Kendrick Lamar has a lot going on right now, but you'd never know it. Backstage in Duluth, Georgia, a few hours before his latest sold-out arena show, he's radiating unearthly levels of cleareyed serenity from his perch on a dressing-room couch. He's wearing a peach sweatsuit and white Nikes, and carrying a plastic cup of green juice – "a little kale, apple, spinach. Shit good." The fuel must work: He has a Number One pop hit with "HUMBLE.", an elaborate video with Rihanna about to drop, a couple of dozen tour dates left to go.
Freakish things keep happening in 2017, most of them awful, but at least one anomaly is for the better. Popular music's most exciting and innovative young artist – the best rapper of his generation, and that's just the start – has somehow become one of its biggest. And Lamar landed there without compromise, after releasing three classic albums in a row.
His major-label debut, 2012's good kid, m.A.A.d city, was vivid autobiography, a virtuosic deconstruction of gangsta rap centred around tales of a childhood in Compton, where many of his friends were gangbangers and police harassment was a constant threat. The follow-up, 2015's To Pimp a Butterfly, was a dense, cerebral, jazzy, dazzling meditation on race in America that spawned one of the decade's most important songs, the Black Lives Matter anthem "Alright" – but no radio smashes. On his latest, this year's DAMN., he switched lanes, managing to make an LP that's just as smart and conceptual, but tighter, hookier and more accessible.
Lamar, 30, is pleased with his recent commercial triumphs, but says it's not the goal: "If I can make one person – or 10 million people – feel a certain type of euphoria in my music, that's the whole point."
You rapped about teenage dreams of "livin' life like rappers do" – but your own life as a rapper has turned out to be pretty sedate. What are your vices at this point?
My biggest vice is being addicted to the chase of what I'm doing. It turns into a vice when I shut off people that actually care for me, because I'm so indulged spreading this word. Being on that stage, knowing that you're changing people's lives, that's a high. Sometimes, when you're pressing so much to get something across to a stranger, you forget people that are closer to you. That's a vice.
Do you ever feel like you should be having more fun?
Everybody's fun is different. Mine is not drinking. I drink casually, from time to time. I like to get people from my neighbourhood, someone that's fresh out of prison, and see their faces when they go to New York, when they go out of the country. Shit, that's fun for me. You see it through their eyes and you see 'em light up.
People treat you like you're a saint or a monk, which must be weird.
But the people closest to me really know who I am. They get all of the versions.
Is there maybe something of the monk about you, though?
I guess that can go back to when I was a kid. It felt like I was always in my own head. I still got that nature. I'm always thinking. I'm always meditating on the present or the future.
Was there a sense that you were special as a kid?
From what my family tells me, I carried myself as a man – that's why they called me "Man Man". It put a stigma on the idea of me reacting as a kid sometimes – I would hurt myself and they would expect me not to cry. That put a lot of responsibility on me, got me ready for the responsibility my fans put upon me. I ended up getting tough skin, too, even with criticism. My first time in the studio, [label chief] Top Dawg was like, "Man, that shit wack." Other artists around couldn't handle that. But it made me go back in the booth and go harder.
Where did all that maturity come from?
It just came from being around older motherfuckers, man. I was seven years old playing tackle football with 14-year-olds. Anybody my older cousins was hanging with, that's who I wanted to hang with. I've always been short [chuckles]. Everybody was always bigger and older than me. It gave me insight on people.
You've said you were one of the only ones among your friends with a dad around. How did that make a difference for you?
It taught me how to deal with [pauses]... emotions. Better than a lot of my peers. When you see kids doing things that the world calls harmful or a threat, it's because they don't know how to deal with their emotions. When you have a father in your life, you do something, he'll look at you and say, "What the fuck is you doing?" Putting you in your place. Making you feel this small. That was a privilege for me. My peers, their mothers and grandmothers may have taught them the love and the care, but they couldn't teach them that.
What makes you lose your temper?
People that are around me that are energy-suckers or someone that is not driven the same way I'm driven. Can't have that around me. Life is too short.
You have that line "Shit I've been through probably offend you", and you do that rundown of "murder, conviction, burners...."
I can't tell you the shit that I've been through without telling you the shit that I've been through. I'm gonna say, "I know murder, conviction, burners, boosters, burglars, dead, redemption, scholars, fathers dead." I'm-a give you a breakdown of my life from the time I was born all the way till I was 21.
There's a certain amount of trauma implicit in the stories you tell – you witnessed murders, even as a little kid. How much have you grappled with it as an adult?
Well, you know, it was also just a lot of mothafuckin' parties and a lot of humour, which sometimes blocks the fucked-up shit that I've seen. All of the funny shit with my crazy-ass uncles and my pops – he's funny as fuck. My mum's a crazy-as-fuck, funny, loving person. These things countered the negative shit, helped me to be able to understand tragedy, but not break from it.
What makes you laugh now?
Shit, everything makes me laugh. Everything. This guy right here [points to his videographer]? He got something under his hat that makes me bust up laughing every time he takes it off. I didn't even know God invented hairlines like that. That shit is terrible [laughs]! I always say that the best entertainers have to have the most wickedest sense of humour, to be able to take pain and change it into laughter.
Other than a few lyrics, you've been quiet about Donald Trump. Why?
I mean, it's like beating a dead horse. We already know what it is. Are we gonna keep talking about it or are we gonna take action? You just get to a point where you're tired of talking about it. It weighs you down and it drains your energy when you're speaking about something or someone that's completely ridiculous. So, on and off the album, I took it upon myself to take action in my own community. On the record, I made an action to not speak about what's going on in the world or the places they put us in. Speak on self; reflection of self first. That's where the initial change will start from.
In your mock interview with Tupac on "Mortal Man", you asked him how he kept his sanity in the face of success. What's your answer to that question?
Things could be worse. That's how I look at it. I always go back to that – food stamps and welfare and being evicted out of house rentals. I still got family that go through hard times, and I have to look out for them. Think of it like this: This lifestyle I live now has only been, what, five years. Since 2012. Before that, it was a whole two decades of not knowing what's next to come. I still have that embedded in me. So I can't let my career get the best of me.
On "ELEMENT." you make that funny distinction between "black artists and wack artists". What, to you, defines a wack artist?
I love that question. How would I define a wack artist? A wack artist uses other people's music for their approval. We're talking about someone that is scared to make their own voice, chases somebody else's success and their thing, but runs away from their own thing. That's what keeps the game watered-down. Everybody's not going to be able to be a Kendrick Lamar. I'm not telling you to rap like me. Be you. Simple as that. I watch a lot of good artists go down like that because you're so focused on what numbers this guy has done, and it dampers your own creativity. Which ultimately dampers the listener, because at the end of the day, it's not for us. It's for the person driving to their 9-to-5 that don't feel like they wanna go to work that morning.
Is it ever OK for a rapper to have a ghostwriter? You've obviously written verses for Dr. Dre yourself.
It depends on what arena you're putting yourself in. I called myself the best rapper. I cannot call myself the best rapper if I have a ghostwriter. If you're saying you're a different type of artist and you don't really care about the art form of being the best rapper, then so be it. Make great music. But the title, it won't be there.
If it turned out that you somehow had a ghostwriter, people would really want to meet that guy.
[Laughs] You're right.
Every time you open your mouth to rhyme, you have to uphold that reputation, live up to your own boasts. How do you deal with that?
Well, that's the challenge that keeps me going. Can I outdo myself again? Can I make a better rhyme than I made last time? That's the whole chase. If that wasn't there, then I'd have stopped after good kid, after I had my first platinum album. But, you know, you see Jay-Z [chuckles]. He's a billionaire. You see Dr. Dre. Jay is still on his pen game, because it's always a chase to see if you're not only still true to the culture, but still can generate a creative process that's organic for you, that can challenge yourself.
Do you ever worry about running out of words?
Nah, man. I can't even think about that. Not now. Not right now. Definitely not.
How did Bono end up on the song "XXX."?
We had a [different] record we were supposed to be doing together. He sent it over, I laid some ideas to it, and we didn't know where it was going. I just happened to have an album coming out, so I just asked him, like, "Yo, would you do me this honour of letting me use this record, use this idea that I want to put together because I'm hearing a certain type of 808, a certain drum to it." And he was open to it.
So you kind of cannibalised an existing song and stuck it in, which you do from time to time.
I can do that. It just has to make sense. There's a lot of great records and great features that the world probably will never hear, because it just didn't feel right, no matter how big the name was on it. But Bono has so much wisdom and so much knowledge, in music and in life. Sitting on the phone with him, I could talk to him for hours. The things he's doing around the world, of just helping people, is inspiring.
Your own trip to Africa, you said, was a really big deal for you. Why?
It just felt like a place where I belonged. It was as simple as that. You hear about the land and you hear untold truths about it, and now you're old enough to witness it yourself. It just gave me a whole other perspective on where I'm from. What we're doing in the city of Compton and how the world is just so much bigger than the city of Compton. It just followed me back to the studio. It felt weird when we had to leave and get back on that flight. We all said the same thing, like, "Damn, we gonna go back to the city. This is home, for real."
In South Africa, you went to the prison where Nelson Mandela was jailed, right?
We sat inside the actual cell. We saw the stones that they had to dig up day to day. That was crazy. You could feel their spirits there, basically saying, "Take a piece of the story back to your community." That's exactly what I did. To Pimp a Butterfly, which is me talking to my homeboys with the knowledge and the wisdom that I gained.
What went through your head sitting in Mandela's cell?
How strong this man was. If you could see this cell, man. And they're laying on the floor, a cold floor. To still be able to carry out a message and socially move your people from inside that cell, you just gotta be a strong individual.
How did "HUMBLE." start?
It was the beat first, actually. [Producer] Mike Will sent the beat over. All I could think of was [Marley Marl's] "The Symphony" and the earliest moments of hip-hop, where it's complex simplicity, but it's also somebody making moves. That beat feels like my generation, right now. The first thing that came to my head was, "Be humble."
Who are you talking to in the chorus – yourself?
Definitely. It's the ego. When you look at the song titles on this album, these are all my emotions and all my self-expressions of who I am. That's why I did a song like that, where I just don't give a fuck, or I'm telling the listener, "You can't fuck with me." But ultimately, I'm looking in the mirror.
You have a Number One record, which means, on some level, you're a pop artist.
It gets tricky because you can have that one big record, but you can still have that integrity at the same time. Not many can do it... wink-wink [laughs]. Still have them raps going crazy on that album and have a Number One record, wink-wink. Call it whatever you want to call it. As long as the artist remains true to the craft of hip-hop and the culture of it, it is what it is.
The track "LOVE." is probably another hit – it's the poppiest thing you've ever done. But you must draw a line somewhere where things get too soft for you.
We call it ear candy. There's ear candy, and then there's corny. You have to have an incredible ear to recognise it and an incredible team to recognise it, to know the differences. It takes years of experience. Years of making wack shit [laughs], and knowing what works for you, and also knowing when to step out of your box and try things that feel good and still can remain you.
Have you recorded songs where you're like, "That sounds like a Number One hit, but it's corny – I'm never putting that out"?
For sure. I've done stuff just freestyling shit on a mic and it could be a possible smash, but just for the sake of my brand and where I want it to go, sometimes you've gotta look for the long run, rather than what's right in front of you.
Do you also reject songs just because they don't fit the album concept?
I've done that a lot. I care about the body of work, not just a big single. I come from that era. I can't shake it, either, no matter how big streaming gets. With streaming, you just gotta have great songs.
How consciously were you trying to make DAMN. a more accessible album than Butterfly?
The initial goal was to make a hybrid of my first two commercial albums. That was our total focus, how to do that sonically, lyrically, through melody – and it came out exactly how I heard it in my head.... It's all pieces of me. My musicality has been driving me since I was four years old. It's just pieces of me, man, and how I execute it is the ultimate challenge. Going from To Pimp a Butterfly to DAMN., that shit could have crashed and burned if it wasn't executed right. So I had to be real careful on my subject matter and how I weave in and out of the topics, where it still organically feels like me.
When you did the "Bad Blood" remix with Taylor Swift, were you aware that you were taking sides in a pop beef – since she was apparently addressing Katy Perry?
[Through laughter] No, I wasn't aware of that, bro. That's a great question. No! On the record, no. Which makes it even more funny now, for sure. That's far beyond my concern. I have to stay away from that, for sure. That's some real beef [laughs].
What did you learn working with Beyoncé on "Lemonade"?
How particular to be about your music. She's a perfectionist. Think about the BET performance. She was very particular – the lighting, the camera blocking, the transition from the music to the dancing. It was confirmation of something I already knew.
Your videos keep getting more ambitious – have you gotten acting offers?
Yeah, definitely. But I'd have to be 110,000 per cent in. That's a skill, a talent that people perfect with years of rehearsing. For me to just jump in because I'm Kendrick Lamar, I'm not taking that pat on the back. I'll wait until I'm able to take some time off and study the craft. And right now, I be more sliding onto the side of directing.
In music, you seem to think like a producer, even if you don't give yourself those credits.
I'll tell you this: You can't make them type of albums just by producers sending you beats. You have to be in the grit with 'em. You've gotta be there on every snare, every 808, every transition, every arrangement. You just have to study and be in the nook of it. I'm there for the whole process. That's one of the reasons why I can formulate that cohesiveness.
But someone like Future pretty much raps over the beats he gets, and he's great in his own way. You two are so different, so it was interesting to hear you on the "Mask Off" remix.
He's his own genius. I've watched him in the studio. The way he comes up with the melodies is [snaps fingers] like that, you know. You have to speak a certain type of language and also have a great study in music – the same way I have – for what he's done. I'm sure he's grown up off a ton of R&B. Watching him come up with the melodies, that's a whole other ballgame, to understand them sonics.
What's your favourite Drake song?
Favourite Drake song [chuckles]. I got a lot of favourite Drake songs. Can't name one off the back... He has plenty.
Do you prefer him singing or rapping?
On your earliest mixtape, from when you were 16, there are points where you sound just like Jay-Z.
Oh, yeah. That was my guy. Still is. I'm still a fan. That was just a page I took out of his book, to be able to carry a lyric through conversation and make it feel like I'm sitting right here talking to you.
When did you truly find your own style?
I think it was the day I said I was gonna go by my real name, Kendrick Lamar.
Instead of K-Dot?
Yeah. And really just tell my story. Once I did that, it was easier for me to find my own voice, because nobody can tell my story the way I tell it.
In 2010, you recorded "The Heart Pt. 2", which was a breakthrough in its emotional honesty. How did that happen?
I remember saying to myself, "I just wanna show a spew of emotion on a record. I don't care how long the bars are, but people are literally gonna have to feel me." I told myself that if I can't connect that way, then it ain't no point in me just putting a bunch of good words together. So that spaz-out toward the end, where I just choke up and lose my breath – I wanna keep all that.
You can work yourself up into a state in the studio. Do you ever freak yourself out?
The irony in that is I do freak myself out, because you go somewhere emotionally and then you damn near become a robot to the emotion. You want to keep on doing takes over and over. That's when you really zone out and when you really connect with the audience. They can hear that shit in the booth, just like in Eminem's "The Way I Am", Jay-Z's "Song Cry", Tupac's "Dear Mama". You can tell those stories and those ideas really hit home for them.
A lot of people think that lyrical virtuosity, having bars, isn't as valued in hip-hop as it once was. Do you agree?
I made my mark at a right point in time, man – 2011 and 2012, it was just that window where fans wanted to hear lyricism. You could probably step in the game today with lyricism. But it may not be as respected, because the times have changed so dramatically.
You've also suggested that critics don't value lyricism as much as they claim to.
You know, hip-hop has a lot of hypocritical aspects of it, when you're talking about lyrics. There's a thousand rappers that can give you bars out there. But the local DJ isn't gonna spin that, no matter how much of a classic golden era he comes from, because he also has to make money at the end of the day. That's just the truth of the matter.
Was it André 3000 who first got it in your head that rappers can sing?
For my generation, it would definitely have to be André 3000. He was the first guy. We'd come home from school and he'd be rapping on TV one day, then you came home a week later and he has a song called "Prototype", which just blows our mind away, you dig what I'm sayin'?
Do you have songs that we've never heard that are just singing?
Straight melody-driven, for sure. Ultimately, that's practice for me on my rap albums. I write a lot of the melodies. Shit, usually 95 per cent. May jump in and jump out. Might give you a hook like "ELEMENT." Might give you a verse on a Travis Scott record with the "ghetto falsetto". That's what I call it [laughs]. That's just me flirting with the idea of being able to take it there.
Your falsetto sounds a bit like Curtis Mayfield's. Are you a fan?
Definitely. That was my father's favourite. My mother's favourite, actually.
Your cousin Carl is a member of the Hebrew Israelites, who believe that African-Americans are the true descendants of the biblical Israelites. Carl pops up in a voicemail on "FEAR." You call yourself an Israelite on the album. How much of his theology have you embraced, and how much of it is just you playing with the ideas?
Everything that I say on that record is from his perspective. That's always been my thing. Always listen to people's history and their background. It may not be like mine, it may not be like yours. It was taking his perspective on the world and life as a people and putting it to where people can listen to it and make their own perspective from it, whether you agree or you don't agree. That's what I think music is for. It's a mouthpiece.
So what's your opinion about the idea that Carl brings up, that black people are cursed by God as per Deuteronomy?
That shit's truth. There's so many different ways to interpret it, but it's definitely truth when you're talking about unity in our community and some of the things we have no control over. Where there's fighting against the government, where there's fighting against our own political views, there's always a higher being, right there willing to stop it.
It could be argued that blaming a curse from God kind of excuses a racist system.
Right. You take it how you wanna take it. The conversation's there. We can sit and talk about it all day. I do, all day [laughs].
When you see a sea of white kids rapping back the lyrics to something like "Blacker the Berry", what do you make of that?
With my listener, I know they actually hear what I'm saying, and I'm speaking for a whole culture of people. So for the suburban kid who doesn't know how we grew up, or the history of my people, hearing them lyrics, they get to understand. It's almost like a history lesson that wasn't taught to them in school.
You've spoken of struggling with depression. Is that still with you?
Um, as of now, I'm cool. I won't say I'm content. I don't want that word. I'm not satisfied yet. But as far as having a sense of personal stress to that level, no. That's a good space because I can now listen to my listeners' struggles and help them.
But you understand why so many artists end up self-destructing?
Oh, no, that's easy. Especially in this lifestyle. Everything is at your reach, whatever you want, whatever you need. When them cameras is on you, anything you need. But who you really are is when the lights cut off. It's all about how much discipline you have.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
I'm mothafuckin' optimistic for sure. I wouldn't be here if I wasn't! Come on, man, this shit don't happen to everybody. Almost all of my best friends are in prison. Forty years plus. Every show, they wanna see pictures. They tell me, "You gotta be optimistic as fuck to be where you at. We didn't have that. The glass was always halfway empty." And it's not just being optimistic. It's really about being responsible. You can talk about dreams all day and "what I want", but you gotta put an action behind it.
But you've also wondered aloud whether we're living in the End Times.
I balance that by giving of myself as much as possible, in the hope to pass along to the next generation, or however many generations it is to go, the knowledge that I have. Given whatever fucked-up situation that we're in, it's all about the evolution of man. People get it fucked up because they think it's the physical form. No, it's evolution of the mind. So, as long as I'm dedicating myself fully to my potential and this gift, there's nothing else to think about. I can go to sleep peacefully. I can check out with a peaceful conscience.
From issue #791 (October, 2017), available now.
Topics: Kendrick Lamar