The building on 116 East Alondra Boulevard in Compton is a squat, sand-colored apartment house with barred first-story windows and a patch of ornamental brick face. It was here, in apartment F, that Kendrick Lamar lived as a little kid with his mom and dad, and it was here, at the age of "five or six," that he saw a teenage drug dealer get shot in the head. "Right there, in front of them gates," says the 25-year-old rapper, pointing. "My uncles ran these apartments – they were heavy into dope and shit. My moms took them in from Chicago, and they moved in and took over the whole block." One day, Lamar was out front, riding his bike, when a car approached with a gunman in the passenger seat. "It was a brown, older sedan," Lamar says. "I can still see them pulling up. They pull out a big-ass gun. The dude's out there hustling on the corner – one of the people that worked for my uncle. One shot. Boom. He just fell." I ask how his parents explained the murder to him. "Man, they just told me to stay in the house," he replies. "I had to make sense of it on my own."
Lamar's major-label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city, tells the story of an inward-looking inner-city kid trying to make sense – on his own – of the turmoil, temptations and deprivations surrounding him. The finest rap album of 2012, it sold a quarter-million copies in its first week and established Lamar as one of hip-hop's most sensitive, idiosyncratic young voices. The album traces a single day in Lamar's life as a Compton teen; he is more reporter than participant, witnessing and occasionally committing violent and self-destructive acts, but – unlike MCs who might turn a hardscrabble background into superman boasts – narrating everything from a deeply conflicted remove.
Growing up, Lamar had friends and relatives affiliated with both Bloods and Crips, but he resisted joining either gang. "I always felt different," he says. "I think that's what separated me from my friends. We'd do shit, and they'd be laughing, high out they mind and amped up about it. I'd be in that mode, too, but at the same time, like, 'Damn.'" He once took part in a casual beating of another kid, whose only crime was hanging around enemies of Lamar's crew. "He was innocent, no type of involvement or gang affiliation," Lamar says. "I felt like, 'This kid is just like me. This could be me.' But when you're with your partners, you can't just sit there: If one fights, we all fight. That's the code."
Lamar steers his new black Audi A7 to a shopping complex where the motley bazaar known as the Compton Swap Meet has been happening for decades; it's closed, but we pull into the empty parking lot. "I've been coming here my whole life," he says. At the Meet, vendors hawk gold, athletic gear, hair extensions and incense; it's where the adolescent Lamar watched Dr. Dre and 2Pac shoot the video for a 1996 remix of "California Love."
Lamar began releasing mixtapes in 2003, at the age of 16, under the name K. Dot. He got far enough that he once had a meeting with Jay-Z, when the rapper was head of Def Jam – nothing came of it, but Jay was encouraging. Then, in 2010, Lamar's music made its way to his longtime hero Dre, who saw something of himself in the young artist and signed him to his label. "Dre had both sides in his personality, like me: a regular dude, grew up with two parents, but also influenced by gangbanging culture," Lamar says. "The fact that gangsta rap was selling meant he couldn't express his sense of vulnerability."
Lamar's first mature full-length release was the 2011 mixtape Section.80, which got him booked on a national tour opening for Drake. Lamar began recording songs for his major-label debut on the road, in a studio-equipped bus. "Going to these different cities, I got inspired thinking about where I came from and where I was at," he says.
We drive to Lamar's long-standing studio, a messy, wood-paneled room in the back of a modest house in a cul-de-sac. A sign tacked to the vocal booth implores MCs not to stick gum on the glass. Lamar cues up a thundering Dr. Dre beat on Pro Tools. "This is for the second album," he says. Going forward, Lamar says, he might take his gaze off the past and rap about present success – "being in the club, having super nice things, but in a relatable way." But he's not overly preoccupied about the future. "If I don't put anything else out, I'm happy," he says. "I have my life story, written."
This story is from the January 31st, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.