Kendrick Lamar, the 23-year-old rapper from Compton, Calif., walks barefoot into a Toronto hotel room, trailed by two friends/associates, each adorned with Beats by Dr. Dre headphones. Built compact and sturdy, like a pitbull, Lamar is in brown board shorts and a green-on-green, foliage-print short-sleeved button-up. He is smiling and quiet, exuding the calm focus intrinsic to workhorse creatives. It belies just how long he’s been in the game, despite a relatively “recent” ascent.
Since releasing his first mixtape in 2003, Lamar has dabbled with Def Jam (a deal he calls, “just something small”), dropped another four street records and crewed up with three fierce emcees (SchoolBoy Q, Ab-Soul and Jay Rock) to form Black Hippy/Top Dawg Entertainment. In 2011, he finally punctured rap’s swag-encrusted ceiling: he landed on XXL’s annual Freshman list, put out the critically acclaimed independent album, Section.80, and collaborated with everyone from Drake to E-40, The Game to Mac Miller.
This is the year, though, Kendrick makes good on this whole, "new leader of the West Coast" thing. In spring, he joined Dr. Dre’s storied lineage of protégés (think Snoop Dogg, Eminem, 50 Cent) signing to Aftermath/Interscope and shortly after, releasing the Dre-featuring “The Recipe.” The song, a breezy, radio-ready ode to California, was billed as the first official single from his upcoming studio debut, tentatively named good kid, m.A.A.d city.
CBC Music caught up with Lamar on his second visit to Toronto, a day after performing alongside Miller and Wiz Khalifa.
You’ve got a special relationship to this city. Tell me about that, and how was yesterday’s show?
It was nice. Everybody came out. The Weeknd, Drake. It was bigger, but of course you like playing your own shows better. You got your people there and they’re more in tune, but I don’t take this for granted either. And it’s simple, they like me out here. I like them out here. I always tell people that if I move anywhere it would be Toronto.
People always say that, but no one comes here in the winter.
It ain’t cold as Chicago though. If I can deal with Chicago, I can handle Toronto. Chicago’s insane.
What’s it like being called the new leader of the West Coast?
It feels good to know people respect my music but those words only go as far as I let them, as far as my work ethic goes. Once I continue to keep building that, it’ll be set in stone – that outcome. If I were to ever feel any weight or responsibility it would have been when I started making music. Coming from the same corner as Dre and Snoop, I couldn’t come out here playing.
Do you think the West Coast still maintains a distinct identity within hip-hop?
Definitely: originality. When you think of the West Coast you think of E-40, Eazy-E, Ice Cube – these are originators. They weren’t confined to what the radio was working at that time. The mainstream and corporate worlds had to adapt to them. That’s being original, taking matters into your own hands with your own music that nobody’s heard before. That set the bar for a lot of artists on both coasts.
How did that legacy impact your music?
It wasn’t only the music, it was our lifestyle. It played a lot into how I think and how I react on records.
How do you think and react on records?
Unpredictable, just like my city: being aggressive and a victim, having a message or a twist behind everything that I’m talking about.
You’re very good at straddling the radio stuff and the more dense, conceptual stuff – but that must’ve been a process, right? Do you have a stash of shit-talking MP3s somewhere?
Definitely! I got all that archived, I’m going to sell it on eBay once I get to the point I’m going to get to. Yeah, it was trial and error and trying to figure out my own niche and what works for me. I like them days. That was the struggle and hardship and frustration. Eventually you get to this point where you understand what you want to do and get across and sound like.
You’re still a rapper’s rapper and I’m not sure you would’ve broke, commercially, five years ago. Why do you think your POV resonates now?
That balance you just talked about … that’s not fake, that’s my personality. Like you said, I can make a song that has depth but at the same time has melodies and stuff that’s good for radio.
You had a little thing going on with Def Jam about five years ago. Why is Interscope a good fit now?
When [2010’s] (O)verly (D)edicated came out, we were shopping because that’s when the money wasn’t a factor – the numbers were crazy. So it was about who understood the vision. And Dre and Jimmy Iovine understood. They were just banking off talent, like Eminem. They understand how the growth of an independent company, like Aftermath, can develop into something that becomes its own Interscope, and that’s what we’re doing with Top Dawg Entertainment. We want to develop artists and put out solid albums like Eminem did with The Marshall Mathers LP and 50 Cent did with Get Rich or Die Trying – they’re records that stood the test of time. They understood that.
What’s your relationship like with Dre?
It’s a great relationship. What I like is that I learn so much from being in the studio with him. He’ll pick out what I thought I knew and just blow me away. I got a good concept of how things are supposed to sound sonically, but he takes that to a whole new level of experience. He’s been in the game 30 years – so like, drums I thought was hard, was banging? A few touches of a button and he’s like, “That’s how it sounds.”
What do you think he gets from you?
Energy. I’m sure he respects my talent but he’s been around the best, so when I bring my crew around him – SchoolboyQ, Ab-Soul, Jay Rock, the whole TDE – it’s like the energy he felt when Snoop was 21, with Daz and Kurupt in the studio. Coming through to fuck shit up. (Laughs)
I like that there’s no weak link in Black Hippy, which can happen in groups.
That’s because we came together as solo artists. People go into groups and try to make the chemistry, but we wanted to solidify each artist as their own individual. So we come into this Black Hippy thing and we all know we have our base, everybody got their own folks. Groups break up because they never got across what they wanted to do personally, and they have creative differences, and egos start to clash.
So what’s the value in coming together at all?
Not being scared to share your ideas with others. It’s about not holding back.
Who’s your favourite? Everyone I play Ab-Soul for is like, whoa.
Yeah, he’s scary right? (Laughs) Ab-Soul is the wild, smart dude. Q is just the gangster. I’m the more street, introspective dude. But Jay Rock just takes the energy to another level. He’s like the enforcer.
What’s the new record going to be about?
I can’t say what I’m talking about – I like the element of surprise. It’s more in-depth: what people thought they knew about me, or want to know. ... Questions will be answered.
You’ve worked with a lot of people lately and showed up on other people’s records. Who is going to be on this with you? Kanye? Rich Kidd?
Nahh. I’m selfish. It’s all me. Yeah, of course there will be some Black Hippy. We’ve got a bunch of music, but I’ve got to pick what feels right and what fits. I never go into it thinking, “I want to get these people on it.” No, it’s got to feel right. I don’t force nothing and right now it’s turning out to be all me. People get in this position and feel like they need the big producers, the big artists. I’m still hungry. I want to show and prove to the non-believers.
So your big single samples Twin Sister, and you’ve shared a bill with Best Coast and now you’re getting these Lady Gaga co-signs: it’s not so weird anymore for rap to mix with other worlds. Do you think that’s important?
Definitely. We love records outside of hip-hop. That’s what people don’t know: Rappers love melodies, R&B, jazz, alternative. When you hear one thing all the time, you want to get out of that space. These things make you grow. And people in other genres love hip-hop. You may bump heads at the airport or at a signing or a record label and exchange numbers, become friends, and next thing you know you’re doing music with each other.
So what else have you been listening to lately then?
I’ve been doubling back listening to a lot of Erykah Badu. A lot of neo-soul type stuff: Bilal, D’Angelo. The Frank Ocean record is dope, he’s got a crazy record.
On that topic, do you think it’s important that he spoke publicly about his sexuality?
Yeah, he’s being his own individual. I respect him for coming out with it, knowing it’s a lot of tough-acting rappers out here that got the same sexuality and scared so they’ll go stage a front. I respect that man more for being aware. And nobody should say nothing about it, especially the rappers because you can shun him forever or whatever, but you’re wearing Versace, Louis Vuitton, Dolce. ... These people you wearing have the same sexuality. That’s the crazy part. Yeah, I respect that man.
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