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Kendrick Lamar is a name many have become familiar with over the course of 2012. Dropping his critically acclaimed major label debut Good Kid, M.A.A.D City in October, Lamar has swiftly amassed a legion of fans around the world.
Although at a glance it might seem as if Lamar has rapidly ascended to the top of hip hop, the young rapper has been steadily building up to this moment since his first mixtape, Youngest Head Nigga in Charge, came out in 2003.
Now, with the release of Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, Lamar has become one of the most currently talked about musical artists on the planet.
With the talented MC soon to arrive in Australia, Lamar hopped on a fuzzy phone line to talk about global ambitions, aspirations to be the best, production choices and speaking the truth in hip hop.
You’re upcoming Australian tour was shifted to larger venues to meet demand and still sold out. Are you surprised by the support show from Australian fans?
Kendrick Lamar: Yeah man, definitely. You know, when you come from a small city and try to get your music off in the backyard of Compton, to see it travel that far, man, and hear it selling out, you know, that’s a big shock. [It's] a big inspiration as well; I’m excited.
Was it always your ambition to make an international impact or would you be satisfied making music no matter the size of the market?
KL: I’m satisfied just keeping my music standard to the people that should be listening to it. I feel my music in T.D.E (Top Dawg Entertainment), I feel our music is universal. I feel that the world needs to be listening to this: not just Compton, not just The States, but the entire planet earth. I feel our music is that powerful.
So me going to Australia and actually doing this, it’s just a quick step to what I’m really trying to do as far as making this a universal thing.
You won Lyricist of the Year at the Bet Hip-Hop Awards, Source Magazine crowned you Rookie of the Year while Spin rated Good Kid, M.A.A.D City as the second best album of the year. Do you feel any pressure being dubbed as the next big thing in hip hop?
KL: Nah, I don’t feel pressure. I feel more excited then anything. I put a whole lot of grind and dedication and work ethic into this to have that confidence to know I can carry on the legacy of this culture of hip hop.
So it’s not just a case of being labelled as the best by the media, it’s something that you’re deliberately striving for?
KL: Yeah definitely, I never wanted to be number two. Anybody getting into this industry right now and, you know, the culture of hip hop, to be number two or be second then you shouldn’t be doing it. Period.
You should also want to be better then the people you looked up to – Jay-Z, Nas, Pac, B.I.G – you should always strive to be the best. You know, coz that’s exactly what they did. They compete for it and they’re paying for it now.
Somebody like Jay-Z and Nas, you know, these people that own their skills, now they reaping what they sowed. In fifteen years from now, man, I want to be in the same position.
So does your competitive drive to be the best come from your peers or your upbringing?
KL: I think it comes from my upbringing. Really, just being in the city you had to be competitive. You had to be able to [compete]. I think it’s more so being aggressive, you know, coming from an aggressive environment you got to be aggressive in whatever you do.
I pride myself that I’m aggressive and if you’re not up to par or just as aggressive as far as creativity…you should move out of the way.
Is it competition with your peers or competition with yourself, to try and outdo yourself and improve?
KL: It’s more so competing with myself, that’s what I strive off of. This year’s been crazy for me. One thing, I learned about myself growing as a person; look at TV.
I looked at TV as a kid and I looked at all the cars and … clothes and stuff and be like, ‘Man, I wanted that. I want that, I want that’, you know, as a kid looking at rappers.
Now I’m at a point where this year, this past year, where I’m in a position where financially I’m straight. I found out what really satisfies me is challenging myself and outdoing myself. That gives me the motivation to strive as a better artist and as a better person. Just getting better with time.
That’s really my inspiration, that’s something I strive for every time I step into the studio … to compete with myself. I think Jay-Z does the same thing. That man got all the money in the world but he loves music. He loves to do it and he loves to outdo himself and shock all the naysayers.
Are the ‘Rookie’ labels a bit misleading considering your first mixtape came out in ’03. Do you consider yourself a rookie?
KL: Do I consider myself a rookie? No, I mean it’s a give-and-take. For the people that are just now listening to Kendrick Lamar they would consider that; but I’ve been doing this for a while, but [to] most of the world and the media I am rookie.
People like Jay-Z and Nas, I am a rookie, this is my first album. They have twelve albums…so in order to get that veteran status, I have to put in the work, keep putting in the work behind it.
As far as my skills, you know, I’ve been there for a minute.
A lot of popular hip hop utilises big hooks and punchy beats to capture the charts and people’s attention. Was the subtler production of Good Kid, M.A.A.D City a conscious move to separate yourself from that or is it just the way your sound comes out?
KL: For this particular album that’s how the sound came out. You know, I wasn’t really striving to be overshadowed by big grand pre-recorded hooks delivered from the label and things like that.
I really wanted my vocals to standout as far as this story being told standing out, and to have the instrumentation match with the stories I was telling; that was my main focus.
I wasn’t going for making a record that would live on radio forever. I wanted to really do something that was different, coz everyone was doing that. I just wanted a new word and a new outlet in the game …
The style of production invites the listener to pay closer attention and in turn helps immerse them into the music and your lyrics. Was that a deliberate ploy?
KL: Yeah definitely, definitely, definitely. As I said, the production plays a big part. It’s a new sound in general as far as what everybody else is doing in the game. I really wanted to rush that out and continue to work with the same producers I was working with. I knew they’d deliver that sound I was looking for in an album.
You’ve talked about being inspired by Tupac’s track Dear Mama as it taught you the value of vulnerability. With so much machismo in hip hop is it a challenge to artistically offer yourself up honestly and unguardedly?
KL: Nah, it’s not really a challenge, coz I know who I am at the end of the day. I know the struggles that made me, you know, the hard moments that gave me the edge that I have now. So it’s really about me being myself and not really caring what anybody else thinks.
In your track The Jig Is Up, there’s a lyric ‘Real People Want Real Music’. Do you think there is an overall lack of honesty in the music industry?
KL: Yeah, I definitely think the game needs balance. That’s what I’m here for, to bring that balance back into the game. That’s no shot at the music everybody else is doing. It’s the fact that I feel that music needs balance. You can’t have too much of the same thing… That’s what we’re doing right now from 2013 till infinity.
So you feel it’s your honesty that separates you from most of popular music?
KL: Not only honesty, I think it’s the connection. Anybody can say they’re truth, but at the end of the day is it believable? Is your background credible? Are the feelings that you shared on these records something that I can actually feel? Are they really relatable?… It’s the connection I have with the people.
Anybody can go on a record and be what they think is honest, but…if they don’t believe you, then it’s going to go right over their heads.