Yesterday, Kendrick Lamar unveiled a partnership with Reebok to debut their new Ventilator OG sneaker, which commemorates the 25th anniversary of their Ventilator line. Along with that launch came a short film, Kendrick Lamar - I am, directed by Anthony Mandler, a music video veteran who's lensed clips for the likes of Jay Z, Rihanna, and Tyler, the Creator. "I've always been a fan of his work, so I was privileged to have somebody who knows the culture and vision, and is as talented as he is," Lamar tells me earlier this afternoon at Manhattan's Dream Downtown hotel. When he walks in for our chat, he's projecting a calm, laid-back vibe, clad in ripped jeans and a green-and-white hoodie; as he sits down, his phone is blasting Aretha Franklin's "One Step Ahead."
Kendrick Lamar - I am is a three-and-a-half-minute trip through Los Angeles' Compton neighborhood as seen through the eyes of Lamar, where he grew up. The video opens with the rapper standing on the roof of the Tam's Burgers on Figueroa, the same spot where the narrator of "m.A.A.d city," from 2012's masterwork good kid, m.A.A.d city, is standing when he sees a light skinned nigga with his brains blown out. "There were a lot of bad ordeals happening on that rooftop—and a lot of good times hanging out," Lamar remembers. "Going back to that area and being able to stand on top of it, looking at the city from that perspective rather than from a lower perspective, on the streets—it was a serious moment for me. I still have family there—cousins, aunties, friends, still out in the city—so me going back to the city isn't nothing out of the norm. I gotta see them. People need to be able to touch you."
The video also takes a brief tour through Lamar's alma mater, Centennial High School. "There were a lot of memories being on that campus," he says. "Seeing the growth from being a teenager and not knowing what I wanted to do in high school, to years later, doing exactly what I wanted to do—all I could do was reflect." Throughout the clip, Lamar delivers a lengthy free-verse that took him just under an hour to prepare. "It's about expressing myself," he says. "I'm not confined to a hook or bridge—it's just me getting whatever I want to say off my chest. That's the simplest way for me to be creative—when there's no structure."
"You want to make it a little bit about connecting, not just selling something," Lamar says later, ruminating on the opportunities that hooking up with a brand like Reebok can yield for an artist like himself. "People are actually living their lives to my music, and [to] my lifestyle—whether it's me being on stage or wearing a shoe. It's also an introduction for those who don't who I am: 'This is what I stand for.' I stand for inspiring my city and [people] around the world."
The rest of our conversation is below; we discussed his recent Grammy nominations (and how he feels about the awards' consistent short-shrifting of hip-hop as a genre), his latest single, "I," and what, exactly, was going on with his eyes during that Saturday Night Live performance.
What we didn't discuss, however, was the recent and perpetually ongoing spate of police brutality seen in the killings of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, and countless other African-Americans of the past and present. When the subject was brought up near the interview's end, Lamar declined to talk about it at length: "It's just gonna make me frustrated."
Do you remember the first pair of Reeboks you bought? Yeah, I was in seventh grade—maybe sixth grade going into seventh grade. I had a lot in seventh grade. It was a pair of all-white Classics. I had to buy a few pairs, though. It was raining. You wear 'em out. [Laughs]
You got two Grammy nominations. How you feeling? It's a cool feeling, but my focus is a little bit deeper than the accolades. That's not a confirmation of success in the headspace where I'm at today. I take it in stride, one day at a time. I don't let things get to my head as they should, because this is a bigger picture overall.
Do you plan on attending this year? I don't know… It depends on where I'm at and what I'm doing as far as doing this album. I won't know until the time comes.
The hip-hop awards are typically treated as a footnote in the Grammys telecast. What's up with that? I don't know what's up with that, I don't. What I know is, hip-hop should be way more appreciated in whatever it is—whether it's the community or it's award shows. We definitely influence a lot of people out here in the world the same way other genres do. It should always be respected with the highest gratitude. How we can go about getting about that respect—that's something that needs to be executed. Probably hasn't been figured out yet.
You said in a recent interview that "I" was inspired by depression. We wake up every day feeling insecure about ourselves all the time. Me making a song like that is just a reminder of the potential that I have, and the godlike speed that I have inside. At the end of they day, I'm all human, and no matter how much money and how many accolades or whatever you have in your possession that people consider success, it still comes from within yourself—acts of love. A lot of the time we cling on to worldly things—such as I do, such as you do—and we get confined by it. So me making a record like that is not only for myself, but for other people that feel like that. People that's incarcerated, people that's in college trying to get a degree. There's a lot of people that have no self-worth.
I saw a lot of people online comparing your dilated-pupils look on Saturday Night Live to the cover for Method Man's Tical 2000: Judgment Day. [Laughs] Yeah, definitely. I've always been a fan of Method Man and the late, great ODB. What that expressed was, it's not necessarily what's on you, but what's in you. You strip down all the chains, you strip down all the jewelry, and what else is there while I'm on stage? What's there is a great performance that not only comes from energy, but from the soul. That's what you get from that performance. That wasn't me performing on that stage that night. That was a whole different type of energy. Strip it down to everything, and that's what I wanted to prove—and also give homage to those who done it before me in that same light.
When "I" hit, people were like, "What is this?" But in the current light of day, its message feels very prescient and perfectly timed. Definitely. I know exactly the type of artist that I am. I'm not the artist that's gonna give you whatever's on the radio today, whatever the actual sound is—you play it, you wear it out, and then you're done with it. I just don't make music like that. That's something I learned about myself. My music comes from a place where it's gonna grow. You're gonna keep listening to it and keep finding different things, and that's how the longevity comes. That's just the type of artist that I am. And me being aware of that—I just do it how I feel. Prior to it coming out, I already know what they're gonna say, you know what I'm saying? [Laughs] But that's just who I am, and knowing what type of artist I am.
Photos credit: Reebok