Lamar introduced his "vampires" -- a live band of soulful studio pros including bassist Thundercat, percussionist Bilal, singer Anna Wise and saxophonist Terrace Martin -- in December, when he performed on the final week of The Colbert Report. Kendrick used the prime spot (Colbert's second-to-last night before departing for CBS) to debut a jazzy, untitled track produced by French underground veteran Astronote. It's unlikely to even make the final cut of his feverishly anticipated new album due out in the first half of 2015.
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"I just like the energy" of the song, says Lamar. "I didn't go on there to sell a single. I just did what I felt." Such is the prerogative of Kendrick Lamar, widely hailed as hip-hop's savior in a period when few rappers seem committed to art for art's sake. While image-conscious leading MCs like Drake and Nicki Minaj competitively hone their craft and tally hits, Lamar seems intent on transcending what he calls the "sport" of rap: "I pride myself on writing now rather than rapping," he says. "My passion is bringing storylines around and constructing a full body of work, rather than just a 16-bar verse."
For this, Lamar has been lionized by pop-culture authorities ranging from Chris Rock, who called him one of top five MCs of all time, to Taylor Swift, who recently told Billboard, "I wish I was best friends with Kendrick Lamar, and I'm not." In contrast to Compton's first superstar, N.W.A., Lamar took a novelistic approach on his 2012 debut, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City -- less Boyz in the Hood, more Catcher in the Rye. Certified platinum, it hit No. 2 on the Billboard 200. "I know when I'm listening to Kendrick Lamar that each word was put there for a reason," says Imagine Dragons lead singer Dan Reynolds, who performed with Lamar at the 2014 Grammys. "A lot of thought goes into it." Says John Janick, chairman/CEO of Interscope, which has a joint-venture deal with Top Dawg Entertainment, Lamar's label: "Kendrick pulls culture toward him. He doesn't mirror it."
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Sitting in a small dressing room at Smashbox Studios in Culver City, wearing red slippers, Lamar is polite but guarded. He seems flattered, in his low-key-slash-philosophical way, that Swift -- who has called his track "Backseat Freestyle" her personal theme song -- wishes the two were besties. "I thought she just liked the song. That's a beautiful thing, Taylor Swift enjoying that song and knowing the words."
The first single off Lamar's new album -- which he says he has already named, although he won't share the title -- "I," peaked at No. 39 on the Billboard Hot 100 after its release in September. But its hypnotic old-school groove (on loan from The Isley Brothers' "That Lady") mapped out new territory for Lamar. It also earned him two Grammy nominations, for best rap song and best rap performance. And he teased further ambitions when he performed on Saturday Night Live in November, wearing black contact lenses that evoked Method Man and a riot of braids that paid tribute to Ol' Dirty Bastard ("He was an individual -- his hair was crazy, no matter what he had on"). "I don't want people to take away how cute I look, or how the light is shining off my chain," says Lamar. "I want you to take away a great-ass performance."
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Like Barack Obama, Lamar is an introvert with an extrovert's job. "I've been called a recluse," he concedes. "There's definitely truth in that. I like to spend time alone." He rarely is seen in the clubs, he doesn't drink a lot or smoke weed, and he has been with his girlfriend, Whitney Alford, since they were both in high school. (She's also in her late 20s.) She has been spotted with Lamar at the Grammys and in South Africa, and is so at ease sassing him that she joked about him being "cheap" in front of a New York Times reporter. "I wouldn't even call her my girl," he says. "That's my best friend. I don't even like the term that society has put in the world as far as being a companion -- she's somebody I can tell my fears to."
Lamar spent much of his childhood on the streets, and he's cagey about the trouble he might've gotten into. "Oh, man, I won't be able to say that on record. I got into some things, but God willing, he had favoritism over me and my spirit." He also has been treated unfairly by the cops -- "plenty of times. All the time." Asked about the high-profile killings of African-Americans by police in 2014, from Ferguson, Mo., to Staten Island, he says, "I wish somebody would look in our neighborhood knowing that it's already a situation, mentally, where it's f---ked up. What happened to [Michael Brown] should've never happened. Never. But when we don't have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us? It starts from within. Don't start with just a rally, don't start from looting -- it starts from within." Lamar, who has said that he wasn't raised devoutly religious, fingers the small figure of Christ dangling from a chain around his neck. "We're in the last days, man -- I truly in my heart believe that. It's written. I could go on with Biblical situations and things my grandma told me. But it's about being at peace with myself and making good with the people around me."
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Surprisingly for such a hyperliterate lyricist, Lamar is not much of a reader, saying that he mostly learns by talking to people from different walks of life. The Autobiography of Malcolm X stands out for him from his high school reading, though. "What do you want your legacy to be at the end of the day?" he says, describing what the book taught him. "Going back and looking at all the great leaders, I tend to put that in my music the same way Martin Luther King did."
Lamar's parents moved to Compton from the South Side of Chicago before he was born. They hoped to escape the violence in Chicago, not realizing they had found another neighborhood plagued by gangs. Lamar remembers his family -- he's the oldest of four kids -- relying on food stamps and getting kicked out of their tiny apartment when he was about 8 (the property had been sold) and having to live in a hotel for six months. "2Pac had just passed," recalls Lamar. "My uncle was in jail, and we was in a hotel. My moms never owned a house until I was able to afford it for her." (Lamar recently bought a four-bedroom home in Eastvale, an hour east of L.A., as a gift for a family member, although he won't specify whom.)
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Lamar quit drinking and smoking weed when he was 16 or 17. "Teenagers don't get it -- we selfish. Go drink, go smoke, go get f---ed up," he remembers. "Why did I do these things? Because I was brought up around it? It damn sure was in the household. I said, 'I know what happens to my family and certain friends when they get drunk and they smoke. They get out of their minds, they get violent. And that's in my blood.' I have little sips on special occasions, but getting all the way out of my mind may not be a good idea." Those insights inspired his first hit (No. 17 on the Hot 100), the harrowing "Swimming Pool (Drank)": "You're like me, making excuse that your relief/Is in the bottom of the bottle and the greenest indo leaf."
Lamar got serious about rapping around the same time he cooled out on partying. "Before finding music, I didn't have too many aspirations," he says. "I wanted to hang out, make a little money from whatever I had to do. Because that's all you see in the four-block radius." But as a teen, after he started rhyming, he still set his sights too low: "I wanted to go back to the neighborhood and say, 'I got signed.' F--- putting an album out, f--- selling records, f--- being on TV. All I wanted to do is put my name on the dotted line."
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"I was his hype man," says Schoolboy Q, a Top Dawg Entertainment rapper whose success followed Lamar's. "I saw his first check for a show: $4,000. We thought that was the most money in the world."
In 2011, Lamar signed to Dr. Dre's Aftermath label. Recognition truly arrived in 2013, with his incendiary guest verse on Big Sean's "Control." Lamar called out 11 rappers -- including Drake, J. Cole and Big Sean himself -- declaring, "I got love for you all, but I'm trying to murder you n---as." The verse inspired dozens of response tracks and seemed to bother Drake in particular. "Drake is definitely a great artist in this world," Lamar now says. Then he grins. "I'm a great artist in my world." (Lamar has collaborated with acts from Kid Cudi to Foster the People, recently quoting $250,000 to record lyrics on a track.)
One highly debated rapper Lamar refuses to knock, even playfully: Iggy Azalea. "She's doing her thing," he says. "Let her. People have to go through trials and tribulations to get where they at. Do your thing, continue to rock it, because obviously God wants you here." Lamar was similarly gracious in 2014, when he got shut out at the Grammys after earning seven nominations. Macklemore beat him out for best new artist and best rap album, then texted Lamar an apology for doing so (which he also posted to Instagram). Lamar called Macklemore "a genuine dude," adding, "I wish him much success."
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"That's not my overall goal," says Lamar of winning awards. "I appreciate them recognizing me. It's best to just go and enjoy the festivities."
Lamar says that "the end is in sight" with his unfinished album, which is bittersweet for him. "My enjoyment is creating the music," he explains. "Once it gets pressed up, with bar codes on it, then it's not really fun anymore." The musicians who joined him on Colbert constitute the core of his vampire crew. "These are guys I've been around for years, in the L.A. music circuit," he says. "This wasn't a situation where somebody put us together. When you're playing instruments, all that stuff comes from the soul. It's real individuals pushing these sounds out. I get that same impact when I push the words out behind it."
Even if the untitled song from Colbert never resurfaces, it shows the breadth of Lamar's ambition, and the crossroads where he stands. Does he want to be Jay Z -- who famously declared himself "a business, man" -- or a self-styled radical, like Nas? Does he plan on dominating the game, or escaping it through art? "I" could be interpreted either way: It's an affirmation of self-belief in even the hardest of times, with a chorus chant of "I love myself."
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"That's hard to say every time you wake up in the morning," says Lamar, who wrote the lyric to lift himself up during a period of self-doubt. He leans forward conspiratorially. "That's a psychological trick I wanted to play on myself. Now that I put this song in the atmosphere, what's going to happen? I have to perform it every night for the next three years when we go on tour. Every time I'm in a weird mood or something goes on at home that I can't handle, I've got to perform it anyway."