Kendrick Lamar Talks Working with Flying Lotus, Prince and the Spiritual Origins of "i"

Kendrick Lamar Talks Working with Flying Lotus, Prince and the Spiritual Origins of "i"
The release of the single "i" was the opening salvo of what to expect from Kendrick Lamar on the follow-up to his acclaimed 2012 album good kid, m.A.A.d city, and the track's release stirred up a lot of debate in social media and music circles. Speaking to Exclaim! backstage at the We Day youth concert in Toronto where he performed the single for the first time in front of an audience, Lamar spoke openly about the song's origins and its spiritual theme.

"In order to make a type of song like that, it can't be made up," says Lamar. "You have to go through something. You have to go through depression. You have to go through stress. You have to go through life's ups and downs in order to make that song. And that's how I made that song. The people that don't really understand that song, I really can't blame them because they probably never went through anything yet and it probably hasn't settled in on them.

"And that's really how I've communicated on my records from day one — since Kendrick Lamar EP, since Section.80, I always had some type of conflict within myself. I think we all do. And that spiritual thing is something that I can't run from in my music. It's not something that I purposely try to do, it's really a God [given] gift and I think that's what makes me unique in what I do."

In addition to having an intensely introspective bent, "i" also looks outward and reflects Lamar's desire to effect change through his music.

"There's a lot of things that's happening in the world and we see it," says Lamar. "There's a lot of things happening to people. We see it. Suicides and the neighbourhoods where I come from, the gang community. How can we love the next neighbourhood down the street when we don't even love ourselves, you feel me? It's as simple as that. That's how I look at it. That's how I look at where I come from. And how I wanted to do it, I wanted to do it in a matter where the music, when you hear the music, it grabs you first because soul and funk have always been here and always been the foundation in music and that's how I wanted to flip it."

Produced by Rahki who also helmed good kid, m.A.A.d city's "Black Boy Fly," the song features the Isley Brothers' "That Lady" replayed by live musicians and required Lamar travelling to St. Louis to gain the blessing of Ronald Isley. For a self-described "old soul' who grew up on Isley Brothers records, it was a dream come true.

"Man, it was crazy," says Lamar laughing recalling meeting the soul legend. "It was ill. He was giving me a lot of game on how things used to be and how they are now in the industry, in life, creativity, y'know it was just a trip, y'know."

Hanging with soul and funk legends seems to happen regularly for Lamar these days. Earlier this week he performed with Prince at Paisley Park. "We rocked out on stage, man," says Lamar. "We had fun and what you see was exactly what it was, man. It was just a legendary moment y'know for my career, y'know just to be on stage with a guy of that type of magnitude."

Gaining knowledge from and sharing stages with music icons probably doesn't hurt artistic growth, and Lamar asserts that "i" is a song he probably wouldn't have recorded two years ago.

"I would say the growth would be that I'm a little bit more sure of myself than I was. I always had a confidence in making good kid, m.A.A.d city, but there were certain boundaries I just couldn't hit on my first album and now I'm just in the space where I don't care what's going on with the politics. I'm doing music for myself and people that go through things."

So, how does the introspective matter of "i" and live instrumentation of the single figure into Lamar's as-yet-untitled upcoming album? Given that good kid, m.A.A,d city's narrative arc was totally unexpected and kept under wraps, it's not surprising that Lamar is non-committal.

"That's a good question. I won't know 'til it's done," says Lamar. "I always got some tricks up my sleeve, I tell you that."

Lamar does broadly offer that the album will have a "cohesive" sound. "I'm a writer at heart — but I guess you could say it'll be in-depth on the writing side with my writing and the music, it'll be a little more in-depth in just with the drum pattern sounds that you're used to hearing in hip-hop."

Listeners have heard Lamar's poetic take on the afterlife over the decidedly different drum patterns of Flying Lotus' "Never Catch Me" from the producer's upcoming album You're Dead! (out October 7 via Warp). Lamar is a little more forthcoming about working with Flying Lotus, hinting at ongoing collaborations between the two that — who knows — could possibly surface on Lamar's new album.

"He's one of the creators that I'm affiliated with in the circle creating," says Lamar. "That's just one of many records that we like to cook up in the studio."

Lamar goes on to laud the creative spark he derives from Flying Lotus' music. "You see colours when you are listening to his beats and when I see them colours, I write the things I write. A lot of times that stuff really don't be premeditated," says Lamar. "Like that ['Never Catch Me'] verse was him calling me into the studio and playing a beat and me writing it and rapping it right there on the mic. So it's really more like an experimental freestyle — while saying something."