Kendrick Lamar is an American hip hop recording artist from Compton, California. He first gained major attention after the release of his fourth mixtape, Overly Dedicated, in 2010. His first independent album, Section.80, was ranked on iTunes as one of the top digital hip hop releases of the year. His most recent major album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, has been praised for its storytelling, concepts, and structure.
Lamar’s “flow” (the way he raps) is different from most hip-hop artists today. Instead of using the same standard pattern that most rappers use, he tries to make it sound like his subconscious is talking to him.
For example– in his song Swimming Pools (Drank) he says: “Okay, now open your mind up and listen to me, Kendrick/ I’m your conscience, if you do not hear me/ Then you will be history, Kendrick”. By presenting his lyrics in this style, he makes his music feel more personal to the listener– it allows them to put themselves in his position.
This is a style of lyricism that isn’t used often. In one interview, Lamar says that he feels like “hip-hop is based on originality– not ‘biting’ off of each other but trying to work together to elevate the game.”
His inspiration for his lyrics come from his childhood experiences growing up in Compton, California, and from things that appear to him in dreams.
On his album cover for good kid, m.A.A.d city, he depicts a family sitting at a kitchen table. One person is holding a baby, and there is a 40 (alcoholic drink) sitting on the table beside a baby bottle.
“It’s really a self-portrait of how I grew up,” he says in the interview. “People see how I am today– I had to come from a negative place in order for me to talk and reflect on what I’m talking about now.”
His songs on this album relate to experiences he has had in his lifetime. He touches on subjects such as drinking (“Swimming Pools [Drank”]), how friends can pressure people into things (“The Art of Peer Pressure”), and death (“Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”).
In “Backseat Freestyle”, he criticizes the attitudes of youth of today and how they think. He says “All my life I want money and power/ respect my mind or die from lead shower”– he is touching on the mentality of simply wanting money to gain respect. Coming from the mind of a kid caught up in a ‘m.A.A.d’ (corrupt) city, he is saying to respect him or literally be shot down.
The entire song discusses drugs, money, and violence– which is what the youth of his city (Compton) grows up around. This is embodied in the line “My mind is living on cloud 9 and this 9 is never on vacation”. By rapping these lyrics on top of an aggressive beat, he communicates his strong opinions about this lifestyle.
The title of his album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, also has a meaning behind it. The acronym m.A.A.d has a double meaning: my angry adolescence divided, or my angel’s on angel dust.
In one interview, Lamar explains this acronym by telling a story of a bad experience he had with marijuana. “That’s the reason I don’t smoke (or drink),” he says. “Someone laced it with ‘angel dust’– and that was a really bad experience. I was scared.”
He warns others about the danger behind drugs through his lyrics and the naming of his album.
The theme of contradiction also pops up often in his lyrics. Lamar says that “Contradiction is life. People live like that everyday… The system contradicts itself, the government… and I’m not scared to put those thoughts in my music because I feel like people can relate to it the most. It puts substance into the music and [helps it to] make sense.”
The Guardian (UK) says, “[p]erhaps Lamar’s greatest gift is his ability to pull the listener inside the action while retaining an alienated detachment.” This album introduces a number of characters (with different versions of his own voice) and touches on his internal conflicts– his love of his hometown contrasted with his hatred of what goes in within it. His album tells a story of how his innocence was tainted by what that went on in the city of Compton.
Lamar criticizes certain tendencies of today’s society, especially the younger generation. He has started a movement that he named “HiiiPower” after one of his songs. He describes this as “standing above all the bull$%^& that’s going on in the world. Because at the end of the day, everything that we’ve been taught [could possibly be] the half truth. I want to put this generation on a whole new stepping stone.. a whole new kind of truth.” He stresses the idea of people learning from each other and working together to elevate each other’s minds.
He is influenced strongly by the deceased hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur. Lamar also admits that he has seen past family members appear to him in dreams– and he uses this as a muse to write his songs.
Overall, he just tries to relate to his audience with his music. “I look at it like this– you can’t really spark the brain or the mind of a new generation if it doesn’t feel like you come from a place where they come from. I come from a household where people were drunk, smoking, gangbanging.. I come from all that.”