For those of you who might have been dozing at the back, we’ll repeat it one more time: Kendrick Lamar is having one hell of a moment.
The Compton MC’s been a sizeable deal for a while now: 2010’s O.verly D.edicated proved a lodestone for fans of thoughtful, vital hip-hop, and last year’s independently distributed Section.80 LP swelled an (already mammoth) online fanbase. 2012, though, has been the year when Lamar’s properly grasped for the crown.
Operating under the patronage of Dr. Dre, Lamar popped up in February toting the astonishing ‘Cartoon & Cereal’, still the best hip-hop single of the year by a couple of country miles. After a spate of fine tracks (‘The Recipe’), scene-stealing cameo appearances (MMG’s ‘Power Circle’) and a spot on the Coachella main stage, the year was Lamar’s to lose. Debut LP good kid, m.A.A.d city – officially Billboard’s biggest selling album of the year for a new artist – saw Lamar thoroughly carpe that diem.
A rich, detailed creation daubed on a widescreen canvas, Lamar’s major label debut blew us away. Standing in sharp relief to the cataract of disposable mixtapes gushing out of the web, good kid, m.A.A.d city is a Proper Album – an autobiographical treatise, a topographical map of Lamar’s home city, and an inventive collection of killer cuts all rolled into one. If Our Mutual Friend had an MC Eiht feature, it’d look a fair bit like good kid, m.A.A.d city.
Following on from his appearance at Brixton Academy for Radio 1Xtra Live this week, FACT sat down with Lamar to talk stage props, DJ Quik, and the virtues of keeping your fans waiting.
“For good kid, m.A.A.d city, to do good – as far as reviews and actual numbers – proves that this type of hip-hop will still survive in this world.”
Has it been a triumph for you to hit the sort of numbers that you have in the States?
“Oh yeah, it’s been great, man, it’s been great. For it to do good – as far as reviews and actual numbers – proves, as you know, that this type of hip-hop will still survive in this world.”
Were you expecting the sort of response you’ve had, or has it come as a big surprise?
“I was expecting, I was expecting. I’m not even going to lie about it. Just because of the simple fact I know that there hasn’t really been a concept record in so long. I know people continue to appreciate it. So it being put out in this generation and time, it should get that more acknowledgement, and that’s exactly what’s happened.”
What you say about it being a concept record – the thing that’s fascinating about it is that, rather than being a collection of tracks, you’ve crafted a really sophisticated narrative across an album’s length. I was wondering how you went about creating a narrative that expansive?
“I really went about it just tracing my steps, actual real life situations, which makes it kind of easy for me to construct it, being that this album actually comes from a real place with real people and real situations. So when I put the songs together, it was really just about putting the pieces together, as far as putting the extra oomph on the story.”
It made me wonder if you’re a film fan. It’s quite cinematic in the way you’ve pulled it together.
“Yeah, I’m definitely big on film. I really construct it like an actual movie. Drawing somebody in with the introduction, right into it – not no long intro or anything like that, just a little bit of something a little different.”
“This album actually comes from a real place with real people and real situations.”
Are there records you’ve been influenced by that have a similar sort of scope to them?
“Oh yeah, definitely. Records I’m influenced would probably be The Chronic, Doggystyle, DMX’s It’s Dark And Hell is Hot. A few records, you know. Most of the classic records have that feel that it was more than just a bunch of songs on the album.”
Something that works so well on this record – and across your whole discography as well – is the way in which you flit between different voices, sometimes within the same track. Why do you use that technique? What does it allow you to do?
“It’s really just a technique that I developed in terms of being original and not wanting to sound the same way and bore the listener, every song sounding the same way or using the same flow. That’s an advantage. Another advantage is I can really go into detail on different stories, on how certain songs should feel rather than just, you know, sound. It plays on both parts – I think it’s a plus on my end as far as being original.”
On ‘Swimming Pools (Drank)’, the way you have a pitchshifted conversation with yourself, it’s almost like you’re playing different characters at the same time.
Obviously you’re the main character in the story, but I think the other major character is Compton…
Now you’re spending more time away from it, where do you think Compton’s at? Is it in a good place?
“I mean, it’s in a fair place. It’s in a fair place. It’s a little bit toned down from how it used to be in the 1990s, but: still have a lot of work to do.”
“Compton’s a little bit toned down from how it used to be in the 1990s, but: still have a lot of work to do.”
Something that struck me with this record and your work in general – I can think of other contemporaries, obviously the Black Hippy crew, but also people like A$AP Rocky and Lil B – there seems to be this real spirit of adventure in how you choose your beats…
You never know what you’re going to be spitting on next. I was wondering if you’d identified that – if you feel that’s liberating?
“Yeah, yeah, definitely. I’m very particular in the actual beats. I pride myself, I just don’t rap over just a good beat. Anybody can rap over a good beat. It has to give me some kind of inspiration to say the things I want to say over it, it has to feel a certain way, make me feel a certain way. I sit all day just sitting with producers, and making sure it sounds cohesive enough to what I’m talking about. That’s the thing with this album: all the producers I worked with on here, I really made sure that it was in the realm of what I was doing, so if didn’t seem like everything was so leftfield from one another.”
Were there tracks you were hoping to weave into good kid, m.A.A.d city that didn’t make it on for whatever reason?
“Definitely, there’s a lot of ’em. Lot of ’em. It was all about really just making the best conceptual project within twelve songs. That’s how I want to produce. There was a lot of great records. One of my favourite records was produced by Q-Tip – that didn’t make it. I still have that song – it’s a great, great, great song.”
I looked at your list for Complex of your 25 favourite records, and I saw there were there or four DJ Quik records on there. I feel a bit like Quik is one of the most under appreciated producers – he’s almost the father of this amazing spread of different beats at the moment.
“Yeah, definitely. It’s not just a West Coast sound with Quik – it’s experimental as well. He’s a genius when it comes to exploring new sounds, and sonically he’s mastered just as well as Dre has. You can put them two ears neck and neck as far as the sonic sound of how a beat and vocals are supposed to lay over a track. They’re great, they’re great.. Eventually in my future projects I want to bring Quik in to shine as far as what this new generation knowing about.”
“I’m just going to let this one sit out, man, let it breathe. Hip-hop artists, we tend to rush to the next project so fast, man – oversaturation of the game…”
Talking of future projects: obviously this record is a really personal record. Have you got aspirations for what you want to do with the next one, germs of ideas yet?
“Not really, not really. I’m just going to let this one sit out, man, let it breathe. Hip-hop artists, we tend to rush to the next project so fast, man – oversaturation of the game a little bit. We always complain about why there’s really no sales, because we’re really just oversaturated. We look at people like Taylor Swift or Lady Gaga – these people really make their fans appreciate their music by making them just wait, and want the next one so bad that, as soon as it hits, it’s like wildfire.”
A way of engaging with your fans is the live act as well. Do you have any aspirations for doing something different with the live set?
“Yeah, definitely, definitely. This UK trip that I’ll be doing in January, I’ll have my first band. Probably a three piece band, just putting a little bit more beef inside the tracks. We have a few stage prop productions and lighting, which would be nice, so it’s just really about taking it to the next level. I’ve done proved that I can stand on stage by myself and rock a show; now it’s time to progress and give people just a little bit more extra for what they came to see.”
You’re not going to do one of those Prince-style things where he does a full story on stage?
“Outside of the States, you learn so much, about the history of everything.”
While you’re over here, do you engage with UK rap/grime/R&B much? Is it something that’s on your radar?
“I’m just out getting really hip onto a few things, so I think probably my next trip I’ll really be in tune with what’s really going on – I ask a lot of questions every time I come out here.”
Do you find you learn a lot when you tour like this?
“Definitely, definitely. Outside of the States, you learn so much, about the history of everything.”
Are there any records you’ve listened to this year that you think are really great?
“Albums? I’m not even going to lie and just throw a name out – I haven’t really listened to too much rap music, because I was so locked in and focused on recording mines, I didn’t want to listen to anything because I didn’t want my ideas to sway to the same ideas that they had. Sometimes when you listen to something so much, subconsciously you start making the same type of music, so I didn’t really lock into too many albums until I had finished my project – and even then I was moving around. So I probably bought it and just never listened to it.”