GQ Style granted their latest cover to Kendrick Lamar for a very unique cover story and interview conducted by Rick Rubin. Like the musical sensei that he is, the Def jam founder dove deep into K. Dot’s jazz influences, social activism, mediation practices, influences and more.
GQ:When making music, do you ever consider the audience at all, or is it more just self-expression?
Kendrick Lamar:I used to consider the listener. But now I’m in a space where if I’m not inspired, I can’t really do the music. I can’t feel it. I put in enough hours to be able to pen a hundred-bar verse on the spot at any given moment. But for me to actually feel an idea, it has to come from me. And a lot of times, I have to block out different needs and wants just for my own selfish reasons. But at the end of the day, it comes out where, whether you like it or not, you know it comes from a real place. It’s gonna feel unapologetic, uncompromising, and it’s gonna feel me.
When you say unapologetic, has there ever been anything that comes up that you feel like, I don’t want to say that on a record?
That’s a great question. I always said to myself, if I said it on a record, I never retract my statements. Because it’s my self-expression, and you can have your opinions on it, you can feel a certain type of way, but it’s how I feel. And I can’t contradict that at all.
Beautiful. And do you ever look back on anything and feel like you’d like to change any of the things that you’ve written?
It would be me saying, I want to go deeper. I shoulda went deeper.
Content-wise, do you feel like you could talk about anything?
I could talk about anything. That is the challenge for me. Being able to talk about anything and make it connect to a listener. Where a listener can either feel like you or feel like they understand you. Talking to a little kid and making that feel like something. Or saying the most brutal, harsh things on a record, where, you know, society may not want to hear it. That’s what music is about for me.
Let’s talk about “Alright” for a second. It has become our generation’s protest song.
When you wrote it, did you have that in mind? Did you think of it as a protest song?
No. You know what? I was sitting on that record for about six months. The beat’s Pharrell. And between my guy Sam Taylor and Pharrell, they would always be like, Did you do it? When you gonna do it? I knew it was a great record—I just was trying to find the space to approach it. I mean, the beat sounds fun, but there’s something else inside of them chords that Pharrell put down that feels like—it can be more of a statement rather than a tune. So with Pharrell and Sam asking me—Am I gonna rock on it? When I’m gonna rock on it?—it put the pressure on me to challenge myself. To actually think and focus on something that could be a staple in hip-hop. And eventually, I came across it. Eventually, I found the right words. You know, it was a lot going on, and still, to this day, it’s a lot going on. And I wanted to approach it as more uplifting—but aggressive. Not playing the victim, but still having that We strong, you know?
So you had the beat for six months, but you didn’t have any words?
I didn’t have any words. P knew that that record was special. Sam knew that the record was special. They probably knew it before I even had a clue. So I’m glad that they put that pressure on me to challenge myself. ‘Cause sometimes, as a writer, you can have that writer’s block. And when you like a sound or an instrumental, you want to approach it the right way. So you sit on it.
Do you consider yourself first and foremost a rapper?
Could you imagine making an album in the future where you’re not rapping?
Yeah, I think I got the confidence for it. If I can master the idea and make the time to approach it the right way, I think I can push it out.
It’s really interesting now, with what’s going on in hip-hop. It’s almost like you’re a throwback to when lyrics mattered. So much of hip-hop today is about vibe and swag and personality, and less about words. And it sometimes sounds like even the MC doesn’t know what he’s saying on a lot of today’s records. So it’s interesting to hear the sort of clarity and depth that you go into lyrically.
The clarity, I got my clarity just studying Eminem when I was a kid. How I got in the studio was all just curiosity. I had a love for the music, but it was curiosity. The day I heard The Marshall Mathers LP, I was just like, How does that work? What is he doing? How is he putting his words together like that? What’s the track under that? An ad-lib? What is that? And then, Why don’t you go in the studio and see? So I do that. Then it became, How’s his words cutting through the beat like that? What is he doing that I’m not doing, now that I’m into it? His time is impeccable. When he wants to fall off the beat, it’s impeccable. These are things that, through experience and time, I had to learn.
It’s lucky that you got to learn it so young. It gave you time to grow so much.
Yeah, definitely—13, 14 years old.
Crazy. In one of your lyrics, you mention meditation. Do you have a meditation practice?
Yeah, man. I have to have at least 30 minutes to myself. If it’s not on the daily, every other day, to just sit back, close my eyes, and absorb what’s going on. You know, the space that I’m in. When you in music—and everybody knows this—the years are always cut in half, because you always have something to do. We in the studio for four months, that go by. Now you gotta go on the road for five months, that go by. Next thing you know, five years going by and you 29 years old. You know? So I have to find a way to understand the space that I’m in and how I’m feeling at the moment. ‘Cause if I don’t, it’s gonna zoom. I know. I feel it. And I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. It just goes and then you miss out on your moment because you’re so in the moment you didn’t know the moment was going on, if that makes sense.