How Kendrick Lamar Became the Defining Hip-Hop Artist of His Generation

“What is a hit record?” Kendrick Lamar asks, reclining on a couch at Milk Studios in Hollywood after his hours-long photo shoot.

There’s a certain irony in the question, because if anyone should know how to define a hit, it’s him. And it’s key to Lamar’s appeal that he would ask this and expect an answer. Released in April, Lamar’s fourth studio album, “Damn,” was his third consecutive Billboard chart-topper, and not only stayed at the summit for three consecutive weeks but had enough legs to return to first position 13 weeks later. Its breakout track, “Humble,” had the most audio streams of any single this year, per BuzzAngle Music, and was one of a quintet of singles from the album to place in the top five of BuzzAngle’s singles charts.

Peter Yang for Variety

While “Humble” surely has the raw data to prove its success, what’s harder to measure is the cultural impact of the song, or that of 2015’s “Alright” as the unofficial anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement, or the way his 2012 non-single album track “Money Trees” seemed to be blasting from every slow-moving car in Los Angeles for the better part of a year.

“What makes a hit record?” Lamar continues. “Because it has some kind of numbers behind it? Is it the amount of streams or the amount of sales or the amount of spins on the radio? Nobody can really justify which one it is, because I’ve heard hundreds of records from inside the neighborhood that were quote-unquote ‘hit records’ and never stood a day outside the community.”

The rapper argues that “Alright” was probably “the biggest record in the world” because of the sheer number of people it touched. “You might not have heard it on the radio all day, but you’re seeing it in the streets, you’re seeing it on the news, and you’re seeing it in communities, and people felt it.”

For now, those distinctions seem happily irrelevant for the 30-year-old artist, who is inhabiting the kind of rarefied sphere where the various standards of success — pop chart dominance and cultural relevance, street-level authenticity and worldwide stardom — all seem to align. Ever since he released his major label debut, “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City” via Interscope in 2012, consummate Gemini Lamar has been building a résumé as the defining hip-hop artist of his generation while also challenging conventional ideas about what the greatest rapper on Earth ought to look like today.

He’s an intensely relatable artist who makes scant use of social media and reveals little about his personal life. He notched his first No. 1 with “To Pimp a Butterfly,” an intentionally alienating, jazz-infused concept album about racism and isolation in Obama-era America. He’s a spiritual seeker and an intellectual with a monastic demeanor, whose perspective nonetheless never strays too far from that of the quiet kid born Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, who grew up in Section 8 housing in Compton, where he witnessed his first murder at age 5.

As little as he discusses his personal life in interviews, it isn’t hard to piece together a loose biography from his music. As a Christian, heavy religious themes recur throughout his work, as do references to his family. Lamar’s the oldest of five children; his parents moved out West from Chicago shortly before he was born. “Love,” the most tender song in his canon, is presumably about his fiancée, Whitney Alford, whom he’s known since high school.

Peter Yang for Variety

And not for the first time, this year he’s made a blockbuster album out of songs that would, in other hands, represent a daringly experimental series of left turns. “Damn” begins with Lamar relating a spoken-word parable as an intro and ends by circling back to the first sentence of that intro, like “Finnegans Wake” laid over beats. It contains a radio-friendly Rihanna collaboration, and also a heady three-part mini-suite with an unexpected U2 cameo. He unabashedly declared himself “the greatest rapper alive” on March’s scorched-earth promo single “The Heart Part 4,” yet spends the entire last verse of album track “Fear” laying out his insecurities and frailties in unsparing detail. Recurring references include both the Book of Deuteronomy and “Rush Hour 2.”

“I was blown away,” remembers Interscope head John Janick of his first listen through the complete “Damn” album. “I had heard a handful of tracks early on — I heard ‘Humble,’ ‘DNA,’ ‘Love,’ just those songs on their own. But then when they came in and played the album from beginning to end, hearing the whole body of work, the way the album ends … it was spectacular.”

A subindustry of Internet exegetes has been digging deep into the album’s every line for half a year now, but Lamar isn’t particularly interested in explaining “Damn’s” many mysteries and riddles.

“I think the more people talk about it, the more it becomes fascinating, and you can have a debate about it,” he says. “It’s all healthy because it’s talking about the music. As long as I keep knowing how much to give, giving just enough, and being able to pull back and leave the audience to interpret it, I think [the music] will stay intact.”

There’s been no shortage of praise for the four remarkably dense and challenging hit albums he’s made in the past five years. What’s often overlooked is the titanic amount of work he’s put in to make them.

“That man’s an animal — that’s all I can really say,” says Atlanta producer Mike Will (he’s known professionally as Mike Will Made It), who crafted both “Humble” and furious album opener “DNA.” “Kendrick’s the type to fall asleep in the studio and wake up and still be in that motherfucker. All the way locked in, a workaholic.”

Unlike a good many star rappers of his caliber, Lamar doesn’t simply wait for a producer to provide him with a beat to rhyme over. Working closely with a few key collaborators who have been with him for virtually his entire career, Lamar has hands-on involvement in his music from start to finish.

“I feel my greatest knack is for taking cohesive ideas and putting them on wax. So it starts with my thoughts.”

“For me, prior to me recording, it’s 70% me just formulating ideas in my mind and 30% just collecting sounds and making sounds, prior to me actually getting in the studio,” he says. “Then it’s about figuring out which angle I’m going to attack it from and how the listener is going to perceive it. These are the ideas you’re constantly, constantly thinking about, and it’s not really about going to instrumentals and bringing on beats [from producers], because I feel my greatest knack is for taking cohesive ideas and putting them on wax. So it starts with me first, with my thoughts.”

Sometimes that process can take more than a year, as it did for Lamar’s 12-minute 2012 song, “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.” (“I started the idea, and then it manifested all these other ideas as it went on.”) Sometimes that process involves outside collaborators, whether producers like Hit-Boy and Pharrell Williams on “Good Kid,” jazz visionaries like Terrace Martin, Kamasi Washington and Thundercat on “To Pimp a Butterfly,” or hitmakers like Will and Greg Kurstin on “Damn.” But he has no compunctions about turning down productions most rappers would kill for if they don’t gel with his oeuvre.

“I first met Kendrick in 2011, and I feel like I gave him thousands of beats,” recalls Will with a laugh, reflecting on the fact that even though he’s been churning out hit anthems for the better part of the decade, it took until this year for any of his collaborations with Lamar to see the light of day. “But looking back on the albums he dropped and the tracks I was giving him, I guess it just didn’t match the vibe.”

Lamar has grown more exacting and adventurous as he’s had a chance to really live in the studio. “In my early years, I was just all about the raps,” he says. “I didn’t care about nothing else. But when you get into the world of songwriting, and making material that’s universal, you gotta be hands on and know the different sounds and frequencies, what makes people move, what melodies stick with you, taking the higher octaves and the lower octaves and learning how to intertwine that in a certain frequency, how to manipulate sound to your advantage.”

Sometimes that means embracing dissonance, which “Damn” does over and over. Lamar is often drawn to beats that pose a challenge to rap over (Will’s beat for “DNA” virtually self-destructs midway through, leaving Lamar to battle against an intentionally chaotic soundscape that rarely stays still), and the album often plays with listener expectations with multiple false starts (“Lust”) and backward vocal tracks (“Fear”).

“I probably wouldn’t be doing music if I couldn’t find things to challenge me,” he says. “So I have to find an off-beat pocket and learn how to rap off beat in a way so that when you play it back, it sounds on beat. I like little beats where the snare is a second to the left or a second to the right, like Mike Will does.”

What ties together all of these provocations and experiments is Lamar’s instinct for crafting cohesive statements on each album. As first Napster and later iTunes and Spotify rewrote the rules of the music industry over the past two decades, many observers took it on faith that the idea of an album — a thematically coherent unit — was one that would quickly become a relic. In that sense, Lamar is a throwback: an album artist through and through, whose every release represents a significant step forward.

Peter Yang for Variety

“I just come from that era,” Lamar says, citing landmark 1990s LPs like DMX’s “It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot,” Tupac’s “Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory” and the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Life After Death” as touchstones. “I don’t look at these albums like just music; it sounds like an actual film. To me, you need a big, grand production when you listen to these songs. You don’t necessarily just hear the music — you see it. You hear the stories; you hear the interludes; you hear the hooks and how different things intertwine. I always carry some type of conceptual idea inside my music, whether it’s a big concept or it’s so subtle you can’t even tell until you get to 20 listens. It’s such a huge deal to this day, seeing if an artist can still pull it off. Because there’s not too many artists who give you that in a way that feels authentic, where you say, ‘OK, this person really sat down and thought through this idea.’”

Lamar was first spotted as a high schooler, when a budding local entrepreneur named Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith recruited him for his nascent record company, Top Dawg Entertainment. Lamar and a trio of fellow MCs — Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul and Jay Rock — were installed in a house together, where they spent years workshopping and producing mixtapes under the loose group moniker Black Hippy. Lamar, initially billed as K-Dot, began turning heads when he reverted to his current name on 2009’s mixtape “The Kendrick Lamar EP.”

“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.”

Nonetheless, the time Lamar spent in the woodshed paid off handsomely, and after an independently released studio album debut, “Section.80,” he was signed to Interscope as part of a joint deal with TDE and Dr. Dre’s Interscope affiliate Aftermath. His first release as part of that deal, “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City,” went platinum and was nominated for a Grammy for album of the year. Lamar wasted little time spending his cultural capital on a project that most new superstars would have found potentially commercially suicidal, “To Pimp a Butterfly.”

Lamar was well aware of the risk he was taking.

“Going back to the 70%-30% idea, I knew the consequences, I knew the pros and cons,” he says. “But something I always knew about my fans that I don’t think the world knew at the time was that they follow me and they get me. These were all musical ideas that I was premeditating back on some of my early mixtapes and ‘Section.80.’ Manipulating sounds and thinking about different kinds of funk — we just never took it to that level. So yeah, it was a challenge to the people outside my court — and maybe even a few people in my court — but they learned to live with it and move with it.”

It helps, of course, that Lamar insists his relationships with Tiffith and longtime TDE honchos Dave Free and Terrence “Punch” Henderson haven’t changed much since the early days, with everyone at the label involved in determining both the musical and the business directions to take.

“As long as I keep knowing how much to give, giving just enough, and being able to pull back and leave the audience to interpret it, I think [the music] will stay intact.”
Kendrick Lamar

“We still sit down together and discuss everything from the music on — we’re still an independent company, we still move like that,” he says of TDE, which has grown to include artists like SZA and Isaiah Rashad while still remaining tightly focused. “For me, I’m fortunate enough to have never had no beef with a major label. I hear about other artists; there are tons of those stories. But me and Top have always had this understanding about how we was gonna get in the door, how we was gonna formulate our music and handle our business at the same time.”

Those years in the trenches were also invaluable for Lamar’s evolution as a performer. He headlined last spring’s Coachella festival, and the first leg of his “Damn” tour has already grossed more than $40 million. Unusual for a rapper, Lamar appears onstage almost entirely alone for the better part of two hours, without hype men or a backing band to lean on.

“You only get that confidence from doing a lot of shows, from being in front of crowds where they ain’t doing shit but just looking at you,” he says, recalling the years when he would play for audiences of two dozen. “I can’t deny it if I’m at a festival of 50,000 people looking at me and my shit is trash, but with 20 people, you gotta look them right in the face, and they’re gonna throw shit at you, they’ll just do whatever. It’s trial and error to get over that and build up that confidence, and having enough confidence that the views I put out there are gonna convey on the stage.”

It also helps to be able to reach back to those humble roots. “For the ‘Damn’ tour we did arenas, but for ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ we didn’t do a big tour,” Lamar says. “We did big-city small venues like the House of Blues, just getting back to the essence. It was like, man, these were the types of venues I was in when I was just starting, and now they’ve got a different type of energy. Because everybody’s so close, you can feel the building rocking, and you feed off that. You might fuck around and stage dive. Can’t really do that in an arena.”

As much as his name has spread to icons far beyond music — Barack Obama named Lamar’s 2015 track “How Much a Dollar Cost” his favorite song of the year; LeBron James took time to praise “Damn” at a press conference minutes after notching a triple-double in the NBA Playoffs — Lamar remains passionately attached to his hometown of Compton. Last February, Compton’s 35-year-old mayor Aja Brown gave Lamar the key to the city, and he’s donated $1.5 million to the city’s school district, which is undergoing a major revitalization. There are glimmers of hope that the place once synonymous with gang warfare will soon be better known for the contributions to arts and culture of those who grew up there, from Lamar and Dre to Serena Williams and Ava DuVernay.

Lamar at a 2013 performance. “You only get that confidence from doing a lot of shows, from being in front of crowds where they ain’t doing shit but just looking at you,” says Lamar.

“I see improvements in people stepping up, for sure,” he says of Compton. “We have a lot of figures who love the city but won’t set foot in it because of the danger. I still have family there. Some people don’t, so they don’t feel the connection. But these kids are excited about it — as long you put the practice behind it; that’s where things start.”

As for the country as a whole, which seems to be well on its way to embodying some of his most pessimistic visions on “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Lamar is more skeptical. On “Damn,” he recalls his disbelief after Donald Trump’s election, and how quickly that anger turned into complacency. He raps: “Still and sad, distraught and mad, tell the neighbor ’bout it / Bet they agree, parade the streets with your voice proudly / Time passin’, things change / Revertin’ back to our daily programs, stuck in our ways.”

“America will survive once it recognizes the position it’s in, and the trials that it’s facing,” he says. “Once people stop being nonchalant to it and recognize it, that’s when. When it’s not something that’s just swept under the rug because we’re the quote-unquote ‘greatest country in the world.’”

Does he think that will actually happen?

He sighs. “I really don’t know.”