Interview: Kendrick Lamar

"You can’t really get into the studio with Jay-Z or Eminem and look at them like 'they’re my big homies'; you’ve got to go in there trying to cut their head off. Period."

Words Photography by Michelle Tran
Photography by Michelle Tran

Preparing for a last-minute interview is a challenge. When that interview happens to be with the hottest rapper in the industry the pressure is at least doubled. Once we greeted the man in question, Kendrick Lamar, and he began to speak in his measured, unpretentious tone of his all that pressure melted away. Seated casually in a rather modestly-sized hotel room, he was rocking a black bubble goose vest and blue and white LA Dodgers cap, while one of his touring companions typed away on a laptop. Possibly the most down-to-earth superstar today, Lamar was obviously exhausted yet keen to get in-depth about his first Australian tour, his growth in popularity and working with his heroes.

The trip to Australia must’ve been a long one but you’ve been around as far as long trips, so you’re probably more used to that now right?

The flights are crazy and I feel jetlagged on stage so once I’m out I’ve gotta get out of that feeling.

Once you’re on stage you would obviously get a lot of energy…

Yeah you get it from the crowd, that’s the only thing that keeps me going when I’m tired. I get on stage and I get that energy from the crowd, it’s real.

You’re coming from such a lineage from Compton and California in general, so many different artists that maybe people have never heard of. You may end up introducing a new generation to say MC Eiht or Dr. Dre…

And that was the purpose of putting those kinds of features on [Good Kid M.A.A.D. City]. To let them know and not only recognise new artists but also recognise the actual full culture of west coast music, and you can go back and listen any time to MC Eiht or Dr. Dre. Now that you’ve heard my album you know we’ve been doing this a long time and putting out great music.

The album is also a good way of getting a snapshot of your life, hearing about where you’re coming from without having to go on a tour of Compton…

Yeah, the goal is to paint those visuals with words and different types of beat selections. I like to make it real cohesive, between what I’m talking about and the sound I’m creating. So if you close your eyes and listen to my music it’ll feel like you’re actually there.

All of your music has been pretty personal but is this album the most accurate picture of who you are – all the different sides?

It’s definitely the most accurate. You get the calm Kendrick Lamar, the thinker, you get the edge of being from Compton and seeing different things. I think I embody all three and that’s what makes the full album.

It goes from so many different emotions as well, from Sherane to Backseat Freestyle. It’s the same with all the features you’ve done too, like [ASAP Rocky’s] Fuckin’ Problems

I didn’t want this album to be monotone. I want people to really understand the different emotions going on throughout a day of my life and to me as a person. When you get inside, that’s just who I am. I’m a human being: I have different emotions throughout the day, different feelings and I want to express myself.

At this time of year there’s all the ‘Album of the Year’ lists. Does it feel like everything has come out of nowhere or does it feel like it’s been a natural journey to get where you are now?

I think the people that say ‘album of the year’ recognise my three albums prior to putting this project out. I wouldn’t call them mixtapes because they were full length projects, with original beats, original lyrics and original concepts. So when they listened to the Kendrick Lamar EP, Overly Dedicated and Section.80 they feel like that was the build up to Good Kid M.A.A.D. City. Now that I’ve hit the nail on the head that actually stamps it as an ‘album of the year’.

The album has gotten a lot of emotion out of people, and not just fans, but from artists as well, like the way The Game has gone to bat for you with Shyne. It’s interesting when even artists are coming out and having an opinion on it…

I ain’t gotta say nothin’. [Laughs.] I just let the music speak. I don’t get into all the crazy shenanigans of the business. I let the music speak and at the end of the day that always stands.

You come across as a normal down-to-earth person. It’s a good marketing tool but so many people are using Twitter as a way to keep themselves in the spotlight and getting involved in beefs…

I mean it’s the entertainment business, you can never forget that, so I don’t knock other people’s strategies to keep themselves relevant, I just comprehend that the music comes first and always speaks first, no matter what you do. You can say the most outlandish thing but if you drop a record the next day and it’s trash now you’re just a popular person. I don’t just wanna be a popular person, I want my music to always live because that’s what’s gonna drive your legacy. You can be the most popular person on the planet. There’s a lot of artists that are way more popular than Kendrick Lamar, but when it’s time for their album to drop and that week is up or that year is up and the reception from that album is not as critically strong as Good Kid M.A.A.D City, it shows. I always want to keep in my mind and be aware that the music should always come first.

You can still look at album figures but it’s almost hard to gauge now what is seen as being successful because the model of the music industry has changed, especially with the influence of the internet…

It’s very different. There’s a lot of artists that are out on a mainstream worldwide type level and the sales of the records are not making any sense, so I think the focus is back on the music again. I think it’s where it should be.

Are you in a place now where you’re not necessarily intimated by people like Dr. Dre and you’re more comfortable as an artist and you feel more like you’re on a similar ground to people like that?

I had to get over that fear before the album came out fast, because once you’re in it and they’re crowning you as the new guy to do it, working with the idols you looked up to, its ‘Play ball’ now. You can’t really get into the studio with Jay-Z or Eminem and look at them like ‘They’re my big homies’; you’ve got to go in there trying to cut their head off. Period. That’s something I always had to think about, always had to prepare myself for. It’s really a continuation of that and a constant thought process of knowing that I am a peer now, rather than just a student.

Well there must have been a bit of pressure, there was a trailer that came out and they were comparing your debut to that of Eminem, 50 Cent and The Game… and now Kendrick Lamar…

And that came out of nowhere too, I was like ‘Who the hell did this? Did the label do this? Why would they do this?’ [Laughs.] They just put on the pressure extra thick. It worked out though, it worked out.

It’s good you’ve got some powerful people behind you but you don’t necessarily rely on that…

I think they’ve got respect for my development and where I was at with my music, especially Dre – he was very confident in the music I was making when it was time for me to turn it in. It was a good deal: everybody at the label [Interscope Records] respected me and respected TDE [Top Dawg Entertainment] as a brand and respected our creative process and the way we’ve been doing things since day one. Everything was really in place for us to just go out there and do what we’ve been doing.

Kid M.A.A.D. City is available now via Aftermath Entertainment/Interscope Records.

Photography by Michelle Tran.