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Kendrick Lamar: Rooted in Compton and proud of it

The breakout hip-hop star honors the city's heritage while pursuing a fresh vision

By Larry Gilchrist
Special to MSN Music

©Dan Monick
Kendrick Lamar (©Dan Monick)

Kendrick Lamar is cool, and not in your stereotypical "cool rapper" way. He's seemingly unfazed by anything cool. A year ago, only hard-core hip-hop fans and his family knew who the 25-year-old Compton, Calif. native was. In October, Lamar dropped his high-charting debut album, "good kid, m.A.A.d city" -- the biggest-selling debut week for any new artist this year -- and is now being lauded by music critics and fans alike. But I guess that comes with being pegged as the next big thing by producer and mentor Dr. Dre. We recently caught up with him as he prepared to head overseas and discussed his debut, Dre and getting hometown love.

MSN Music: What's it been like since the release of the album?

Kendrick Lamar: It's been great, man. The numbers are showing and proving to the industry that true art forms in this music period will survive in this game. The people spoke, and the world is listening now.

Were you at all surprised by the response of fans?

I had a feeling that people would talk because I am just a little more different, so I figured it would have this impact that some people wouldn't expect based on the simple fact that everything is the same thing. So, if you do something a little bit more original, people are going to talk about it and it's going to spread. It was a little bit of a surprise, as far as people talking about it. After the first week and the predictions came out, the numbers jumped up, so that was exciting.

What was the vision for the album?

I really wanted to tap into a certain day in my life -- back when I was 16 or 17 years old. I still have family and friends in the city, so when I go back, I share those memories. I brought them to the studio and recorded these songs based of memories and instinct off of how we used to live. I didn't just want to make one track after another. I really wanted to make it a sequenced type joint as I recorded and really tie it in. The songs that couldn't make the album I wanted to use them as skits -- that's how the skits came about. That's how the West Coast used to do it. We came with the skits in the '90s and I wanted to bring that flavor back just to tie it in a little more. And that's really what it's about ... tapping into a situation that happened 10 years ago.

Bing: Watch Kendrick Lamar videos

The first single from the album is "Swimming Pools (Drank)." With an album that is so thematic, why did you decide to release that track?

It was a great balance between what a radio listener would listen to and what my core base is used to -- having something to talk about and transitioning that into something that everyone could sing along to. That's something I wasn't afraid to try out. I think the song represents me and what I have been doing. It's very melodic, it's catchy and it has substance to it. So, it represents [me] straight out the gate.

You're also in the enviable position to be an artist signed by Dr. Dre. Being from Compton, like Dre, what is that like?

It was a great feeling. I am right under the cloth of greatness. Like you said, they laid down the crazy empire, not just for gangsta rap, but for hip-hop. So, the fact that I am under him and working lets me know that I am on that same path. That's confirmation for me.

You're also very proud to be from Compton. What does your hometown mean to you?

It means a lot -- I hold that on top of my shoulders more than anything. I want to represent them right and not come out with a bunch of characters and do all of that crazy dumb s--- in the industry to beg for attention. We never wanted none of that. That's not what we're about. We show and prove with the music. Our lifestyle is more of a traditional lifestyle, and we carry that more than anything. Me being comfortable in my own skin is a reflection of my city and where I'm from -- and that's not only Compton, but the West Coast.

Some people have labeled your music as "alternative rap." What do you think of that moniker?

They can call it what they want as long as they're listening to it. I don't really think there's really a classification for what it sounds like. I don't know ... if anything, it would be closer to gangsta rap.

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Dec 4, 2012 10:54PM
I love how people can talk so much SH*t about rap and not call it music, when clearly music itself does not reflect on one single aspect  of genre, What really gets me goin are these morons are stating facts than reflecting their own opinion. I don't mind when people say "I Think Rap sucks" but these fools who basically claim opinions as facts is ridiculous.  Rap is a culture that is misunderstood, and recently a lot of the new stuff is infuriating that basically ripped from the roots of rap.  Kendrick is the SH*T and I hope the shift for more personal and relate-able rap comes back.
Dec 4, 2012 7:58PM

I'll have to check him out. I was hooked on Wiz about 3 or 4 years ago. The next thing I know, everybody is listening to him. Which isn't a bad thing. I'm just not a big "follower". I stopped listening for 2 reasons. 1. Because even though the music was tasteful, the lyrics became SO repetitive. 2. Because now everybody and their grandma loves Wiz, 6 or 7 years after he released his REAL debut album.


Anyways, I hope this kid isn't just some trendy Drake wannabe. Too many of those.

Dec 4, 2012 7:51PM
Best rap artist and album of 2012... HANDS DOWN!!!
Dec 4, 2012 7:03PM
I hope his rap is about something positive and not the same ole, same old crap that is being played today. 
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