A portrait of the artist, by a writer who’s documented his growth
“When I go into the streets and people tell me ‘you saved my life.’ I never heard anything like that before. As a kid…. I’m only 24 years old,” Kendrick Lamar told me in Las Vegas back in 2011. “For people to say that I know that it’s on a bigger scale now. I can’t just be selfish, making the music that I want to make. I have to make music for everybody.” ►
Moments earlier, in front of a crowd of no more than 150 people, the artist formally known as K-Dot performed on a tiny stage to promote the release of his debut album Section.80, before drifting off into obscurity backstage.
While others indulged in liquor and weed post show, the Compton MC somehow managed to hide in plain sight, completely unbothered and silently observing his surroundings. His movements were subtle and his presence alone didn’t demand anyone’s attention, nor was he asking for it.
Having met him two years prior during my tenure at BET, he recognized me and we exchanged pleasantries. It wasn’t until the interview began and he started speaking that the surrounding crowd began to gravitate toward him. With every word spoken, the crowd hushed each other to get a better listen. The passion in his voice was undeniable, and it left an impression on those that eavesdropped on the conversation.
“When I go into the studio I don’t have to be in a hit record mind state,” he continued. “I have to be in a mind state to create something that is going to stick in the streets and your soul. You’ll probably learn a life lesson in it.”
Moments like this are the reason why Kendrick Lamar’s greatest gift isn’t necessarily his ambidextrous lyrical ability. Rather, it is his unique gift to become voluntarily incognito despite his overwhelming popularity and, when the time is right, striking with poignant accuracy that is equal parts breathtaking and informative.
But up until that point when the camera lights came on, he made himself unseen.
Earlier this month, Kendrick Lamar struck again out of the darkness with the impromptu release of his acclaimed new album To Pimp A Butterfly.
That’s been the story of Kendrick Lamar ever since I met him six years ago. Interestingly enough, I figure to be just as invisible to him as he was to others. Perhaps that is because neither of us are invested in making friends in this hollow industry. But I digress…
Kendrick Lamar’s message precedes his image. Aside from his music, he strays away from the spotlight. There is no juicy gossip surrounding him, nor do TMZ cameras stalk him like they might Kanye West or Chris Brown. Barely a word is uttered about his personal life in interviews, and even his social media accounts are reserved only for his craft. His message does not become inaudible amidst the annoying buzz of a fictional online persona. In an era when success doesn’t exist unless you post the futile fruits of your labor on social media, Kendrick Lamar’s has mastered the complexities of the disappearing act.
Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel The Invisible Man is a fascinating story of a young black man’s struggle to survive and succeed in a racially divided America that refuses to see him as a human being. A complex and multilayered work that traverses two decades of the nameless narrator’s journey from ignorance to ultimate enlightenment, the novel changed the landscape of American literature. It’s a work of art that can be accepted as an allegory or simply as a brilliantly-written narrative. It’s not the black experience, but rather his black experience that can be used to inspire, empower and educate.
Over a half-century later, Kendrick Lamar has become the modern figurehead from which Ellison’s novel takes its namesake. Obviously, the paradox here is that Lamar is hiding in plain sight as one of the most recognizable figures of the modern hip-hop era. The 27-year-old strives to let his art — rather than his image — be a call to arms against the multiple “-isms” of America.
After telling his story about growing up in Compton on 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, Lamar’s follow up is a love letter to an era that embraced ethnicity rather than shying away from it. Kendrick harnesses elements of that period with a pleasantly jarring blend of funk, spoken word poetry, political awareness and black nationalism — and then modernizes it into something consumable for the masses. To Pimp A Butterfly — like The Invisible Man — has a message that is not overshadowed by the messenger delivering it. While it is about black empowerment it also holds African Americans accountable for their actions. Like a militant cousin who affectionately wants his offspring to do better, he lectures the community without betraying it, as evidenced on “The Blacker the Berry.”
Like Ellison’s masterwork, To Pimp a Butterfly is not the modern day black experience, but his own. In Kendrick’s tale, he plays a caterpillar from Compton who shelters himself from society to avoid the pimping of his expression. His cocoon is his small circle of friends, and these isolated experiences aren’t diluted by fame and fortune. He’s deeply rooted in his identity and prefers not to pander to what is deemed acceptable for an artist of his stature.
Kendrick’s aspirations are bigger than making the next great American rap album. He wants you to love him like Nelson Mandela; he has visions of Martin Luther King Jr. staring at him; he wants to share his poetry with 2Pac. He wants to inspire the listener just as the great leaders and orators have inspired him.
“This album was about me, the next album will be about my people,” Lamar said to me after a raucous 2013 performance in front of thousands at the Mesa Amphitheater in Mesa, Arizona. A complete departure from his overlooked Las Vegas show two years earlier, Kendrick Lamar was supporting the release of his major label debut good kid, m.A.A.d city. Fans waited for hours in sweltering 115-degree heat to see King Kendrick and the Black Hippy crew.
Despite his newfound success, I found him backstage doing the exact same thing he was doing when he was in Vegas. With ScHoolBoy Q providing backstage entertainment for cameras filming the TDE documentary “On The Road” for Jay Z’s Life + Times, the MC sat quietly with his shoes off. A number of professional athletes and young ladies were milling about backstage while Kendrick just sat off to his corner, quietly observing his surroundings. After an autograph signing, he would play flip the cup with a few fans before sitting down to converse with me about how his life and goals had changed.
“You’re only as good as your last product,”► he said when discussing the impact of good kid m.a.a.d. city. When the cameras went off, we shared some talk about Trayvon Martin and how things haven’t really changed all that much in society when it comes to how African Americans are treated. The passion in his eyes during the conversation remained the same as they were when he explained the importance of making music for others and not himself in 2009.
It was evident to me then that Kendrick’s next album was going to be about something more than his story. It would be about our story.
“I feel that everyone needs to hear what I’m doing and the whole world can take heed to this,” Lamar said. “My plan is to make this movement bigger and continue to build up our culture.”
Much like the nameless character in The Invisible Man, Kendrick feels guilty for investing so much time in becoming immortalized in his music, touring the globe while his friends and family back home were dealing with hard times. The narrator of The Invisible Man spends nearly two decades trying to convince white America that he is to be accepted. To a lesser degree, Lamar feels a similar guilt for working so hard for the acceptance of others while turmoil consumes the country. But eventually he comes to grips with his journey and realizes that documenting it is an efficient form of therapy and perhaps the most effective way to share his story.
To Pimp A Butterfly is full of those very moments where Lamar questions himself despite his success.
“U” outlines those very conflicts alongside his own bouts with depression and insecurity, despite his commercial success. While “I” is the answer to the inquiry of “Who are we trying to please” as he offers an ode of redemption to those who suffer from self-doubt. He attacks topics such as colorism and black love on “Complexion,” as well as how black entertainers are being taken advantage of by a capitalistic society on the album’s funky opener “Wesley’s Theme.”
Unlike good kid, m.A.A.d city, where his objective to convey his story was straightforward, To Pimp A Butterfly delivers its narrative in the abstract. Implications are layered between lyrics and left up to the listener to interpret. “These Walls” is one of those cases where the complexity shines through the intersection where sex and society meet. Is it about the walls of our internal struggles or, more basely, those of a woman’s vagina? Or the perhaps the physical walls individuals find themselves trapped in when incarcerated? The meanings will be debated for years but adds an extra layer of brilliance to a remarkable album.
Back on October 20, 2012, Kendrick Lamar returned to Las Vegas for the first time in three years. This time, a line that stretched down the Strip was there to greet him before his set. Good kid, m.A.A.d city had just leaked a couple of days prior and social media exploded with premature declarations of the album being a classic. After his set, Kendrick’s manager Dave Free invited me to a studio in the outskirts of Vegas so we could conduct our interview.
With fellow TDE members Jay Rock and Ab Soul joining us at the studio for a session that would eventually become “The Heart Pt. 3,” Kendrick looked weathered as he put on a pair of black house shoes and slumped down on the couch. But just as quickly as he sank into the sofa, he bounced back up and made a beeline to the booth when he heard the beats vibrating against of the styrofoam walls. Fifteen minutes later, he emerged from the booth with a grin stretched across his face, as if he tossed a huge weight off his shoulder. Once again, small talk ensued as he sat with no entourage in tow. The interview began and I asked him about the early calls for GKMC being a classic.
“I hate throwing around the word classic… I like it to withstand years and time. Can you go back and listen to it ten years from now,”►he asks with a nervous laugh. “It takes a whole lot of responsibility to keep that up in the long run. Longevity is something I don’t have yet.”►
I asked him then what it was like to no longer be invisible, and he took a moment to soak in the question before responding that being invisible keeps him grounded. And, perhaps more significant, he added: “Sometimes the message is more important than the messenger.”
“The ghost of Mandela, hope my flows they propel it /
Let these words be your earth and moon you consume every message…”
~Kendrick Lamar, “Mortal Man” (2015)
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