Kendrick Lamar, the ascendant Compton rapper, is in the basement of New York's Gramercy Theater, glad-handing. An organizer of Saturday’s show asks for a photograph, followed by a schlumpy dude in a baggy white hoodie, who makes sure to note that a purported mutual contact named Ronny is "the homey." A comely young lady. A guy doling out Twitter strategy advice. A lanky kid wearing his stage name, DJ Zeke, on his T-shirt, asks Kendrick to look into a video camera and identify Zeke as "the shining star of New York City." Throughout, Lamar is unfailingly sociable.
We sit down on lumpy couches in a small room tucked off the main VIP drag, and I ask him about the persistent barrage of attention from people whose intentions are not totally clear. Lamar’s not quite famous famous. He releases his music independently; he doesn’t have a breakout radio single.
But he’s only 24, and his clear-eyed brand of music – unembellished stories about his inner-city childhood; also, girls – has, deservedly, won him the attention and hopes of rap media and the West Coast hip-hop cognoscenti. Earlier this month, Dr. Dre said that Lamar was one of two artists – along with Slim the Mobster – he’s planning on "devoting all [his] attention to" for "at least for the next couple of years."
Like Kendrick’s fervent cult base, Dre thinks the young fellow could be something really special: he wants to "make sure [his] shit comes out the way it should be." And that’s the kind of spotlight that makes walking through a backstage area a highly involved task.
"A lot of artists get detached, man," Lamar says, in response to the eager commotion he just waded through. "I’ve seen it. They lose themselves as human beings. But it’s like, 'you’re the same as these people out here, goin’ through the same shit. You got money, but you still going through the same shit.'" On record, Lamar is conversational, direct, honest. Meaning: this is the exact kind of levelheadedness you hope to hear.
"Me and my team, we did this from the ground up," he says. "So when you start getting the recognition, the people in your ear, they’re saying 'keep doing what you’re doing.' There’s a few people out there trying to push me to get that big radio hit, but I feel like you have to build a base first. Those are the people that’ll never leave me."
Lamar understands that success breeds more work, and it's important to not lose that base. "When you get a hit record, you know what’s gonna happen? You gonna have to get another hit record, and another hit record, and another hit record," he says. "You miss on the second time, the people that were with you on the first? They gone forever."
Kendrick Lamar knows of what he speaks. Later, during the show, the small room is overrun with his highly vocal fans: they screech out requests, freaking out over every new song played. They make bug-eyed faces at their friends. Lamar likes to chat on stage. He calls out one girl specifically, handing her the mic so she can say her name, asking her if she’s got a boyfriend. ("She lookin’ like she wants to cut my balls off.")
In between songs, he weaves in and out of recreating a dialogue between his father, represented as plaintive and supportive, and his mother, a "straight-up, muthafuckin' gangsta." He likes to hush everyone right before a new track starts, to let the impact ring harder. He asks, "Anyone wanna get fucked up with me after the show?" You can understand why so many people here – and on the Internet – feel personally attached to him. He’s the dude you want to root for.
A big part of that attachment is the fact he’s one of very few people able to engage you with conscious hip-hop, a term progressively seen more derisively, for being didactic and unsubtle. Lamar knows as well as anyone the box that association puts you in, and shrugs off the specific tag. "Yeah, I liked Mos Def coming up. I liked Snoop, too," he says.
Lamar's music is "about me, and people around me, and experiences I’ve felt," he says. "These are songs that I really feel. People tell me this a lot: my music comes from a space where I’m trying to figure out what’s going on with myself and the world, so it don’t come off preachy. It comes off as, Let’s figure each other out.' I figure I can develop that, just by talking to different people. I’m learning something from you right now, subconsciously."
"Gangsta rap, conscious rap – really, I don’t know what you can call that," he says. "But I’d rather call it 'Kendrick Lamar.'"