Both a one-time community college football player and a Hoover Crip, Q’s story mirrors Jay Rock’s to a degree—he too was half forcibly pulled from a street by the TDE machine—but his demeanor couldn’t be more different. He’s the shit-talking cutup of the crew and the only member who insists on putting traditional utensils to use (“real Gs use chopsticks”). Naturally, he was the final convert to the TDE studio rat lifestyle. “He was just fucking around with it at first,” recalls Lamar. “He would walk in the studio with a big-ass 40 bottle like, Oh y’all doing music, huh? Let me do a 16 real quick.”
“[Black Hippy] was actually my idea because I was slacking in my music,” adds Q. “I figured if I could be in a group I could just write one verse and I could be good.” He admits to being intimidated when he first started coming to the studio but eventually the tenacity of his collaborators rubbed off on him. Now he raps effortlessly in elastic word blurs. And while he still habitually clowns everyone good-naturedly—On Lamar: “When I first heard Kendrick, I’m like this nigga a bitch, I don’t like this nigga”; on the possibility of a Black Hippy full length: “That shit ain’t never gonna come out.”—their collective pride in his rapid improvement runs deeply. So much so, that they unanimously anoint him the most talented rapper in the group. Q, of course, concurs.
This dynamic—a push and pull of props and hazings—fuels their recorded output as well. As a quartet, Black Hippy’s efforts are limited to a handful of playful posse cuts, but they tend to bleed through one another’s solo tracklistings. Sometimes they turn up for just a few bars before passing the mic off, but they’re always there, comfortable enough to know when to jump on a record and wise enough to know when to back off. “One thing about it when you in a group you gotta put your ego aside,” says Lamar. “Egos kill. Not only you but everybody around you.”
Kendrick Lamar Duckworth’s own ego is so aggressively muted that you might mistake him for anything else but a rapper. And yet the sleepy eyed, soft-spoken 24-year-old has become the unlikely breakout star of the collective, largely on account of the ideas bouncing around inside his head. Born and bred in the heart of Compton, his relationship with gang culture is a little more complex than the binary line his fellow Hippies sit on. Lamar’s father was a member of Chicago’s infamous Gangster Disciples. When, prior to his birth, his family moved to LA, they failed to leave the street mentality behind.
“My uncles and all my cousins was doing it on a daily basis—shootouts, running in my momma house, trying to hide somewhere, selling dope,” Lamar remembers. “So for a while I thought that was how it was supposed to be, until I ventured out into other spaces and people didn’t know about what was going on where I was from.” As Lamar watched friends and family land in jail, he consciously pulled away from the street, thanks in part to nudges from his ever-present father. “The cats that’s in jail they never had father figures. I had one,” he explains. “He wasn’t perfect but he was there to pull me out and let me know when I’m about to bump my head.”
If Lamar doesn’t noticeably carry himself like a street dude, he definitely carries the weight of the streets on his shoulders. A cautious optimist, he speaks at length about matters like caring for the children of his incarcerated friends and how his ultimate goal is to make enough money to bring community centers back to Compton. He speaks with a blind earnestness that’s both naive and charming. Last year’s underground album Section.80 functioned on a similar wavelength, offering an inquisition on the state of his community and generation. And, unlike so many so-called conscious rappers before him, Lamar proved unafraid to leave some questions unanswered. It’s been some time since this type of positive leaning, socially aware rap has been central to the hip-hop conversation. Around the turn of the century the burgeoning backpack rap sect drew a hard line in the sand between themselves and just about everyone else in hip-hop—from the most abrasive of gangsta rappers to the most innocuous pop stars. This had the unintended, if not unexpected, effect of narrowing their audience to little more than just ageing nostalgists and liberal college students. They cordoned off their choir and proudly took to preaching.
Despite occasional overlap in subject matter with conscious rappers, Lamar (and Black Hippy writ large) have not found themselves with a niche audience. Though Section.80 is ostensibly speaking to one specific generational sliver, it ultimately transcends demographics. It’s a balancing act of sensitivity and aggression, of consideration and ignorance, of self-seriousness and jest. I’m not on the outside looking in, I’m not on the inside looking out, Lamar bellows on its outro, I’m in the dead fucking center, looking around.
His crossover appeal may be even simpler than that. Unlike many of the backpack-era rappers that came before him (thus named for their bookish predilection for constantly carrying knapsacks), Lamar is willing to sacrifice substance in the name of style. He showboats in a spastic double-time on “Rigormortis,” bouncing around syllables like, A suit and tie is suitable and usual in suicide/ CSI just might investigate this fucking parasite. While Lamar attributes this approach to the influence of early Jay-Z, it more closely resembles the flow obsession of critically loved but generally ignored mid-’90s, West Coast underground acts like Freestyle Fellowship and Souls of Mischief, which makes it all the more surprising that it’s connecting so well today. He’s proving that there might just be as much capital in classical rap styling as there is in vapid swagger. It’s certainly connecting amongst his peers—he’s been given formal stamps of approval from Compton rap heroes Dr. Dre and The Game, as well as Canadian superstar Drake, who lent Lamar a full two-and-a-half minute solo track on his platinum LP, Take Care.