January 16th, 2013 | Interviews

illustration by nathan morse

When the first-week numbers for rapper Kendrick Lamar’s major label debut came in—just over 240,000—the good guys were finally the ones flicking corks off champagne bottles. good kid, m.A.A.d city, subtitled a “short film,” follows a teenage Lamar through Compton streets thick with tension. It is lyrically dense and intense, because Lamar is cerebral and ponders almost like the Apostles. In other words, it’s the kind of record critics are born to love. But that the mainstream threw its arms around the album as well proved that, in 2012 at least, the public might be craving meat and potatoes more than candy. This interview by Rebecca Haithcoat.

Have you been up all night?
Kendrick Lamar: Yep. Every night. That’s the life. I take cat naps. Lay down for about 30 minutes then get back up.
Do you ever sleep for protracted amounts of time?
Kendrick Lamar: Yeah, but it be hard because I’m constantly thinking. So I can’t really get the proper sleep. I’m always thinking of new ideas, our schedule, anything. Life is filled with music. I liked naps when I was little. I liked ’em in preschool—we used to lay on a colorful carpet thing. For the most part I used to act asleep. [He yells at his producer to turn down his music.] I can’t hear myself while I’m doing other things. I gotta focus on one thing at a time. My focus is this album, making it a great album. It’s great. I don’t like to use the word ‘classic.’ I don’t even wanna use that for myself. ‘Classic’—people water that word down. Classic lasts with time. I wouldn’t know if this album was classic until ten or fifteen years down the line and people say, ‘I still feel the same way the first day I heard it.’ Or even me. Saying I feel the same way I feel the first day I made it, first day it was complete. Then ‘classic.’ Right now …
What do you think any piece of art must have to qualify it as ‘classic’?
Kendrick Lamar: Um. That’s a good question. I can’t be the one to argue that my peer’s album is not classic, or 2 Chainz’s or J. Cole’s albums are not classic. I can’t argue mine is. The one thing that’ll define a classic album is putting something in there … how can I say this? … that sticks. When you hear it, it feels a certain way and within seconds you know it. Simplest lines, simplest beats, but it’s something you always remember. Something that you hear for the first time and you forget about? That’s not classic. I can’t say, ‘If it’s not my music, it’s not classic.’ Just because I have depth doesn’t mean I’m classic. I could be saying a bunch of gibberish, but if it don’t stick, it won’t last with time.
That’s the challenge—making something catchy that, at the same time, speaks on a deeper level.
Kendrick Lamar: That’s me. I can’t say it for a lot of younger artists—I’m sure they wanna catch somebody immediately and hope it lands, but that’s me. I think I did a good job with that on this album. Draw people in, get that rewind factor and keep playing it not just for a day but weeks, months and years.
How do you build structure? Are you conscious of doing so?
Kendrick Lamar: Yeah. I’m huge on structure when making an album. Because the best albums I love had the best structure. Where songs are placed, certain moods, different areas of the album—each one I liked had a unique placement. You wanted to go back and figure out why this artist placed this song here instead of here. Constantly listened—‘Oh, this is why this makes sense, cuz he was talking about this right here, and it trickled down.’ I’ve always been intrigued by that and have always wanted to keep my projects in that vein. With O(verly) D(edicated) and Section.80, I think it was like a warm up for this album to do something similar. To the next level. I probably overdid it this time.
Kendrick Lamar: With structure, concepts. Things of that nature. Conceptual album. It’s not too much … I can’t get into it without giving it away. It’s just one of them things where you’ll just constantly listen over and over and probably hear things you didn’t get in the first three listens, first ten listens. I always go back and connect the dots. Subconsciously [I do that]. Without me even thinking. It’s just the artistry within me. Wanting to create and make something that stands out. Different from what’s going on now in hip-hop and music. Something that’s a little bit not so blunt and in your face all the time. Albums now, you get twelve songs back-to-back. I wanted to do something different. Something you ‘get,’ but you can live with it and dissect it at the same time and not be so completely confused by it—just have that complete balance.
There’s an inherent theatricality to you, this desire to show rather than tell.
Kendrick Lamar: That’s exactly what I plan to do with this album. I do so many interviews, and they ask me, ‘What is the album about?’ Nobody really got any information about what this album’s structure is going to be. I really wanted to give back to that part of the game, where there wasn’t any internet or blogs. All you saw was one video by Jay-Z playing on BET and you get his album three weeks later and you figure it sounds nothing like his previous album—he topped himself—cuz you weren’t planning on him to switch it like that. I want to get back to that. I don’t like to explain my music. Most of the time going without any explanation, it leads the listener to think a little bit more, make their own assumptions and for the most part they usually are right. They tell me at shows, and they’re really on point on how it came about. I love to hear that.
What are other differences you see between now and then?
Kendrick Lamar: At 5 years old, I was out trying to learn how to ride my bike without training wheels. I was everywhere. My little brothers now stand behind the TV and their games. Man, go outside. It’s bad for your health. Eat and get obese at a young age. Go, get out. Get in trouble. I was quiet in my ways. I never got attached to being at home. I always had to explore, whether it was down the street, around the block, to the store. That’s what makes it so easy for me to travel and not be afraid of the world. That’s my whole thing about how you are today. The things that happen in your life that you DON’T remember make up half of what you are. The things you do remember, same thing, but the things you DON’T remember makes that up. For example—a kid being bullied at school and never got the chance to stand up to that bully. Until one moment in third grade when he got punked out of his candy. That person growing up who didn’t remember that would probably live in fear of things their whole life. They always wonder why they’re so in fear of what’s about to happen. Or being passive. That’s what makes up who we are.
Emotional muscle memory.
Kendrick Lamar: I know it’s some things right now I don’t remember that led me to being a rapper—an artist. It may not even be seeing Tupac or Dr. Dre. It could be me walking past school and down a hall one day and seeing somebody with headphones on, rapping lyrics and me thinking they made those lyrics up. It could be anything and me being intrigued by it. Something triggered that rather than what I see or remember. Violence by your mother and father—you’re a girl but you can’t remember all of the times your father beat on your mother—plenty of times you forgot. You grow up into a woman and you accept men hitting on you.
Do you have romantic relationships?
Kendrick Lamar: It’s rough right now. I’m so in the studio. I have relationships with my family and people I care about. But I don’t want to put that strain on anybody. I’m at the time of my life where I feel like this is something I HAVE to accomplish before I go to the next goal in my life. This right here is what I’m focused on—getting this album out and having it be the best album possible.
Ever worry you’re going to run out of words?
Kendrick Lamar: I used to always think about that! Like, ‘Damn what am I gonna say next?’ Then I think about Jay-Z. ‘When I make a great record, everybody’s gonna think that.’ Then I was like, ‘Fuck, I keep doing it.’ Keep coming up with new ideas. I realized it’s a gift from God to sit down and come up with these things that I don’t feel nobody else is saying. I’m sure there’s nothing new under the sun, but I want to come up with things I don’t feel people are talking about at the time. Or say it in a different way. I realized it constantly came through and it’s a real gift from God. I think these ideas—as long as I’m living, I’ll come up with these ideas. What helps me a lot is traveling. That opened up a whole new part of my brain I never tapped into. There’s so many dynamic people I never thought I’d meet. Talking, learning about their culture opens up my brain to new ideas. I think that’s what happened with greats like Jay-Z and Nas. You can never learn too much. I talk to a 5-year-old boy before I talk to an 80-year-old man. That little boy knows just as much. He may know something I don’t know, from a child’s perspective. They don’t have no restraints or know what’s wrong. They see good in everything. You can learn from that. I get inspired by that.
We talked a lot about your struggle with spirituality last time. Has that changed?
Kendrick Lamar: I’ll probably always struggle with [spirituality]. I didn’t grow up in the church. My moms and pops believe in God, they believe in Jesus. My grandmom was real spiritual. I never really got the chance to know my father’s mother. I’m sure she was a spiritual person as well. I didn’t grow up in the church. Don’t think my parents did either, but their mothers were always feeding them the Word, the Bible. They just did the same to me. Make me aware of a higher power.
Did you read the Bible?
Kendrick Lamar: Yeah. That confused age—16, 17. You wanna see what it’s about. That’s the age when you just grow. You wanna know things, know more—you search for things. I even started going to church around the age of 20. Certain things I understood, certain I didn’t, but I never made the things I didn’t understand a negative.
You’re able to capture loneliness—which is the human experience, and also the Christ experience.
Kendrick Lamar: I have that. I have that in my album. I have a lot of that. So much more to the title ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’—it’s not just about myself. That title is so strong, it means so much. It means loneliness. All the kids involved in gang culture, just wanting to be accepted in something. That’s loneliness. I identify with that well. Not only my character, but people around me that I grew up with. People I see at these shows. Trying to get away by coming to a show. Very easy for me to identify with. All the money in the world … I’ll always be able to identify with that. My neighborhood is small, so everybody who knew me know me now. You have to be more aware and not be so vulnerable to thinking you can’t be touched. You have to be aware of that. People out there might not have the love for Kendrick Lamar like I thought they had. When you have more attention on you, you gotta recognize the possibility of things more.
Did you have a rebellious streak?
Kendrick Lamar: Tenth, eleventh, ninth grade. It started when I was going through this change. I didn’t want to go to my own high school. I felt like I knew everybody. I knew all the girls. Wanna go somewhere where the new girls are at. And it probably started right then and there. What happens is, I’m hanging with individuals I know already and I’m already mad, so I’m just gonna get into a whole lotta trouble. Fortunately, that trouble didn’t get me locked up in prison. Too easy. Compton, like any other ghetto—it’s too easy to get involved and I was fortunate that wasn’t my calling. To be gone for life.
What’s your relationship with Dr. Dre now?
Kendrick Lamar: He just wanna see me win. On and off the record—in life in general. Not make the mistakes he made in the game. Business situations. Being confined in a space you don’t want to be in? Always be vocal. He was living in turmoil for years before he finally up and left and made his own situation. Always be vocal when you’re not happy. It’s hard to do. Human nature, it’s hard to let somebody down, make ’em disappointed. You stick in situations and build up all this anger and anxiety and then you wonder why you’re sad and down even when you’re successful. He was in that mental state. That’s one of the lessons he told me early on. Always be vocal.
It’s easy to buckle.
Kendrick Lamar: I been over to his house. His house is crazy! That was a big inspiration right there. I remember the first time I came over to his house I was like, ‘This is crazy—hope I can get one of these one day.’ He said, ‘Yeah, getting it is not the hard part. Keeping it is.’
What’s a perfect day for you?
Kendrick Lamar: Can I change the weather? It’d have to be a gloomy day. Gloomy day, I’m sitting back and watching Martin. Seasons of Martin. All day. I’d eat tacos. Turkey tacos.