Kendrick Lamar: ‘I am Trayvon Martin. I’m all of these kids’

The Compton rapper’s politically charged album To Pimp a Butterfly has been widely hailed as a modern masterpiece. Here he talks about the difficulty of coming to terms with his past, and why addressing serious issues is a matter of integrity

Last year, the director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention presented research demonstrating that “youth living in inner cities show a higher prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder than soldiers”. The report estimates that 30% of young people in urban “combat zones” suffer from some form of PTSD.

When I mention this to Kendrick Lamar, he nods and says: “That’s real.” Recently, he was making the video for his new single, Alright, when he was startled by a loud bang. In a split second the successful 28-year-old rapper disappeared and the wary teenager from the streets of Compton, California resurfaced.

“I don’t know if somebody threw a rocket at a trash can or what, but it made a loud-ass popping sound and everybody who was in the car with me ducked,” he remembers. “The instinct to get out the way when you hear a popping sound, that’s real for me. I’m sure it’s real for a lot of artists who grew up in neighbourhoods like that.”

Hip-hop is obsessed with the distance between Then and Now. The ambitious MC’s path from violence and deprivation to fame and wealth is the genre’s ur-narrative. But nobody has unpacked the implications of that transition as thoroughly as Kendrick does on his remarkable third studio album, To Pimp a Butterfly.

When it came out in March, it felt like the album hip-hop had been waiting for. On the review aggregator website Metacritic it is one of the most acclaimed albums ever with a 96% score. One critic called it “The Great American Hip-Hop Album”. Recently, Kendrick visited a New Jersey high school where the album was being used to teach students about “the dichotomy of black culture in America” and accepted a Generational Icon award from the California state senate.

When we meet, Kendrick heads the Billboard top 100 via a guest verse on Taylor Swift’s single Bad Blood. I wonder what a listener who discovers him that way will make of an album as dense, relentless and discomfiting as To Pimp a Butterfly.

“I don’t know,” he says, smiling. “I know it’ll be challenging for a listener who doesn’t know my music. The process of me making it is the same process the listener’s going to have to deal with, and that’s rolling with it. I had to roll with this record for two years but it was a fun experience. That’s the place I’m putting the listener in.”

Kendrick Lamar - King Kunta video.

With 2012’s good kid, mAAd city, an audacious concept album about his dicey adolescence, Kendrick brought a leftfield sensibility to a mainstream platform and became hip-hop’s new hero: tough, agile, erudite and questioning. The album earned him a platinum disc, four Grammy nominations, fans including Kanye West, Chris Rock and Taylor Swift, and guest verses for everyone from Eminem and 50 Cent to Imagine Dragons and Dido. It also triggered a profound spiritual crisis.

If good kid, mAAd city was a bildungsroman then To Pimp a Butterfly (among other things, it’s a riff on Harper Lee and a metaphor for art versus commerce) is a morality play. When Kendrick’s mentor, Dr Dre, pops up on the first song to say, “Remember, anybody can get it. But the hard part is keeping it,” he misses the point. Kendrick is interested in interrogating what “it” means. For him, success is a minefield of temptation and responsibility that he didn’t foresee. On the album he labels himself a “fucking failure” and a “hypocrite” who suffers from “survivor’s guilt”, before describing how he rediscovered his equilibrium.

What lifts the album out of that charmless category of musicians moaning about fame is the depth of Kendrick’s insight and the way he relates it to the broader African-American experience. This is hip-hop with a capacious sense of history, influenced by George Clinton and Miles Davis, James Brown and Sly Stone, Ralph Ellison and Alex Haley. Emotionally, it runs the gamut. When Kendrick released the Grammy-winning track i last year, with its sunny Isley Brothers guitar loop and self-affirming chorus of “I love myself”, some fans worried that he’d gone soft, but on To Pimp a Butterfly it’s revealed as a necessary counterweight to the brutally self-lacerating u, in which he tells himself “everything is your fault”. One recurring word sums up both the record and the man who made it: “conflicted”.

“It’s really about me trying to balance these worlds – where I used to be and where I am today – from all different angles,” he says. “This album was therapy for me. I was looking at myself in the mirror and trying to figure out who I really am.”

Kendrick isn’t just smaller than I expected (he’s 5ft 6in and slight) but quieter and gentler, too, with none of the gruff intensity you hear on a song like King Kunta. When he visits the Observer office, fresh off the red-eye from Washington DC, he keeps a low profile in black jeans, white trainers and a blue jacket, his hair twisted into braids. He carries himself like someone with nothing to prove. Up close, he has a certain aura but it’s something calmer and weightier than star quality.

At the same time he has a boyish, playful streak (his favourite food is Fruity Pebbles cereal) and is quick to smile. When we walk down the corridors of a nearby photo studio we pass a fish tank and Kendrick bangs on the glass, leaning in to watch the startled fish dart back and forth. He might be offering me a neat metaphor for sudden fame (he’s the fish) but I think he’s just mucking about. “When you enter the music industry, your life basically starts over,” he says later. “I’m still young and still learning.”

Kendrick Lamar - i video.

One reason that To Pimp a Butterfly has resonated so powerfully is timing. Its complex reflections on identity and racism landed in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and a string of cases in which unarmed black men died at the hands of the police. “The timing of both was kind of uncanny,” the R&B singer D’Angelo said recently, comparing it to his own similarly weighty and panoramic Black Messiah album. “It was almost a sign: motherfuckers are making some shit that’s relevant to the times.” But Kendrick started plotting the angriest song, The Blacker the Berry, long before his last album and wrote the first draft in a furious burst after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot dead by vigilante George Zimmerman in February 2012.

“These are issues that if you come from that environment it’s inevitable to speak on,” he says in a studio dressing room, twanging a wodge of mint-green gum between his fingers. “It’s already in your blood because I am Trayvon Martin, you know. I’m all of these kids. It’s already implanted in your brain to come out your mouth as soon as you’ve seen it on the TV. I had that track way before that, from the beginning to the end, and the incident just snapped it for me.”

It’s often said that rappers are discouraged from speaking out about politics by a controversy-shy record industry but Kendrick isn’t buying it. “No, there’s no excuse,” he says. “It’s really just about integrity. We all like to have fun. I like to have fun, too. But where do you stop and say, ‘You know what? There’s actually some real shit going on out there that people can relate to more than any singalong I can bring to the table.’”

He pulls back, worried about sounding didactic. “It’s just about balance. I don’t fault other artists. I don’t say this person should be doing that. As conscious as my music sounds, I would never point the finger because every day I make mistakes.”


When Kendrick Lamar Duckworth was a kid, his neighbourhood was notorious. In 1987, the year he was born, Compton became the deadliest city in California. When he was one, NWA immortalised it in Straight Outta Compton, gangsta rap’s big bang. When he was eight, Dr Dre and Tupac Shakur (whom Kendrick “interviews”, using an old audio recording, at the end of To Pimp a Butterfly) came to the neighbourhood to film the video for California Love. Kendrick was there.

He sighs at the memory. “Tupac in Compton, man! To kids, even grown men, he was like a superhero. I don’t know what gave him this aura but he had something else. Now I’m old enough to say I don’t think even he knew it.”

As the son of two Black Panther activists, Tupac was almost destined to make an impact, but Kendrick’s origins were more humble. Kenny Duckworth and Paula Oliver, whose voices can be heard on good kid, mAAd city, moved to Compton from the south side of Chicago in 1984 with just $500. Trying to escape gang violence, they migrated from the frying pan to the fire. Kendrick’s political awareness grew from what he saw rather than what he was told.

“My parents don’t come from the Black Panther side of Chicago,” says Kendrick, the oldest of four siblings. “They believe in certain things but they were just trying to manoeuvre through the cracks. Most of the things that I speak of now came from having my own theories and my own perspective on what’s going on in the community.”

Kendrick with his mentor and fellow Compton rapper, Dr Dre.
Kendrick with his mentor and fellow Compton rapper Dr Dre. Photograph: JABPromotions/Rex Shutterstock

Kendrick was a wise, watchful, self-contained child rather than a natural showboater. When he began rapping he was driven less by the desire to perform (he stuttered when he was nervous or excited) than by sheer love of words. “It was always the phrases,” he says with relish. “The wittiness, the clarity, how you manipulate words and make them mean other things. I practised the wording for a long time before I got the delivery down pat. I couldn’t be as intense as I can be now.”

Rapping “on the corners” made Kendrick popular and cured his stutter. He released his first mixtape, under the pseudonym K-Dot, in 2003, but there were a lot of distractions in Compton. Good kid, mAAd city (mAAd is an acronym for “My Angry Adolescence Divided”) documents the summer he turned 17 and fell in with a bad crowd, doing things he still won’t fully disclose. “Some things don’t need to be said.” But he says he wrote enough songs to fill a sequel, which tells you a lot about what he got up to and how it haunts him. He had seen his first murder victim when he was five and grown used to seeing the casualties of gang wars between Bloods and Crips but now it was his friends lying still on hospital gurneys, shot down by gang members or, in one case, a police officer.

He escaped that life thanks to family, faith and hip-hop. “It was the counterweight to peer pressure,” he says. “Whenever I wasn’t on the streets with my homeys I was in the studio. It was something that kept me out of trouble. So my mom would let me stay out till four in the morning because she knew I was doing that.”

Did he feel he had a good chance of making it as a rapper?

“Sometimes. It just depended on what type of day it was. If it was a day when I’m doing something constructive like being in the studio, yeah, I may feel like I can make it, but if it’s a day when I’m just hanging out and somebody drives by, starts shooting, and the bullet barely misses me but it hits the homey and kills him, I don’t feel like that no more. I’m back to reality. So, some days I did, some days I didn’t, but there were more days I didn’t.”

In his early 20s, Kendrick went for it “full force”, appearing on records by established stars Lil Wayne and the Game, and forming a collective called Black Hippy. In 2010 his fourth mixtape, Overly Dedicated, snagged the attention of Compton legend Dr Dre. The following year’s Section.80, a dual reference to the federal housing benefit scheme Section 8 and the generation born in the 1980s amid gang wars and Reagonomics, was a morally nuanced concept album about two women. Good kid, mAAd city, released through Dre’s Aftermath Entertainment, was an instant sensation, so universally admired that when the white rapper Macklemore beat Kendrick to the Grammy for best rap album he texted him, “It’s weird and sucks that I robbed you.”

‘You have so many different emotions you may not want to pour out on the microphone’: Kendrick Lamar onstage in Ottawa, 2013.
‘You have so many different emotions you may not want to pour out on the microphone’: Kendrick onstage in Ottawa, 2013. Photograph: Mark Horton/WireImage

Kendrick came up so fast that he got the bends. He describes the process on the poem that runs through To Pimp a Butterfly like a throbbing vein: “Resentment that turned into a deep depression/ Found myself screaming in the hotel room.” That’s a real incident, he says: “99% of my music is specific events.” He thinks the hotel was in Atlanta, which would make it December 2013, during his tour with Kanye West. What made him scream?

“It was something that just accumulated,” he says. “You know when you get bad news after bad news after bad news? And you can’t express this to nobody but you got to relieve it in some type of way? I was able to bottle that moment and put in on record.”

He had experienced depression as a teenager and now it was back, triggered by a combination of stress and guilt. He doesn’t like to talk about his problems anyway but he also felt that his friends wouldn’t understand. “You can tell them all day that it has its downside but if they’re doing bad financially they don’t want to hear that shit! They don’t understand that shit until they’re in it.”

Does he think other newly successful rappers feel similar discomfort and just don’t talk about it publicly?

“Oh, definitely. They’d be lying to you if they said they didn’t. I find myself to be quite confident as a person but you’re going to have that piece of doubt in the back of your head because we’re human. We all have it. It’s just I like to address it and not keep it bottled in, because I don’t know what it could turn into.”

Kendrick’s angst would have been easier to explain if he had been wrestling with a tangible side-effect of success – a drug addiction, a financial dispute, a media backlash – but it was all internal. Everything was strange and new. Being around white people for the first time made him insecure. Suddenly having big money made him discombobulated. I wonder how he felt, as someone who grew up on food stamps in Section 8 housing, when he got his first big paycheck.

“Man, I was so excited!” he says, lighting up. “I didn’t know what to do with it. To tell you the truth I wanted to spend it as fast as I could on whatever I dreamed about. The kid in me, the person who never had nothing growing up, is saying, ‘I want to spend this shit on some chains and a car,’ but the other side that’s on the records is telling me, ‘You need to think wisely.’ I’ve been conflicted like that since I was a little boy. Doing music is the only way for me to get that conflict out. You heard of Gemini? There’s always two sides.”

On the album, temptation is represented by a woman called Lucy, as in Lucifer. “Lucy is all the [things] that I was thinking of that I know can be detrimental to not only me but the people around me, and still be tempted by them. That’s some scary shit. It’s like looking at a bullet inside of a gun, knowing you can kill yourself with it, but you’re still picking it up and playing with it.”

What kind of things?

“Everything that we glorified in the hood – smoking, drinking, women, violence – was at my feet times 10. All of it’s there. In the neighbourhood we wanted to have power and with success comes power. That is temptation at its highest.”

Did he do anything he regretted?

“Uh, yeah, definitely. Not knowing how to utilise my power. I think a lot of the mistakes I made was influencing some of the cats that I grew up with.”

On the final song, Mortal Man, Kendrick raps: “As I lead this army make room for mistakes and depression.” The idea of leading an army might seem presumptuous, but the way Kendrick sees it the role isn’t optional.

“You got it whether you want it or not because you have thousands of people singing your songs every night,” he says. “Your friends at the side of the stage, they’re looking at you as somebody who made it. They’re following you. And every mistake that you make, they’re going to make the same mistakes.” Some people who were close to Tupac before his murder in 1996 have told Kendrick stories about the errors that his boyhood hero made: “his influence on his homeboys and the things he could have done”. He doesn’t want to repeat them.

Kendrick Lamar - Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe video.

Two months after his meltdown in Atlanta, Kendrick played three dates in South Africa and decided to stay for a week, visiting Nelson Mandela’s old cell on Robben Island. “It just snapped me back to reality,” he says. “It gave me a whole other perspective. The tricky part is explaining that bigger picture to those back in Compton. That’s some of the message I was trying to convey on this album.”

On the record he beats himself up for leaving his old community behind for a while. Did they resent him?

“No, they were proud of me. It’s funny, because when I talk to other rappers or hear their music, they always come from a place where the neighbourhood hates them now. I wouldn’t even try to say that. The people who grew up with me actually knew my struggle and say, ‘OK, that’s one kid who made it out.’”


Kendrick is a remarkably clean-living rap star. He doesn’t take drugs, rarely drinks, lives modestly and recently got engaged to his high-school girlfriend, Whitney Alford (they live in a rented condo in South Bay, LA County). Apart from sugary cereal, does he have any vices at all?

“Selfishness,” he says straight away. “I can completely shut out everybody in my life that I care about because of my music. It becomes an addiction. You slowly forget about real love.” He seems genuinely bothered by this. “Maybe it’s just a personality trait that I [need to] work on because you hurt a lot of people’s feelings when you can’t tell them that you love them. That’s a huge flaw in my character, for sure.”

Kendrick considers To Pimp a Butterfly a moral record rather than a political one. The Blacker the Berry starts out as a scalding protest song (“You hate my people/ Your plan is to terminate my culture”) but Kendrick complicates it by adding a verse about black-on-black violence: “Why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street/ When gangbanging make me kill a nigga blacker than me? Hypocrite!”

After he told Billboard magazine, “When we don’t respect ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us? It starts from within”, he was accused of indulging in respectability politics. Rapper Azealia Banks tweeted that it was the “dumbest shit I’ve ever heard a black man say”. Having experienced police brutality himself, Kendrick feels he has nothing to apologise for.

Kendrick with his high-school girlfriend, Whitney Alford. The couple recently got engaged.
Kendrick with his high-school girlfriend, Whitney Alford. The couple recently got engaged. Photograph: Christopher Polk

“They probably don’t know my music, or what I’ve been through, or what I’ve done for my community when I used that word respect. So I really couldn’t blame them for taking my words out of context.” What some people regard as respectability politics, Kendrick considers self-examination. “That last line, that’s the conflict in me growing up. That’s me knowing my own demons and trying to reverse the curse. That’s why it’s so important.”

He doesn’t mean metaphorical demons. Kendrick is deeply religious and was baptised a couple of years ago. “It just felt like something I had to do.” His conversion was sparked years earlier by a friend’s grandmother who approached him in a parking lot one day while he was mourning another murdered friend. “A lot of my homeboys were getting killed, a lot of them going to jail. I was put in a lot of situations I can’t even…” He frowns, hesitates. “I still to this day can’t figure out why I wasn’t in the same position as the victim.”

Does he believe in evil?

“I don’t think people are evil. My homeboys, they’re not evil. These are good-hearted people who just want to hang around and see the good things in life. But when you’re around negativity, that’s where the negative spirits dwell. And those spirits get inside you. I know it’s true. We always wonder why people act the way they’re acting. We put the statistics in it and we put history behind it, but we’re missing God in the equation. The devil is real and he’s alive. Nobody ever brings that shit up.”

Kendrick admits he has an apocalyptic streak. “Even as a teenager, I always said I was in the last days. That’s just something I’ve always believed in. It’s going to take more than unity. It’s going to take faith.”

To Pimp a Butterfly ends on a tense, ambivalent note. “It leaves you hanging,” he says. “I end it with me telling my homeboys that we should be doing this. That don’t necessarily mean they’re listening. That don’t necessarily mean that I’m not going to get frustrated with them and say, ‘You know what? Fuck it! I can’t change you and I’m not going to change me.’ I’m just trying to figure out my place in the world and, lord willing, I’ll never backtrack.”

When he was making the album, Kendrick enjoyed the all-night sessions but found some of the performances emotionally gruelling. “It’s not tough to write,” he says. “When you’re writing from experiences, it’s like that!” He clicks his fingers. “The hard part is actually recording it because you have so many different emotions you may not want to pour out on the microphone.”

Taylor Swift - Bad Blood ft Kendrick Lamar video.

He says he wrote one lyric so angry that people around him vetoed it. Obviously I want to know what it said. He hesitates. “Put it this way, the lyrics and intensity on The Blacker the Berry are nothing compared with this one record that I have in the vaults. It makes The Blacker the Berry look like a kindergarten kid. It was probably a little bit too far out for people to understand it.”

Well, now I want to hear it.

“Yeah,” he says, meaning never in a million years. “It’s damaging.”

Kendrick is currently rehearsing with his band to recreate To Pimp a Butterfly on stage (“It has to be explosive”) but he already has an ambitious concept for his next album. “I know exactly what I want to say next,” he says with a teasing smile, still playing with his gum. “Everything is going to make sense – not only to myself but to anybody who wants to understand life and music. Everything will make a little more sense.”

One thing he won’t be doing in the near future is complaining about fame. By making this album he has made some kind of peace with the distance between Then and Now.

“How do I handle it?” he says. “The simplest way I can. Kendrick, what would you rather be doing? Would you rather be on the corner running from bullets all day or would you rather be taking pictures?” He’s grinning now. “What shot do you want? A shot from a nine-millimetre or an iPhone shot with a fan?” He clicks his fingers. “Once I do that, once I look at the situation, I’m blessed, man.”

To Pimp a Butterfly is out now on Interscope. Kendrick Lamar plays the Wireless festival in London on 4 July

Beyond To Pimp a Butterfly… Five more maverick hip-hop albums


Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment (Self-released, 2015)
It says a great deal about young Chicago MC Chance the Rapper that his first project since 2013’s spectacular Acid Rap mixtape is a collaborative effort headlined by somebody else, namely trumpet-player Nico Segal. Surf mirrors the musical scope of To Pimp a Butterfly but has a much sunnier disposition. Its vibrant splurge of genres (jazz, funk, gospel, disco) and guests (Erykah Badu, Busta Rhymes) adds up to a celebration of creativity and community: a beach-party mixtape fizzing with good vibrations.

Run the Jewels (Mass Appeal, 2014)
Veteran MCs Killer Mike and El-P have been enjoying an Indian summer since teaming up to express hip-hop’s core values in explosive new forms. Their second album is as exhilaratingly intense as its predecessor but more thoughtful, with Mike in particular digging deep to address police harassment, government malfeasance and lingering guilt from his days as an Atlanta drug dealer. Mike has effectively become the voice of post-Ferguson hip-hop: a wise, engaging presence on discussion shows, editorial pages and university campuses.

Run the Jewels: Killer Mike, left, and El-P.
Run the Jewels: Killer Mike, left, and El-P. Photograph: Graeme Robertson

A$AP Rocky (Polo Grounds/RCA, 2015)
Nothing about the New York MC’s bet-hedging major-label debut or his status as high fashion’s favourite rapper foreshadowed this psychedelic left turn, influenced by Rocky’s new enthusiasm for LSD and 60s rock and the death of his friend and muse A$AP Yams. Rocky’s not the most profound lyricist but he has charisma, vision and a thirst to do things differently. Producers including Mark Ronson and Danger Mouse help to craft hallucinogenic reveries and introspective psych-pop nuggets.

Days With Dr Yen Lo
Dr Yen Lo (Pavlov Institute, 2015)
As if Ka weren’t already underground enough (he’s a Brooklyn fireman who makes independently released albums in his spare time), he goes undercover as Dr Yen Lo on a claustrophobic concept album which employs John Frankenheimer’s brainwashing thriller The Manchurian Candidate as a metaphor for how inner-city conditions make good kids turn bad. “Why is all of this being done? What have they built you to do?” asks Frank Sinatra in a snatch of sampled dialogue. Producer Preservation provides the eerie, soulful backdrop for Ka’s sombre war-zone tour.

Lese Majesty
Shabazz Palaces (Sub Pop, 2014)
More than 20 years ago Ishmael Butler was making daring, jazz-influenced hip‑hop with Digable Planets, but Shabazz Palaces make his old crew sound almost conventional. The Seattle duo’s second album, divided into seven “astral suites”, posits Butler as the hip-hop Sun Ra, so keen to explore mind-frazzling cosmic psychedelia that he often forgoes rapping altogether. It’s an inspiring, if sometimes mystifying, demonstration of how far out hip-hop can go.


Dorian Lynskey

The GuardianTramp

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