Kendrick Lamar is arguably the best—and undoubtedly one of the biggest—rappers alive.
The top dawg of TDE, K. Dot has hit singles, Platinum plaques, classic albums, a tight-knit crew behind him and the respect of his peers, both inside and outside of hip-hop. His rhymes are rich enough to win GRAMMYs and powerful enough to shake up the entire game. By all accounts, Kendrick Lamar is both immensely talented and incredibly popular.
As impressive as his résumé is, however, Kendrick doesn’t define his career by these accomplishments. In a new interview with Forbes, the Compton rapper explained what the idea of success means to him, and it goes much deeper than fame and acclaim.
Success is how many people I can impact and connect to in the crowd on a scale where they want to push themselves further in life. I always talk about these kids that put themselves in harm's way, and don’t actually want to live, but they say when they listen to my music it helps them progress. That’s my success. That means the world to me, because I meet these kids everyday. When I can say the music that I’m making can push these kids through — even if one fan at a time — I will continue to do it forever.
If that’s Kendrick’s definition of success, then he’s killing it right now. While the album was largely a meditation on what happens when a black kid from Compton becomes famous in the big, white world (“I was looking at myself in the mirror and trying to figure out who I really am,” K. Dot toldThe Guardian), To Pimp a Butterfly also deeply resonated with its audience. And no two songs better capture the album’s impact than “u” and “Alright.”
During the Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival in Florida earlier this year, Kendrick noticed one fan in the crowd singing his heart out during his performance of “u.” Being the nice guy that he is, Kendrick invited the kid (who’s name is Logan) on stage and spoke about the realities of depression that he addresses in the song. “Suicide is some real motherfucking shit, man,” he told the crowd. “And whoever out there feel that way, let this be the song that [let you] know that I understand.”
A few months later, Logan’s brother went on Reddit and explained how Logan, who had just written a thousand-word essay on “u” prior to the festival, was being bullied in school and battling depression. But everything changed for the better after Kendrick brought him out on stage. “He is serious about losing his weight. He found a great girlfriend. He’s taking school seriously,” he wrote. “This has 100 percent been for the best of my brother and I’m so thankful he got the chance to join his idol on stage.
“Alright,” which immediately follows “u” on To Pimp a Butterfly, has been making its own positive impact in a world that desperately needs it. With its simple yet powerful refrain of, “n*gga, we gon’ be alright,” the song has become the unofficial protest anthem of the Black Lives Matter generation. “There was no way you could just sit back and not feel the effect of that song,” Davey D said about the “Alright” chants at a Cleveland protest last year. “Everybody was singing in unison. It was like being at church.”
As for why Kendrick Lamar makes it his mission to touch, improve and even save lives through his music, you can find the answers all throughout his catalog. “My uncle doing life inside prison, he wasn’t wrapped too tight / He told me rap about life, not rap n*ggas,” he says on 2010's “The Heart Pt. 2.” Kendrick is in a unique position of coming from and understanding the hood, while also recognizing the need for change.
This comes from a combination of factors that make his spirit so rich: his natural introspection, being exposed to the harsh realities of life from a young age, identifying with leaders like Nelson Mandela and Tupac Shakur, and his strong faith in God. “I know that from being on tour — kids are living by my music,” he toldThe New York Times. “All I am is just a vessel, doing His work.”
Kendrick’s approach is similar to that of J. Cole and Chance The Rapper, but his definition of success sets him apart from his competition. On “Successful,” Drake chased the “money, cars, the clothes, the hoes,” while Big Sean seems deadset on solidifying his place in “that all-time list.” Although Jay Z’s “Success” was more about the problems than the money, he still bragged about "landing on a bunch of money" if he fell.
Kendrick’s idea of success is entirely selfless. Fame is merely a tool to improve his reach, not his ego, while the fruits of his labor are food for his family (“Ain’t doing this for my health, I’m tryna’ purchase my momma dem Benzes”). We believe Kendrick when he says he “will continue to do it forever,” the only question is whether that’s as the best rapper alive or the future mayor of Compton.
Put that on your mama and your baby boo, too.
By Andy James. Follow him on Twitter.
Photo Credit: Nabil Elderkin