Backstage at Club Nokia, Compton, California, rapper Kendrick Lamar prepared to play the first of two homecoming shows. It was around noon in the artist lounge, and save for the footsteps of a couple of crew members, the freezing room was silent.
Lamar crouched in a corner, texting, his slight frame swallowed up by an oversized black hoodie. And when the 25-year-old did finally speak, it was to politely greet a guest in a whispery voice more fit for library study than freestyling.
Yet the unassuming Lamar — all 190cm of him — stands a better shot of long-term stardom than any rapper to emerge from Los Angeles in a decade.
Widely considered the most promising figure to come out of West Coast hip-hop since the Death Row Records dominance in the 1990s, Lamar has been championed by legendary producer Dr. Dre, who brought Lamar (and his LA label Top Dawg Entertainment) to Dre’s Interscope imprint, Aftermath.
Now Lamar is in the elite company of label mates such as Eminem and 50 Cent and has a critically acclaimed, major-label debut to his name in good kid, m.A.A.d city.
“I wanted to construct an actual album that makes sense, with a full story and a dialogue about what kids are going through and what my generation is reacting to,” Lamar says. “What I want is for someone, when they think about this album, is to say ‘I know who that person is’, not ‘That song went to the Top 40’.”
Though an heir to a label that made its reputation with hyper- violent nihilism, Lamar is more introspective and self-interrogating than his predecessors. His records reflect the perspective of a watchful outsider detailing the dark allure of life in south LA County. But rather than succumb or revel in that culture, he unpacks the reasons why he wants in, and then looks for ways out.
“I turned 20 and realised that life wasn’t getting anyone anywhere,” he says.
“You hear stories from the 80s about people selling dope and becoming millionaires, but in reality it’d just be guys walking around with $70 in their pockets. I knew I wanted something else.”
Lamar and his album defy easy stereotypes of what “Compton rapper” means in the pop culture imagination. Both his mother and father were present and strong figures in his childhood, and they make character cameos in the spoken-word interludes that feel like a Greek chorus of conscience, especially on the album’s emotional centrepiece, Real.
While Lamar’s 90s LA rap ancestors could be painfully misogynistic, he has written women as complex characters and fellow travellers. The album’s story is how a good kid navigates the Compton of his adolescence — a time well after crack cocaine had ravaged South LA and the riots exposed the city’s racial and economic wounds to the world.
The album isn’t explicitly about those things, but their social consequences seep into the experience of the young Lamar narrating the album, along with the universal travails of bad love, manipulative friends and the pull of vices on tracks like the drug dream m.A.A.d City and Swimming Pools (Drank) that bravely tackles his binge drinking.
“I’ve got a good grip on it now, I don’t need to be dependent on liquor to feel good,” Lamar says.
“At this point, you’re exposed to everything 10 times over, whatever your vice is, you have to show restraint every day towards it. You can get caught in situations you can’t get back, so I wanted to shine a light on it and not get caught in that BS.”
Good Kid is singles-savvy (the technically astounding, ironically cocky Backseat Freestyle is already an internet hit) and sonically enticing, with production work by known hit makers such as Pharrell Williams, Just Blaze, Hit-Boy and, of course, Dr. Dre.
Kendrick Lamar plays the Astor on December 22 and good kid, m.A.A.d city is out now.