Twenty-four year-old Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar has been putting out mixtapes since he was 16. His career moved excruciatingly slowly for years, but now things seem to be happening all at once: Dr. Dre became a very vocal fan and mentor (Lamar will likely appear on Dre's upcoming “Detox”), Lamar made XXL magazine's vaunted Freshman list this year and just released a much-touted new indie album, "Section. 80." (An as yet-untitled official debut disc remains in the works).
You've been putting out mixtapes since you were 16. Does the process of getting noticed seem like it's happening slowly for you?
I think it's happening just the way it should. Being 16 and putting out mixtapes gave me a lot more time to develop, to figure out where I wanted to go with my music. I think when you get in the business [you tend to sound like] people that you like, and eventually it develops into your own style. It's perfect timing — everything's about timing.
What did it mean to you, as a kid from Compton, to have Dre come out and say what a fan he was?
Oh man, it meant everything. To just be in the city growing up and listening to my uncles [play his music], to be standing on the same corners and same blocks he once stood on was a crazy feeling for me, knowing that this man made a success of himself, he bettered himself and his family. He gave me more inspiration when I talked to him, sharing stories and memories together. I'm loving it, man. I'm still on the high right now.
What was the best advice he gave you?
Just to stay passionate. This is a guy who's already made millions, made himself a mogul in the industry but still sits in that studio 23 hours of the day, trying to perfect what he's doing ... If you start chasing the dollar, that's when things fall off.
A lot of people compare you to Tupac. Do you hear that in your music, or are those comparisons off base?
I think Tupac has had a lot of influence on me. I listened to him coming up ... and when I eventually started doing music, I realized that the best music is the one that touches people, and I realized he had even more influence, not just on my music but on my life, because of the stories he was bringing to the table. I never really understood Tupac 'til I turned 16, 17 and went out on the streets and got in all the kinds of mischief he was talking about, with the police and with the homeboys and everything. I learned to put real emotions and life in my music, and I think that's when the comparisons started coming about.
Tupac is a legend, and I think that's great. I'm not trying to be 'Pac. I'm trying to be Kendrick Lamar, but if they want to put that me in type of category, I'll continue his legacy.
You both have a [poetic flow] about your rhymes.
I've been doing poetry my whole life. I never got serious with it. When I had poetry homework I'd write it, like, 10 minutes before class, then turn it in and get like, an A+. I always had a knack for it. When I turned to music, it just transferred to that.
You've said in interviews that Tupac came to you in a dream one time.
Yeah. I was asleep, of course, and I heard him say, "Keep my legacy alive, and don't let the music die." It was trippy for me. I was in a deep sleep but when I heard that I shot straight up. And when I walked into the studio the next morning I knew exactly what I needed to do.