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

Eventually becoming the second artist signed to Top Dawg Ent. (Nickerson Gardens’ Jay Rock being the first), Kendrick continued to release tapes as K. Dot—2009’s C4 was an impressive homage to Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III that contained  “Compton Chemistry,” a riff on Wayne’s “Dr. Carter” that is possibly the most detailed lesson in cooking crack cocaine ever put to music, which is even more exhilarating due to its closing confession that “you learned from a chemist who never moved a brick in his life.”

But it wasn’t until Kendrick discarded the pretense and began recording under his government name that he found his “niche”—which was himself. A song called “Let Me Be Me,” from that same year’s The Kendrick Lamar EP, was a mission statement. “Almost lost my life to the industry,” he rapped. “Had to look through a photo book to remember me/These label heads ain’t nothing but bullshit/Have you with professional killers, chasing hits/Lying to yourself, all over an image/Making records they want, that was wrecking my brilliance.”

“He played me a bunch of music that he was working on on the low that he wasn’t really playing for a lot of people. It was incredible. I was like, Man, this is some real shit. It made me change my whole perspective on how to put out his music.”

“He was like, ‘I’m fed up trying to make music that other people want to hear,’” says Dave. “He played me a bunch of music that he was working on on the low that he wasn’t really playing for a lot of people. It was incredible. I was like, Man, this is some real shit. It made me change my whole perspective on how to put out his music.”

The music was intensely personal, a meditation on identity that allowed for greater honesty and broader perspective than most MCs ever access. On a trilogy of songs on Section.80 about women—“No Make-Up (Her Vice),” “Tammy’s Song (Her Evils)” and “Keisha’s Song (Her Pain)”—Kendrick writes of individuals with complexities that transcend the standard tropes of bitches and goddesses, without coming off  as pretentious or preachy, or sacrificing entertainment.

“K.Dot was just rapping,” says Kendrick, using the third person to discuss his evolution. “Kendrick Lamar reminisces when his older cousins, 16, 17 years old, had their little girlfriends over there, being in a relationship with them and they whooping they ass and shit in my living room while I’m playing Sega. K.Dot wasn’t thinking about none of that shit. K.Dot was just trying to rap a bunch of lyrics and put them together. Kendrick Lamar thinks about the one time my older cousin actually got him a cool girl—the girl went to school and he respected her for that, but he didn’t have enough respect to keep her and went out and still did what he did and still had the temptation of being a man.” He smiles. Not because he’s angry now, but because he’s reminiscing on his family. And putting them in context, whether good, bad or indifferent, makes him whole, while bringing him closer to himself.

“I learned a lot of shit at a tender age,” he says. “The gift and the curse—it’s bittersweet.”