Hot on the heels of his 11 Grammy nominations earlier this month, hip-hop star Kendrick Lamar opened up like never before in a revelatory interview with NPR published Tuesday.
The “Poetic Justice” rapper from Compton, California, recalled witnessing his first murder (at age 5), revealed the pitfalls of instant fame, and remembered the loved ones he has lost this year.
1. Witnessing his first killing
“It was outside my apartment unit,” Lamar told NPR‘s David Greene about seeing a murder when he was just 5 years old. “A guy was out there serving his narcotics and somebody rolled up with a shotgun and blew his chest out.
“Admittedly, it done something to me right then and there. It let me know that this is not only something that I’m looking at, but it’s something that maybe I have to get used to — you dig what I’m saying?” he said.
2. The danger of rapid success
Lamar doesn’t have a rap sheet himself and while music saved him from the streets, the speed of his success came at a price. “You can have the platinum album, but when you still feel like you haven’t quite found your place in the world — it kind of gives a crazy offset,” Lamar said. “When you go inside these places, no matter how much money you have, no matter how much success, when you still feel like you’re not comfortable, where’s the feeling in that?”
The hip-hop star told of a night in a swanky hotel room when he woke up screaming. “What was the feeling? The feeling was missing home,” he explained. “The feeling was, ‘How am I influencing so many people on this stage rather than influencing the ones that I have back home?’ That’s the feeling: being inside the hotel room, and these thoughts I’m just pondering back and forth while I look at the ceiling all night.”
3. Losing friends
Lamar’s life has not been without tragedy, and he told NPR that he has lost more friends this past summer than ever before — with the shooting death Chad Keaton being a particularly painful experience.
“He was like my little brother, we grew up in the same community,” he said. “I was actually best friends with his older brother, who is incarcerated right now. And him just always telling me to make sure that Chad is on the right path. And, you know, he was on the right path. But, you know, things happen where sometimes the good are in the wrong places, and that’s exactly what happened. He got shot.”
4. Controversial lyrics about race
Being deemed a hero in the Black Lives Matter movement, every word Lamar utters can take on new meaning. The line “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street, when gang-banging make me kill a n—er blacker than me? Hypocrite!” from his song “The Blacker the Berry” sparked particular outrage, with some thinking he was calling on African Americans to look at their own behavior before they take out anger on the police.
“It’s not me pointing at my community; it’s me pointing at myself,” Lamar explained. “I don’t talk about these things if I haven’t lived them, and I’ve hurt people in my life. It’s something I still have to think about when I sleep at night.
“The message I’m sending to myself — I can’t change the world until I change myself first.”
5. He still can’t help wanting revenge
When Keaton died last August at age 23 from injuries suffered in a drive-by shooting in Compton, Lamar still felt the urge to seek revenge on his killer.
“I can’t disregard the emotion of me relapsing and feeling the same anger that I felt when I was 16, 17 — when I wanted the next family to hurt, because you made my family hurt,” he confessed. “Them emotions were still running in me, thinking about him being slain like that. Whether I’m a rap star or not, if I still feel like that, then I’m part of the problem rather than the solution.”
Watch Lamar’s video for “Alright” from “To Pimp a Butterfly” below.