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Higher Power 2011: A Candid Convo With Rap’s Young King Kendrick Lamar

Let’s take a trip back to June 2011, where we find a 23-year-old Kendrick Lamar Duckworth in Harlem’s Stadium Red Studios, located on 125th Street and Park Avenue. K. Dot’s not here to record any music, but to conduct the following interview about his recording process, his origins and where he plans on taking his music. It’s a beautiful day, the sun is shining and the Compton rapper is in a super laid back mood. But that seems to be his public persona regardless. That is, until this ball of incredible energy blasts his rhymes on stage. It’s something that will be experienced by his first Brooklyn show later that night at the Park Slope sweatbox known as Southpaw.

But how did we get here in 2016? A place where five years ago the artist known by his first and middle names could garner my attention, the type of attention I hadn’t given to anyone since the early days of a soul-chopping, rhyme-hopping Kanye West.

In late 2009/early 2010, it started like this: “Have you heard this dude named Kendrick Lamar?” I was like, “Who?” My man (now’s) Rob Markman was the music editor of XXL Magazine at the time and I trusted his opinion on hip-hop acts like I’d trust my own. “Kendrick Lamar. West Coast kid. New. You’d like his sh*t.” Me: “Send it over.”

After downloading The Kendrick Lamar EP, I felt a new era of lyrical lions were about to be unleashed. I knew this young Compton, California rapper was going to bust open the door for the next onslaught of MCs with talent and swag. What I didn’t know, though, was that he was going to be the one. Like, Neo from The Matrix the one.

That sentiment didn’t come until I’d run The Kendrick Lamar EP into the ground from repetitive listens. After months of leaning on the album for true inspiration, I became a champion of his efforts. His KLEP follow up, the O.D. (Overly Dedicated) mixtape, which dropped in 2010, had me searching for any song online with the “K. Dot” moniker. Any freestyle or video that popped up would go out through my Twitter account to show support for what I found to be authentic hip-hop from the heart. Anyone that would listen, I’d tell them, “This dude is the future.”

VIBE's New Digital Cover Story Is A Candid Convo With Rap's Young King Kendrick Lamar
Ian Reid

Kendrick spoke on his girl issues, problems fitting in with street cats even though they were prominent in his life from birth, the way his mind plays confidence tricks on him and the fact that his family’s dysfunction was a troubling thorn, but one he could never take out of his side as he was one of them. All things I’ve dealt and deal with being at least 12 years older than him. When a younger artist can tap into an older demo of listeners, that artist has a gift. So I wanted to speak to him, but didn’t know how to go about it. It was the first time this ever happened to me. I had no choice but to hit up social media.

One of his tracks had a beat playing in reverse; it took me a few days to realize that the beat was a track from Andre 3000’s The Love Below album. I hit up Kendrick on Twitter and said, “Hey K, that track is Andre 3000’s in reverse right?” He responded, “Yo, if I was by you right now I’d give you $100, nobody caught that.” I felt he was a cool cat to offer up some money for my hip-hop trivia solving skills (still waiting on that C-note, K.Dot!).

That exchange lead to us linking in Harlem about a year later. The place? producer Just Blaze’s new recording home, Stadium Red. Just had recently moved there after shutting down the legendary Roc-A-Fella Records’ workspace, Baseline Studios in mid-Manhattan. Kendrick arrived with two cool dudes, President of his Top Dawg Entertainment label, Punch, and his best homie, Dave Free. A calm, easy talker and a bit tired from a whirlwind schedule, K’s demeanor was way more laid back than I thought it would be. He was still dealing with the hype of being that new cat on the rise. This was a month before his seminal street album Section.80 was to drop. I figured capturing this time ahead of his spotlight would be the perfect time to reflect on when his debut album would drop in the future. I wanted to see if he could frame his thoughts while really tapping into the emotion of being that next hot act (even though he probably didn’t know how big he would get in 6 months. It’s a special time for a rapper on the brink of super stardom. The Dr. Dre co-sign was in effect, The Game endorsed him and didn’t even renege on the compliment!

Kendrick Lamar
VIBE/ Ian Reid

Accolades upon accolades showered this youngster. But what was his struggle? That’s all we really want to know these days. What have you gone through to speak on the things that you do? How real are your experiences that we’re so invested in? Hope you are real enough for our investment of time and money. I can say with all sincerity, Kendrick has lived up to that deal.

It’s so rare to get to witness an artist take the tough route of starting at 15 years old while playing with styles ‘til the one that is his own fits, and then fly high with it. So I present to you an interview I’ve been sitting on since June 2011. I first wanted to release it before his much anticipated, now-classic, seven-time Grammy nominated good kid, m.A.A.d city album, but I held on to it. Why? I felt like there was more to celebrate in the future and we’d want to see his early thoughts. And sure enough, he dropped arguably another classic with 2015’s To Pimp A Butterfly. In 2014, Kendrick was slighted majorly by being shutout of seven categories at the Grammys, but recovered in 2015 with two award wins from the same voting board. Yet, February 15, 2016 has Kendrick sitting with a record tying 11 Grammy nominations, including the much-coveted Album of the Year for TPAB.

As we wait to see what happens, for history’s sake, let’s go back to the pre “Control” verse, pre-festival shows and pre-pop collabs with Taylor Swift. Here is a moment with Kendrick Lamar, the future star speaking from 2011. The conversation is lengthy, yes, but I wanted to keep it just as how we talked that summer day. Higher power for real.

VIBE: First off, let’s get the question about pressure out the way — it doesn’t seem like you have it, but I know we all have internal pressure for ourselves, not necessarily outside, but are you feeling both? Is one more or less outweighing the other, the outside pressure or the internal pressure?
Kendrick Lamar: Right now? Truthfully, I really don’t feel any pressure because I keep myself at a point where I look at it as having fun. Once I lose that then that’s when the pressure comes into play. Right now, I’m just enjoying it. I can be able to create when I want to create and people are receptive to it. So I’m just [gonna] keep that mind state. But I know once I further the career it’s gonna come a point in time where it’ll probably get to a standpoint where it’s a business, and I never want to put myself in that space. It’s inevitable, though.

When you see it as a business, do you see other artist’s situations and try to study? Are you at that study point now, looking at different people’s careers?

I’ve always been like that. Even when I was 16, man. I would study, alongside with the music. [I’d] just study how people went about their careers and how the label went about their careers or how people looked at certain artists the way they did and compare it and contrast, you know? And I took some of my favorite artists like Jay Z or Nas, Eminem and look at their careers and look at the positive points and the negative points in theirs and try to emulate that and make it to the best of my ability. I’ve always been that way.

Coming out of the West, was there anybody in particular that you kind of patterned yourself after, not rhyme-wise but just career-wise like, “I would like to see something like that happen to me” style?

As far as a legacy and longevity it would be Snoop. Snoop and Dre. You know, these cats came out together early. I was a kid, 4 [or] 3 years old, when Snoop hit. And seeing their growth and how they developed as a team and blossomed into somebody you can call a legend – that’s something that I want. I don’t want the “pop-over-night” with the big hit record, because you’re not gonna catch that break every time. You know, you wanna build a core base and be able to live off that forever, and that’s something they can do. So, somebody on the West, it had to be Snoop and Dre.

Kendrick Lamar
VIBE/ Ian Reid

The one thing that worked with them is that they had a crazy label with them, and that brand, it’s like you always have a logo or a brand that kind of helps push your movement or your message. You have TDE and you weren’t the first guy out. The first guy out seemed to be Jay Rock. And now you’re kind of, not necessarily surpassing him, but you’re becoming more known than him. How does that dynamic work especially when you have another person that’s coming behind you?
The ideal situation was, when I came over there, Top Dawg’s plan was to find the dopest artist in L.A. I was 17 when I came over there and Jay Rock was about 19. Jay Rock got a deal with Warner Bros., so it was like, “You know what? We’re gonna put all our energy towards Jay Rock, get him off the ground. But as soon as you develop yourself and we develop you and you stand in the studio and grind, then it’s go time.” Our whole thing was timing was everything. I mean, I felt like I was the craziest person in L.A. “I wanna come out. I wanna put this music out.” They was like, “Stand still and wait.” It came a time where I had enough material, enough songs, enough concepts, I developed myself and I came into my own where the people needed to hear it and that time came. Jay Rock was already off the ground, he had the single “All My Life,” album already in the works – it’s coming out now. So I gotta actually go where he’s been already as far as doing shows and getting my face out there. So it was all a strategic plan, and just falling in right now so we couldn’t feel more better about it.

“[As] long as I feel like I got the people, they gon’ hear it and they gon’ listen so it’s gonna get me to places that I can only imagine, you know what I mean?” – Kendrick Lamar

What was it like – ‘cause I heard this story about Jay Rock and you flyin’ cross-country, meeting up with Lil’ Wayne to get the “All My Life” verse. That’s like the extra G hustle. Jay went above and beyond – you remember the situation? What was it like seeing that happen and what kind of inspiration did it give you?
That was crazy, man. No label money, that was the money out his pockets, grinding, you know what I mean? Get him, take a couple of the homies out and let’s go get this single. We waited – I don’t think he told this part – but we waited in a hotel for them to pull up in their bus. They weren’t even there in Virginia [yet], so we waited about five hours just sitting there like, “We gotta get this money. We ain’t come way out here for nothin’ and we ain’t leavin’.” So we pushed the line heavy, man. It was crazy and it worked out. That just shows you the ethic and the grind you gotta have and the mentality you gotta have and we tend to keep that same type of mental now. Even with a shoelace in the door, no matter how far we get we always gotta keep that hustle. That’s something that we’ll never forget.

What kind of gamble was that to be able to go cross-country, own paper, to sit and wait for somebody that might not come?
We wasn’t on, you know? Jay Rock wasn’t on – he was just a cat, “Watts” was his name at the time. So, for Wayne, a major artist, to really actually pull up and come, that’s love. We always got love for Wayne for that; because he ain’t have to do that at all. That was a big gamble. We didn’t know; we were just taking the chances. “Let’s piece up these lil ends that we got, and we gon’ fly out there and we gon’ see what’s gon’ happen,” and it happened man.

Kendrick Lamar
VIBE/ Ian Reid

What was it like after?
Aw, man. Crazy. Knockin’ that [“All My Life”] verse out was like, “Yeah, he done did it, he’s doin’ it, he’s feelin’ it, he’s fuckin’ with it.” It felt good, man.

And then, for you seeing that, what was it like? Because, now you saw somebody actually take what y’all was talkin’ about and do it. Now you’re kinda up next but you’re not sure? How do you know where you stand in the line-up?
I can really just base it off the music and the type of response I’m getting from the people to let me know they are fu*kin’ with me first. I’m not gonna depend on the artist to be fu*kin’ with me first. [As] long as I feel like I got the people, they gon’ hear it and they gon’ listen so it’s gonna get me to places that I can only imagine, you know what I mean? As far as the music and the people, so that’s the only thing I judge it off right now.

You got songs like, “She Needs Me.” Where’s the creative concept coming from for that?
You know what’s crazy about that song? Everybody thinks that song is actually about a chick. I mean, I’m talkin’ about a woman of course, but I’m not really biggin’ her up; I’m biggin’ myself up, truthfully. Because if I’m dealing with this chick that got all these dope qualities, it only expresses or says what type of person I am to be fu*kin’ with. So that song is really a braggadocios song about myself. That was the part that I thought was clever when I thought of the concept.

Yeah, because at the end it’s like she’s with the illest dude, but then she’s like, f**k it, she needs me, though.
Yeah, she with that n***a. Yeah, exactly. That’s just like Jay talkin’ about Bey in a song. But she’s with Jay Z so that just let’s you know that he’s the n***a.

Kendrick Lamar
VIBE/ Ian Reid

And speaking on that, where do you come up with these? Are you in the studio, you hear the beat and then you’re coming up with that concept?
These basically be ideas that be floatin’ in my head throughout the week or the way I be feelin’ being around certain people, going through certain situations, just waking up in the morning and dealing with life. That’s how I really approach my music, man. That’s how I wake up and how I feel in the morning or how I felt the day before that whenever I get time to go to the studio and knock it out. And that’s how I make music the best. For me, it gotta come from a place that I’ve been already or something that somebody told me in actuality and putting it on the track, man. [It] comes fast, too, when I do it that way. ‘Cause if I force it and sit and think, I’m gonna trash the song and probably come back to it later.

How often do you rhyme to yourself outside of the studio? Like, if you’re just out – ‘cause I know a lot of the times people are always thinking it’s a studio thing and you’re writing here and there, but even if you’re not writing, how often do you in your head…
I’m so sick with it now, I know a lot of artists probably do this too but, I actually dream about rhymes. I dream about stuff I’m saying in my sleep and find myself waking up and remembering it and be like, “Damn. When did I say this?” Had to really think about it because when you’re in your sleep realm, you don’t really know what’s going on ‘cause you’re fu*ked up, so you know when you really realize the sh*t that you were saying in your dreams like, “Damn, that’s dope.” Sometimes I go to the studio right then and there off some sleep, wake up and just hurry up and rush through and get that sh*t off. But I find myself thinking of concepts and ideas every minute. Just off of conversation with you right now, there’s probably something that’s gonna come up when I walk out the studio, subconsciously. It’s always on the constant move now. My life is just music. Period.

“Everybody always gets the glorifying the street cred, but what about the cats that’s trying they best to escape the negativity, but always get swarmed back in because of the circumstances around them? Nobody never told that story…” – Kendrick Lamar

Are you writing or are you typing or are you on some “I can do it no pen, no pad.”
Now I’m on some sh*t where I have to write my sh*t down now, like my ideas, because, I’m on the move so much now. I stopped writing at 16, I been doin’ that – I’m 23 now.

So you did the whole Wayne-Jay thing where you just rhyme – you could put all three verses in your head?
Hell, yeah. Since day one.

Kendrick Lamar
VIBE/ Ian Reid

Yeah. ‘Cause I was a big Jay fan, so I wanted to mimic Jay. [The song] “Anything.” When I heard that, I was 16, I was like ‘C’mon. I gotta do it.’ I took years mastering that sh*t.

[Directs question to…] Punch, real quick – Do you know when Kendrick is doing it? Can you tell?
Punch: He just starts walking around like in different rooms, just mumbling stuff to himself. Like walk in the bathroom for a minute look around pick something up, set it down while he’s just mumbling in his head, and just go in the booth and lay it.

[Back to Kendrick] What is that process like for you to be able to – I just don’t understand. How can you just stack these rhymes? And you’re not a simple rapper. These are intricate… This is intricate work.
After a while if you keep rehearsing probably, like, two bars at a time – I don’t know. For me, that’s how I do it. Like I could be talking to you now and I could be rehearsing how you said, but I’m rehearsing these two bars in my head constantly. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. Next thing you know, I’m doing the next two bars. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. Then the next, boom, boom – next thing you know, I’m formulating a whole song. After years of keep doin’ it, man, it’s just like riding a bike. You know, you keep doin’ it, you fall off, you get back on, you keep doin’ it, you fall off, then you learn how to ride a bike without the training wheels no more. Real sh*t. It’s crazy. Sometimes I fu*k myself up, because if I’m really in the zone it’s like really no stopping. I can just go in there and knock out a song – that [could] be my best song.

There’s that “Monster” freestyle, though. I thought you were gonna rhyme out of my iPad. Once I saw the video, you can see the passion that comes out from that, but that was from somebody else’s beat.
Yeah, I caught that beat – I think Kanye dropped that when he was doing the G.O.O.D. Fridays [leaks] before his album. As soon as he dropped that muh’f**ka I just went in. That was when I just really had fun ‘cause we snatched the beat, the beat wasn’t out yet, we found a loop on YouTube, and snatched it on some wild sh*t. My homie be doin’ that sh*t, [Mixed by] Ali, and I really just had fun. I was just in the booth fu*kin’ around. Just wanted to let it all out. That’s why some of the pronunciation when I say certain words, you don’t even hear the words clear. I wanted to keep all’a dat. I didn’t wanna do no goin’ back punchin’, like if I fu*k up, let’s keep the fu*k up. That’s Hip-Hop to me.

Kendrick Lamar
VIBE/ Ian Reid

RZA always said that. When you hear the first Wu-Tang album, you hear all the f**k-ups in the beat – keep all that sh*t.
Yeah, that sounds like a n***a on the corner just getting’ it off. With no ProTools, none of the new technology sh*t to make you sound a certain way. I want it to sound raw. Don’t even mix my sh*t really. I want it to sound like some crazy wild sh*t.

Is that one of your favorites?
Hell yeah.

And that was an unwritten joint?
Hell yeah, that’s definitely unwritten. That was goin’ in the booth and just getting’ it off.

Now do you miss those days of you rhyming with dudes in school? Did you ever do the lunchroom table thing?
Hell yeah. I did that in 7th grade with the homies. I actually started rhymin’ off DMX’s album It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot. I always had a knack for music, but it was a void that was missing when Pac died and I think DMX filled that void for me. I got inspired, man. We was up in that muhf**ka goin’ crazy, [at the] lunch table. I sounded just like X, though. X [branched] me out to listening to Jay Z. Then going back to Big and Nas. I went back.

So you went in reverse.
Yeah, ‘cause I was from the West Coast – all we knew was ‘Pac and Snoop Dogg and Dogg Pound and Dre. I mean we knew of Biggie, but we never really got into Biggie like that. I mean me as a kid, I’m 9 years old, ignorance is bliss. I don’t know what’s really tight; I just know the people that’s around me that’s 18, 19 years old, they are saying, “Tupac is it.” And in my eyes, yeah, he was it. You know, as I got older, I started doing music myself. I said, “You know what? Let me go back and see what they was talkin’ ‘bout about Biggie,” and the sh*t blew me away. His delivery and his concepts, how he just approached the whole record, his flow, I took in all that. I had to ‘cause that was something that was unmatched. That’s what it was, man. That’s how I got inspired.

Kendrick Lamar
VIBE/ Ian Reid


It’s ill when you hear Game talk about just learning how to rhyme so quickly, but he always mentions a lot of East Coast cats as far as his flow and stuff like that. What does it mean to come from Compton? Being a rapper coming out of Compton is like being a rapper coming out of Brooklyn, because even though New York is ill and we got all these ill emcees – we got Jay, Big and Big Daddy Kane from the same area in Brooklyn. And then you guys got N.W.A., now everybody’s coming straight outta Compton.

That’s the pressure right there. That’ll be the only pressure right there – to keep that legacy.

Where’s Jay Rock from?
He’s from Watts. He’s planting his own soil right now, his own seed – that’s him all the way. But when you got people like Dre, Ren, DJ Quik…

Yo, Ren is nasty.
Yeah, man. That’s a lot of weight to carry right there, man. Because they stamped it so hard, you can’t help but to keep with it or further it, and that’s what I’m trying to do with my story – further it. There’s a part of Compton that’s never been told. Everybody always gets the glorifying the street cred, but what about the cats that’s trying they best to escape the negativity, but always get swarmed back in because of the circumstances around them? Nobody never told that story, and that’s probably 80 percent of the kids in Compton. The way they turn the way they do. I’m the only one with a pops in my neighborhood. All my homies didn’t have no pops, and they always fall back. My pops wasn’t perfect, he was in the streets, but I had one that was active. So that gave me a different light from everyone that was in the neighborhood. I bumped my head every time, but at the same time I had that pops, and that’s the story I’m trying to tell, man. Good kids in the mad city. It’s a whole ‘nother light man – that’s the weight that I’m carrying right now.

And that’s a different kind of weight ‘cause no one’s been able to eloquently put it into a place and seemingly go to greatness with it, and you have that shot. But one of the other things that I find so interesting about your music is the fact that you’re really raw and vulnerable about family situations. Like the joint “Cut You Off,” ‘cause everybody goes through that no matter what level you are. How are you that comfortable exposing that?
I wasn’t at first. I thought that didn’t appeal as a kid. I mean, doing music you just wanna fu*k with a bunch of raw raps. One hundred bars – that’s dope, that’s Hip-Hop, that’s the essence. I wanted to fu*k with that and whatever was on the radio. I didn’t know that sh*t that people relate to, that’d be the sh*t that makes you a legend. I had to go back and listen to what ‘Pac was doing. After already hearing all these records growing up, I never really knew exactly what was drawing people into him ‘til I started experiencing my own situations, when I turned [into] a teenager – experience situations with homeboys in the streets getting smoked, police brutality, peer pressure and [those] situations. As I grew old and started having my own conscience and realizing what sh*t was wrong and what was right. It came to a point I said, “You know what? I’ma start putting this in my music and see what happens.” And that’s been the biggest step for me, doing that, my vulnerability. And that was one of the steps that Dre loved the most about me, ‘cause it was a space he had never seen before coming from Compton.

How did your family react to that song?
Oh man, they was trippin’. I actually did a show on the El Rey – sold out – El Rey Theater in L.A. Packed. My family was all at the top. Yeah, they were trippin’ out, they said they were crying when I performed that song. That would be my second-to-last song before I go into a big record to tone it down, and it touched them because I talk about my grandmother in that song, and everybody knows the situation where your grandmother pass [away], everybody spreads. I spoke on that and that really fu*ked them up, but it takes practice to get ‘em back. It ain’t gon’ take just a song.

Do you feel as though the people that you came up with – ‘cause everybody’s big on crew love and all that – do you feel as though the people that you came up with are fully supportive, but they don’t understand what you have to go through?
Yeah. Most def.

‘Cause it’s a funny kind of support like, “That’s my n***a,” but then it’s also a burden to make sure that they don’t feel threatened.
Right. Or feel like you left them behind because you have to work. That’s what I’m trying to adapt to now. And I think that’s probably one of the hardest parts for an upcoming artist that’s got this light on him. Trying to balance out your work place, your family place or your friend place. [Getting] people that you hold special to understand that there’s gonna be times where I’m not gonna pick up your phone [call] because I’m doing an interview. There’s gonna be times here I need to go and handle this business and still at the same time keep you straight and keep you happy. That’s the part right now I’m trying to balance out and figure out. I asked all the older OG’s to give me advice on that and they say “Man, you just really gotta have a real understanding and break things down to them because people are infants. They gon’ just look at it as you goin’ out and doing all this stuff and you don’t care about them no more.” That’s black people. That’s people in general. Truthfully. It’s just about understanding, I gotta have a lot of communication now ‘cause things are split.

And be clear.

I interviewed Canibus when he was first coming out and he was getting crazy advice from everybody including Jay Z, and I think Jay actually introduced him to Wyclef and he said they were at Justin’s and he remembered this one thing that they were telling him. Like “Yo, man, you gotta come out crazy ‘cause you only get one chance to come out and be that new guy.”
David Banner just told me the same thing. He told me with so much sincerity, he was like…looked me in my eyes for like 30 seconds, and said, “Aye. You only got one – ONE – if you feel you’re not going 110 percent right now, look out failure because this opportunity don’t happen to everybody. I mean, you’re not there yet, but you gotta take full advantage of it.” And that’s something I gotta play off, and that’s serious when somebody can sit there and break down to you their whole career and tell you the spots where they f**ked up at and what they didn’t take advantage of…

“…And that was one of the steps that Dre loved the most about me, ‘cause it was a space he had never seen before coming from Compton.” – Kendrick Lamar

But does that co-sign from Dre put that much more onto it?
I’m starting to realize now because for a long time I’m looking at Dre as a space like, “Damn, this [is] a legend,” but it’s not gonna bring that much crazy light to me ‘cause people look at me like I still gotta do it by myself. That’s how I always felt, but I’m looking at this co-sign now like damn, people is really putting this… Go. West Coast. Run with it. And me, I’m like, “Damn, I’m just little Kendrick from Compton wanting to do some music a little bit.” So now it’s just like, you know… It’s really go time. I always had fun with it 100 percent, now I gotta up it.

Did you know Dre was coming on stage that night?
Nah. They fu*ked me up. They killed me with that one. ‘Cause outside, I’m just like – the show was over with. Boom. And I think [someone] hit me on my back, somebody said something… And I look back and I see this big-a** giant. It was like “Daaaamn.” He stamped it. Like woah! That sh*t was big, man. I replay that moment back in my head all the time.

And what do you think about all the people he stamped that are icons now?
Yeah. Snoop, ‘Pac. C’mon, man.

How’s the relationship with Game? Has he reached out and like…
Yeah. Actually, I should be on his album. We got a crazy track that’ll hopefully make it. I’m quite sure it should, though. He always looked out man, since day one. I went on my first tour with Game. He brought me and Jay Rock out. I think it was the LAX tour – was it the LAX tour? [Someone in background answers, “Yup”]. It was crazy, too. My first big mixtape song was on Game’s mixtape. Everybody put my name out in the city and on another scale that I never imagined, so shout out to Game.

Do you think you’re gonna make Detox?
Yeah. I’m puttin’ it in the universe right now so it comes back full-circle – Yup! [Laughs]

[Laughing] How do you think people that are a little more on the mainstream side are gonna take your new project? Not necessarily your mixtapes, but this project that you’re putting together as an album.
The mainstream side?

Yeah. How do you think they’re gonna view you?

I think they will like the project more because – they will like the project anyway, because I did a strategic move where, I always been doing this, but I actually feel like I’m mastering where I can say all this stuff. But at the end of the day what really draws people in, draws everybody in, is melodies. No matter what you say. So I can say some complex sh*t in my verse, but somewhere in that song has to be something that people can remember.

To hook themselves onto and sing.
Yup. Exactly. When you look at everybody, all the legends, that’s been the key. Period. “Pussy & Patron” – I’m talkin’ about my life in them verses. Like I could’ve put them same verses on a RZA track. Some raw sh*t. But I chose to put something that had a good feel to it, melodic notes, and I can ride the hook like that so that’s my whole key. So I think it’ll transcend to both crowds, man.

And Jay Rock’s on that?

And what happened was, you took him out of a realm that I didn’t even think he could go into because it’s so melodic. You know what I mean? I look at him as like a hardcore – and then to have him on that is like “Whoa.”
Exactly. Yup.

Are you producing?

But it seems like it – you have like a producer’s mind.
We were just talking about this. They were like, “Man, you need to start putting your stamp on producing records.” Everybody got that, man. I can sit with a record, man. I can sit with raw – just nothing. And pinpoint what I want and what I hear in my head every time. “Michael Jordan,” “P&P” – all of them was really my ideas how to sound ‘cause I heard the song in my head, I heard the lyrics, and I just wanted that right sound around it and my dude’s made it – [Producer] Soundwave made it. Made the track just like I heard it and it went.

And that’s who you work with the most.

I saw there was a video that leaked out where you were giving direction on a song. It came out maybe a couple weeks ago. You had a hat on.
Yeah, “Ronald Reagan Era.”

Did that come out yet?
Nah. Section.80, that’s due on Section.80.

So that’s what’s making people think that you’re gonna do it because the direction was so clear.
That’s all the time in the studio, though. Like I’m real tight on how I want my stuff to sound, man. I’m real, real, close…

Even if somebody like submits – Like J.Cole. He submitted that joint that y’all got.
Yeah, I’m real close how I want it to sound, like if the beat is there, it’s dope. Get the verse off, the lyrics off, the concept off – but at the end of the day when you’re going through the whole mixing process and touching up everything, I’m right there. I’m right there with you.

I know there has to be a couple of people that you haven’t worked with that you’re looking to ultimately, on the rap side and on the production side – who are those people?
Rap side – I really wanna work with [Kid] Cudi. I always say this in my interviews, too. Cudi is dope to me. ‘Cause Cudi – it feels like a part of Compton, his rebel side. Like “Sh*t, we gon’ do what we want and you gon’ have to deal with it.” I don’t think a lot of people on the urban side of things see how clever this dude is. ‘Cause he’s talking from a sense where, “This is me. Accept me. F**k everybody.” And that’s the same sh*t as a street n***a to me, in my eyes. Most street n***as is born like that, ‘cause they don’t know. They weren’t taught. You’re really born in it to be this type of person. You’re really born in here to be in your neighborhood and represent your color. It’s not just something you do; it’s a tradition, it’s a culture, your family done did it, so that’s how I feel like Cudi is to me. It’s him – f**k everybody, this is me and you gon’ accept me. That’s someone I wanna work with, man. He got the melodic notes that draw you in, his concepts is dope, I think we’ll do some good music. As far as R&B, it would have to be Lauryn Hill. Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu. Hell yeah. Big fans of them. Just the space she took – Lauryn Hill – the space she took music for women. She bridged that gap on the mainstream side and the underground scene. That’s dope to me. And Erykah Badu, she’s just incredible. Crazy voice, creative. I just like being in the studio with creative people. I think that’s the best music, when everybody got the same passion for it, the best stuff comes out.

What about production wise?
Production. Just Blaze. We in the studio right now. Just Blaze, 9th [Wonder] – well I did something with 9th.

J. Cole got a nice connection now.
That’s some sh*t, man. We got about seven of them [done] and the chemistry was just there, man, off top. All his tracks I’ve been hearing I just rock out to ‘em. He got some cold production. A lot of people don’t know. It’s gonna kill them on the album.

Yeah, I got with him early, too, man.
Warm-Up early?

Come-Up. Damn.

I was in the studio when he was writing this verse for Wale’s album and then he told me the story about how he got on. It was the most incredible…it sounds like some Ferris Bueller sh*t.
He told me some of it. His manager was like, “Yeah, I’ma getchu over there with Jay.” He was like “Hell nah f**k outta here.”

The story is hilarious.
Yeah, he said some funny sh*t.

I got a bunch of favorite songs from you but I think my favorite – ‘cause I would listen to it before I came into work to get me hype is “The Heart Part 2.”
That’s my favorite.

How did you find out about Dash Snow in that clip. Did you pick that clip?
No. My dude Dave [Free] actually put me on with this dude right here. It’s crazy because he was like, “Man, this dude reminds me of you.” I was like “What?” He was like “Yeah, he reminds me of you – his rawness and the shots he takes. It tells different stories, him just not wanting to mention them. He would go there and do whatever the f**k he feels.” And I was like aight let me check him out. Then I really started getting the backstory on dude – dude was crazy.

Did he die?
Yeah. He was a rebel and he did what he wanted. And I thought that was dope sh*t, and people still accepted that. I mean he was coming from a different space. At one point I was like you know what, people might not wanna hear my story. That’s why I was holding back all this type of music that I really wanted to do early on when I started recording. And it got to the point where I was like you know what? F**k that, I’ma do what I want, how I want. And that’s how I felt Dash Snow was. He did what he wanted to do. He got some of the craziest shots, craziest pictures he took. With that clip, I recorded the song first. And we found that clip and we was like, “That’s perfect.” Music.

That’s the only thing you live for.
Exactly. That song is like unmatched. That’s one of my best, in my eyes, my best verses. I don’t even know if it’s the song or…

It just seems like it’s like some other sh*t. It’s just so much that you can take those sentiments and they can fit for anybody.

So I would use it to get my mind right getting to work. So I would listen to it on the train and be like, “Yo, what zone was this kid in?”
You know what’s crazy? I caught myself like, “Damn, I wanna make a Heart Part 3.” I was like, “Aight, let me try.” Can’t do it. I can’t do it unless I get into another space where I feel like I need to touch on. ‘Cause at that space, that’s how I was feeling at the time.

How long ago was it?
This was like… [Thinking to self] “Heart Part 2”… I’d say close to two years ago.

That’s the turning point.
Yeah, I was in that space where I just felt like I gotta get all this off my chest. I gotta get my city off my chest, my family, I’m talkin’ about my uncles in there, I’m just talkin’ about me, success, struggle – that’s where I was at. The only way I’ma do a Part 3 is when I feel like – I feel like I’m still in that pocket, but I haven’t gotten further to talk about something else.

The album coming out will probably open up a whole ‘nother…
And I can go way deeper than that ‘cause it’s like stuff I’ve been holding back before the album.

You’re still holding back?
Hell yeah, man. I got a lot to talk about.

‘Cause we think about Jay Z and it’s like damn, this dude been rhymin’ forever at this high of a level, Eminem rhyming forever at this high of a level and they always still have something to say.
That’s the crazy part. Yup. Got a lot to talk about and I’m only 23. I’m just now touching the world, man.

That’s wild. Early like that.
Yeah. Just now touching the world. I’ma start traveling and sh*t. My first travel was to New York. I was 20, 21. I’ve been in Compton my whole life, that small a** city, like everybody else… like everybody else that live in Brooklyn or Harlem…

…and they never come near Harlem if they’re from Brooklyn.
Yeah, I have family like that. To this day, though, I’m telling you, it’s crazy. I don’t know streets, like, it’s a spot [in L.A.] called Ladera Heights or Fairfax area. I go out there and it be a whole ‘nother world for me every time and it’s only 20 minutes way on the freeway, because I didn’t go to these big malls when I was in high school. Like I didn’t drive all the way to the Beverly Center to walk in and buy all this fly sh*t. We got swap meet.

That’s what we did. When we got to L.A.? Like out of Brooklyn? I took my people with me the first trip. We was like “we hittin’ up Sunset Strip,” but we all wanted to see Crenshaw, Inglewood.
That side – like the West Side? That sh*t don’t exist to people in Compton. [They’re] really like stuck. Compton and Watts? They’re really like stuck right there. For some reason, like my mom still to this day is the same way. She doesn’t like, go out of the perimeter. Like “Why?” She’s like, “I’m just comfortable.” I’m like, “Damn, you gotta get out a little bit.”

It’s ill being able to open up into the world. Been overseas and all that now?
Not yet. I’ve only been in a few spots in the states, man. I haven’t touched overseas yet. I know that’s gonna f**k me up.

And I know they hit you on Twitter. What’s it like when they’re hittin’ you, “When you comin’ out here?”
[I feel] like the man. They’re putting me in the position where I have to be the man and be out there like, “we need you.” I’m just gonna wait, fall back and continue to put my music in. When I feel like it’s at that level, where I can come out there and just rock – like they want me to do [New York Club spot] SOB’s, right? I’m like “I don’t wanna yet.” I don’t wanna yet ‘til I can sell it out. [J.] Cole even told me that. You don’t want it until you can get the whole experience, til’ you feel like you’re at a point where you’re selling out and it’s packed out – that’s when you do it.

‘Cause he did it. Did he do it? I think he did it.
Yeah. He sold it out. That sh*t is monumental, to me. So, I’ma wait. I’ma stick it through, be patient, man, and just wait.

But being honest, though, I don’t think you have to wait, man.
‘Least til the project.

[To someone else] I don’t think he gets it.

[To Kendrick] I don’t think you get the level yet, and that’s a good thing because you’re still striving, but at the same time you should really be looking to just grab all that comes to you. But I know you’ve got your plan and everything.
That’s what they be telling me. [They] be telling me the same thing. You be stuck in this world of just studio. I gotta keep putting out, I gotta keep making the best songs. Only time I actually really get to see it is when I do shows. That’s the only time.

Saw the one you did in Chicago and it was like BOOM. You came out and I was like I wonder how he’s gonna get ‘em, ‘cause there ain’t no dancin’, there ain’t no – you’re preaching to a crowd rapping.
That’s a technique I learned just through experience, man, doing shows. Just the confidence – you don’t have to come out and command nothing. Don’t demand putting your hands up, they comin’ to see you. So just go out there and show ‘em what you’re about.

I was on the stage with Jay and Kanye for the Yankees stadium show. Every person there, hands up, going crazy when this dude stopped – it’s some other sh*t. And I’ve never experienced the energy that comes to a person on that level. I’m on the stage – Jay is right there, but I’m right by the little side part. They scream, I was like no wonder he comes back! That sh*t is addictive! I wanted to run out there! I wanted to do a Lil Mama! I saw why Lil Mama ran on stage. But to have all that [energy] just come at you…
I be feelin’ that from the lil’ 1200 packed out shows and that shit be feelin’ crazy. The energy is crazy on stage. You definitely feel it so I know you felt it ten times more than what I [feel] and you’re not even a rapper.

I’m not even a rapper! You got it, though, man. And I guess how we can end it is…why just your regular name, like Kanye?
I wanted to do music, and when I came in, from the jump, I wanted to be one of the best, the illest cats ever. Because I figured if you’re gonna do something you gotta be the best at it. You can’t go in there half-steppin’, especially in this. I came in a point in time where who we looked up to is Jay Z, Dynasty era. That was me. I was 13 years old. I know you know. We were like, “Sh*t you gotta rap to be a rapper.” That’s how we thought. You can’t be out here bullsh***in’ around with it, so what I did like I said, I went back and I studied Jay. I bit his flow, bit Biggie’s flow, bit Pac’s concepts and his delivery, and it got to a point where I was just known in the city as this kid that can rap crazy like bars and sh*t.

[Punch interjects]: I was watching a documentary on Ray Charles, and they were saying during his early stages he didn’t have no identity. He just sounded like everybody else, like he was Nat King Cole, all the other dudes that were hot in that era. So I hit this dude immediately. I was like “Dog, that was you when you was young.” Like when Wayne was hot he was doin’ that. When Jay was doing his thing, he was sounding like that. Like then he just came into his own and found himself. That was crazy to me.

[Kendrick continues]: I remember you telling me that, too. And I sat back and realized like damn, do I just wanna be a cat that just wanna be known for all these crazy bars? Or somebody that people can actually really relate to? I had to sit back and realize that. I was like what separates me from Biggie or Pac or Jay Z? And it was the point that people actually connected to him, not just as a rapper, but as a person. I developed myself, I came into my own and I was comfortable. I said I can start this off right by just giving my government name and letting them into my world like that. Let’s start with that right there, that’s the first step. Next thing you know, let’s do the music. Boom. And it worked. And I’ve been comfortable since. I’m in a space I never felt better because I’m being myself and people accept that. And even if they didn’t, I’m still gonna be myself. It’s just a part of growth, man. I was a kid. I’m a kid now, sh*t, 23, but I developed [into] so much more – an artist and a man. I’m blessed. And that’s how I came about, man – Kendrick Lamar.