Kendrick Lamar, “Family Affair” [September 2012 Cover Story]

WORDS KRIS EX
IMAGES SCOTT COUNCIL

JUST A FEW DAYS PAST HIS 25TH BIRTHDAY, KENDRICK LAMAR IS ANGRY. NOT NECESSARILY AT THIS VERY MOMENT, AS THE SUN SETS BEHIND HIM ON A BALCONY AT HIS RECORD LABEL’S SANTA MONICA OFFICES. HE’S ANGRY IN THE GREATER SENSE—AT SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC injustice, at rappers that rap well and say nothing, at rappers that don’t rap well at all.

“I’m more angry about my family history, outside of anything,” he says with a smile.

His smile is a contagious thing that swallows up his face, pushing his cheeks up and out, his eyes into little slits. It’s a smile that’s thinking, searching, connecting, communicating. Right now, along with an easy giggle, it conveys the pain of being the first person he knows of in his family to graduate from high school. “I’m not saying in my immediate family,” Kendrick clarifies. “I’m talking about family.” He stresses the word in a way that implies the history and intimacy of shared blood. As the sun sets red over the sleepy hills of this coastal city, one can’t help but think that this is the vision his father, a former member of Chicago’s notorious Gangster Disciples, imagined when he sought to leave a life of poverty and crime behind by moving to California with Kendrick’s mother. Unfortunately, he “just happened to land in Compton—probably one of the worst parts in that muthafucka,” says Kendrick. Known as the “Hub City,” due to its location in the geographical center of Los Angeles, it’s also the birthplace of the Piru street gang, and by extension ground zero for the 40-year war between the Bloods, the Crips and their internecine sets. On one hand, Kendrick’s dad was able to leave his old life behind, if only by default. “After you move out here, you can’t push that line,” says Kendrick of his dad’s old Gangster Disciple allegiances. “You can’t come over here with your hat broke off in L.A. and have them understand that. They don’t give a fuck about that shit. It’s Bloods, Crips and Pirus.”

More family followed. A next wave, sent out when kids hit their teenage years and their grandmother could no longer control them. It didn’t help. “They got caught in that lifestyle and never changed,” Kendrick recalls of his kin. They dropped out of high school and fell in with the Compton Crips. “But they always looked at me as the little nigga they wanted to make something out of, to make it out from what they was doing.” Many of them never made it out themselves: One did 15 years for robbery before coming out in 2010 and going right back in; Another is serving “forever” for attempted murder, grand theft and more; a third, a relative Kendrick was particularly close with, is in the system too. “I ain’t heard from him in a while,” Kendrick says, wistfully.

The experiences that formed him are peppered throughout his music—the OG wisdom imparted on him by his dad and uncles, the relationship dynamics he saw growing up in a large but young family, the time when his friend dragged him to church and he caught the Holy Spirit until he passed out, the “bodies dropping, dropping, dropping, dropping.”

“My homeboys going to jail, getting locked up,” he says. “Life. Kids. And it clicked. Clicked right then and there: I can’t go out here and be another statistic. If I really got respect and love for my homeboys that I grew up with since elementary, and respect for my pops and respect for my uncles, the best thing for me to do is not to go out there and continue the cycle. It’s to go out there and make something positive out my life to give them inspiration to do something better. It’s that simple. Respect for my homeboys. More so, respect for my pops. All the game he gave me, all that would have been going down to waste. Respect for my uncles, to remind them that the game they was giving me, I heard that.”

FIND OUT KENDRICK’S INITIAL THOUGHT PROCESS BEHIND GOOD KID, M.A.A.D CITY