It’s 2012. Kendrick Lamar is not yet the rap superstar capable of putting Rihanna and U2 together on the same record (DAMN. in 2017), neither was he the man with 13 Grammy Awards, nor the first rapper to win the very prestigious Pulitzer Prize. He is 25 years old and has just released Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. Since the album was produced by Dr. Dre, you get the sense that this kid from Compton – the Los Angeles suburb known for spawning N.W.A. – has a future, a resourcefulness and an intelligence, but you can even begin to imagine to what extent. Nor would you suspect that, as time went on, Kendrick Lamar would become more and more secretive, giving interviews only in dribs and drabs – although for Complex magazine he agreed to answer that million dollar question: what are your favourite hip-hop albums?
What follows in the article is a very instructive list of 25 albums. They’re not really classified but are punctuated with comments and memories from ‘the good kid’ of the West Coast. We learn that he worships Californians DJ Quik and 2Pac as much as New Yorkers like the Notorious B.I.G and Jay-Z. Even New Orleans rap has been important in his development: he has often recalled how Lil’ Wayne, Juvenile and the Hot Boys were his role models. Yet, as relevant as this selection is, it missed out a big part of Kendrick Lamar’s musical background: his parents listened to a lot of funk and soul. The Compton kid was named after the legendary Temptations singer Eddie Kendricks. As he grew older – and through his encounters with Terrace Martin, Thundercat and Robert Glasper – he was introduced to the whole catalogue of great music being made by artists of colour. So much so that the Californian rapper once said ‘I see myself as a jazz musician’.
We risk missing out an essential element of Lamar’s personality if we only consider hip-hop as a factor in his growth as an artist. We can of course find DMX, Ice Cube, Kurupt and X-Clan in his DNA. But there’s also John Coltrane, Sly & The Family Stone, Parliament and the soulful anthem “Only The Strong Survive” featured in the film Menace II Society. And not forgetting the legendary Stax label – home of Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Isaac Hayes, Wendy Renee and the seminal 24-Carat Black – long admired by TDE, the collective founded by Anthony ‘Top Dawg’ Tiffith who has been around Kendrick Lamar forever.
Without recognising this it is impossible to understand To Pimp A Butterfly (2015), the masterpiece upon which the Californian rapper surrounds himself with funk legend George Clinton, jazzman Kamasi Washington, and electronic wizard Flying Lotus. For the catchy “i”, Lamar wanted to sample The Isley Brothers – he even went in person to ask Ronald Isley for permission and gave him a role in the video that followed – Lamar’s way of cementing his steps along a long aesthetic continuum.
It is in part Lamar’s abilities to appropriate a wide range of influences that represent the entire spectrum of African American culture that has enabled him to establish himself as one of the world’s most influential rappers. The all-round producer Terrace Martin, who has been with him since his first record Section.80 (2011), sums up the rapper’s interaction with his influences well: ‘The spirits of jazz and hip-hop came together and made a baby, and that baby is Kendrick Lamar. He’s the best, not because he’s the best rapper, but because he has a real understanding of music history.’