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By 2007, Kendrick was already on his way to becoming a hip-hop star. He had signed with Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE), released two mixtapes—2003’s Y.H.N.I.C. (Hub City Threat: Minor of the Year) and 2005’s Training Day—and he even managed to perform his first show, which was also the first concert he ever attended.
“When I went on tour with The Game [and Jay Rock, in 2006]—that was my first show,” Lamar remembers. “[Going to shows] cost money. Gas money. Me being on stage was me fulfilling two different things—performing and getting to enjoy it like the people were enjoying it.”
But violence was never far behind, and, just after midnight on June 13, 2007, officers from the LAPD’s Southeast Division responded to a domestic-violence call on East 120th Street, about five minutes from Lamar’s house. There, they found his good friend D.T. allegedly holding a 10-inch knife. According to police, D.T. charged, and an officer opened fire, killing him.
“It never really quite added up,” Kendrick says. “But here’s the crazy thing. Normally when we find out somebody got killed, the first thing we say is ‘Who did it? Where we gotta go?’ It’s a gang altercation. But this time it was the police—the biggest gang in California. You’ll never win against them.”
If Kendrick’s childhood was about survival—finding a way to live amidst the pervasive gang and political violence that consumed his community—then his late-adolescence and young adulthood was about escaping that reality through his music. Kendrick was always talented, but, from 2005 to 2011, he would dramatically grow as an artist, and he would go from being an obscure Compton rapper to a globally recognized, award-winning superstar. The reasons for this growth are both obvious—he’s a preternaturally talented rapper and an extremely hard worker—and more nuanced. Over the years, Kendrick allowed himself to grow; he learned from his mistakes, embraced his artistic ambition, and constantly struggled to mold a singular and honest voice.
“What you going to do?” Kendrick asks. “You going to find something you love to do and have a passion for, or you going to stay mingling in the streets till something major happens. So the moment when I defined myself and freed myself was the time that I locked myself in the studio and said I need to do music.”
Kendrick’s first release, Y.H.N.I.C., is very much the product of a 16-year-old hip-hop fan. The production is scattershot, largely lifted from early-’00s hip-hop beats—Lloyd Banks’ “Work Magic,” Lil Wayne’s “Go DJ,” Snoop’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot”—while Kendrick’s lyrics are a similarly generic hodgepodge of cliched machismo (“I might Ken Griffey ya bitch/ But won’t buy her shit/ Not even a small bag of chips”) and vague truisms. Still, despite the debut’s shortcomings, you can hear a confidence and focus in his voice, and, ultimately, the mixtape served its purpose.
“We put [Y.H.N.I.C.] out on a local scale in Compton and built a buzz in the city and eventually got to this guy named Top Dawg, he had his own independent label. And I’ve been with them since and we’ve just been developing my sound,” Kendrick remembers.
Shortly thereafter, in the summer of 2004, Kendrick was also courted by Def Jam Records. Though not much is known of this, and it didn’t result in any recorded music, it allowed Kendrick to meet one of his idols, Jay-Z.
“I don’t think even Jay remember that. This was when I was like first turned 17,” Kendrick says. “And I remember coming out here for a meeting and I was too excited, man. And all I remember was Jay walking in the room, ‘Yo, what’s up?’ And walked back to the elevator and we was like, ‘Damn, that’s Jay.’ So he doubles back, goes back to his office next door and he’s playing my music… that was just one of those situations where I wasn’t ready.”
Though 2005’s follow-up, Training Day, was a vast improvement, it was still fairly derivative. But, at least now, he’d narrowed his focus to one influence in particular. Instead of funneling Jay-Z, Pac, G-funk, and DMX, Training Day pretty squarely echoes imperial-era Lil Wayne. Like Wayne, Kendrick’s voice has a strained whisper that’s punctuated by sudden whelps, and you can map almost every flow on the album to something on Wayne’s first two Carter albums.
Kendrick even has Wayne’s tick where he deeply exhales through his teeth before the beginning of each verse. It’s uncanny, and not terribly creative, but it’s an accomplishment in its own way. After all, Wayne has one of the most intricate flows in rap. This remote, one-sided tutelage would continue for some time, and four years later, Kendrick released C4, an homage to Lil Wayne that featured many of that rappers’ beats.
C4 also contains what, by Kendrick’s own estimation, is his worst song: “Bitch, I’m in The Club.” Though not a terrible song, per se, it is a clanking, perfunctory club banger with rote, swagger-pumping lyrics and tinny production. “That was a reach,” Kendrick says. “I know the level of reach that I was doing when I wrote that record to everything that was playing on the radio to what was on TV. [Lil’ Wayne] was definitely running radio at that time.”
But rather than discourage him, Kendrick took inspiration from the song. When asked what was the moment that he realized this rap thing was for real, Kendrick replied, “I think when I made a terrible single, and that shit was just garbage. It’s the real moment because, at that point you’re at your lowest … but, at the same time, I wasn’t aware that that was my highest point because I got back in there and I did it all over again, and continued to push through. That’s when I realized I really wanna do this, because I ain’t give up when I made a terrible ass song.”
It was around this time, in 2009, when Kendrick decided to change his performing name. From his time at Centennial High, Kendrick had always rapped by the name K. Dot, and while his rap career was moving forward, he felt that he’d grown creatively stagnant. He was a great writer, but he’d didn’t feel as though he’d invested himself into his stories, so he decided to be more direct.
“When I stopped going by K. Dot, I think that was the moment where I really found my voice,” Lamar remembers. “Early, early on, I really wanted to be signed. And that was a mistake, because it pushes you two steps backwards when you have this concept of ‘OK, I’ve got to make these three [commercial] songs in order to get out into the world and be heard.’ So there were two or three years where I wanted to be signed so badly that I’m making these same two or three repetitive demo kinds of records, and I’m hindering my growth. The world could have got Kendrick Lamar two or three years earlier if I’d stuck to the script and continued to develop.”
At that moment, Kendrick began work in earnest on good kid, m.A.A.d. city, but that project would be derailed and he instead focused on The Kendrick Lamar EP. “He actually wrote a project called good kid, m.A.A.d. city before the EP came out,” TDE president Punch relays. “The plan was for the eight-song EP to drop as a warm-up for the good kid, m.A.A.d. city he did already. In the process, he had more songs and the buzz started growing, so we dropped the EP.”
While we had to wait another three years for the landmark good kid, m.A.A.d. city, the hour-long, 14-track EP was perhaps Kendrick’s first essential release, and it represented a dramatic artistic evolution for Kendrick. For one thing, it sounded like nothing he’d done in the past. TDE producer Sounwave has been in and out of the TDE camp since 2005, and he produces most of the cuts here. Tracks like “P&P” and “Celebration” feel relaxed and fluid, intercutting snippets of tinkling, jazz-inflected piano lines with rich vocal harmonies. Unlike Kendrick’s previous releases, the EP doesn’t sound like just a mixtape, but rather something fully realized and alive.
Kendrick, meanwhile, sounds genuinely like Kendrick for the first time. There’s an added vulnerability in his rhymes, as on “Vanity Slaves” when he relays, “Sometimes I want to leave, sometimes I want to cry/ Sometimes I hate to bear the truth, sometimes I want to lie.” Aside from the newfound emotional honesty, the album contains many nods to Kendrick’s spirituality and to his brimming social consciousness. But, unlike other “conscious” MCs, Kendrick relays his lessons in small stories, whether it’s the self-assured black female of “She Needs Me” or the housing project kids in “Vanity Slaves” who find worth in material value.
Kendrick also benefited from good timing. Hip-hop was in a transitional period during that time. Hip-hop’s old guard—Jay-Z, Nas, UGK—were still lingering around, but there was a younger generation emerging. Drake broke in 2009, and the West Coast also had a cadre of viable new talent for the first time in nearly a decade. Critics (and even some artists) called this the “new west,” and it included a broad range of styles. Rappers like Nipsey Hussle and Dom Kennedy tapped into the more traditional strands of West Coast rap, channeling the ghosts of Dre and G-funk, while “blog rap” acts like Pac Div, The Pack/Lil’ B, and Odd Future embodied a more eccentric and ironic take on the genre that was located less in a specific geographical place than a cultural one. Kendrick split the difference, embracing the ambition and irreverence of blog rap while maintaining a starkly SoCal identity. He rounded out the sound by embracing the neo-soul underpinnings and broad social commentaries of boho rappers like Mos Def and Common. It was a compelling blend, one that managed to seem vaguely familiar and also completely singular.
The Kendrick EP was released on the last day of 2009, and provided an apt capper to that decade. But, in the next year, things would move forward very quickly. Overly Dedicated, which was originally imagined as a remix project for The Kendrick EP, was released in September 2010. The album is full of intimate, subtle tracks. Over the shuffling rhythm and simmering vibes, “Average Joe” crystallizes Kendrick’s persona: “Who is K. Dot? A young nigga from Compton/ On the curb writing raps next to a gunshot/ On the corners where the gangsters and the killers dwell/ The fraudulent tender scars that get unveiled/ Everyone I knew was either Crip or Piru.”
But it would be another track, “Ignorance is Bliss,” that would end up being the most important track of Kendrick’s career. The song is a sly commentary on gangster rap, with Kendrick spitting out the violent cliches of the genre—“Imma back ’em down like Shaq with this black 2-2-3 in my hand”—before bookending each verse with the ironic, self-canceling declaration, “Ignorance is bliss.” This would be the first Kendrick track that Dr. Dre would hear.
“Believe it or not, Paul Rosenberg, Eminem’s manager, is the one that put me on [to Kendrick],” Dre recalls. “I was in Detroit and he’s like, ‘You got to hear this kid from Compton.’ So I went online and the thing that really turned me on at the beginning was the way he spoke in the interview—it wasn’t even the music at first, it was the way he showed his passion for music. There was something in that, and then I got into the music, and then realized how talented he was.”
Kendrick was on tour with Jay Rock and legendary Kansas City, MO indie MC Tech N9ne. When Dre called his engineer and Kendrick initially thought it was a prank. But, the next week, Dre got in touch with Kendrick’s management and invited the MC into the studio to record with him. “It came to a point where I had to really snap out of fan mode and become a professional because after we were introduced, he said he liked my music and I said that I’m a fan of his work,” Lamar remembers of the sessions. “Then he said, ‘Okay, now write to this, write a full song to this.’ Right after I said, ‘Man, Dr. Dre, you’re the greatest’ and he was like, ‘Yeah man, you’re good too, you could be something… alright now write to this beat.’ And that beat ended up being the first song I did with him and ended up on my album—‘Compton’.”
It had been nearly a decade since Kendrick first started releasing material, but, at this point, he had very much arrived. Though his 2011 release, Section.80, was not the sweeping Bildungsroman Kendrick had been planning (that would come soon enough), it was an evolution of subtly introspective rhymes and jazz-tinged hip-hop soul that Kendrick had been mining on the previous two releases. Tracks such as “A.D.H.D” and “Fuck Your Ethnicity” were instant classics, and the album would eventually go gold. Critics placed it near the top of their year-end lists, and compared him to everyone from Ice Cube to Nas. Of course, the next few years would reveal that Kendrick needed no comparisons—he inhabited his own story, and told that in his own voice. But it’s not a bad way to end the beginning.