Kendrick Lamar likes to compare himself to Tupac Shakur. But Tupac wasn’t from Los Angeles and didn’t know his father growing up. By the time Tupac was 23, he had already been shot multiple times and begun serving a prison sentence. Lamar, on the other hand, was born and raised in Compton. His parents are still married. He’s 23, and so far he has dodged the almost inescapable bullets that dart through what he calls his “mad city.”
Even so, Lamar seems to share Tupac’s soul; better still, he seems an evolution of it. The line between “Pac the Playboy” and “Tupac the Tortured Poet” was drawn with an indelible marker, but the sides of Lamar’s personality bleed into one another. The chorus of “P&P” (an ode to “Pussy and Patron” punctuated by a girl pouting, “Hey, what’s up, daddy”), for example, is cookie-cutter braggadocio. Its first verse, however, stacks a precarious tower of thoughts almost tipped over into rage by an incident at a gas station — and leaves him searching through his phone for a comfort he admits is temporary.
Candid vulnerability and a voice that sounds as though he’s just inhaled great mouthfuls of smoke (even though he abstains from weed) are why Lamar is on everybody’s lips. Last November, Dr. Dre (who was led to Lamar by Eminem’s manager) said out of the blue on Power 106′s popular morning show Big Boy’s Neighborhood that he wanted to work with the rapper.
By now, Lamar has not only worked with Snoop Dogg and Dre, he was snapped, paparazzi-style, sitting courtside at a Lakers game with the legendary producer. His buzz has ratcheted to such a roar that he’s considered a shoo-in for XXL magazine’s “Freshman 2011″ cover.
But he doesn’t want to hear that he’s the next in line to wear hip-hop’s crown. No wonder, considering that honor can be as sturdy as the ones you can get from a box at Burger King. Lamar says he still wants to be making albums when he’s 45.
“The hardest thing for me to do is to get you to know me within 16 bars,” the rapper says on a track from last fall’s O(verly) D(edicated), “Average Joe,” in which he relates a story of being shot at by a gang, even though he’s not affiliated. The problem isn’t that Kendrick Lamar can’t reveal himself. It’s that there’s too much he wants to reveal. His thoughts tumble furiously; words swarm so frantically that in one song he eventually chokes on them.
“Goin’ crazy in your head is wanting to say so much, but you can’t. I think it comes from my struggling relationship with God — my whole life, I go to sleep every night and just think about God,” he says, faltering for a moment. “Is that a trip? That’s me trying to find myself in a relationship with Him. Righteous, but at the same time being so [caught up] in the vanities of the world … it messes me up inside.”
Lamar’s parents moved from Chicago to Compton in 1984 with all of $500 in their pockets. “My mom’s one of 13 siblings, and they all got six kids, and till I was 13 everybody was in Compton,” he says. “I’m 6 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. I got about 15 stories like ‘Average Joe.’ ”
In school, Lamar was a quiet, observant kid who made good grades. “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.”
Maybe the memory of that missed opportunity is what landed 16-year-old Lamar in front of the “dude to get your music to” in Compton, DudeDawg, chief financial officer of TopDawg Entertainment. “He threw me in the booth. I freestyled for, like, an hour. He said I got raw talent.” He’s been with the company, along with one of last year’s XXL Freshmen, Jay Rock, ever since.
When Kendrick Lamar was growing up, his father used to cheat while playing basketball with him. A few days ago, standing in the middle of a court in a park not far from a sign welcoming you to Compton, Lamar looked up at a hoop and shrugged. “He wanted me to know that was what was gonna happen in life.”
Lamar ends sentences with smiles. He’s friendly and funny, offering to share the lunch he eventually lets go cold and teasing that he wants to switch interview roles. Yet there are a few instances when he retreats, suddenly looking harder, older.
At the park, he’s laughing as he bounces onto the basketball court. He calls a friend who lives a couple of houses down to bring over a ball.
But shortly thereafter, sitting on the back of a bench, he stares up at a rare overcast sky. “I wish it was like this every day. Not raining, ’cause I hate the rain, but cloudy like this,” he says. The slight gloom seems to have seeped into his mood; the shift is abrupt and barely perceptible, but definite.
When Tupac pleaded, “Peace,” he sounded like he’d already lost hope. Lamar struggles, too. But when he interjects that same refrain between strings of gang names in “Compton State of Mind,” he first sounds insistent, then imperative.
These Compton streets was built not to win …
Standing just beyond the three-point line, Kendrick Lamar shoots the ball.
It arcs, then slips soundlessly through the hoop.