Pulitzer Prize–winning “poet laureate of hip-hop” Kendrick Lamar has made history with his music. As Compton’s favorite son headlines this summer’s blockbuster Top Dawg Entertainment tour, he grants an intimate look at what drives him. Kendrick Lamar understands and employs blues, jazz, and soul in his music, which makes it startling. His work is more than merely brilliant; it is magic.
Memorial day, Peter Luger Steak House, Brooklyn: Kendrick Lamar orders salmon. He is wearing a black baseball cap, white t-shirt, and gray-and-blue pants, and I’m seated to his right at an upstairs table for 10.
To my right is Kendrick’s TDE label-mate, rapper, and friend Jay Rock, and the rest of our lunch party is comprised of friends and associates of Kendrick’s: Dave Free, his friend since ninth grade, manager, co-director of their groundbreaking videos, and TDE president; Dave’s assistant, Keaton Smith; Kendrick’s assistant Derrick McCall; photographer/videographer Chris Parsons; head of TDE security 2Teez; TDE general manager ret One; and publicist Ray Alba. Except for Kendrick’s fish choice, everyone else orders cheeseburgers and steak—medium rare. Platters of French fries and creamed spinach are brought to the table.
Despite people sitting at tables all around us, we are left alone. Kendrick, who has a reputation as enigmatic and shy, warms up as we talk about music, basketball, government, taxes, other rappers, and awards. I tell them that LeBron James wore a TDE t-shirt at practice the day before—prior to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. We talk about Madison Square Garden, where, the following night, Kendrick will perform his first sold-out headlining show at the world’s most famous arena as part of the 30-date TDE Championship tour, with a lineup of the label’s artists.
We talk about the changes in Harlem, the changes in Brooklyn, and how New York is no longer the city that never sleeps. There is a wide-ranging conversation about the music Kendrick grew up listening to in Compton, California: the Temptations (he was named for lead singer Eddie Kendricks), Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, and gangsta rap—and I answer queries about my interviews of yesteryear. I tell Kendrick to forget about the three times he was nominated for the best-album Grammy and didn’t win (although I didn’t say it quite so politely) and congratulate him on winning the Pulitzer Prize—the first for a non-classical or non-jazz musician, and the first for a rapper. Kendrick always appears to be thinking, or listening, until he breaks into a gap-toothed grin, or a laugh. These guys know each other well—especially Dave and Kendrick, who finish each other’s sentences—and the vernacular is unfiltered, rooted in hip-hop and the streets of Compton.