The moment that signaled 25-year-old Top Dawg Entertainment artist Kendrick Lamar's rise from West Coast underground cult hero to mainstream superstar happened on stage at a hometown concert in during the summer of 2011. With Dr. Dre looking down from the balcony seats, Lamar was joined on stage by Snoop Dogg, Kurupt, and Game. Those West Coast icons, gangster rap torchbearers for two decades, crowded around Kendrick Lamar and hugged him and declared him "the new king of the West Coast." The crowd starts chanting, "Kendrick! Kendrick! Kendrick!" And the way Lamar reacts begins to explain why his presence in rap, as a proudly ordinary and honest guy with an extraordinary gift, is so necessary and so refreshing: Kendrick Lamar gets choked up.
A little more than a year later, Lamar released the album that silenced listeners who doubted that he deserved to be crowned or thought he'd have to change to reach mainstream success. 2012's good kid, m.A.A.d city, Lamar's major label debut album, is a sprawling masterpiece of technical rapping and structured storytelling that defies and expands the conventions of his genre. It's a classic album that feels like a classic movie, deftly weaving moments from Kendrick's life together to form a narrative that becomes an empathetic ode to a troubled and dangerous place. Like a lot of eternal characters from literature and film and a lot of ordinary kids, Lamar finds himself torn between the temptation to do wrong and the wisdom to do right.
good kid, m.A.A.d city landed in the tiny overlap between popular adoration and critical respect, selling more copies in its first week than any other debut album in 2012 and earning massive nods from Pitchfork, The New York Times, MTV and hundreds of other outlets. Lamar raps with hypnotizing precision, in triple time and in different voices, recalling the moments of dizzying theatricality of Eminem's The Slim Shady LP and combining them with the unglamorous grit of Nas' Illmatic.
Long before Kendrick Lamar was redefining the boundaries of rap, he was a kid growing up in Compton in the 1990s, trying to stay out of trouble. "I'm six years old, seein' my uncles playing with shotguns, sellin' dope in front of the apartment. My moms and pops never said nothing, 'cause they were young and living wild, too," he said in a 2011 interview. The mayhem going on around him couldn't stop Lamar from getting good grades, but he found school frustrating: "This is always in my head: There was a math question that I knew the answer to, but I was so scared to say it. Then this little chick said the answer and it was the right answer, my answer. That bothers me still to this day, bein' scared of failure."
Lamar idolized Tupac Shakur growing up, and by 16, he'd recorded his first mixtape, under the name K. Dot. He'd also signed with Top Dawg Entertainment, now home to other L.A. up-and-comers like ScHoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, and Jay Rock. Lamar released a series of mixtapes as K. Dot, receiving cosigns from rappers like Lil Wayne and Game, before dropping the moniker and going by his birth name in 2009. "I'll always be K. Dot in Compton," he said. "'Kendrick Lamar' is more mature and I can talk more about what I want to do with my life. I want my legacy to be about who I am as a person, not just as an artist." 2011's Section.80, released independently through iTunes, moved thousands of copies with no promotion and established Lamar as an songwriter with something meaningful to say to his generation, one that hadn't been spoken to with as much respect and conviction by any other artist. Lamar toured America behind Section.80, watching thousands of people scream every one of his words back to him, reveling in a connection with his fans that runs as deep as his lyrics.
In person, Lamar is as earnest and relatable as he is in his music, eager to ignore the politics of the situation and speak truthfully. "[People] know I’m not out here trying to glorify certain situations through these records or say I’m the biggest killer in the world. I don’t believe in none of these rappers anyway. The real gangsters, you never really see their faces because they’re either in the ground, in prison or behind the scenes," he said in an interview. At times it seems like he's thinking faster than he can speak, words tumbling out of his mouth as if his ideas are backed up at his brain and he's trying to get them all out; in that way, he's the perfect spokesman for a generation of overstimulated kids. "I wanted to construct an actual album that makes sense, with a full story and a dialogue about what kids are going through and what my generation is reacting to," said Lamar, referring to good kid, m.A.A.d city.
So how can Kendrick Lamar follow up the most beloved album of 2012? A long-awaited album from Black Hippy, a super group made up of Lamar and his Top Dawg Entertainment label mates Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, and ScHoolboy Q, might be happening. And Lamar says he works on a collaborative album with J. Cole whenever he gets time.
But for now, the 25-year-old Compton rapper can be content to have made something that many great rappers spend their whole careers trying to make: a classic album, an serious affirmation of rap as a vital art form, and proof that an artist can sell records with, as he puts it, "no compromise at all
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