It's a Tuesday evening in early October and Kendrick Lamar just dozed off in the back of a black mini coach. He's got a black Top Dawg Entertainment hooded sweatshirt pulled low over his eyes as the inexplicable in-car entertainment, a live recording of the Blue Man Group, dances across a screen at the front of the cab. Midtown Manhattan is gridlock. In the rearview is 30 Rockefeller Plaza, where Lamar just marked his first network TV appearance, taping a performance of his single "Swimming Pools (Drank)" for "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon." Ahead is a meet-and-greet at the Soho Apple Store, where he'll participate in an onstage Q&A with AllHipHop.com founder Chuck Creekmur and do another performance of "Swimming Pools" to promote pre--orders of his highly anticipated TDE/Aftermath/Interscope debut, "good kid, m.A.A.d city," which went live the night before and immediately shot the project to the top of iTunes' hip-hop/rap chart. In between: van chatter, the Blue Man Group or a few minutes to steal a few Z's. Can you blame him for choosing door No. 3?
With the album's release just weeks away, Lamar is in the middle of a relentless run that began in earnest with the first of a 30-date self-titled tour, sponsored by BET Music Matters and TDE, in early September. Last night, he was in Baton Rouge, La., picking up a sold-out spot date at Varsity Theatre that was tacked onto the New Orleans stop of the Music Matters tour the previous night. Before New Orleans, Lamar was in Atlanta taping a rack of segments for the BET Hip-Hop Awards, including a performance of "Swimming Pools" and "The Recipe" (the Dr. Dre-assisted single that will appear on the deluxe edition of "good kid, m.A.A.d city"), presenting the I Am Hip-Hop Award to legendary MC Rakim; appearing in the West Coast cipher alongside the likes of E-40, DJ Quik, Kurupt and Snoop Lion; and collecting an award for lyricist of the year. Tomorrow, he'll push back his flight home in order to crash in a magazine photo shoot, a radio station appearance and a stop by BET's "106 & Park." On Saturday, he'll drive himself to Fresno, Calif., where he'll perform in the Big Fresno Fair. Two weeks ago, he had been scheduled to have the week off.
"I don't look at no dates," Lamar says, explaining how he manages to stay afloat. "I just go to the crowd and do shows. I don't look at days of the week or none of that -- that's how I get another 12 months [out of myself]. If I sit down and think about it now, I'll go crazy."
The current schedule shuffle, stack, reshuffle, re-stack and reshuffle all over again is just a snapshot of how things have been going for the 25-year-old Compton, Calif.-bred MC since he released the "Kendrick Lamar" EP, the first project recorded under his birth name, on Dec. 31, 2009 -- and arguably even well before that.
It's been nearly eight years since Lamar first hooked up with Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith as the second artist to join the latter's then-fledgling TDE. Since then, Lamar has evolved from local teenage standout (he came to TDE through high school friend/longtime manager/sometime producer Dave Free, who sought him out after catching wind of his talents while attending a school across town) to one of the most celebrated upstart MCs to emerge in the past 10 years. Embraced by both the press and his peers for his technical prowess and thoughtful subject matter, Lamar has been hailed as both the New West Coast King and hip-hop's savior.
When TDE signed a somewhat opaque joint venture with Interscope in March that included a companion solo deal directly aligning Lamar with Dr. Dre's Aftermath Entertainment -- positioning Lamar's album as the first solo rap debut on the storied label since the Game's "The Documentary" bowed atop the Billboard 200 in 2005 with 580,000 copies sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan -- the stage was set for "good kid, m.A.A.d city" to be one of the most-anticipated albums by a rap rookie in years. After all, it's not every day that Dr. Dre, who ushered in the careers of Snoop, Eminem, 50 Cent, and the Game, co-signs a potential new star.
Not that Lamar is fazed.
"It's cool for them to put me in big shoes," he says, "because I have high expectations for myself. Anyone else's expectations? My team's expectations? [We're] already at that. We're at this point where we feel like we're elite members of the game, so it's really just about everyone else catching up."
But as Tiffith notes, there's more riding on "good kid, m.A.A.d city" than Lamar's, or even Dre's, rep.
"We've done a lot, but we haven't sold any records," says Tiffith, who started TDE in 1997, when he sunk what he estimates to be about $100,000 into a home studio in Carson, Calif. -- only to watch it lay dormant for seven years while he "finished doing whatever I was doing" before turning his attention to music full time.
"This is our real first release," he adds. "This is going to set the tone for TDE."
SOMETHING TO PROVE
While Tiffith's characterization of the label's success to date isn't quite accurate -- TDE has moved more than 150,000 units, according to SoundScan, starting with Lamar's 2010 project "Overly Dedicated" (12,000) and his 2011 follow-up, "Section.80" (78,000) -- his assessment is certainly on point. This time last year, TDE was an independent success story, a label with a core roster in Lamar, Schoolboy Q, Jay Rock and Ab-Soul (collectively known as Black Hippy) -- of young, viable talent with growing power at retail and on the road. The label's Internet footprint -- shaped in no small part by Free, a former computer technician who made securing online support for Lamar and TDE a cornerstone of his strategy -- was formidable, and even without radio support, each subsequent release tracked higher and higher sales.
By aligning with Interscope, however, the terms of the game immediately changed. No longer was TDE the indie label that could -- suddenly it was an investment with questions to answer and something to prove. Still, Tiffith thinks that even with increased expectations, the deal was the right move.
"As long as you control your touring, publishing and your merch, you're good," he says. "Kendrick might sell a million records, somebody else [on the label] might not. So if you can get a big-ass check to set the future up for everybody else, you might want to get that, because you never know what's going to happen. Today, most rappers and artists make their money on the road because records don't sell the way they used to."
In March, Warner/Chappell secured a partnership with Dr. Dre for Lamar's publishing that Tiffith characterizes as "one of the biggest publishing deals in the past five to six years, especially for a new artist."
Warner/Chappell chairman/CEO Cameron Strang says, "Everyone at Warner/Chappell recognizes Kendrick's great talents, and his new album is phenomenal. Our long and fruitful relationship with Dr. Dre was an instrumental factor in his signing with us."
Even as it eyes Lamar's debut, TDE is setting up solo releases from Ab-Soul and Schoolboy Q (who got a separate solo deal, with Interscope, as part of the TDE/Interscope package) with a possible Black Hippy project in the works. More broadly, Tiffith talks about restoring Interscope's storied rap legacy ("We've got the talent, we've got the artists") and building an empire on par with Cash Money and Death Row.
But before he and TDE can get there, there's "good kid, m.A.A.d city," perhaps the most-watched rap debut since J. Cole's "Cole World: The Sideline Story" last year. Like Cole, who was touted as Jay-Z's protege, Lamar has a heavyweight co-sign in Dr. Dre. And like Cole, who didn't have a hit single at radio as he headed into release, Lamar has yet to deliver a traditional hit -- "Swimming Pools" held steady at No. 14 on the Hot R&B / Hip-Hop Songs last week and sits at No. 61 on the Billboard Hot 100. Yet, also like Cole (and next week's big hip hop debut artist, Meek Mill), Lamar has an online buzz that is thunderous, if hard to gauge. According to the label, preorders for "good kid, m.A.A.d city" were at 12,000 at press time.
"Cole World" surprised many industry watchers when it bowed atop the Billboard 200 with 217,000 copies, according to SoundScan, and in the year since, at least a couple of other rappers known more online than at radio have come close to repeating the trick. In November, Rostrum Records' Mac Miller pulled off a feat of his own when he sold 144,000 first-week copies on his way to becoming the first independent artist to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 since 1995. Last week, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis landed their debut at No. 2 with 78,000 sold, despite little to no airplay. The question is: Can TDE and Lamar do the same?
"We're trying to manage our expectations," Interscope vice chairman Steve Berman says. "That said, based on the reaction that we're getting, the expectations are growing every day. However this record rolls out, the commitment of Interscope Geffen A&M is to the long-term vision of Kendrick and of TDE. We're going to be working this project for a long, long time."