The Marvin Gaye masterpiece What’s Going On opened the floodgates for concept album social commentary in the spring of 1971—allowing Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, George Clinton and more the latitude to interpret the post-Civil Rights era in ways never heard before. With It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Public Enemy did the same in summertime 1988 for the crack age, with production as notoriously agitated as the aftereffects of freebase cocaine. In just the past six months, this modern #BlackLivesMatter moment has birthed two instant classics: D’Angelo’s long-awaited Black Messiah and To Pimp a Butterfly, the major label sophomore album of Compton’s own Kendrick Lamar.
Poised for all types of greatness, the 27-year-old MC had already won two Grammys (Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song for last year’s “i”), posted the critically acclaimed platinum triumph good kid, m.A.A.d city to number two on the Billboard 200 chart three years ago, and been crowned the new king of west coast hip-hop by Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. Even with all that, the jazz- and funk-flavored To Pimp a Butterfly was still an incredibly pleasant surprise: a statement album full of references to yams, Roots, Richard Pryor, racism, colorism, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela and more. It’s African-America on wax, and it’s unapologetically Black.
Kendrick Lamar recently sat behind the control boards at UMG Iovine Studio in Santa Monica and spoke comfortably for little over an hour. In these unpublished outtakes from the June cover story of EBONY magazine, Lamar explains what makes him tick.
EBONY: The iTunes era is a singles medium for music. What makes you pay such attention to detail on full-blown statement albums like To Pimp a Butterfly?
Kendrick Lamar: To be real with you, this is the type of record I wanted to put out on [good kid, m.A.A.d city]. It’s so intricate, there’s layers upon layers. With my first album, you have those singles, those catchy catchphrases and things like that. Which is cool; I made it work to the best of my ability with the storyline and everything around that. And you can’t have people listen to you unless you come to their world and then bring them to yours. So with this second project, now that I got my feet wet, I said I’m going to define my own rules. It had to feel organically right. That was my approach, and it came out the way it came out.
EBONY: From a music fan standpoint, Black Messiah dropped a bomb. Everyone was listening, and then To Pimp a Butterfly dropped and had the same effect. Both records speak to the times we’re living through, reminiscent of 1970s concept albums like Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On. Can you make a parallel between that time and now? Things are hectic right now for Black folks, and that’s bleeding through your music.
KL: First, that is an incredible album, D’Angelo’s Black Messiah. And it’s a trip, because it took me nearly two years to create this record, without even knowing that [he] was on the same wavelength. For D’Angelo to drop out the blue and make a record like that, it was confirmation for me. ’Cause I was just wrapping up my project, and for him to do that, that was just confirmation. Of course it takes an incredible artist to do that anyway. He’s been on that wave. But to hear that, for my generation it was definitely confirmation.
And it’s only right, man. The times that we are in, it’s something that you can only feel in the air. You don’t even have to talk about it. You don’t need the news or the Internet to watch it. You can walk outside and just feel it. And these are the same times that I believe Marvin Gaye and them felt, just in a whole other generational perspective. He’s been on that wave. And for me to know he’s been on that wave, Marvin Gaye, and to carry on that type of legacy is only right. I am from Compton. I am from the inner city, the ghetto. And if I can use my platform to carry on a legacy and talk about something that’s real, I have to do that, period.
EBONY: Your recent Rolling Stone cover was a problem, people feeling like the woman doing your braids was too light-skinned or wondering if she was White.
KL: We’re brainwashed. I don’t know what happened, but colorism is not a good thing, especially when you’re Black. Yes, it was a Black girl. And I wasn’t raised like that, because it’s lighter tones and darker tones in my family. We look so much on color that we forget about the soul. Color don’t tell if people Black. It’s the soul. Once these words come up out my mouth, and these yams come up out my mouth, you know I’m not faking. [laughter] You gonna get that instantly. Being where you from is a strong genetic. You can’t run from it.
EBONY: James Baldwin, Richard Wright and others left the U.S. because of Blacks’ treatment in the pre-Civil Rights era. KRS-One even said, “We helped to make America great, so why can’t we help to make another country great?” How do you feel about that?
KL: Bro, definitely. We can make it anywhere. Because it’s in our DNA. We’re built strong like that as individuals, to figure out a way. My grandma always said, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” I think it’s just naturally in our DNA to be able to survive. We was always taught that: to survive. When you talking about slavery, it’s to survive.
EBONY: Your album is both political and spiritual. Where did you get your spiritual foundation?
KL: I think the foundation was planted by my grandma, to my mother. I mean, my moms didn’t raise us in the church like that.
EBONY: Were you baptized, or…?
KL: I was baptized recently actually. I was baptized not more than like three or four years ago. I was saved. I got saved in the [Food 4 Less] parking lot, like I said on good kid, m.A.A.d city. But we was always taught to have faith. We was brought up like that. Whether we was inside a church or not, my mother always kept that faith inside of us. The more I started going through my own things in life, my faith got put to the test, and I had to believe that God is real in my heart, my lord and savior Jesus Christ, and I can’t run from that. I’ll always put that in my music or it just wouldn’t be right. People can take it or leave it, I really don’t care, because it’s for me to put it on records. And I will continue to put more of a spiritual nature in my music.
EBONY: Songs on the new album are so layered. Which was the quickest to record?
KL: I’d say the hardest song to write, but also the fastest to write, was “u.” “Loving you is complicated…” Because it’s so personal, and basically pulling emotions out that I’ve probably been harboring since the release of my [first] album. And that’s therapy for me. No matter how much good things are going on around you, you still have them little negative things that just wanna come out in front. But you bottle them in because you have so many other great things, but they still there.
I didn’t have to write anything. I’d just go in the booth and pull it out. Getting the thoughts there and being vulnerable enough to say these things, that’s the tough part. Because you don’t want people questioning you, your feelings and stuff like that. But in the end, those are the records that connect with people. It’s not for me anymore, I can get out my own way. It’s for the kid that’s really on the edge [who] can feel like they have nothing to lose.
EBONY: What initially made you want to emcee, to take a chance on becoming an artist and breaking out of that box we talked about earlier?
KL: Music was just played all around me, and I couldn’t run from it. My pops, he never learned to sing, but he’d have his little drink on the side, and he’d put on the best of his hits—gangster rap or oldies—and he’d sing all day on his mic plugged up to the wall set-up. It’s a trip. I’ve just seen that my whole life, so I’ve always just had a love for music. By the time I was 13, I really just jumped in it. And it’s something I took on to have as a hobby.
I said, “I want to get in the studio and record.” Once I heard my voice played back, it was a wrap. “Man, I ain’t think I sounded like that.” A lot of people don’t know how you sound until you hear yourself played back on speakers. It just tripped me out and I wanted to learn more and more about it. So I just kept writing until I got the next chance to be behind the microphone, along with studying music and artists that I loved.
EBONY: Your music is about uplift, and you can’t have uplift without love—not even romantic love necessarily. Where does love come from in your life?
KL: Where does it come from? It comes from kids. And I don’t even have kids. But at heart, I’m a kid myself. And I think all Geminis are kids at heart. And that’s why they’re able to simplify some of the most complex things and connect with people. It’s having that kid spirit. I sit and talk to kids all day, because I feel like they carry the most wisdom.
EBONY: Randomly, or nephews and nieces?
KL: Random. They don’t see hate in their eyes. They see the world, and living in it to the best of their abilities. And that’s where love comes from for me. And older people, of course—from family and friends and things like that. But kids. There’s kids out there that have so much life to live. That’s a beautiful thing.
I can guide them with the knowledge that can actually shape somebody to be a beautiful human being, [like] people shaped me to the best of their abilities. We’re all human at the end of the day, making mistakes. But learn from them is the key. If I can look at a 6-year-old and learn from him, that’s life. That’s God for me, that’s inspiring. I can give you stories on that all day.
EBONY: What’s your all-time favorite karate flick?
KL: Master of the Flying Guillotine. I take that back: Five Deadly Venoms. RZA know what I’m talking about! [laughter]