Chapter 1: How “You Got Robbed” 1 How “You Got Robbed”
There are musicians, and then there’s Kendrick Lamar Duckworth. A welterweight, and just five feet, five inches tall, he looks more like a Baptist youth minister than the greatest rapper of his generation. But he is the greatest rapper, and he worked damn hard to make it so. Kendrick wasn’t some sort of prodigy; he didn’t descend from his bassinet with a microphone and a composition book. Instead, he simply found something he loved and stuck with it. Through creative writing, he could say things on paper that he couldn’t say out loud.
He was shy, an only child until the age of seven. He grew up in Compton, California, in the early to mid-1990s, not even a decade after the city’s police brutality and gang culture were immortalized by the rap group N.W.A in 1988. Young black and brown children had to navigate that land before they could fully comprehend street politics. They had to learn the differences between the Piru and Crips gangs on the fly, in a city where wrong decisions could mean the difference between life and death. Kendrick spent time alone, cultivating his art in hopes of becoming great. For a naturally quiet being like Kendrick, writing poetry gave him the space to reveal his innermost thoughts without judgment from others. Prowess came in silence.
Kendrick ascended to the top of the music industry by being himself and staying true to what drove him artistically. He’s been called esoteric and downright weird, but really he’s just an old soul with a profound reverence for hip-hop, R&B, and funk—black
music—and he moves throughout life with Compton in his mind and heart. Maybe that’s why he’s so beloved, because he stresses the importance of home no matter where he goes.
Yet at the beginning of the 2010s, Kendrick was just another upstart lyricist trying to find his place in music. In July 2011, Kendrick released his first official album, the kaleidoscopic Section.80
, to an unknowing public just a month before hip-hop megastars Jay-Z and Kanye West dropped their long-awaited joint record, Watch the Throne
, to widespread acclaim. Where that album unpacked the pleasures of hedonism and the glory of black decadence, Kendrick’s record was something different. It had everything: brassy jazz, mid-tempo soul, and headbanging street anthems. In it, one could hear Kendrick’s love of J Dilla—the experimental hip-hop producer from Detroit, whose mix of hard drums and unique sampling techniques made him an icon in alternative rap—as well as Pusha T, the resilient Virginia Beach rapper whose explicit lyrics cut straight to the heart. Kendrick was the cerebral introvert with theatrical flair, the quiet kid who patiently absorbed the fullness of his environment and spun what he saw into heartfelt streams of pain, struggle, and perseverance. Section.80
was deemed an achievement in an era of hip-hop in which lyricists could build sizable followings online without having to come up through local open mic circuits. And while it wasn’t Kendrick’s first project (he had released five mixtapes before then—2004’s Hub City Threat: Minor of the Year
, 2005’s Training Day
, 2007’s No Sleep Til NYC
with rapper Jay Rock, 2009’s C4
, and 2010’s Overly Dedicated
put the music industry on notice: they’d never seen a creative flair like Kendrick’s, and there was no doubt now he was here to stay. Section.80
’s acclaim set the stage for Kendrick’s next achievement, 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city
, an instant classic that catapulted him to heights for which he wasn’t fully prepared. Powered by the singles “Backseat Freestyle,” “Swimming Pools (Drank),” and “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” Kendrick’s second studio album proved a massive hit, and almost overnight he went from enigmatic upstart to full-fledged superstar. Just two years later, in 2014, Kendrick was supposed to enjoy a grand coronation, at the 56th Annual Grammy Awards, but destiny had a different timeline.
The twenty-six-year-old had pushed his way to the Staples Center, having dropped a steady stream of music that garnered universal acclaim and brightened his star to its most brilliant point.
With guest appearances from hip-hop superstar Drake, and gangsta-rap-pioneer-turned-headphone-mogul Dr. Dre, good kid, m.A.A.d city
debuted at number two on Billboard
’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and sold more than 240,000 copies in its first week out. Kendrick had been dubbed L.A.’s next great lyricist, another in a decades-long list of local rappers gone big. But Kendrick wasn’t Dre. He wasn’t Ice-T, Ice Cube, or Snoop Dogg. Those men had been synonymous with gangsta rap, a reality-based strain of hip-hop that documented L.A.’s turbulent gang culture and systemic racism in searing detail. On good kid, m.A.A.d city
, Kendrick presented himself as the conflicted soul with one foot on solid ground and the other in the streets. He’d survived the stress of L.A. gang culture to finally arrive
at music’s biggest night in downtown L.A.—
some fourteen miles from his childhood home at West 137th Street.
There’d been a palpable buzz leading up to this point, yet Kendrick didn’t seem fazed by the moment. Despite all the pageantry that usually comes with the Grammys, there was a remarkable sense of calm on his face. It was like he’d been there before, like he belonged in this environment. It was the gaze of a man who’d already won, whether or not he collected hardware on that stage. He’d soon have the public’s full attention, and the awards, well, that’d be icing on the cake. (He was never one to get hopped up on accolades, anyway.) There was also a hint of resignation in his eyes; the Recording Academy hadn’t rewarded artists like Kendrick, at least not right away. They usually had to come around
to people like him, eschewing his blend of intellectual street rap for palatable, pop-oriented work. Year after year, the industry rewarded safety, not the groundbreaking art of wise young poets.
But there he was anyway, dressed to the nines in a bespoke electric-blue tuxedo with his longtime girlfriend, Whitney Alford, at his side. Earlier that night, Kendrick had ignited the crowd with a brilliant performance of his track “m.A.A.d city,” with the high-profile rock group Imagine Dragons as the backing band. On a night of scintillating performances, Kendrick’s set was perhaps the strongest, foreshadowing what would become a regular run of iconic sets from the Compton rapper on the music industry’s grandest stage. In the crowd, Taylor Swift, the industry-minted country artist turned pop star with a penchant for lovelorn breakup songs, swayed joyously on camera. Minutes later, with the music in full swing, Queen Latifah, the Afrocentric rap pioneer turned star actress, gazed delightfully at the stage—her face teeming with pride, bewilderment, and pure excitement. This was arguably Kendrick’s crossover moment, the culmination of three years of steadily increased momentum.
Compton kids aren’t supposed to make it past the city limits—Willowbrook to the northwest or Paramount to the east. If you let the media tell it, those kids are not even supposed to make it out alive.
Though the town wasn’t the epicenter of violent crime it had once been in the 1980s and ’90s, it was still fertile ground for gang activity, and by 2015, it would receive federal aid to help prevent gang violence and human trafficking while addressing the prevalence of narcotics and gun possession. Kendrick had Compton and a large swath of hip-hop culture on his side—the gangbangers, the college kids, and the aging B-boys. He was the perfect combination of old- and new-school rap who could spit incisive rhymes in underground ciphers and beside the biggest pop stars. “He’s the king,” says Otis “Madlib” Jackson Jr., an acclaimed hip-hop producer from Oxnard with a sizable cult following. “I knew he was the king when I first heard Section.80
. He’s the new king of the West Coast. And he’s spiritual. That’s rare for West Coast artists.” In the modern era of glossy pop hybrids driven by multimillion-dollar budgets, he was a throwback to rap’s “golden era” of the early to mid-1990s, when the complexity of one’s lyrics was more important than the instrumentals underscoring them. Kendrick embodied that nostalgia, and for those who grew up listening to Dre, Cube, and Snoop, his music struck the right balance of past and present, navigating both worlds with incredible ease and fluidity. This wasn’t just rap; Kendrick spoke to black and brown people on the grind, those who fought to make a way for themselves and their families against overwhelming odds. He was the voice of his community, even if the audience was much smaller.
Still, it was somewhat surprising to hear other names deemed award winners throughout the evening. Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake? Sure. They were all bona fide stars in rap and pop music, both of whom had sold millions of records throughout the years. Rihanna? Absolutely. The pop star had a golden ear for catchy hooks and massive dance tracks that lingered inside your head.
Then there was Macklemore, a rapper from Seattle who was a relative newcomer to those beyond his hometown. The lyricist had been releasing music since 2000, and over the years, he’d proved his ability to spit rapid-fire verses that delved into his own struggles with drug addiction and depression. Self-released projects like Open Your Eyes
(released under the name Professor Macklemore), The Language of My World
, and The Unplanned Mixtape
had found him wrestling with his own identity as a white man in a black genre. Then in 2012 and 2013, respectively, he and producer Ryan Lewis scored two chart-topping hits: “Thrift Shop,” which eschewed monetary excess for a life of limited spending, and “Can’t Hold Us,” a foot-stomping party anthem about persevering through overwhelming odds. “Thrift Shop” dispelled the notion of decadence; to Macklemore and Lewis, it was unnecessary to spend so much money on cars, clothes, and jewelry. While the message resonated during the economic downturn, it also seemed to mock the very genre from which Macklemore earned his living. Hip-hop was black music, and for Macklemore to release such a song felt like a slight to the art form and to the minorities for whom Kendrick Lamar spoke. Macklemore seemed to appropriate not just a genre but black culture itself, using its music to peddle safe messages to a mostly white audience.
Yet in 2005, the lyricist had released a song called “White Privilege,” in which he openly questioned his own existence in hip-hop. In a world that justly excoriated whites for not acknowledging black plight, one could respect Macklemore’s effort to hold himself accountable.
However, Kendrick represented more substantively those who’d been harassed by police or denied opportunities because of their hue. Hip-hop was a way to document the trauma of racism and celebrate the unparalleled fortitude of blackness. It allowed a group like N.W.A to denounce law enforcement, and for a man like the Notorious B.I.G. to walk us through the grittiest sections of 1990s Brooklyn without stepping foot on the C train. Through hip-hop, black people were able to synthesize hardship into radiant poetry, and for Kendrick, the culture allowed room to wrestle with the yin and yang of life as a young black man in modern America. In a country still largely uncomfortable with people of color, hip-hop was a community that needed to be protected.
So Macklemore wasn’t supposed to defeat Kendrick—not on this day, not ever.
But he did, walking away with the Grammys for Best New Artist, Best Rap Performance, Best Rap Song, and Best Rap Album for his 2012 project, The Heist
. Compared with the confessional good kid, m.A.A.d city
, The Heist
was destined for mainstream acceptance, its broad synthesis of pop and 1980s rap tailored for wider appeal. People of color were still fighting to be seen beyond hip-hop culture, and Macklemore’s skin tone allowed him to navigate black music while giving older white listeners the freedom to enjoy rap in the open. Macklemore was considered safe, discussing topics of which they could relate; by and large, those same people couldn’t fathom a young black male driving his mom’s Dodge Caravan across town to have sex, only to rob a house with his friends and witness a friend get murdered. Despite that, many fans—including Macklemore—believed Kendrick should’ve won at least one Grammy. So much so that Macklemore texted Kendrick and posted a screenshot of the private interaction on Instagram. “
You got robbed. I wanted you to win. You should have,” Macklemore wrote. “It’s weird and sucks that I robbed you. I was gonna say that during the speech. Then the music started playing during my speech and I froze. Anyway, you know what it is. Congrats on this year and your music. Appreciate you as an artist and as a friend.” Macklemore wrote in the Instagram post’s caption that Kendrick deserved to win the Grammy for Best Rap Album, and that he was “blown away to win anything much less 4 Grammys.”
The rap community reacted sharply: in the days and weeks following the Grammys and that now-infamous screenshot, Macklemore was roundly criticized. It was one thing to text Kendrick privately, but letting the world know about it felt disingenuous. “
I think it was uncalled for,” Kendrick told New York radio station Hot 97 in November 2014. “When he sent it to me, I was like, ‘Okay.’ I could see him feeling that type of way because he’s a good dude, but I think for confirmation from the world, he probably felt like he had to put it out there, which he didn’t need to do.” Drake felt the same way, telling Rolling Stone
that Macklemore’s text was “wack as fuck.” “
It felt cheap. It didn’t feel genuine.… He made a brand of music that appealed to more people than me, Hov [Jay-Z], Kanye [West] and Kendrick. Whether people wanna say it’s racial, or whether it’s just the fact that he tapped into something we can’t tap into. That’s just how the cards fall. Own your shit.” Macklemore had gone to Hot 97 before the Grammys and predicted he’d probably win the award for Best Rap Album, even though he didn’t think he deserved it. “
Then he came back on afterwards and said the same thing again,” cohost Ebro Darden told Kendrick at the time. “I think everybody knows the politics of it, where it’s kinda like, ‘Here’s this white kid who had Top 40 success,’ so he was… on the radar of all these old people who vote in the Grammy academy.” In his own Hot 97 interview following the 56th Annual Grammy Awards show, Macklemore said racism was to blame for his receiving the statue. He also chastised the voting process, which supposedly allowed members to elect potential winners even if they weren’t familiar with the music at all. “
Knowing how the Grammys usually go, I knew that there would be a great chance that we’d win that award and in essence rob Kendrick,” Macklemore said. “I think we made a great album, I think Kendrick made a better rap album. In terms of people who are voting on those ballots that are filling out those bubbles, we have an unfair advantage due to race, due to the fact that we had huge radio success.” In subsequent interviews, Macklemore took it a step further, admitting that he could have worded his text differently.
“The language that I used was a bad call,” he told Hot 97 in December 2014. “White people have been robbing black people for a long time—of culture, of music, of freedom, of their lives.”
But while the Kendrick-Macklemore exchange was the most dramatic example of a good deed gone wrong at the Grammys, it certainly wasn’t the last time something like that would happen. In 2017, UK singer Adele won Album of the Year for her record 25
, beating Beyoncé’s Lemonade
in the process. Powered by “Hello,” a soaring piano ballad steeped in romantic heartbreak, 25
had shot quickly up the charts, selling more than 10 million albums to mark Adele’s grand return after five years away from the music industry. In her speech, a tearful, almost frantic Adele gave Beyoncé all the praise, even saying she couldn’t accept it. “My artist of my life is Beyoncé and the Lemonade
album was just so monumental,” she proclaimed, her voice audibly shaken. “We all got to see another side to you that you don’t always let us see, and we appreciate that. And all us artists here, we fucking adore you. You are our light.… The way that you make my black friends feel is empowering and you make them stand up for themselves.” Some criticized Adele—a white artist—for using the term “black friends,” and the Recording Academy for once again shunning a black artist for the Grammys’ top honor. Beyoncé was the biggest pop star in the world and this was her third time being denied. In a New York Times
article published shortly after the awards show, critics predicted that black musicians would soon start boycotting the ceremony altogether. “
They absolutely, positively got it wrong,” said popular radio personality Charlamagne Tha God, according to the Times
. “The Grammy committee should all feel foolish this morning, because even Adele acknowledged that she should not have won album of the year.” Frank Ocean, one of music’s most popular singer-songwriters, said he hadn’t submitted music for the 2017 Grammy Awards because there was a cultural bias within the Recording Academy that blindly awarded white artists year after year. “
Believe the people,” he wrote in a blog post. “Believe the ones who’d rather watch select performances from your program on YouTube the day after because your show puts them to sleep. Use the old Gramophone to actually listen.”
There was a precedent for this.
In 1989, rap duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, nominated for Best Rap Performance for their crossover hit “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” boycotted the Grammys after the academy decided not to televise the award presentation. Though the duo won the award, they, Public Enemy, and Slick Rick did not attend the ceremony.
According to the Recording Academy, album submissions are reviewed by more than 350 experts throughout the music industry, all of whom work to make sure the records are sorted into their appropriate categories. Once the submissions are filed into rap, jazz, classical, and so on, first-round ballots are sent to members in good dues standing, and they’re asked to vote only in their areas of expertise. Both the first-round ballots and final ballots are tabulated by an independent accounting firm, and the winner is announced.
Despite that process, some have criticized the academy for seeming out of touch with what’s really popular in modern music. They say voters don’t choose based on artistic merit, that they mark the same familiar names year after year. Still, that doesn’t explain why reggae icon Bob Marley and guitar god Jimi Hendrix never won Grammys at all, and why someone like Jay-Z has gone home without a trophy from time to time. In 2018, for instance, the rap mogul’s thirteenth studio album, 4:44
, earned eight Grammy nominations, but he lost in every single category, including Album of the Year, Best Rap Album, and Record of the Year for “The Story of O.J.” The academy, he told Billboard
, is “
human like we are, and they are voting on things that they like. We can pretend we don’t care, but we do. We really care because we are seeing the most incredible artists stand on that stage, and we aspire to be that.” In an essay posted to Complex, music journalist Rob Kenner—a voting member of the academy—scrutinized the process, calling it disorganized. “
Along with the official guidelines,” Kenner wrote, “I soon learned another unwritten rule during private conversations with other committee members: be careful about green-lighting an album by someone who was really famous if you don’t want to see that album win a Grammy. Because famous people tend to get more votes from clueless Academy members, regardless of the quality of their work.”
The Recording Academy established a private committee to scrutinize voter submissions after Lionel Richie’s Can’t Slow Down
won Album of the Year over Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A.
and Prince’s Purple Rain
in 1985. As cultural website Vox points out, “
Richie was far from the best choice that year, and his win helped create the public perception that the Grammys were cut off from what ‘good music’ meant.” In Kenner’s essay, published before the 56th Annual Grammy Awards, he speculated about the likelihood of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis winning Best Rap Album over more deserving records like Kendrick’s good kid, m.A.A.d city
. “Because of their tremendous commercial success and media exposure there’s a good chance they will win, despite the fact that most hip-hop aficionados would prefer to see the award go to pretty much anybody else—be it Kanye West, Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, or Drake,” he wrote.
In September 2018, in an attempt to resolve its long-standing struggles with diversity, the Recording Academy invited nine hundred music creators to join its ranks as voting members. The request, part of a recommendation earlier that year from the academy’s Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion, went out to producers, songwriters, instrumentalists, and vocalists who were women or people of color under the age of thirty-nine. The academy also diversified the composition of its nomination review committees, which determine the final Grammy nominations across categories. “
We need a culture change overall,” task force chair Tina Tchen told Billboard
. “We’re living through a moment where we’re seeing a national culture change on these issues. The music industry and Recording Academy are not immune to that.”
In the years since the 56th Annual Grammy Awards, the careers of Kendrick and Macklemore have gone in separate directions. In 2016, Macklemore released a song called “White Privilege II,” which, much like “White Privilege” in 2005, found the rapper addressing what other white people with similar platforms have largely failed to do: the fact that his skin color afforded him opportunities and safety that black people simply didn’t have. The song arrived at a time of heightened tension between blacks and whites: in the United States, unarmed minorities were being killed by mostly white police officers at an alarming rate, and anyone with a smartphone could see bullets penetrate black bodies on endless loop. It seemed Macklemore wanted to help the cause, to stand in solidarity with those who had lost loved ones and those who were tired of seeing their neighbors murdered without recourse. Yet as the song unfolded, “White Privilege II” became more about Macklemore’s own identity struggles and less about the people he wanted to support. In one moment, he wanted to march with those fighting the injustices; the next he was off to the side, wondering if he should have been there in the first place. Ultimately, the song raised questions about Macklemore’s authenticity and whether or not he should be inserting his voice into black issues. His perspective threatened to overshadow that of the activists on the ground doing the real work. Such was the dilemma of analyzing Macklemore: while he should have been commended for at least trying to address topics that other white celebrities wouldn’t touch, he ended up doing too much to show that he was down for the cause. It was not enough to be a good dude privately; he needed to show the world just how cool he was.
Then there was his subsequent album, 2016’s This Unruly Mess I’ve Made
, with producer Ryan Lewis once again riding shotgun. Featuring rap pioneers Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee, and Grandmaster Caz, as well as up-and-coming stars like singers Anderson .Paak, Jamila Woods, and Leon Bridges, Unruly Mess
was an aptly titled collection of half-baked wokeness meant to show listeners that Macklemore really did
belong in hip-hop culture. Compared with The Heist
, which sold millions of records and pushed him to meteoric heights, Unruly Mess
was a critical and commercial failure, and—without explanation—Macklemore and Lewis didn’t submit it for Grammy consideration. A year later, Macklemore quietly released another album, Gemini
, this time without Lewis as his producer. That album was far less political than anything he’d released. “
I think it’s mostly the music that I wanted to hear,” the rapper told Rolling Stone
. “I believe that music can be a form of resistance without having to hit the nail on the head in terms of subject matter. It can be something that uplifts, that makes you dance, that makes you cry, that makes you think.” Nowadays, Macklemore still tours, playing to thousands of fans in packed arenas, even if his star has dissipated in the States.
Meanwhile, following the 2014 Grammys, Kendrick traveled to South Africa to play a series of shows. The perspective he’d gain from the Motherland would prove invaluable for himself, the rap community, and the world at large.
For eighteen years, Nelson Mandela sat on a remote island in the middle of the sea. It was here—Robben Island in South Africa’s Table Bay—where the activist pounded rocks into gravel and wrote letters to his wife, close confidants, and children.
From afar, the island looked inviting, a secluded peninsula surrounded by crisp blue water. “It’s a very poignant place to be, because you can see South Africa, but you really can’t get there,” says Teresa Ann Barnes, an African studies professor at the University of Illinois who lived in South Africa when Mandela was freed from prison. Walking the land was something different: the struggle was baked into it; the souls of political prisoners loomed heavily above the threatening brick walls and looping barbwire. Robben Island was, in a word, hell, but Mandela—the South African philanthropist who was arrested and sentenced to life in prison in 1964—used peace as a weapon against daily hardship. He was a fighter who battled injustice of all sorts, whether it was the inhumane system of apartheid, or the censorship of his fellow inmates on the island. Mandela was a leader with incredible resolve, and though he spent twenty-seven years in prison, his thoughts remained with the oppressed people back on the mainland. The resistance sustained his spirit and kept him mentally sharp in his loneliest moments. He was the ultimate commander and parent, however tough it was to be those things from the isolation of a tiny cell. “
Fight on!” Mandela once wrote in a statement made public by the African National Congress in 1980. “Between the anvil of united mass action and the hammer of the armed struggle we shall crush apartheid!” Apartheid would not be abolished until 1994, but anecdotes like these explain how Mandela became Mandela
: he was just a man, but he cared most about the challenges beyond his immediate gaze. His aim was to unify communities, whether blacks and whites in South Africa or inmates and overseers in prison. He wanted to build a resonant voice that would influence equally resonant voices in the future. Nowadays, Robben Island is preserved as a monument to the friction endured by its prisoners, but it’s also a testament to the resolve of a person who’d rise from the shackles of oppression to mend a country wading through the uncertainty of life after apartheid.
Kendrick visited Robben Island in the winter of 2014, not long after the now-infamous Grammy Awards ceremony. He was in South Africa to play a trio of shows in Durban, Cape Town, and Johannesburg, and needed time away from the music industry machine to recharge and gain a new perspective. The trip was significant for Kendrick; he’d never been to Africa and wanted to absorb the culture for himself and his friends back home in Compton—roughly 9,960 miles away. “
This is a place that we, in urban communities, never dream of,” Kendrick told comedian Dave Chappelle in a 2017 discussion for Interview
. “We never dream of Africa. You feel it as soon as you touch down.”
Chappelle knew this pilgrimage: In 2005, he had left his highly popular Chappelle’s Show
while filming episodes for its third season and traveled to Durban to visit his friend Salim. He, too, had needed to replenish his spirit: the false rumors claimed he was on crack cocaine, had a meltdown, and checked himself into a mental health facility. It was also said that Chappelle, a black man from the Washington, D.C., suburbs, didn’t like the way
that white people laughed at his particular brand of comedy, which used sharp race-centered parody to mock cultural stereotypes. It was like they were laughing at
him, not with
him, and thus the heart of his show had lost its beat. Couple that with the trappings of newfound fame;
Chappelle had inked a $50 million deal ahead of the season’s production, and—as he told Time
two weeks after walking away from the show—certain people within his inner circle had begun to change. “If you don’t have the right people around you and you’re moving at a million miles an hour you can lose yourself,” he told the magazine. By the time he got to South Africa, he was stressed and needed new creative energy.
The same went for Kendrick; by the time he got to South Africa in early 2014, his fame was still relatively new. In the U.S., good kid, m.A.A.d city
had sold more than one million copies—an actual platinum record. Toward the end of 2013, Kendrick had opened for Kanye West for a number of dates on his national Yeezus Tour. West was a dignitary at the time, and to open for him meant even greater exposure. Though Kendrick had spent the previous ten years releasing a number of mixtapes and independent albums—first on Konkrete Jungle Muzik, and then most notably on Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE)—he was, in the eyes of the public, still thought of as an overnight sensation. He wasn’t used to all this; he had always preferred to keep to himself in the background.
But now he was out front, and whether he liked it or not, success meant greater visibility, nonstop touring, and less time for himself. The album good kid
wasn’t the only reason he was a star; a certain verse had something to do with that. In August 2013, Kendrick appeared on a track called “Control” with rapper Big Sean and spit a potent rhyme that called out nearly every MC who was popular at the time: J. Cole, Jay Electronica, Drake, Pusha T, and Meek Mill, among others. It was a bold move at a time when hip-hop wasn’t so bold; the diss resembled an action from the genre’s history, back when hip-hop was still finding its way, when Ice Cube tongue-lashed N.W.A, and KRS-One battled MC Shan about the best borough in New York City. The verse set off a firestorm: some felt attacked by Kendrick’s words; others applauded the tactic. “KENDRICK!!!!! Ohhhh Shiiitttttt,” Diddy tweeted. “I don’t feel like @kendricklamar dissed anybody,” rapper Trinidad James tweeted. “He just has moved up to another level.”
On the road, Kendrick would write rhymes on his phone and record music on a tour bus equipped with a mobile studio. These were less-than-ideal circumstances for his meticulous creative process, but for almost three years—including his own touring schedule before connecting with West—he had made the most of his time, pulling inspiration from the road. In December 2013, during a tour stop in Atlanta, Georgia, he found himself weighed down by his newfound prosperity. By then, he’d been on the road for four consecutive months, performing almost every night, aside from a few dates when Busta Rhymes, A Tribe Called Quest, and Pusha T opened for West instead. He was homesick and somewhat disillusioned by the massive universal impact of his music. Sure, listeners around the world connected with it, but did it have the same resonance in his hometown? Kendrick felt guilty for making it out when his friends—some of whom were talented musicians in their own right—were either in prison or gunned down. Three of his closest companions had been murdered between 2013 and 2014. He felt he needed to be home with his family and the loved ones of those who were lost.
Kendrick didn’t just want to be a voice of reason; he needed that voice to assuage this bout of survivor’s guilt.
The shooting death of Chad Keaton—his friend’s little brother—hit him the hardest. On the evening of July 12, 2013, Keaton was walking down the road when a white sedan darted past him at the corner of Comstock Street and Parmelee Avenue. Shots rang out and wounded Keaton, who never recovered from his injuries. He died in the hospital thirty-one days later. Kendrick was close with Chad’s older brother, who was incarcerated and had asked Kendrick to make sure the younger sibling stayed on the right path. Chad was a good kid who had ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Ravaged by all the despair back home, Kendrick started screaming in his hotel room; later, he’d use the incident as the basis of a poem woven throughout his 2015 album, To Pimp a Butterfly
It was something that just accumulated,” Kendrick told the Guardian
at the time. “I was able to bottle that moment and put it on record.”
Despite his ascension, he rapped about depression and an inferiority complex. Compton—and Los Angeles as a whole—was chock-full of great lyricists with something viable to say, so what made Kendrick the one to rise above it all? It was a question with which he openly wrestled. “I find myself to be quite confident as a person,” he continued, “but you’re going to have that piece of doubt in the back of your head because we’re human.” Kendrick faced a great deal of pressure to top good kid, m.A.A.d city
, a widely heralded classic that forced some to dub the young rapper the King of West Coast Rap. Mind you, Kendrick likely wasn’t thinking about that, or if he was, he wouldn’t say so publicly. For him, the art was first and foremost, and as long as his music came from an honest place, the accolades were a plus.
South Africa gave Kendrick a chance to reset and be one with his own thoughts. He went to the blighted neighborhoods away from the tourist-centric parts of Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Durban. He spent time with the children who actually lived
there, using the trip as an opportunity to learn about the plight of their communities. His time on the continent set the foundation for Butterfly
, a record that was as much about South Africa as it was about his own fight to deal with burgeoning fame. “
I felt like I belonged in Africa,” Kendrick later told the Recording Academy. “I saw all the things that I wasn’t taught. Probably one of the hardest things to do is put [together] a concept on how beautiful a place can be, and tell a person this while they’re still in the ghettos of Compton. I wanted to put that experience in the music.” Throughout the album, one can hear subtle nods to both the beauty and conflict seen throughout South Africa. On “Complexion (A Zulu Love),” Kendrick wanted to celebrate the various shades of black women. In the States, some black people were trained to value lighter skin over darker skin, but in South Africa, he saw different shades of people all united by language.
Then on “Mortal Man,” Butterfly
’s tremendous closing track, Kendrick—over a jazz-inflected blend of mid-tempo drums and muffled orchestration—ponders his legacy in relation to Mandela’s, wondering if he’ll be remembered as a hero or cast as a villain. Here, Kendrick raps: “How many leaders you said you needed then left ’em for dead? / Is it Moses, is it Huey Newton or Detroit Red?” Mandela himself had seen the euphoria of his release and presidential run dissipate by the mid-1990s. While he brought equal voting rights to South Africa (a huge political shift for the country), life didn’t change dramatically for black citizens after that. Some chastised him for being too nice to the same white people who, historically, had made life insufferable for black people there. He was charming and deeply charismatic, but also economically conservative. “Mandela, and the things that he stood for, aren’t necessarily lauded by young South Africans,” Professor Barnes recalls. “They saw the compromises that he made have not led enough people to feel like their lives have improved.”
“Mortal Man” delves into the kind of survivor’s guilt that Kendrick experienced at the time. On one end, he was beginning to realize his worth, but he couldn’t help but question the authenticity of the love being received. Perhaps he hadn’t done enough work to warrant this widespread adoration. Kendrick did everything with Compton in mind, and toward the end of the track, he concludes his album-long poem by making direct ties between L.A. gang culture and systemic racism in South Africa: “While my loved ones [were] fighting a continuous war back in the city, I was entering a new one, a war that was based on Apartheid and discrimination. Made me want to go back to the city and tell the homies what I learned.” For him, the fight between red and blue was no longer important; black was the most essential color.
He made that message explicitly clear on “The Blacker the Berry,” an aggressive album cut near Butterfly
’s end. The South African dissension he referenced, between Zulu and Xhosa tribes, reminded him of “Compton Crip gangs that live next door / Beefin’ with Pirus, only death settle the score.” While these young men killed each other over property they didn’t own, there was a common enemy on the horizon that was perceived to be an even bigger threat than it had been in years past. South African citizens had been known to take bold steps toward their collective freedom; he thought it was time for black men in Compton to do the same.
Yugen Blakrok, a South African rapper who—in 2018—was chosen by Kendrick to appear on the soundtrack of the blockbuster film Black Panther
, remembers the palpable buzz surrounding Kendrick’s visit to the Motherland in 2014. Where other U.S. musicians typically visited Africa and took from its culture, using its sound and fashion to line their own pockets, Kendrick actually gave back to the community—praising it in interviews and on his music. He didn’t whisper the wonders of South Africa; he shouted them loudly. “You started noticing things,” Blakrok recalls, “like when he started growing his hair out.… Black people, we’re not the minority out here, we’re the majority. It’s just different how we wear our hair and our clothes. It’s different from what I think is going down in the States.” South Africa gave Kendrick the freedom to be himself, to be untethered to the nuanced cultural restrictions of America. According to Mark “Sounwave” Spears, a longtime Kendrick collaborator, something clicked for Kendrick when he went to South Africa, and once he returned home, the rapper scrapped two to three albums’ worth of material to create the expansive sonic opus that is Butterfly
In South Africa, Kendrick saw black faces—joyous and resilient black faces—all fighting to navigate their own circumstances. The country was just twenty years removed from the end of apartheid and still segregated, with much of its black African population living in urban townships outside Johannesburg, Kempton Park, Durban, and Germiston. Still, Blakrok says, there’s comfort in knowing that black people outnumber other races. “There’s a different type of power, a physical
power,” she asserts. “They know they can’t fuck with us physically.” Blakrok likens Kendrick’s visit to that of a humanitarian, and his presence in the region lit a fire beneath some of the rappers there. He was, and still is, a lyricist first and foremost, and for an MC with that level of technical prowess to thrive meant like-minded artists could succeed the same way. “It just showed there was a more open acceptance of that kind of hip-hop, whereas before, it was always pushed to the underground,” Blakrok says. “It established a trend of listening to rap that’s a little more left of center.” “He was the amazing artist with a Dr. Dre budget,” says the rapper Reason, who opened for Kendrick at Johannesburg Stadium in February 2014. “You could feel it. This guy’s not just big, he’s not just famous, he can actually rap
. People were moved when he came through.”
Reason recalls the business savvy that Kendrick brought with him. He remembers the so-called “ego walk”—or the long runway that extends from the stage into the crowd—that allowed musicians to perform closer to the audience. It was a way to better connect with the people, thus offering a more intimate show. “Nobody could use the ego walk except for Kendrick,” Reason asserts, “and if anybody used it, they were not going to perform.” Some resented Kendrick for that. “Others were arguing, ‘Why is this guy gonna build a big ego walk, and he’s the only one who’s allowed to use it? You know this is our country, why can’t we use it as well?’?” Turns out the answer was simple: “It was always spun around to say, ‘You didn’t ask for it. He did.’?”
The disagreement encouraged local musicians to take those minor details seriously, and to pay stricter attention to the contracts they signed. “It kinda upped the game,” Reason says. “It was an interesting experience to go through, but it did have a nice, positive impact, because there was a big change after that.” As Sabelo Mkhabela, a noted South African hip-hop journalist, points out, Kendrick performed in the country just as local artists started to rethink those sorts of opportunities. “A lot of South African artists were beginning to refuse to be opening acts for American superstars,” Mkhabela declares. “We get treated like shit backstage.” Despite the initial hard feelings between Kendrick and local performers, all was forgiven once the headliner hit the stage. “He would just perform and perform, then stand still,” Reason recollects. At the Johannesburg show, in particular, Kendrick—dressed in a green hooded jacket, tan shorts, and a gray T-shirt—made great use of silence, using a long break between songs to strengthen the room’s energy. The fans started chanting his name, and like Reason said, he was literally just standing there on the ego walk, letting the anticipation climb to frenetic heights. “The crowd would roar
. They’d make so much noise and it wouldn’t stop until he said something. That makes you appreciate how planned that is.”
The genesis of modern South African hip-hop can be
traced back to kwaito, a style of house music that emanated from the township of Soweto in the mid-1990s, just as the structures of apartheid were being dissolved and Mandela took office as the first democratically elected president of South Africa. Blending elements of mbaqanga, kwela, eighties bubblegum pop, and traditional praise music, kwaito was different from the straightforward rap of South Africa in the 1980s. Groups like Prophets of Da City (P.O.C.) and Black Noise pioneered hip-hop in Cape Town and Johannesburg, and have been credited with ushering in a new wave of black consciousness. P.O.C. was the first rap group in the country to record and release an album; the crew was able to build a fan base overseas and even performed at Mandela’s inauguration in 1994. Black Noise signed a deal with Tusk Music—a subsidiary of Warner-Elektra-Atlantic—and released its own album in 1992. That group, led by rapper Emile YX?, harkened back to the foundation of U.S. hip-hop, when break dancing and graffiti were equally essential to the rhymes being said over the music. Kwaito became the voice of disenfranchised youth who had grown tired of white minority rule and wanted apartheid to be abolished once and for all. Rap groups like P.O.C. and Black Noise were chastised for emulating the sound of hip-hop coming from the States.
Conversely, kwaito was celebrated as an authentic sound for South Africa. In 1995, Arthur Mafokate scored kwaito’s first commercial hit with “Kaffir,” a brash tune with pointed lyrics about white oppressors in South Africa. The song title refers to a derogatory term used in the country against black people, and on the track, Mafokate demands that his boss (or “baas”) not call him by it. The song draws immediate comparisons to Sly and the Family Stone’s 1969 track “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey” for its reclaiming of a word meant to insult a race of people. (To that end, Kendrick would do the same toward the end of To Pimp a Butterfly
, on a song called “i,” in which he subbed the derogatory N-word with the Ethiopian word meaning “king.”) The song “Kaffir” passed muster with the youth, some of whom were influenced by Mafokate’s music and went on to create their own resonant art. Mafokate was dubbed the King of Kwaito, and from there the music thrived as a bold alternative to the political—albeit, more palpable—songs of yesteryear. In 1998, kwaito group Boom Shaka caught flack for a house music version of the South African national anthem that it created and performed. It was thought by some to be a commercial subversion of the original hymn; the group, in defending its version, said their version was meant to attract younger listeners.
South African hip-hop is still fairly corporate, and rappers who aren’t tied to major sponsors have a tough time sustaining themselves in the country. That leaves little to no room for MCs who prioritize the art of making music over the demands of making money. “Black artists here aren’t really afforded that luxury of making art for art’s sake,” Blakrok says. In recent years, members of the African National Congress have used hip-hop to secure votes while trying to rebuild confidence in their mission. As a result, a big-name rapper like Kiernan “AKA”
Forbes has been criticized for not speaking truth to power, much as his predecessors would’ve done decades ago. “The people are questioning him,” says journalist Mkhabela. “They’re like, ‘You, as a young person, how are you campaigning for a party that is failing a lot of young black people?’?” Above all, Kendrick served as motivation to traditional lyricists in South Africa who identified with groups like P.O.C. and Black Noise, and who longed for a time when thoughtful lyricism took precedence over glossy, pop-focused hybrids. He represented the roots of hip-hop and all the spoken-word poetry, 1970s funk, and R&B that preceded it. Kendrick was allowed to create authentic music without conforming to what was hot on the radio, and in South Africa, he was a guiding light for unheralded MCs who wanted to succeed on their own terms. In him, they had an example of someone who could have fun without sacrificing content, who could discuss serious issues—like his family’s history of alcoholism—over booming bass drums that resonate in nightclubs. By and large, rappers haven’t been able to do both, yet Kendrick was breaking the mold for his generation.
Four years after he visited the country, Kendrick would once again cast his eye to South Africa by selecting four of its rappers to appear on Black Panther: The Album
. Not only was it a soundtrack to a major film, but it was meant to depict Kendrick’s broad musical vision of the Motherland. He could’ve chosen big-name acts from South Africa, but he went deeper into the scene to spotlight artists who were still on the rise. Along with Blakrok, the rapper chose dance music artist Babes Wodumo, rapper Saudi, and singer Sjava to share space alongside noted American rappers ScHoolboy Q, 2 Chainz, and Vince Staples. Blakrok was on tour when she was contacted by Kendrick’s label, Top Dawg Entertainment, to appear on the project. Kendrick and the label had been listening to a lot of South African music, and Blakrok—a smoky-voiced lyricist with elaborate wordplay—fit the album’s concept. After her inclusion on Black Panther
, Blakrok found an audience in the United States and Europe, where her style of hip-hop was better appreciated. And because of the Kendrick nod, she suddenly had greater pull. “The fact that I wasn’t a mainstream artist with a major label, it really put a lot of attention on me,” says Blakrok, who released a critically acclaimed album, Anima Mysterium
, in 2019. “If you’re not on TV, it’s almost like you don’t exist, so to be included was huge. It opened up a lot of doors for me. It was a cosign and it did wonders.”
Ultimately, South Africa played a significant role in Kendrick’s career, and in many ways, the time he spent there helped redirect the course of mainstream black music. If he hadn’t taken that trip, or opened his eyes to the country’s grand splendor, there’d be no To Pimp a Butterfly
. Free and avant-garde jazz might still struggle to attract bigger groups of fans, and sonically challenging art might still be relegated to smaller venues. South Africa set the stage for Kendrick’s greater act. It also allowed him to return to where it all started, this time with a clear head and a full heart.