Hip-hop's "next to blow" ― a fuse lit the second a buzz-worthy male solo artist gets the full Dr. Dre prodigy push (see: Snoop Dogg, Eminem, 50 Cent, Game) ― is detailing how, since he started freestyling DMX-inspired verses at age 13 in Compton, he's had a natural knack for song structure, penning "rhythmic lines of poetry" in class. Eight years before touring with Drake and spitting for 17,000 at this summer's Wiz Khalifa show at Toronto's Molson Amphitheatre, he was K-Dot, a 17-year-old rap rat sneaking into dinky Long Beach clubs, trying to impress a crowd of 30 and earning battle stripes.
On the topic of rap combat, he's asked if he suffered any losses.
"I took plenty of losses. Lost dear friends, lost mental stability, lost peace of mind," Lamar says, plunging into the deep end of the emotional pool. "You lose mental stability when you feel like nothing is capable or positive, and I've done that plenty of times as a teenager. Seventeen, 18, 19 ― you really don't have no care for what's going on or anybody's feelings."
By all accounts, Lamar, 25, is as steady as a big-deal rapper gets. Of his Black Hippy crew, he's the studio rat, a perfectionist with his craft. He takes pride that the versions of songs you'll hear on his studio debut, Good Kid, m.A.A.d City, will have each endured ten incarnations ― a rewrite here, a tweaked delivery there, maybe a whole new hook ― before he's satisfied with them. And in over a decade of arranging interviews with MCs, this sit-down with Lamar is the first one to start early.
It wasn't always like this. As touched on in his "Swimming Pools (Drank)" single, Lamar grew up with adults emptying the liquor cabinet and acting a fool. It was nothing for him to do the same underage, and he did some things he doesn't want in print.
"There are hints of that stuff inside the album. Anything that had to do with violence," he says, monotone. "Anything that would cause harm to somebody. Crazy different acts. I can accept me hurting myself, but me hurting somebody else… that's a huge regret."
So how did scrappy K-Dot with the drank-happy family, from the city where N.W.A wasn't just a legendary local act that went global but a mind-set, jack his outlook on hydraulics and grow into a wise-beyond-his-tears poet who rhymes truth under his real name?
"What caught me out of that were the acts, the acts of violence or acts of self-destruction," he explains. "You pushed past that by finding something positive to do, get some perspective. Music was my outlet. A lot of my homeboys weren't as fortunate to have that positive outlet. Having the ability to express myself through music, it gave me peace of mind, and through that it became my true passion.
"I don't want to go back where I started from. I learned to cherish and live in every opportunity given to me," Lamar adds. "There's a one in a million chance to do something you love and get paid for it. How can a popular artist not accept that concept and want to not be on time with things and not do interviews and not go into the studio?"