Position of Power: Kendrick Lamar’s XXL Cover Story in His Own Words
Position of Power
Kendrick Lamar, in his own words, once again.
Words Kendrick Lamar
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
It's been almost exactly a year since I last did a story like this. And in that time a lot has happened. One of the biggest things, of course, was dropping my second album, To Pimp a Butterfly.
This second album was way different from my first one, good kid, m.A.A.d. city. But it wasn’t ever about trying to make it different. I wasn’t going to be able to make an album that was the same as my first one. How could I? My life had changed so much after good kid came out. In ways I never imagined. I mean, I went to fuckin’ Africa. I went everywhere, but going to Africa was it for me. And I didn’t know it was going to be important for me until I went on the trip. This was the type of place that you weren’t taught to be excited about in public schools when you were young. So when that happened and then just to travel and be able to experience different people all around the world, to meet people I never would have met and do things I never would’ve done if I didn’t become a rapper. If I hadn’t made good kid, m.A.A.d. city and gotten the response I got to it. It wasn’t just the change in money and finances. The world around me kind’ve opened up. What I experienced, the new people I met and even how I was treated, was different. Music, for me, is just an expression of my day-to-day. I couldn’t go back and make a good kid, m.A.A.d. city because that wasn’t my life anymore.
It’s funny because I ask other artists about their experience with success. I wanna know what happened to them. Did you feel how I feel? When did everything change for you? When did you start noticing the ways you were acting differently? Or when the people around you changed how they treated you? Or just, how did your world change? For me, the whole complete world changed within six months of good kid, m.A.A.d. city coming out. It wasn’t about the money change, although that did happen, but it was like I started seeing who I really was during that first run and learned more on the second. Either you notice who you are or what you ain’t pretty fast when you get fame.
And that’s a whole other concept because you might’ve thought you was a shy kid, you know? But as soon as you get exposed to these different avenues of the world, you might be a completely different person like, “Damn, this who I really am?” For me, personally, it made me reflect on who I have been. And my moms always told me, “You always been this lil’ quiet kid in the cut, staying to yourself.” The more my world started to change and I got more exposure, I started to close myself off and that’s the weirdest part for me because at the end of the day, I like to communicate. I thought I liked to touch people and talk to people but the more and more exposure I got, the more I felt like the walls were closing in. And now, I’m in a battle within myself because I gotta get on stage for thousands of people every night but at the same time, I’m a person that’s withdrawn and almost a recluse. I do love being on stage and performing in front of thousands of people. It makes me feel connected. It’s all the other stuff.
That’s why I don’t go to a lot of events or am seen out in the public a lot. People don’t see me all over the place. It’s definitely not a conscious effort, I just like to do what I do. I really just like to chill, man. I just like to be by myself or with my people. Early on I thought I wanted that. To go to all the events and be around the hip-hop industry but things changed. It just doesn’t excite me like it excites the next person or how it would excite me a few years ago. What excites me is music. I’m just obsessed with music. Period. I just like being able to create. That’s what makes me happy. I found that in me a long time ago and I stick to it. I don’t need to go out anywhere to do that.
Everything I do is always some sort of an experience to me. Lately it’s all been about trying to find out who I am. I haven’t found that out yet. I don’t think we really truly find ourselves ’til we almost at our deathbed. With that being said, that reflection of the state we are in, is reflected in what we do. It’s reflected in my most recent music. To Pimp a Butterfly is a little bit more intricate, a little more blunt, a little more emotional be- cause it’s about things that I was going through and feeling at the time. And stuff I was and am just trying to figure out. Like, “Damn, am I supposed to be doing this? Why am I doing this? Why am I just now seeing this whole world, this culture, these differ- ent walks of life? Damn, the shit I talked back in Compton, was that right? Should I reverse everything that I thought I knew? Why are people listening to me? Am I really saying the right shit?”
And that’s what happened. That’s what brought out To Pimp a Butterfly. It was like me questioning my being and my influence. And it took a turn the moment I started recording, everything just changed from the concepts, to the vocal arrangements to the instrumentation. Everything just got warm and at one point in time, it got really dark. I don’t know if people expected that album from me and the subjects that were on there. A lot was going on at the time for me personally and in the world and still is and it still is. Besides the changes I went through, the world was going through something.
See Photos From Kendrick Lamar's XXL Winter 2015 Cover Shoot
The past few years or so have been very politically charged and controversial. From Trayvon Martin, to Eric Garner to Michael Brown and issues of police brutality and racism and for so many other reasons. All of it has really struck a nerve with me because when you experience things like that personally and you know the type of hardships and pain that it brings first-hand, it builds a certain rage in you. It brings back memories of when I’m 16 and the police come kicking the door in. They don’t care that I’m a little boy and they stumped me in my back two times and they dragged me out the house and have us all handcuffed. It brings back those memories. Memories of losing loved ones. It brings back some of the most painful memories and deepest thoughts of real life situations that I didn’t even want to address on good kid. Or wasn’t ready to. Rage is the perfect word for it.
And I express my rage through my music. I can’t bottle it in because me bottling it in is going to make me go out there and get pulled over and I have this rage and this cop don’t know that and the next thing you know, well, I never know what’s going to happen because I don’t know how to control my own emotions so what I do is I express them by jotting them down and I put it through my music and I can’t stop. That’s the best way for me to deal.
The most serious topic I addressed on To Pimp a Butterfly is about being equal as a man, as a human being. Not even just as a Black man. The line that breaks it all, the whole entire album, is on the last verse of “The Blacker the Berry” when I say, “Gang bangin’ made me kill a nigga Blacker than me.” Okay. Now, I’m not just talking about me being Black and my hate for people outside of my race. I’m talking about myself, as well. This shit go for all walks of life, looking at yourself and reflecting on who you are and trying to become a little bit better than what you thought you were.
When I made To Pimp a Butterfly, I thought it would only live in a place where people like age 30 and up would respect it but there’s actually 15 year olds that know what’s going on in the album and can reflect on it outside their bedroom window. That’s the initial start for sparking the idea for change right there, because it always starts with the youth. So me taking my platform and speaking about some extreme topics and knowing that kids are going to go out there and listen to it, that’s the idea I’m truly proud of. And I think that can manifest into something greater along the lines as long as there is work being done behind it. I’d look like a fool if I didn’t talk about the things I talk about in this album. I’ll be lying to myself.
I know people are looking for leadership now more than ever. You can feel it. It’s the times we are in with the political issues that have been going on. Young Black people want a leader and it’s not even just young Black people, the younger generations as a whole, want new leaders. And I’ve always said this since day one, I don’t think I was ever put on this planet just to do music. I talk about that on the song “Mortal Man” on To Pimp a Butterfly -- about being almost intimidated to accept or to acknowledge your leadership, that’s the mortal man. That’s me. Knowing that responsibility and knowing that I just may be one of the chosen ones, is part of the battle and one of my biggest conflicts now. To be that person...I’m just a kid from Compton, man. That new responsibility I have is something that I’m learning to deal with and I’m trying to figure out how to do it best. I’m trying to recognize what my responsibility is and could be. These are things I think about and try to understand. And despite any conflict I have about my role, it’s a great feeling because I know my heart is pure and the things that I say and stand for are the same things out there that the people stand for.
But I think about how I’m two-projects in and you have the world saying I’m the one. And I’m still trying to figure out who I even am. My little sister is 16, my little cousin is 20, my younger brother is 10, they all looking at me like that. When they friends around, they friends can’t walk pass me without asking a million questions about my lyrics. I can’t go to their schools without the same thing. Just having the amount of love and energy that these younger fans bring and how enthused they are from just talking with me about important topics. And I’m sitting there thinking, “These kids are really listening to me.” But why am I the one to get this opportunity? And how do I keep that from going to my head and not have an ego? How do I balance it out?
There’s always an ego but knowing when to put that ego aside is when you really mastered it. Can’t nobody say there’s no ego involved with success. Everybody got it. I’ve definitely gotten an ego, an ego where I say, “I’ve accomplished something. Finally, I’ve accomplished some thing. You can’t tell me I ain’t shit, now because I’ve accomplished something. And guess what? If I did it this time, I’m going to do it again.” So, now, you start to feel a little different, you start to feel a little relieved. Your confidence changes. And that brings ego. But even if I have an ego, I respect people and when I think of it like that, people give me the same respect back.
I know I’m chosen. I know I’m a favorite. I know in my heart there’s a whole other energy and leadership side of me that I’ve probably run from my whole life. How much power do I want? How much can I handle? That’s the question I keep asking myself. ’Cause when you are a voice for the youth, nothing can stop you. The youth is what changes things. Can I lead that? Should I? I get confused because people are championing me to be that vocal point and it’s a challenge for me to be that because I have some fear of that type of power. This goes back to me being who I naturally am or who I think that I am now, that 28-year-old kid that’s kind’ve a recluse. But 28 is old enough for me to figure out who I am and have that power at the same time. That’s the battle and it’s a trip.
I think all of us celebrities have a responsibility to the fans. There’s always a role model period when you become famous. You can’t run from that, nobody can run from that and I’m not even just talking about other artists. We all are in the community because guess what, we all come from these ghettos, from these backdrops and we made it out. When you from the dirtiest part of Atlanta, the grimiest part that these kids see on TV, you a role model, whether you like it or not. It’s as simple as that. I always speak from my own perspective. How I looked at Dr. Dre, Eazy, Snoop. They probably wouldn’t call themselves role models, but I used to watch them come down my block. I’ve seen it personally and I looked up to y’all whether it was right or wrong. Whether you was right or wrong, I was riding with you. And seeing you on TV made you seem like a super hero to me. So me talking about the things I talk about on To Pimp a Butterfly, speaking on real-life situations is not nothing that I try to do or have to do. It’s already the game, it’s what I know, it’s the gift. These words are coming from God. This is my duty, to address these things. And I’m lucky I have the platform to do it and work for it.
The biggest challenge is not just figuring out who I really am. It’s accepting what’s to come. Most people would think accepting what’s to come is being scared of negative things. I’m scared of the positive things because the positive things lead back to one word: power. And one of the worst things you could do once you have that power is disappoint people with what you do with it. That’s all of our fears because when the disappointment hap- pens, change happens. And most people are scared of change. We’re in a time now and a society where disappointment comes quick and people’s perception of you can change with one wrong move. All that you worked for, for you and your family can be put in jeopardy because you didn’t make the right move.
Check out more from XXL's Winter 2015 issue on newsstands now.