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Kendrick Lamar's Incredible Rise in His Own Words

Did you know Kendrick was signed to Def Jam? Or that he and Jay Rock fought over Lil Wayne? His lyrics tell the tale.

Like an ancient fossil, hip-hop has its buried treasures, but instead of being buried under layers of sediment, they’re buried under layers of cat videos, dead websites, and tweets. We get so much information at such a fast rate that even incredible and relatively accessible artifacts like your favorite rapper’s first mixtape or a video of a young Kanye in the studio often get overlooked until some internet archaeologist digs ‘em up.

I just dug one up. Kendrick Lamar’s “Last Real Nigga Alive.”

I’m far from the first person to hear the record. It’s been well documented on Reddit, annotated on RapGenius, by no means deeply hidden. But even as a fan of Kendrick I had never heard the song, I know there are a lot of people out there like me, and frankly hearing it now is mind-blowing. For most people, Kendrick’s career truly started with Section.80, maybe Overly Dedicated if they want to do their homework, but even OD is far from the start. After hearing “Last Real Nigga Alive” I’m truly realizing how much deeper K. Dot’s story goes.

The song, first released in 2009, is shades of “Last Call,” with Kendrick spending seven minutes going into great detail about the early days of his career. When I say early years, I’m not talking Overly Dedicated, I mean even earlier. Back when he was K. Dot, back when he was just happy to be in the same room as Jay Rock. “Last Real Nigga Alive” is Kendrick’s big bang, when it all got started. To listen to the lyrics is to learn his biography. 

He starts by setting the scene. It’s 2005, Kendrick Lamar is still in high school, Guerilla Black’s “Compton” is the city’s new anthem and thanks to The Documentary, The Game is the hottest rapper on the planet.

“Anyway, I put out a mixtape in 12th grade Hub City Threat, Minor of the Year, DJ Dave and his brother designed, put together the music.”

That mixtape he is talking about is Hub City Threat: Minor Of The Year and the cover of the CD is amazing. You gotta love the Yahoo email address. Of course, it’s not To Pimp A Butterfly, but for nostalgia purposes, it’s most definitely worth a listen

Also, this DJ Dave guy has to be Dave Free, the president of TDE, right? It would make sense because DJ Dave has produced a lot of stuff for Kendrick over the years and Dave Free is part of the production team Digi+Phonics. He really has been with Kendrick since day one. 

“Himey was Game's barber, the other cat made a statement / Saying that Game was his partner, so I gave him my tape / Said he'd play it for him, hoping that I'd get my big break But never got a response..anyway”

I couldn’t find anything specific on this Himey cat, but I wanted to include it because it’s interesting to think about how many dead ends or empty promises every artist runs into it. Kendrick probably thought this was a huge break for him, but he still had like nine years of waiting to do. Crazy.

“This nigga named Pop Gates came to my school with a camera I freestyled on his DVD for a minute then after / It hit the streets, I was known as K. Dot from Compton”

I searched long and hard for the freestyle, but all I could dig up was this trailer for the DVD. Kendrick’s freestyle wasn’t in it, but the name “K Dot” appears a few times. Fuck, I want that freestyle….

Unfortunately,  it looks as though Pop Gates has passed.

“I met Top Dawg, told Dave that he'd like to meet / Me at the studio, made me freestyle for an hour / Told me come back tomorrow, but I came back in a hour / Jay Rock was in the booth, recording his first mixtape”

So basically, Kendrick meets the TDE crew, who are already working with Jay Rock. Kendrick is the face of TDE now, but Jay Rock was there well before him, Jay Rock is really the foundation of the label. That mixtape he mentions is called Watts Finest Vol. 1.

"Did our first collaboration on the Nephew track"

Nephew track? Is that the name of a song? The name of another artist? I looked for it but I couldn’t seem to find it anywhere. I did, however, find this, which mentions Jay working with a producer named Nephew. I’m assuming that’s who he is talking about, but anything more conclusive just doesn't seem to be on the internet. It could be this guy too, Nephew the rapper was active at around the same time, but I’m thinking it's the producer and not the artist. 

“He got signed months later, Warner Brothers / We started on his album, he wrote his rhymes on paper”

In an interview with NPR, Top touched on Jay Rock’s brief stint at Warner Bros, saying the deal fell apart about as quickly as it came together. 

"In our mind, once you get a deal with a major label, they take over and do everything for you," Top said. "We laid back. I think we fell asleep and they fell asleep."

Was the album that they were working on what eventually became Follow Me Home? Judging by all the big names on the LP I’d assume there was major label involvement, at least initially. Or was there another album they worked on that never saw the light of day?

Also, I was always more of a Boost Mobile guy back then.

"Same time our buzz was generated from G Malone / He had a song called 200, White Lightnin, the streets loved it / Said that Sony had gave him an unbelievable budget"

For context, around the same time Jay Rock signed with Warner, Glasses Malone was poppin' because of his White Lightnin mixtape

That “Two Hunned” track features features Game, who Kendrick mentioned earlier as the West Coast guy, so that was a pretty big co-sign for Glasses. What makes the Glasses Malone thing special was not his deal, but that “unbelievable budget.” Malone signed a $1.7 million dollar deal, which, at the time, was unheard of. $1.7 million?!

I actually dug up an old DJBooth interview where he talks about the deal and being dropped.

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DJBooth: "Your nickname, Mr. 1.7 Million, is because your initial record deal with Sony was for $1.7 million, correct?"

G. Malone: "That’s correct."

DJBooth: "Did the label make you pay any of that back?"

G. Malone:  "Nah, they didn’t. Sony had money and at the time it looked like they were just tryin’ to close down one department of their record label. It was up to me to go to Epic or Columbia, but it just didn’t seem right—I decided just to take my stuff and see if they’d let me go.  I lost some money at the end, as far as money I would’ve received if I fully returned the album, but, it worked out, ‘cause I left with my masters, and with a hell of a lot of advance money."

It’s crazy to see how willing labels were to make a clean break back then. Jay Rock was dropped with no fuss and even though they gave Malone a bazillion bucks they had no problem cutting ties. Now I feel like labels would rather kill a career than sever ties (Lil Wayne anyone?)

“Next thing you know, we came across Lift Me Up / It was a hit When I heard it / But all we had was the instrumental and the hook / But when Rock jump on it for certain, it was to smash”

I won't lie, I've never heard "Lift Me Up." Here you go. Sounds like Kendrick thinks “Lift Me Up” was Jay Rock’s first big “hit,” and by extension his and TDE's first big hit. The man's got Platinum albums under his belt now, but at that time, it was a small, regional hit that meant everything to him. 

“Gave it to Julio, just to get his opinion / Next thing you know, the record was spinning / That was a good look, it set the coast on fire”  

After some more research, a video was released in 2007 and “Lift Me Up” appeared on Jay Rock’s Follow Me Home album in 2011, but it sounds like the origins of the song go all the way back to 2005.

Kendrick also credits Julio (or Julio G), who is a West Coast radio guy/DJ, for putting them on first. Julio also did a spot on K. Dot and Jay Rock’s No Sleep Til NYC tape.

“I had a situation with Def Jam, premature shit went sour / after Jay-Z left but they didn't care / I was glad Jay-Z gave me respect.”

Holy label deal, Batman. Kendrick was signed to Def Jam?! Kendrick was signed to Def Jam by JAY-Z? How did I not know this? Mind fucking blown.

The perspective Kendrick has is crazy too. Being dropped from a label is a rapper’s nightmare, but Kendrick instead looked at it as a sign he was doing something right. Who knew in a few years Hov would be right alongside him on the “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe (Remix)”? Amazing.

“Fast forward, Hot Dollah had the streets on lock / Far as radio play, obvious, he got a lot / Beefing’ with Daz Dilinger, Jay Rock spoke on it / Which in my opinion, I didn’t think the shit was impo’tant”

Okay, so Kendrick gets dropped and we fast forward to 2007. At least I’m guessing it was 2007 because that’s when Hot Dollar—who was signed to Def Jam—was buzzing thanks to his single “Streets On Lock.” You know, the one Kendrick psuedo-mentions in that first line. There’s also a remix with Ross and Gucci if you are into that sort of thing. I found a dead link to a video of Jay Rock speaking on the beef which I can only assume is what Kendrick is referring to. It doesn’t surprise me Jay Rock spoke and Kendrick didn’t. As we all know from "Control," Kendrick isn’t one for beef, but Jay Rock has beefed with more than a few rappers, including Ice Cube

“But that’s a whole ‘nother story, we hit the lab with Game  / And a few other names like Juice and Young, ya boy / Did the cypher freestyle and everybody’s like, "Wow" / These Top Dawg niggas ‘bout to make noise”

It sounds like Game was Kendrick’s marker for success. Once Game noticed him, he really started to gain respect. This whole song started with The Game dropping The Documentary and now Kendrick is recording with him. Peep “The Cypha,” which features, Ya Boy, Jay Rock, K Dot, Juice & Dubb.

“Shortly after Game took us on tour, I love you for that / But right after that, we didn’t see him no more”

I would love to see a flyer or poster from that tour, but I couldn’t find a single thing about it. I did find this article from June of ‘07 that briefly mentions Game is planning a European tour. Is that the one? They would tour with Game around the time of LAX, but that feels much later than this. 

Kendrick had finally gotten “in” with his idol, but I guess Game kind of disappeared after it. To be honest, I don’t really know much about the Game’s in-depth history, but I know enough that him flaking like Tony The Tiger doesn't shock me.

"G Malone came with a smash hit with Akon"

Kendrick uses the big song of the moment to set the time frame, so I’m not going to go into all of the details, but for context, Glasses Malone and Akon released "Certified" in late 2007, with a video premiering in early 2008. From an outsider's perspective, it's surprising to read how big of a figure Glasses was to a younger Kendrick. Also, I’m wondering how accurate Kendrick’s memory is—is this really an accurate chronology? A Def Jam deal and a tour with Game all in the same year seems kind of crazy. Busy fucking year, man.

“By this time, Jay Rock and 'All My Life' hit the airwaves / We almost got into some major beef over Lil’ Wayne / That part I'mma leave out / There’s certain things that the streets only should know about”

Getting Wayne in his prime (2007-2008) on “All My Life” was a huge look for Jay Rock. Huge!

I’m dying to know what that beef was about. At first thought, the beef was Kendrick and Rock vs. Wayne, but he says “beef over” not “beef with,” which makes me think that Kendrick and Jay Rock got in a fight about Lil Wayne. I thought it might be gang-related (he says earlier in the song that was a source of tension when they first met) but according to Songfacts, after Rock gave Lil Wayne one of his mixtapes, the New Orleans rapper agreed to appear on this song.

Jay Rock told Rolling Stone, "I thought he would shine me off. But he was real with it." After that, I’m more inclined to believe it’s because an earlier version of “All My Life” had Kendrick on the hook, which was taken off when Wayne agreed to appear on the song. I’d be pretty pissed too if I was erased from a song my best friend and I did together because Lil Wayne wanted to be on it instead. It becomes even more interesting because I stumbled across this behind the scenes video of the making of “All My Life.” K. Dot is there with them. The plot thickens…

“Bishop win that game, then had a fight with X.O”

More context. In early 2009, Bishop Lamont and X.O fought. I don’t really care but it’s important because….

That’s when I dropped C4 and had the critics mad at me / Because they didn’t see my views, grab the hottest album out and re-do it

Now, the Bishop fight was in early 2009. Fast forward 11 months and Kendrick releases his C4 mixtape where he’s rapping over Carter III beats. C4 was released a few days before The Kendrick Lamar EP and a year before Overly Dedicated.

This is literally chapter one through three of Kendrick’s career, chapters most people haven’t read. Kendrick’s success has a lot to do with how TDE has groomed him and put him in the position to succeed, but they clearly learned from Jay Rock’s rise and applied those lessons to Kendrick.



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