Meet Kendrick Lamar's 'DAMN.' Secret Weapon: Zacari

Marlin "Visual Thought" Munoz
Zacari

Being mentioned alongside Kendrick Lamar, Rihanna and U2 is a dream for many artists, but for singer-songwriter Zacari Pacaldo, it’s a reality. On Thursday (April 13), K. Dot’s highly-anticipated DAMN. LP arrived, boasting only those three guest appearances, and the Zacari-assisted “LOVE.” quickly stood out as one its best.

The weight of this moment isn’t lost on Zacari. The 23-year-old calls this experience “unbelievable.” He even compares it to working with a certain Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. "To have a song with a guy like Kendrick Lamar in this generation, is like back in the days, having a song with 2Pac, basically,” he said. "It’s legendary."

Moments after this "unreal" moment became very real, the Bakersfield, Calif., crooner spoke with Billboard about his life story, from playing in a youth group in his hometown to being on the most talked-about album in music. He also broke down his past work with TDE’s Isaiah Rashad and Ab-Soul, and revealed what fans should expect from his forthcoming solo project. Meet DAMN.’s secret weapon: Zacari.

Kendrick only has three credited features on this album. He’s got U2, Rihanna, and he’s got you, Zacari. How did you feel when you first heard the news? What does that mean to you?

When I found that out, it was pretty unbelievable. A lot of artists these days will try to hide feature names and stuff like that, so to see my name up there with Rihanna and U2, that was kind of unreal, man. It was amazing. Shout out to Kendrick for giving me that chance because I literally went from SoundCloud a year ago to this. I don’t know, man. I’m trying to take it all in right now.

When you look back on that year, how does that make you feel?

It’s literally just been me and Moosa [Tiffith, Zacari’s manager] going hard. No breaks at all. I promise you. I’ve been recording songs for over a couple of years. I think “Foggy Windows” came out a couple of years ago. So we’ve just been recording, developing styles and taking every opportunity we can. To finally get to this point, I can’t even explain it, man. It’s unreal.

This isn’t the first time you’ve worked with Kendrick. Let’s go back to “Wat’s Wrong” off Isaiah Rashad’s The Sun’s Tirade. How did that song come about and what did you take away from that experience?

I was actually on a family vacation at the time. Moosa called me and said, “Isaiah’s trying to get a hook on this song. I just sent it. Can you record a hook?” I was at this family reunion in Lake Tahoe. So pretty much, the whole time I was out there, I had my headphones on, just playing that song over and over again, anxious to get back to L.A. to record that hook. Literally, I got back to L.A. like at 8 o’clock or 9 o’clock at night. I went straight to the studio and recorded that hook in like 30 minutes, texted that to Isaiah and Matt [Miller, Rashad’s manager], and they hit me back right away and said they loved it. When I did that, I didn’t know that Kendrick was going to be on it. I didn’t know that at all. I found that out like two days before it came out. It was crazy. I was in awe.

What did you think when you heard the final version? When Kendrick added his flavor, it meshed well with yours.

Exactly! He kind of played off my hook. The way he ended his verse went into my hook so it was kind of cool to see him write around what I wrote on the hook. That’s what really got me and Kendrick in the studio, after hearing me on that. That’s what’s crazy. To have a song with a guy like Kendrick Lamar in this generation, is like back in the days, having a song with 2Pac, basically. It’s legendary. I’m out here. 23 years old. I’m just blessed, man.

From there, you did “RAW (backwards)” on Ab Soul’s Do What Thou Wilt and you got to rock out in the video. What was that experience like?  

I spent a lot of time in the studio with Ab-Soul. He was staying at this spot we were staying at for a while so we were in the studio a lot. He had this song and he actually had the words for me, what he wanted me to do. My mom actually played in rock bands so I grew up listening to AC/DC and I love [them]. So I was excited to get the opportunity to use those rock vocals.

What kind of music do you remember your mom playing in the house?

My mom’s musical. She always had a harmonica, so she played a lot of blues harmonica, but she also used to play drums in rock bands so we always had a drum kit growing up in my house. On the soul side, my dad’s a blues and soul lover so I’d wake up in the morning to him listening to all kinds of stuff every morning. I grew up in a very musical house. My parents had me in a performing arts school when I was a kid. I’ve always had that love for music.

That helps explain some of your range. So, you’re recording these songs with Soul and Isaiah, and at what point do you meet Kendrick and start sharing ideas? How did that come about?

That came about after The Sun’s Tirade came out. Me and Teddy Walton, my producer -- who also produced “LOVE.” and who’s also producing my whole project, as well -- were working in the studio, just working on my stuff. Moosa pulled up and we were talking to him about getting in with Kendrick. Moosa hit him right then, set up a day, and Kendrick was like, "Bring those fools through." Moosa brought us through the Kendrick session, and me and Teddy got a chance to play him some of the stuff we’d been working on and he loved it all. The very last song that me and Teddy played ended up being “LOVE.”

You said he loved it all. Take me through the songs that you shared with him. What kind of vibes were you getting from him? What were his reactions like?

That’s the funny thing. I played him about four of my songs and Teddy played him a few beats, as well. Every song that I played that I’d been working on -- my own songs, my project-type stuff -- he was like, “Yo, this is crazy. Let me get that. That’s dope. This inspires me. Let me get that one too.” The track that actually ended up being “LOVE.” was the last song I played before we left. He was actually a lot more quiet about that one when we were playing it. Then he was just like, "Send me that one too." The next day, he asked me for the stems. The way I think about it is, he was probably more quiet when that one was playing because he probably heard the whole thing right off the bat when he heard it. In his head, he probably heard the whole song. That’s the way I look at it.

What was the foundation of the track, and how did it evolve into the final product?

It was actually an original song that I already had done. It was called “Lovely.” So it was a complete song that I played him. It had a hook, an outro, all of that. Basically, he just kept me on the hook, played off the second part of the hook, and then replaced my verses. That’s how the song came together. It’s awesome because you make this song and then you hear what Kendrick Lamar did to it, and it just levels up into a whole new song.

You mentioned earlier that you were raised in a musical household. What are your earliest memories of that and how did that develop into a full-fledged career?

My earliest memories are being 8, 9, or 10 years old at a performing arts school, singing Elvis Presley and James Brown songs and Broadway type stuff in this little after school program that my parents had me in. But I would really say that I got into writing songs and creating music when I learned how to play guitar. Then I started singing, covering songs, and then I ended up joining the youth group and worship team at my church. From there, I ended up leading the main congregation all through high school. It was a contemporary Christian church so I was leading the band, writing my own music just with my guitar. I had never got into beats at that time. It was just me and my acoustic guitar.

This was all in Bakersfield. At what point did you decide you were going to L.A. to chase your dream?  

I always knew that music was what I wanted to do, but when I graduated high school, I ended up taking a job as a dishwasher in Alaska. I just wanted to get out for the summer but I actually did three seasons in Alaska for work to save up money. I ended up being a fishing and bear-viewing guide by the third season. That was awesome. That was such an amazing job. Part of that too was to save money to help my parents to get me to the Musician’s Institute in Los Angeles.

Apparently, you were killing it. I saw the New York Times article about that. Did Alaska help shape or influence your music at all? I imagine that was quite an experience, going to Alaska after being in Bakersfield your whole life.

Yeah, it definitely did. It’s so refreshing. It’s literally like another world out there. It wasn’t like I was in a town or city in Alaska. I was literally in the middle of nowhere. You had to take a bush plane and land on water to get where I was working. It’s just peaceful and refreshing, so it definitely contributed to my sound, as far as refreshing goes. It helped me find a sound that I think is different because I had my acoustic guitar out there. Then, I come to L.A. and learn about these beats, producers, and SoundCloud, so I’m able to merge those two elements together to find this balance.

How would you describe your sound?

The best way I can describe it is, it’s like a mix of psychedelic and trill. Hard-hitting drums but we also got peaceful keys, breaks, pianos, flutes, guitars -- all that. The drops hit hard, the snares hit, the kicks hit. It’s a good combination of those two different genres, I think.

You’re 23. You’re on Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. You have a project on the way. As an artist, what do you want your message to be? What do you want to stand for as you move forward in your career?

The whole theme of this project I’m working on is the happier side of loneliness. That also relates to me going to Alaska. It’s just a brighter side of loneliness. I know that there are a lot of people that, when they’re alone, they can’t handle it. But this is about not being so dependent on others and other things, and being able to be happy when you’re by yourself, when you’re in your own head, and when you’re in your own thoughts. To still stay positive. I can go a week by myself and love life, but there’s a lot of people out there that can’t do that so I’m just going all in on my project right now.