‘Everybody just wants to have fun, be with the scene,” Kendrick Lamar said when we met in his cramped quarters inside the Barclays Center in Brooklyn last fall. “Certain people get backstage, people that you would never expect. . . . You ain’t with the media! You ain’t into music! You ain’t into sports! You’re just here.” The rapper, now 27, had just finished his set as the opening act on this stretch of Kanye West’s Yeezus tour, and he was sitting low in an armchair in his trademark black hoodie surrounded by exactly those people.
“Hey, man, thank you again, appreciate the access back here, it means a lot to us,” said an eager photographer who had overstayed his welcome. There was a knock on the door. “Hold up a minute, baby,” Lamar’s bodyguard, Big Mingo, said to a woman outside.
“We got iTunes out here,” he said, turning to Lamar.
“She can come in,” Lamar replied, waving her in.
By all appearances, there was a convivial party going on in his room, but the vibe was actually tense. There were two layers of conversation. The first layer was a loud and garish stream of talk, requests mostly — to play a festival, to come to a friend’s club later that night — that came from acquaintances acting as intimates. The second layer was a series of subtle glances, exchanged among Lamar’s people, aimed at gracefully minimizing how much time the rapper had to spend with each visitor. Eventually Lamar nodded to his manager, signaling that it was time to get the car. The previous evening, he stayed up all night working on new music, and he planned to do the same now.
As arrangements were being made to leave, he quietly told me, “As a kid, I used to stutter.” It felt like an oddly personal line of conversation to begin amid the chaos, but because so many people were talking at him, no one else heard him. “I think that’s why I put my energy into making music,” he continued. “That’s how I get my thoughts out, instead of being crazy all the time.”
In the world of hip-hop, Lamar is widely considered to be a future king. Last year, he was nominated for seven Grammys, four of them for his 2012 major-label debut, “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” which sold more than a million copies in the United States. His lyrical style and his background (Compton, Calif., born and raised) have shaped his reputation as the kind of old-school rapper you don’t see much anymore, a street poet who has earned the affection of hip-hop purists as well as younger listeners. “He’s the first person in a long time that a lot of the old heads respect,” says the filmmaker and author Nelson George, one of the first journalists to write about rap music. “They see him as a real hip-hop M.C.”
Part of what sets Lamar apart is pure lyrical agility. The producer and songwriter Pharrell Williams has likened Lamar to Bob Dylan. “He’s a singer-songwriter,” Williams says. “You can just see the kid’s mind like a kaleidoscope over a beat.” Lamar does indeed have a Dylan-like ability to pivot from playful to mystical, to reframe quotidian details as profound revelations, and he has an instinct for swirling, rhapsodic metaphor. He opens the track “Hol’ Up” with this couplet: “I wrote this record while 30,000 feet in the air/Stewardess complimenting me on my nappy hair.” A few verses later, he raps: “I lived my 20s at 2 years old, the wiser man, truth be told, I’m like 87/wicked as 80 reverends in a pool of fire with devils holding hands.”
In person, Lamar is so serene and warm, and on his record, so erudite and philosophical, that it’s tempting to read him as a mellow, cerebral guy, a monk reincarnated as a young rap star. But that would be a mistake. Lamar has made his name in part by trying to reawaken what George calls rap’s “combative” energy, which has always been central to the genre’s identity but has fallen off in the past decade.
“If my edge is dull, my sword is dull, and I don’t want to fight another guy whose sword is dull,” Lamar later told me. “If you’ve got two steel swords going back and forth hitting each other, what’s gonna happen? Both of them are going to get sharper.” He laments what he sees as the impotency that has taken over the rap game. “Everybody that’s in the industry has lost their edge,” he said. “There’s really no aggression. You gotta say things particular, and everything is so soft.” Last August, in a guest appearance on “Control,” a track by Big Sean, Lamar named himself, alongside Jay-Z, Nas, Eminem and Outkast’s Andre 3000, as the best M.C.s of all time. He also called himself “the king of New York” (a big no-no for a West Coast rapper) and sent out a message to his immediate peers: “I got love for you all, but I’m tryna murder you niggas/Tryna to make sure your core fans never heard of you niggas/They don’t wanna hear not one more noun or verb from you niggas.” The influential hip-hop magazine XXL called it “the verse that woke up the rap game.”
Lamar approaches his music career with the ambition of an exacting, if sedate, C.E.O. At one point, after he left his Barclays Center dressing room, the crew descended on the catering table, eagerly assembling double-decker sandwiches and raiding the fridge for leftover Gatorade. “I’ve never been on a tour where there’s no booze,” someone grumbled. “I need alcohol.” When I was on the road with Lamar, he didn’t drink, and in general, his crew followed suit. This is part of his commitment to staying focused on his singular ambition: greatness. “There’s a certain hunger that you can sense about Kendrick,” Eminem says. “He raps to be the best rapper in the world. He competitive-raps. That’s one of the things that’s going to drive his career. He’s going to be around for a long time.”
“Will you hand me one of those Lunchables?” Lamar asked Matt Gant, a member of his crew who had opened one of the snack packs stacked in the minifridge backstage. The rapper had just finished his set at the Verizon Center in Washington. He sat on a rough brown couch wearing his standard postshow outfit: gray Nike sweatsuit, white athletic socks, Air Jordan sandals. West, who at 37 is 10 years older than Lamar, was onstage. Every so often, the bass from the multimillion-dollar sound system vibrated the dressing room’s cheap-looking ceiling tiles, sending bits of dust cascading onto the catering table. A documentary on fracking played on a small TV bolted to the wall. “I ate so much of this in Europe, dawg, I got burned up,” Lamar said, staring at his food. “I didn’t want to see another Lunchable for a long time.” Dave Free, Lamar’s manager and one his best friends from home, entered, wearing a stylish wool baseball jacket and hat. “Uh oh,” Free said, taking in the ennui of the assembled crew, which included Lamar’s two bodyguards, a videographer and Gant. He lunged at Gant, smacking the Lunchable tray out of his hands. Shiny pink discs of processed turkey flew across the room. Everybody looked up from their phones, stunned. “That’s some high-school [expletive] right there,” Lamar said, chuckling.
“I had to do it,” Free replied, shaking his head. “I’m so bored.”
Some day Lamar may enjoy his own version of West-like dominance, but for now he was here, dodging lunchmeat grenades and ducking behind an ugly couch to change into new underwear straight out of the package. It was an honor to be on this tour, but it was also a drag. It meant flying back and forth between the coasts twice in the next 72 hours so he could perform at the American Music Awards without missing the Yeezus stop at Madison Square Garden and spending those long plane rides writing new raps with his thumbs on an iPhone. It also meant letting someone else dictate his schedule, while managing the already intense pressure to follow up the year-old “good kid, m.A.A.d city” with something even better.
Great records are great for different reasons. Some, like West’s eclectic masterpiece, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” or Radiohead’s “OK Computer,” say, Look what I can do. Others, like “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band” or Liz Phair’s “Exile in Guyville” say, This is who I am. Lamar’s “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” falls squarely into the who-I-am category. The album recasts his life growing up in the ’hood as a universal experience. One writer likened “good kid” to James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” because it uses detailed, interior language and a day in the life of one person to explore broader existential themes about good and evil. “Really I’m a sober soul, but I’m with the homies right now,” Lamar raps on “The Art of Peer Pressure.” “Four deep in a white Toyota/A quarter tank of gas, one pistol and orange soda.” This approach is unusual. Many of the classic day-in-the-life rap albums, like Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” (1992), Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ready to Die” (1994) and Jay-Z’s “Reasonable Doubt” (1996), are “blaxploitation films on record,” according to George. “That’s a lot of what those records were — fantasy fulfillment, to some degree, that the audience was involved in these dangerous urban situations. That’s not what Kendrick does; he’s more nuanced.” We have long looked to gifted hip-hop artists to paint an authentic portrait of what it’s like to be young and black in America. Lamar has done this without retreading familiar ground. “We’ve been in Compton before,” points out Eminem, with whom Lamar has collaborated in the studio and toured. “But the way that Kendrick did it was so different. . . . The album is crafted from front to back, the way each song ties into each other — to me that’s genius.”
On the surface, Lamar’s work seems minimalist and almost defiantly unshowy; there are no for-hire pop stars singing his hooks, and he doesn’t rely heavily on superstar producers. Low-timbered, meditative, almost trancelike beats — more Massive Attack than Tupac Shakur — underpin confessional but not self-pitying, dexterous rhymes. Among the first distinguishable sounds on “good kid” is a diffuse prayer accompanied by a mysterious organ and ambient noise. This is not the traditional recipe for mainstream hip-hop success, yet when the Grammy nominations were announced, his seven nods were among the most of any artist and included Album of the Year, the most prestigious category.
At the Grammys in January, Lamar, dressed in all white, delivered what was considered by many to be the standout performance, an urgent, thrilling collaboration with the Las Vegas alternative rockers Imagine Dragons. Jay-Z was seen singing along, and Taylor Swift was in the front row demurely dancing. But Lamar got shut out. The sunny, politically correct Seattle duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis won Best Album, Song and Performance in the rap category. Macklemore instantly became a public target for outrage, the proverbial white carpetbagger rewarded for co-opting a traditionally black art form. It was such an obvious slight that Macklemore felt the need to apologize to Lamar. “You got robbed,” he wrote in a text message. “It’s weird and sucks that I robbed you.” He also felt the need to publicize that apology, posting the text to his Instagram shortly after sending it. Everyone from The Huffington Post to hip-hop blogs like 2dopeboyz covered the upset. Then they covered the fallout from Macklemore’s text. And then they covered the aftermath of both, in which assorted rap luminaries (Drake, Talib Kweli) weighed in with varying degrees of outrage. Lamar kept his head down. He said only that he thought Macklemore’s win was well deserved. The impressive commercial response to his major-label debut, its warm reception by the famously stuffy Grammy crowd and the drama surrounding the fact that he didn’t actually take any awards home has only ramped up the anticipation of Lamar’s follow-up album.
You could see the West tour as the first step in setting up Lamar’s second act. Often these high-profile tour pairings are politically motivated, planned by label executives and brokered by management teams. That wasn’t the case with West and Lamar. Backstage at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards, West personally approached Lamar about joining him on the road. “It’s a different kind of thrill when an actual artist asks you, when Kanye asks you,” Lamar said, pronouncing West’s first name the way he always does, with the emphasis on the last syllable, kahn-YAY. “Now I know he’s really interested in what I do.” Lamar said it was easy to make that happen after the chat, but his team remembered a lot of back and forth. “Believe it or not, we were actually trying not to do the tour,” says Terrence Henderson, better known as Punch, the president of Top Dawg Entertainment, Lamar’s label. “We wanted Kendrick to be recording that whole time.”
By the middle of 2013, Lamar was already exhausted; he’d been on the road for the better part of two years. Remembering the first time he applied for a passport, in 2008, for a family wedding in Cancún, Lamar said: “I got it just for that trip. I didn’t know I’d be using it every day since.” And yet the benefit of joining the Yeezus tour was obvious: exposure to West’s enormous pop fan base — which Lamar will need if he wants a career on par with the icons he name-checked in “Control.” Not to mention that West’s team “wasn’t taking no for an answer,” Henderson says. They got Lamar a studio bus so he could record on the road and promised him a prominent role. “Kanye said he didn’t want to make it seem like we were just the opener,” Lamar remembered. “It was dope to have the actual headliner of the show want my show to be just as good as his.”
After Washington, the Yeezus tour returned to New York, to Madison Square Garden, where Lamar delivered an especially dynamic set. With his band and a backdrop of hazy video clips featuring young girls walking down apocalyptic city streets and menacing men inside grimy apartments mixed in with footage of the rapper’s Compton neighborhood, Lamar’s production is as steeped in realism as West’s is in fantasy. Six layers deep in a semicircle around the stage, everyone from well-heeled bohemian black couples in postwork attire to white teenage girls with glow-stick bracelets stacked from wrist to elbow bounced on command and sang along as Lamar strode across the stage, one hand manning the mike, the other waving in the air like a hip-hop conductor. He finished as he always did on this tour, crouching backward along the gangway that jutted out into the crowd, leading them through the chorus to “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”: “When the lights shut off/and it’s my turn to settle down/my main concern/promise that you will sing about me/promise that you will sing about me.”
Afterward he was settling in backstage, when the voice of a crew member crackled over several headsets that his team wears during a show. “They’re blocking us in so Jamie Foxx and all them can pull their [expletive] in,” he said. “[They] ain’t even part of the show.” Lamar was trying to get back to his hotel before he had to wake up at 4 a.m. to catch another flight to California, but West was about to go on, and the glitterati were in attendance: Leonardo DiCaprio and John McEnroe were inside, as well as such New York power players as the venture capitalist Joshua Kushner and his girlfriend, the model Karlie Kloss. Lamar had to wait until his team could get the vans out of the arena.
Lamar seemed unbothered. He typed on his phone and bantered with his girlfriend, Whitney Alford, who sat on a couch across from him in thigh-high brown suede boots, tights and jean shorts. Lamar tries to keep his relationship with Alford private, so I was surprised to find myself in the room with her. Lamar usually commands from others a low-key deference (I later asked him if he could recall the last time he wasn’t the alpha figure in the room, and he replied, smiling, “It’s been a while”), but Alford was so at ease sassing him that at first I thought she was his sister. When someone suggested that the group make a party stop in Miami after the tour headed south in a few days, Lamar said, “I just don’t think I could ever throw around money at the club.”
“Why, are you too cheap?” Alford responded.
“Hell, yeah!” he called out proudly.
There’s something both gallant and guarded about Lamar and his crew. When his security director, 2Teez, told me he was going to start following me on Instagram, he added, slightly menacingly, “So I can find you after this piece comes out.” And yet I never once opened my own door or entered a room in which I was not offered a chair and something to drink. In general, Lamar is unusually polite, unusually interested in other people and unusually attuned to women, a fact that is reflected in his music. Lamar has written several songs that illuminate street life from the female perspective. The most powerful is perhaps “Keisha’s Song (Her Pain),” about a 17-year-old prostitute turning tricks in the back seat, for whom “Rosa Parks [is] never a factor.” Lamar closes the song by addressing his little sister: “I looked her right in the face/the day that I wrote this song, sat her down and pressed play.” When I asked Lamar, out of all the influential people on his speed dial, who in his life has the power to call him out, his answer was immediate: “One particular young lady,” he said, referring to Alford. “She’s been here since Day 1.”
He’s also clearly very close to his mother. Still stuck backstage at the Garden, Lamar tried to get her on the phone. She had been difficult to reach in L.A., and it was bothering him. “You’re the worst with your phones!” he admonished after she finally picked up. “Dave’s gonna come over there and drop off some clothes,” he said, referring to Free, whom Lamar has dispatched to look after her.
If you’re a fan of Lamar’s music, you know his mother’s voice. “Kendrick, where you at? I’m sittin’ here waitin’ on my van,” she says during one of a series of snippets of real voice mail messages the rapper used as breaks in between songs on his album. “You told me you was gonna be back in 15 minutes. I gotta go the county building . . . I gotta get them food stamps!” Soon his father’s voice comes in. “Is that Kendrick on the phone? . . . Hello? Yeah, where my [expletive] Domino’s at?!” It’s an authentic portrait, Lamar told me. “I could put them on the phone right now, and they’ll sound exactly like that album.”
His parents are originally from Chicago. “They came to L.A. on some . . .” Lamar paused. “Some high hopes. They had like $500. They landed in Compton out of every place in L.A.; I don’t know how. They could have landed in the suburbs or the valley, but they didn’t.” It was the ’80s, the height of the crack epidemic in America. “My pop did what he had to do,” the rapper says of his father’s profession, which he explicitly leaves unnamed. In the past, though, Lamar has said that his uncles ran drugs out of the project apartments in which he lived as a boy. “We had good birthdays and good Christmases. I can’t complain.” The “good kid, m.A.A.d city” album artwork features a photograph of Lamar’s dad holding a shotgun. When he was growing up, Lamar said, “everybody that I touched physically, they ended up dead or in jail.” That includes one of his younger brothers, who was incarcerated, he told me last fall. “I remember him saying, like, he wanted to be the hardest gang member; that’s what he wanted to be,” Lamar said, shaking his head.
It wasn’t that Lamar didn’t see the appeal of gang life. He was fired from the one real job he ever had, security at a truck stop, because his bosses suspected that he and his friends were planning to cause trouble. “I started thinking crazy, and the homies got in my head,” he remembered. But he wasn’t sold on the idea that gangs were the way to true brotherhood. “It’s power,” he said of what drew in his brother and so many others. “It’s the sense of being wanted or being needed. Being in the gang, it’s a certain type of love that you feel at the moment.” Until, he said, things got real.
It helped, of course, that Lamar is quiet and gentle by nature, a self-described “observer.” It helped even more that he had a father at home. “Fathers are not there a lot, and Kendrick’s dad was no-nonsense,” recalls Regis Inge, Lamar’s former teacher, a veteran of the Compton school system who, the rapper told me, taught him poetry and how to write (they still play basketball when Lamar is home). And it especially helped that the young Lamar had a gift, already evident in his preteen years. “He was just better, and everybody knew that,” Free remembered of Lamar’s years as a student at Centennial High School, then a center of the local after-school freestyle-rap scene. “It got to the point when nobody wanted to rap with him. They were like, ‘Yo, I’m gonna do my own thing.’ ” As a young teenager, wherever Lamar went — the cafeteria, the quad, the gym — he saw a potential audience and an opportunity to vie for the things all young men want: social power, influence and respect, plus attention from girls. “That is the No. 1 motivation when you are in ninth grade,” Lamar said with a chuckle.
Lamar says his innate suspicion of convenient alliances and his resistance to temptation is just as handy now as it was then. “At 16, temptation can be money: I know money, I want money. Or women: I know women, I want women. Or drugs: I know drugs, I want drugs. Temptation is just the feeling that you’re the most independent person on planet Earth. That you know everything.” He continued: “That’s something that we all go through as a kid. Now, this lifestyle that I’m in, the same thing exists! But it’s 10 times worse, because everything is at my disposal. When you’re in the limelight, you can get anything you want.”
He was 16 when he put out his first mixtape, “Youngest Head Nigga in Charge,” which got the attention of a prominent local manager, Anthony Tiffith, who goes by Top Dawg. Tiffith helped Lamar hone his skills, make connections within the underground hip-hop community and eventually founded Top Dawg Entertainment with Lamar as a key act. In 2010, the rapper’s fourth mixtape, “Overly Dedicated,” made an appearance on the Billboard hip-hop and R&B charts. It also caught the attention of Paul Rosenberg, who manages Eminem and has a longstanding relationship with Dr. Dre. Rosenberg got Lamar’s music to Dre, who as a solo artist, producer and scout of new talent like Snoop Dogg, Eminem and 50 Cent, has become one of the most influential and well-respected figures in the music industry. He was impressed with Lamar and name-checked the young rapper in a local radio interview. “You hear Dr. Dre is supporting a young M.C. out in L.A., you’re like, ‘Oh, who the hell is that?’ ” Nelson George says. By 2011, Lamar and Dre were partners; there’s a joint venture deal in place for Lamar’s music between Top Dawg Entertainment and Dre’s own label, an Interscope Records subsidiary called Aftermath Entertainment. Dre also makes two guest appearances on “good kid, m.A.A.d city.”
Back at the Garden, word finally came over the walkie-talkies that Jamie Foxx, et al., had settled in successfully, clearing Lamar’s vans to leave. Everyone stood up. “I need some snacks for the road,” Lamar said, pouring a bowl of cereal and shoving into his sweatpants pocket a stack of $2 bills a fan handed him backstage. “Real rappers walk down hallways with money hanging out of their pocket eating cereal,” he called out cartoonishly, spooning bites of cereal into his mouth and grinning as he walked down the hallway to the service elevator. “Everybody knows that.”
I had been shadowing Lamar on tour with West off and on for almost three weeks before I saw the two rappers in the same room. The tour had swept through the Southern states and headed West. We were in Texas on an unusually cold Saturday evening just after a record-setting snowstorm. Lamar was heading to the stage at Houston’s Toyota Center. As he walked down the hallway, a black van pulled up, and West got out with Kim Kardashian. As the two men greeted each other, their respective posses fell back — except for Lamar’s videographer and his counterpart in West’s camp, both of whom acted as if this was the moment they’d been waiting for all tour. They traced a tight circle around the men, lenses open to capture every word of a conversation that lasted less than 30 seconds. The two rappers embraced, then Lamar paused, allowing West to proceed down the hallway first, before continuing to the stage to play his set.
It’s tempting to imagine that tour partnerships between an established star and an up-and-comer result in lots of communal bonding. And of course sometimes they do. Bono has become famous for taking young bands out on the road with U2 and dispensing his so-called Bono Talk, a sermon on how to avoid the pitfalls of fame. Lamar knew people wanted to think this was happening between him and West, and he obliged within reason, dutifully explaining to journalists how much he was learning from West or telling an employee of his label who asked if they had been hanging out, “We haven’t really got an off day yet to chill out, but that’s the plan.” But a mentor-mentee relationship wasn’t what was expected or desired, and it certainly was not what was happening.
Backstage in Houston, Lamar was visited by Devon Anjelica, a D.J. who goes by Devi Dev and is an old friend of his. “Do you realize you’re further solidified in pop culture now?” she told him. Anjelica was anticipating a rout at the Grammys (which, of course, was not to be). But she also seemed convinced of far greater mainstream success. “You’re going to be an answer on Trivial Pursuit.” As she went on, Lamar sat on the edge of the couch, munching contemplatively on a green apple. “We’ll see,” he finally said, getting up to toss out the core. “A lot of this is politics, you know? You gotta be a realist.”
This is how it is with Lamar all the time — he is constantly engaging in a mental version of the literal gatekeeping Big Mingo was overseeing in Brooklyn the day we first met. Every thought (“You’re going to win a bunch of Grammys”) and every request (“Come to my club”) is weighed in an ever-changing calculus designed to maximize success and maintain sanity. “Everybody can’t take this lifestyle,” Lamar said early on. “To put that pressure on somebody not made for it, they’ll go crazy.”
The next day, we were all on the bus en route from Houston to San Antonio for a concert at the AT&T Center. I made my way to the back, joining Lamar in his traveling studio. He likes to tuck himself away in small, dark spaces, and this one was perfect: It contained only a bed and a recording deck. Lamar typed on 2Teez’s iPhone (where he stores some of his raps), while the same foreboding beat played over and over again on the computer, little bars pulsating on the screen in hypnotic unison. “I’m the worst,” he eventually said, breaking the silence. “Whenever I get good news about anything . . . man, I guess I’m bad at receiving compliments.” He stopped typing but didn’t look up from the phone, his face all but obscured beneath his black hood. “Like yesterday with the nominations, things like that — it made me feel like I had to be in the studio because I had to do it, not again, but. . . .” He couldn’t quite finish his thought. “It just bothers me,” he said finally. “I don’t want to be something that just comes and goes.”