Kendrick Lamar is one of the hottest names in entertainment right now. There’s no doubt that he is leaving his mark on the rap/hip-hop genre — despite the fact that he’s only two albums into his mainstream career and isn’t even 30 yet. His innovation, energy and flow have helped change the tide away from the stale, boring, materialism that hip-hop has become in the past decade.
Rap and hip-hop has sort of branched out into several different sub-genres in recent years:
- The swaggish, materialistic and often pointlessly provocative (i.e. Lil Wayne, 2 Chainz, and Nicki Minaj)
- The half-silly, half-serious side of hip-hop originally popularized by Sir Mix-a-Lot, Ludacris, and Nelly (among others)
- Stoner hip-hop (Snoop Dogg, Wiz Khalifa, The Weeknd)
- The darker, intense moodiness of Jay-Z, Notorious B.I.G., and (on his recent albums) Kanye West
- The Glock-carrying, drug-dealing OGs (Dr. Dre, Eminem, Nate Dogg, and Ice Cube)
- The reflective, philosophical rap often known as “conscious hip-hop” (as popularized by Tupac Shakur and, more recently, Macklemore)
Kendrick Lamar falls into the final category. The so-called “conscious hip-hop” label is often applied to rappers who eschew the fat stacks of money, drug-dealing lifestyle, and the strip club visits. Conscious hip-hop is to mainstream hip-hop as protest songs were to rock and pop music back in the 60s. Conscious hip-hop (often called political hip-hop) deliberately challenges the status quo and is designed to be thought-provoking.
Kendrick has been one of two main members of this resurgent genre in hip-hop — the other one being Seattle-based indie rapper Macklemore. But while Macklemore has little to no street-cred (I mean, come on, he’s a white kid from suburban Seattle) and raps about shopping at cheap thrift stores and supporting LGBT rights, Kendrick has been much more honest and contemplative about the real issues facing black communities in America and the problems of human nature in general.
Kendrick Lamar Duckworth was born June 17, 1987, in Compton, California. Long considered one of the most dangerous cities in America, Compton was getting crazy around the time Kendrick was growing up. When he was five years old, he witnessed his first murder — right around the time of the infamous Rodney King incident and the related riots in 1992. Kendrick’s parents had originally moved in with relatives after moving from Chicago — with only $500 to their names combined.
Kendrick had to grow up fast living in such a violent, sketchy area. But the seeds had been sown for him, and we’re all familiar with the so-called “rap formula” — born in a ghetto, doing crazy things in order to survive the gang culture, having to support a young family. However, Kendrick wasn’t like that. He was a quiet, unassuming kid who ended up being a straight-A student at Centennial High School in Compton. But his family was also evicted from their home when Kendrick was eight, and they were forced to live in a hotel room for six months and live on EBT.
After starting his rap career under the moniker K-Dot, Kendrick began working with underground/indie producers, churning out two sample mixtapes before gaining attention from the mainstream rap industry. That’s where gangsta rap legend and Aftermath Entertainment founder Dr. Dre came in.
Dre loved Kendrick’s rapping and threw his considerable weight and money behind Kendrick’s debut album, released in October 2012 to widespread acclaim. Titled Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, the album is an intense, almost cinematic personal journey from struggles to fame — and critics ate it up.
To reduce good kid, m.A.A.d. city to a pop phenomenon is to, in part, ignore the thrust of its instant-classic status: Like some of the best records in the history of pop, it’s an album that not only tells a compelling story, but a near-definitive one of a specific time and place, offering a window on the varying complexities of turn-of-the-century Compton, where the gangs, drugs, and guns are all still plentiful, but the kids now also have a generation of grade-A hip-hop to fall back on in struggling to navigate it….songs like “The Art of Peer Pressure” deal directly with the glorification—and the growing urban mythology—of the rags-to-riches gangsta-rapper narrative that surrounded Lamar as a kid. ….an intensely personal album that draws its power from Lamar’s frequently ambivalent—and conflicted—relationship with the people and world that he is chronicling.
The CD went platinum and was nominated for Hip-Hop Album of the Year at the 2012 Grammys. Kendrick became an overnight sensation. Chris Rock called him one of his top five favorite rappers ever. Taylor Swift called Kendrick’s song “Backseat Freestyle” a personal favorite. And Dr. Dre’s endorsement continues to ring in the ears of doubters: when the Compton legend himself signs you to his label, that’s a big deal. Not since Eminem has there been such buzz over an up-and-coming rap star.
And there’s no slacking involved, either. Kendrick has developed an impressive work ethic since his rise to stardom, hitting the studio at 5 AM to write lyrics and work with his creative team. “I pride myself on writing now rather than rapping,” Kendrick says. “My passion is bringing storylines around and constructing a full body of work, rather than just a 16-bar verse.”
“Kendrick pulls culture toward him. He doesn’t mirror it,” remarks John Janick, CEO of Interscope Records and an associate of Dr. Dre’s.
To that point, Kendrick is somewhat of an anomaly — a counter-cultural musician in a money-driven society and music industry. He still lives in Compton, only a few blocks from the apartment complex where he grew up. He still reconnects with old friends and helps out family members who need it. He remains humble and down to earth.
Perhaps most surprisingly, Kendrick doesn’t drink or smoke weed. He says he did in high school, but called it quits around age 17.
“Teenagers don’t get it — we selfish,” Kendrick observes. “Go drink, go smoke, go get f–ked up. Why did I do these things? I said, ‘I know what happens to my family and certain friends when they get drunk and they smoke. They get out of their minds, they get violent. And that’s in my blood.’ I have little sips on special occasions, but getting all the way out of my mind may not be a good idea.”
He didn’t want to make a living by rapping, either. It was just something fun that he wanted to do. “Before finding music, I didn’t have too many aspirations,” he says. “I wanted to hang out, make a little money from whatever I had to do. Because that’s all you see in the four-block radius.”
In 2012 at the Grammys, Kendrick was up for Hip-Hop Album of the Year (as mentioned previously). But he lost to Macklemore — again, who is a white kid from Seattle, grew up in middle-class neighborhoods, and was represented by an indie label.
Macklemore was embarrassed, going so far as to personally text Kendrick after the ceremony and apologize for winning. Kendrick shrugged it off: “(Macklemore) is a genuine dude,” he said at the time. “I wish him much success.”
But Kendrick, you were supposed to win! Don’t awards matter to you?
“That’s not my overall goal. I appreciate them recognizing me. It’s best to just go and enjoy the festivities.”
“I always thought money was something just to make me happy. But I’ve learned that I feel better being able to help my folks, cause we never had nothing. So just to see them excited about my career is more of a blessing than me actually having it for myself.”
To that end, you rarely see Kendrick blowing his cash at a club or uncorking bottles of champagne in Vegas. He tends to keep to himself and has been with Whitney Alford, his high school sweetheart, for years. He is an intensely spiritual man. He spoke out about the recent riots in Ferguson, Missouri. And he wants to use his influence to change the status quo.
“We don’t have respect for ourselves,” Kendrick laments about the Ferguson riots, adding that he experienced police brutality plenty of times growing up in Compton. “How do we expect them to respect us? It starts from within. Don’t start with just a rally, don’t start from looting. It starts from within.”
“We’re in the last days, man — I truly in my heart believe that. It’s written. I could go on with Biblical situations and things my grandma told me. But it’s about being at peace with myself and making good with the people around me.”
While Kendrick drops the occasional profanity in his lyrics, his songs never glorify the street lifestyle. He focuses the lens of the camera on real issues. While many rappers before him talked about intense subject matter, very few had practical solutions. The game is messed up, they would say. We’re dragging ourselves down as a culture, they say. But Kendrick is unafraid — and he’s here to offer those practical solutions.
His second major album, To Pimp a Butterfly, had similar themes as Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City and was also unanimously praised. But despite his massive success, Kendrick Lamar has drawn people in because of who he is in real life — away from the mic, away from the screaming fans.
“People have to go through trials and tribulations to get where they at. Do your thing, continue to rock it, because obviously God wants you here.”