Traffic Jam: How Kendrick Lamar Flipped a Forgotten 2Pac Song Into “For Free?”

Did you know Kendrick's "For Free?" was inspired by an obscure 2Pac record?

Before we proceed, we all agree that Kendrick Lamar is one of the greatest rappers alive, right? Right.

Ok, glad it’s unanimous. But what, exactly, makes him great?

Is it that flow? His lyrics? Concepts? His ear for production?

All of those characteristics are valid, but for me, the proof of his greatness is his vision. I live this ridiculous life where I’m able to talk to people who work with Kendrick Lamar. So far, I’ve interviewed the mysterious LoveDragon, chopped it up with “Momma” producer Knxwledge, chatted with Kamasi Washington and I also nerded out about “Cartoon & Cereal” (and it’s appearance in the “Alright” video). 

Each of these little endeavors has led me to the same conclusion; Kendrick is a visionary. I realize that sounds like a sexy buzzword that doesn’t really mean anything, but here it’s perfectly apt. Whether it be Josef Liemberg’s voice or a random beat overheard at a photoshoot, I’ve heard story after story of Kendrick hearing something no one else does. Like a quarterback seeing a play develop before the ball’s even snapped, Kendrick seems to always have his next move plotted out. While the listening public is digesting his latest release he’s already three steps ahead. It’s that kind of forward thinking mentality that I believe makes Kendrick so great.

Still not sold? Still think I’m jockin’ like a cup? Dick riding like a pornstar? Try this on for size.

Last week, I spent a lot of my time analyzing 2Pac in the ‘90s. It was a remarkable expedition that really taught me a lot about his untimely death and the hip-hop climate at the time, but it also led me to Kendrick Lamar.

From Davey D’s website:

Davey D: Let's talk on some other things like your new movie and soundtrack you're working on

2Pac: We got a movie called 'Gridlock' coming out which is a mainstream movie. It's me coming back into the theaters with Tim Ross from Pulp Fiction. I don't know who it is, but there's a big name female in the movie. I'm the music supervisor for the sound track. It's my first chance ever doing something like this. We got Alanis Morissette and all these other big name alternative groups. It's supposedly people I would never get with. I got them all on the sound track just to show what kind of range I got. I'll be putting that type of sound track out and then I'll be putting out a rap sound track. I'm gonna do it like a 2Pac album with me doing a whole bunch of solo songs and Snoop on there doing some songs. This is just to show I have a business mind as well as a creative mind. I can make my way in this business besides rapping.

Holy shit. Most hip-hop heads know about Juice and Poetic Justice, but I had never heard of Gridlock’d. Upon further research, I found that Gridlock’d is about two junkies who want to join a government detox program to get clean, but are faced with obstacles along the way, from the endless bureaucratic hoops to gangsters. Here’s the trailer:

The movie is probably amazing—with a trailer like that how could it not be?—but I haven’t seen it and truthfully the movie’s just background noise. For me, the real juice (pun intended) comes from the 2Pac-helmed soundtrack.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Tupac, Tupac, Tupac. I thought this was supposed to be about Kendrick? Stay with me people. If you take a look at the tracklist, you will notice that the second to last track is entitled “Life Is a Traffic Jam.” This is where things get interesting.

I’m no Pac expert, nor would I ever claim to be, but while I’m used to either the wild, aggressive Pac, the one who yells “fuck Mobb Deep!” over a bangin’ beat, or the contemplative, poetic Pac who loves his momma, I’m not accustomed to a jazzy, more spoken word Tupac. This is unlike any Pac song I had ever previously heard. It’s Pac and Thandie Newton doing a spoken word poem over a splattering bassline. Here is the clip from the movie performance:

My first thought was “TUPAC!!!!” but as soon as I was done geekin’, I couldn’t help but think about To Pimp A Butterfly and how much this sounded like “For Free? (Interlude)," which was recently given an amazing set of visuals.

It’s not identical, Kendrick’s version is a little more brass than bass, but the vibe, the arrangement, and the execution is eerily similar. Not only do both versions begin with a vocal section from a woman, but they both have that same jazz club vibe. Still, I wasn’t quite sold. I mean, it could just be a coincidence, after all, plenty of sounds have similar vibes and this isn’t proof Kendrick was drawing inspiration from his song, but then I remembered “Ab-Souls Outro,” another jazzy track (albeit pre-TPAB).

Just after the two-minute mark, Kendrick repeats a line over and over. That line? “Life Is a Traffic Jam,” which is both the name of Tupac’s record as well as the hook. This is no longer a coincidence, it’s not a similar sound, it’s a direct homage to that obscure, jazzy Tupac song off the equally as obscure Gridlock’d Soundtrack. There is no possible way this a coincidence. Mind blown!

So, what does this all mean?

Well, for me, the 2Pac/Kendrick comparisons have always felt a little forced. I know part of it is Kendrick’s doing—it’s hard to overlook him interviewing Pac on his album—but the comparison felt lazy and a tad projected. It’s easy because they are both unapologetically outspoken and both are from California, but how alike are they really? 

Well, a lot. 

It's hard to ignore just how much influence Pac has had on Kendrick. Somewhere along the way, Kendrick heard “Life Is a Traffic Jam” and kept it in his back pocket. Maybe he didn’t know how or when he would use it, but he knew that it would fit into his plans eventually. He hinted at it on the outro and then really went for it on “For Free?” 

It’s amazing to think about that process, how despite all the beats sent his way, all the ideas he must have, he kept this one in the vault, hiding it on the album for equally obsessive people like me to discover. That’s not luck, that’s not a skill you can learn, that’s the kind of vision that makes an artist truly great.



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