Ever since NWA came Straight Outta Compton wearing dark sunglasses and even darker scowls, the city known as the “CPT” has been seen as an exporter of all things violent, poor and well, ruthless.
Even though he was born one year before that album and right in the middle of the Compton chaos, Top Dawg Entertainment/Aftermath Entertainment/Interscope Records recording artist Kendrick Lamar knows that he was “in it,” but he didn’t become “of it.”
“Yeah, we was poor, but I didn’t see that,” says Lamar, whose parents moved out west from Chicago. “It was a typical lifestyle. Mom on welfare working at Kentucky Fried Chicken, pop doing what he had to do in the streets to make ends meet. But they just raised me. When I got older, I realized it was a struggle, but I was still able to be a kid and live like one.”
Likening his childhood to that of the character “Kaine” from the movie Menace II Society, young Kendrick grew up in a home that doubled as a house party spot at night. Dice games, cook outs all to a soundtrack of everything from the Isley Brother’s “For the Love of You” to Bone’s “For Tha Love of Money.” However, unlike that movie and many of his friends living the real life version of it, Kendrick didn’t follow the path down drug dealing and gang banging.
“The only thing that kept me from getting caught up was that my pops was always around and active in my life,” he says. “He told me if I bump my head doing what I do, don’t come running back to him because he already told me. I went out there a few times, but then I saw my friends getting smoked and getting sent to prison for life, I realized how fortunate I was to have him around. Once I learned that, that’s when I got on my shit and stopped playing with life.”
Playing around with something else however would change his life.
Inspired by DMX’s debut album, Kendrick began writing rhymes when he was 13. For three years he went through the process of studying the likes of Jay-Z, Biggie and Nas, all the while finding his own sound. In the summer of 2002 when he turned 16, he stepped in a recording booth for the first time. It was there that he not only found his voice, but a safe haven from the violent gang wars going on in his neighborhood as well.
“I just wanted to get away,” he admits. “I went in there and rapped and from the moment heard my voice, I just got addicted to it. So from 10th grade on up I just kept going back.”
A year later he would create his first collection of songs titled “Youngest Head Nigga In Charge.” From there he set out get the project in the hands of local label Top Dawg Entertainment CEO Top Dawg. Unbeknownst to him, he already had the CD and was looking for him as well. When they did find
each other, Top put Kendrick to a two-hour freestyle test. He passed with flying colors and was signed immediately.
Initially known as “K.Dot” the young rapper released two more mixtapes, Training Day and C4, before he had a bit of an epiphany.
“I woke up one morning feeling like I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do,” he says. “I was still learning and trying to figure out my role in the world, I didn’t know what my purpose was. I realized I had to do something different to motivate myself and that little kid growing up in Compton. I wanted to tell my story, hate it or love it. So I wanted to start over, with my real name, because it was that real.”
The first result was 2009’s Kendrick Lamar EP which featured his trademark singles “P&P,” and “She Needs Me.” He’d follow that up with 2010’s Overly Dedicated powered by the singles “Michael Jordan” and “Cut You Off.”
He became a lot of people’s favorite rapper almost overnight.
“It took me by surprise,” he admits. “I didn’t know people were going to take to it because it was different. It felt even better because it was really me. Me telling my story was easy. It’s easy for me to not talk about street shit all the time. It’s easy for me to not rap about killing people, because I haven’t.”
Over the next year Kendrick’s profile would continue to rise as he performed in cities and festivals all over the country. He would also receive co-signs from Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg and a coveted spot on XXL’s 2011 Freshmen cover.
By the time he released his highly anticipated debut album Section.80 in July 2011, he was already being crowned as the voice of a new generation.
“I was repping for my generation and my younger siblings,” says Kendrick who is the oldest of three. “I wanted to tell the stories of growing up in this Ronald Reagan era and the aftermath of that. My generation actually connected to it. I feel like it connected the same way people connect to 2Pac.”
If Section.80 was Kendrick doing 2Pac, his yet-to-be-titled Interscope debut may be him doing Langston Hughes. His lead single “The Recipe” as well as scene stealing features alongside The Game, Drake, Rick Ross and others has Kendrick poised to be the first artist in a long time to not only change how the country views West Coast Hip Hop, but how the world sees Hip Hop as a whole.
“The coolest shit to say used to be the gangsta shit,” Kendrick says. “But now, the real cool shit to talk about is supporting your family.”
24 years after NWA planted the Compton flag in Hip Hop, it’s only right that another native son come along and adjust the “attitude” they left behind.