What Is It About Kendrick Lamar?

"I think that there are moments in hip-hop culture and pop culture when we become ready for somebody to complicate our lives," says NPR's Frannie Kelley of rapper Kendrick Lamar. (Courtesy of the artist)

Kendrick Lamar put out his most recent album (and major label debut), good kid, m.A.A.d. city, in 2012. That album was acclaimed by both hip-hop critics and fans, and their mainstream equivalents, and Lamar's fame has only grown since then.

In the past two years, he has opened for Kanye West on the Yeezus tour, worked with SNL-affiliated comedy music group The Lonely Island on the song "YOLO," contributed a verse to the Imagine Dragons radio hit "Radioactive" and performed with the rock group on the Grammy telecast. Macklemore even made a show of texting "You got robbed" after he beat Lamar for the Grammy for Best Rap Album. Lamar declared his ambition with a pair of aggressive performances (in a guest verse on Big Sean's leaked non-album track "Control" and in the 2013 BET Awards cypher) that made waves even though they were never officially released.

Just last month, Lamar released the "That Lady"-sampling single "i." The single is in advance of an album that doesn't yet have a release date or even a title. Still, the release was a major event in both the hip-hop and mainstream music worlds, and the buzz around the album is mounting. Lamar's debut album was a singular artistic statement, a rare mix of sensitive lyrics and literary storytelling that still managed to go platinum. How did he do it?

"It's partly the vulnerability," Microphone Check's Frannie Kelley tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "It's partly his ability. It's partly a years-long strategy, laid out by his management team in partnership with, now, a major label. But I think maybe, also, it's the time. I think that there are moments in hip-hop culture and pop culture when we become ready for somebody to complicate our lives."

This new single is another left turn, a self-esteem-boosting rap over a recognizable sample that feels miles away from the gritty good kid. "He says to the fashion police, 'I'm wearing my heart.' If that doesn't tell you ... 'I'm really comfortable [with] who I am,' " says Microphone Check co-host and A Tribe Called Quest member Ali Shaheed Muhammad.

Hear the rest of the conversation between Inskeep, Kelley and Muhammad at the audio link.

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Let's focus now on an artist who's taking the hip-hop and some could argue, the sports world, by storm. Let our colleague Steve Inskeep take it from here.


Here's a song with a title one letter long.


INSKEEP: It's the letter I. The artist is Kendrick Lamar.


KENDRICK LAMAR: (Singing) I done been through a whole lot. Trial, tribulations, but I know God.

INSKEEP: I done been through a whole lot, he raps. Like many rappers, he sings of himself. But there's something different about Kendrick Lamar. When you see that one letter song title, the letter I, the first person pronoun is lowercase.


LAMAR: (Singing) The world is a ghetto with big guns and picket signs. I love myself. But it can do what it want whenever it wants, and I don't mind. I love myself.

INSKEEP: This song is catchy enough the NBA adopted it in an ad for the upcoming season. Pro-basketball is just catching up to an artist who's been building a devoted fan base for years. What draws people in is his storytelling, arguably. Think again about that lowercase I. We're going to talk about his music with the hosts of "Microphone Check," NPR's hip-hop podcast. Journalist Frannie Kelley and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, famous from, A Tribe Called Quest, welcome to you both.



INSKEEP: So what is it about Kendrick Lamar as you see it?

MUHAMMAD: I think the reason why Kendrick resonates with so many people is that unlike many other rappers that brag and boast, he paints pictures that you really - you can smell the environment. You can clearly see in depth what the environment is. He doesn't just kind of like go on the surface.


LAMAR: (Singing) They wanna say there's a war outside and a bomb in the street and a gun in the hood and a mob of police and rock on the corner and a line full of fiends and a bottle full of lean and a model on the scene. Yup. These days of frustration keep y'all on ducking...

KELLEY: Yeah, sometimes the praise for a literary rapper can be a little bit overblown and even have intonations of like, you know, rap is good if it's less like rap. However the ways that Kendrick really succeeds is as a performer both on record and on the stage.

MUHAMMAD: And even though some of the content is street oriented - about being the baddest rapper, about being in a position where you can't afford gas for your car, but you still want to go see a girl that has your interest - he just describes those things in a way that has more realistic feeling to it.

INSKEEP: You know, when you say, can't afford gas for the car, what you're saying is he's not just proclaiming how bad he is, he's actually being vulnerable. He's admitting to his own shortcomings.

MUHAMMAD: Completely, and I believe when an artist goes out and really exposes how vulnerable they are by being truthful and not trying to, you know, perpetrate something that's not true, people like that. Sometimes you can be super lyrical. Some rappers who are as poetic, they're so lyrical, and the content is over people's heads, Kendrick isn't like that.

KELLEY: I agree. That's to me the most interesting part about Kendrick is his charisma and his ability to connect 'cause when he says, I, in that song, if you're familiar with his body of work, it's actually not 100 percent clear that that is him because he plays so many characters, and to do that he changes his voice. And to me the way that he's able to embody other people with his voice and really get at you is graceful. He is deft. He is superior in his ability to do this.

INSKEEP: Well, let's listen to a hit of his from 2012. It's called "Good Kid" in which he raps, I got ate alive yesterday.


LAMAR: (Singing) I'm easily prey. I got ate alive yesterday. I got animosity building. It's probably big as a building. Me jumping off of the roof is me just playing it safe. But what am I supposed to do when the topic is red or blue, and you understand that I ain't, but know I'm accustomed to. Just a couple that look for trouble and live in the street with rank. No better picture to paint than me walking from bible study and called his homies because he had said he noticed my face from a function that token place, they was wondering if I bang. Step on my neck and get blood on your Nike checks. I don't mind because one day you'll respect, the good kid, m.A.A.d city.

INSKEEP: There's another one - you talk about vulnerability - he describes someone stepping on his neck and getting his shoes bloody. I mean, this is a guy getting beat up.

KELLEY: Yeah, that's another crazy part about Kendrick Lamar is his success. How is he going platinum off songs like this?


KELLEY: I mean, I think it's partly the vulnerability. It's partly his ability. It's partly a years-long strategy laid out by his management team and partnership with now a major label. But I think maybe also it's the time. I think that there are moments in hip-hop culture and pop culture when we become ready for somebody to complicate our lives.

INSKEEP: OK, going platinum and charting out a career, what has this man done to get this music before the public?

MUHAMMAD: It wasn't really about, you know, a mass marketing sort of a thing. It was just sort of him and artists going in a studio and not having any molds placed on him in terms of the type of record that he had to make. You know, he was just making his music.

KELLEY: He took time. He took time to get really good and to figure out what his voice would be, and while he was doing that, he built his fan base in LA.

INSKEEP: So how does a guy in his mid-to-late-20s go to the next level then? What is the next level?

MUHAMMAD: I think he should just consistently do what he's been doing, and that's probably not listening to the outside world and listening to himself.

KELLEY: He has said in interviews since the beginning that he tries to change with every album. So I think he's probably going to switch it up for this next one, which is probably due in early 2015.

INSKEEP: You know, it's really interesting to hear you talk because you talk about finding out what his voice would be, and it's a reminder that almost everybody is at least a little bit weird. And if you're going to be creative, part of the creative process is getting to the point where you can just channel your own weirdness and not be trying to replicate what else you've already heard.

MUHAMMAD: I think that's the purpose of the first single. This new song, "i," is really saying just that - you know, he says to the fashion police, I'm wearing my heart. You kno,w so if that doesn't tell you who - that I'm really comfortable in who I am, and if you don't know or find me just too awkward or I don't fit into your program, well, then so be it.

KELLEY: And that is so reinvigorating for fans of hip-hop - the parallels that are most often drawn are between Kendrick and Nas, and Kendrick and Outkast. And Nas came out at a time when it wasn't really OK to be a street kid, and he was just himself. And Outkast when they came out, they were just their own, different guys, with different priorities, and that was OK. And the way that he embraces himself is, like - that is the most hopeful sign that we have that hip-hop can have balanced.

INSKEEP: Frannie Kelley and Ali Shaheed Muhammad of NPR's "Microphone Check." Thanks to you both.

KELLEY: Thank you.

MUHAMMAD: Thank you.


LAMAR: (Singing) Everybody looking at you crazy, crazy what you gonna do.

MONTAGNE: Fannie and Ali talking Kendrick Lamar with Steve Inskeep on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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