he has a distinctive sound and I know his story." That was something I had to realize. I didn't know that these cats actually had a story behind them. People actually felt and related to them. It wasn't just a person with 100 bars rapping over a beat like I was doing. I mean, it was dope, it was raw hip-hop, but at the same time, there's a real art form to it. I woke up one morning and said, "You know what? If I really want people to understand and know me like they know these dudes, I have to start with [being] myself." I needed to keep it absolutely 100 and let people know my name: Kendrick Lamar. Everything just fell into place after that.
You're 23 right now, about to turn 24, and you already have six mixtapes and EPs and a whole gang of videos on YouTube, a whole bunch of material behind you. How has the Internet changed the game for rappers of your generation, in terms of your ability to release a lot of material and reach people? It's changed the game. It's got me in Toronto right now. I'm in Canada doing a show that's sold out. I've never touched these people. I've never gone up to them and said, "Here, take my music." They went online, looked up my music, fell in love with it, bought it and now are purchasing tickets for a show. I've travelled around the world because people went online, found my music and purchased it.
In the last two years, I've noticed a ton of new, young West coast artists coming up, whether it's you, Odd Future, Casey Veggies, Lil' B or Kreayshawn. Is there something blowing in off the Pacific or is this just coincidence? I think it just got to the point where everyone wanted to show that they were their own individuals. Once people figured that part of the game out, everything just fell into place. People gravitated to it because there was something they could feel. It wasn't just that typical West coast sound that everybody was used to. It wasn't just for people who love West coast music, it was on a universal level. People were like, "Damn, it don't sound like [typical West coast hip-hop], but I love it." It's still got that element, but it also has a different edge to it.
We talked about Compton, in terms of gangs and that negative image, but there's also a musical heritage there. Do you feel pressure, being the young cat from Compton with 25 or 30 years of musical history on his shoulders? Mos def.
How do you deal with that? I mostly just try and focus on the music and not get into the politics. Once I jump into the business end that'll just distract me from my craft. I represent a whole community; I have the whole city ridin' for me right now. There's no neighbourhood [in Compton] I can't walk into right now. I have people stopping me and saying, "You're our only positive light; we've got a stigma that we're just about violence and gangs. Do it through music and show people that we have more to offer than that." They ridin' for me, heavy.
I want to talk a little bit about Black Hippy [the collective of Lamar, Ab-Soul, Schoolboy Q and Jay Rock]. How did you guys come together? Truthfully? We just all came to the studio at the same time. Jay Rock came first, I came second, then Ab-Soul and Schoolboy Q. We all just ended up in the same space and started recording. But the thing that was different, compared to everybody else that was coming to the studio, was that we had a certain type of chemistry. It wasn't arrogant; I didn't feel like it was rushed or forced. When we first did a song together, it was just like a natural vibe. From there, we just became friends and real close homies. They keep me on my toes, man.
What about the name? Where did that come from? Black Hippy? That's just some crazy wild shit we came up with. It's basically saying that we won't be confined to the way the industry wants us to be, like the same way a hippy would feel. We keep our own individuality. We thought about the hippy colours and thought, "make it black." When you think of hippy colours, it's just about peace, but black represents peace, hate, love, honour, respect – all the shit that life represents. That's what we talk about in our music. We're disobedient to those clichÚ industry rules that everybody else complies with.