The Trials of Kendrick Lamar: Inside the New Issue

Hip-hop's most exciting rapper opens up about his dark moments, insecurities and intense new album in our cover story

Kendrick Lamar describes his new album, 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' to Rolling Stone as “honest, fearful and unapologetic.” Credit: Theo Wenner

On the heels of his two Grammy wins last month, hip-hop superstar Kendrick Lamar appears on the cover of the latest issue of Rolling Stone (on stands Friday) and goes deep, opening up about everything from his rough adolescence on the streets of Compton to his ongoing battles with depression and self-doubt. In his most revealing interview yet, the 27-year-old speaks candidly with contributing editor Josh Eells about his struggles with self-confidence in the wake of his 2012 breakthrough, good kid, m.A.A.d city, and how he navigated his newfound success and ultimately overcame his obstacles through his music.

We caught up with Lamar at some of his favorite spots in his hometown of Compton, where he shared harrowing stories from his past including run-ins with the police – or as he called them, "the biggest gang in California." We photographed him for the cover in Hollywood (see video from the shoot below) and visited him at his L.A. studio, where he was scrambling to finish his upcoming album, To Pimp a Butterfly, which is due March 24th. Although he was anxious, Lamar said he loves the recording process: “After [the album] comes out, it’s just a numbers game. The funnest part is making it.”

Lamar also gave Rolling Stone a preview of six new songs from To Pimp a Butterfly, in addition to the two already released. The songs range from the intensely personal to the swaggeringly aggressive – like “King Kunta,” which could be the theme song from a Seventies blaxploitation flick. When Pharrell Williams first heard the track, he praised it by calling it “unapologetically black.” “It’s just him expressing how he’s feeling at the moment,” says Lamar’s longtime producer Mark “Sounwave” Spears. “And right now, he’s mad.”

 

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Sonically, Lamar’s new album is adventurous, incorporating elements of funk, spoken-word poetry, and free-jazz, augmented by lots of live playing. (Lamar says he was listening to a lot of Miles Davis and Parliament while making it.) “It’s a unique sound,” says Sounwave. “Every producer I’ve ever met was sending me stuff [for the album], but there was a one-in-a-million chance you could send a beat that actually fit what we were doing.” Lamar’s longtime engineer, Derek "MixedByAli" Ali, says the rapper would often talk in moods: “He would say, ‘I want it to sound eerie,’ or ‘I want it to sound like you’re driving past something.’ Or he talks in colors: ‘Make it sound purple. Make it sound light green.’”

Lamar is vague about what specifically the title To Pimp a Butterfly means (“That will be taught in college courses someday,” he says). But he describes the album as “honest, fearful and unapologetic.” “You take a black kid out of Compton and put him in the limelight, and you find answers about yourself you never knew you were searching for,” he said. “There’s some stuff in there, man. It’s a roller coaster. It builds.”

Also in this issue: Matthieu Aikins on the fight against ISIS in Baghdad, Patrick Doyle on Mumford & Sons and Modest Mouse, David Kushner on 4chan founder Christopher Poole, plus Bob Odenkirk, Will Forte and more.

Look for the issue on stands and in the iTunes App Store this Friday, March 13th.