Q & A: Kendrick Lamar talks hip-hop tradition and young ambition
by Chayne Japal
September 27, 2012
After being signed to Dr. Dre’s Aftermath imprint, having Lady Gaga hang out sidestage during his set at the Pitchfork Music Festival, and getting his own track on Drake’s album, expectations for Kendrick Lamar and his major-label debut good kid, m.A.A.d city have been set absurdly high, but Lamar confidently accepts the challenge. The Compton, CA, native and self-professed hip-hop student has learned from his predecessors’ successes as well as their mistakes and that knowledge has him sitting in an advanced, comfortable headspace on the brink of his debut.
AUX: Last time we talked it was just days before you dropped (AUX’s top hip-hop release of 2011) Section.80 but you didn’t want to tell me anything about it, not even the release date. Why the secrecy?
Kendrick Lamar: I’m just trying to take it back to an era where the internet wasn’t telling you what the album’s about to sound like and what songs are going to be on there. When we were buying Jay-Z albums, we didn’t know what to expect. All we knew was one song that was playing on BET and that’s it. So by the time we got the album; “Damn! This shit’s crazy! That don’t sound nothing like what I thought it’d be!” we got something else. I just wanted to get to the feeling of ripping the packaging and reading the credits.
Fair enough. I’ll respect that and just ask you to tell me whatever you want about this new album.
Alright, I’ll give you something this time. Just ‘cause you’re the homie. I can’t say anything about guests. What I can say is the album is in-depth but it’s not over-drawn. Not long. It’s snappy. If I had to say something about this album and Section.80, it’d be that it’s more tight-knit than the last one, as far as what I’m talking about.
And that’s all you’re going to give us?
Yep. That’s it.
Can you talk about some albums that influenced how you’re putting together good kid, m.A.A.d. City?
I’m looking for the aggression of [2Pac’s] Makaveli, the type of content that Ice Cube had on Death Certificate, the melodies that Snoop had on Doggystyle, and the originality and creativity of [Andre 3000’s] The Love Below. So you hear songs like “Swimming Pools” and “Cartoons & Cereal.” “Cartoons & Cereal” is an aggressive joint but that shit is moody and melodic at the same time. Not to brag and shit but that’s one of the most original joints out. I’m not saying that because it’s my song either. I really like “Cartoons & Cereal.”
You must be hearing some buzz about yourself. You’re heading into your debut album and people are already starting to bring up your name in the “greatest rapper” discussion. What are your thoughts on that?
It lets me know where I need to challenge myself next. These people have expectations for me but at the same time, I have expectations and I know what I can do. It lets me know that their ears are open. They know that I’m capable of masterpieces and that’s a great feeling. But it comes with a lot of responsibility.
With all of that responsibility, do you even want that title?
Hell yeah I want that title. Shit, man. I’ve worked at this. People ask me, “Is there pressure now?” There’s really no pressure. Everybody’s just figuring this out now but me and my team have always known. We had the pressure on us back then because we wanted to be the best. I wanted to be the best. I didn’t pick up a pen and piece of paper and say, “I want to be #2. I want to be the second best from Jay-Z.” No. I want to be better than Jay-Z. I want be better than Dre. I want to be better than Snoop. They want that too and what this does is keep the energy up and keeps the culture much more alive.
You’re part of a group, Black Hippy, and there have been hints of a J. Cole collaboration project…
I think it’ll be more in the works after I get my focus on this album. You know, we got music and it’ll always be there. We’re always working. That’s a good dude. Great artist. But the focus right now is on my debut. He’s aware of that and I’m aware of that. So, once we get this album going, we’ll move on from there.
In pursuit of that title, how do you guys work together?
It’s friendly competition. You’ve got to have that because what it does is just make you better. Everybody all around is striving to be the best. Ab-Soul, Jay Rock, Schoolboy Q—they’re not flukes, they don’t want to come up second or stay in the same place. So, you have four individuals putting out their best material and going one-hundred percent on the record. It just makes the music better and that’s really what it’s all about—the music. It’s about people making that connection and feelin’ it.
You mentioned the nostalgia of opening a new CD with barely any knowledge of what will be on there. Black Hippy has a throwback vibe because you’re a rap group. Where did rap groups go? You think it’s because of diminishing album sales?
That’s part of it, yes. But I think it got kind of corny. That’s because it became so traditional, as far as the music goes. If there’s three people in the group, people get tired of hearing the beat, the hook, sixteen bars from first dude, hook, sixteen, hook, sixteen, hook, fade out. They got tired of hearing that same traditional format. What separates Black Hippy is that we’re a movement, a lifestyle, based on being unruly and that displays in our music. We might have a record where I’d only have four bars and [ScHoolboy] Q would be killing it and then Jay Rock would come in on the hook. It just adds different dimensions because you never know what might be a trigger for a listener. Rather than just saying, “That was one dope verse” or “his verse sucked.” It gets corny after a while, you know, waiting for Jadakiss on a Lox track rather than Sheek Louch or Styles P. We hit them from different angles.
How did you end up on the Wiz Khalifa/Mac Miller this summer?
It was something Wiz and I had talked about before but the opportunity just sort of presented itself through management and we put something together. It’s a good gig. Wiz and I, we’ve been homies for a long time so it was sort of organic.
Picking up some exposure?
Exactly. It’s like an introduction. You have to know your role and play it well. When it comes to my show, I just don’t go out there and just play songs. I want people, in 30 minutes, to feel like they know who Kendrick Lamar is and they want to continue to know who he is, especially for when October 2 comes.
How are you enjoying the tour?
I love it. Wiz has some crazy dope fans and they mesh with my fans. Everybody’s having a good time.
You’ve been touring almost non-stop for more than a year now. Are you tired?
Well, not really. I got a little bit of sleep yesterday. We’d be up all night. I’d come straight from the show then we’d start recording, then we’d up ‘til like 6 in the morning recording all the way to the next city. No sleep, man.
So, what are you running on?
A lot of jokes. A lot of water. That’s it. Jokes and water.
You’re still taking it in though?
Yeah, man. I’m trying to find time to do that, you know, in the little gap periods. Like when I went to Europe for the first time I was up late nights. After the show and press and all that I’d go out and see everything. There’s no way I’m going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower, even if it’s at two in the morning.