Kendrick Lamar has been on one hell of a roll this year. The rapper has received both critical acclaim and commercial success since his studio album debut, Good Kid M.A.A.D City, but 2018 has thrust Lamar fully into the forefront of American pop culture. After winning the Grammy for best rap album and a Pulitzer Prize—the first non-classical or non-jazz musician to do so—Lamar graces the cover of the August issue of Vanity Fair.
In the feature profile, written by music journalist Lisa Robinson and photographed by Annie Leibovitz, Lamar—still known as “K. Dot” or “Dot” to his closest friends—talks about his music, his family, his commitment to Compton, Calif., and how he assesses his current responsibility to the culture. It’s also peppered with quotes from Lamar’s contemporaries and many admirers, including writer Toni Morrison, Eminem, Russell Westbrook and labelmate SZA.
Like most glossy profiles, there are also details about what Lamar ate during his interview (salmon) and a little prying into his love life with fiancee Whitney Alford (Lamar wasn’t divulging, telling Robinson, “I want something that’s just for me”).
Here are some of the highlights from the interview:
I had three or four years of success and celebrity, but I can’t get rid of the 20 years of being with my homies, and knowing what they go through. I can’t throw that away. I know a lot of people who could—I’ve seen it—like “Fuck you, I’ve got money now, I’m outta here, I don’t give a fuck about none of y’all.” But that was something I couldn’t deal with. I had to sit back and analyze it and [figure out] other ways I could impact these people without physically trying to bring the whole hood inside a hotel.
It’s one of those things that should have happened with hip-hop a long time ago. It took a long time for people to embrace us—people outside of our community, our culture—to see this not just as vocal lyrics, but to see that this is really pain, this is really hurt, this is really true stories of our lives on wax. And now, for it to get the recognition that it deserves as a true art form, that’s not only great for myself, but it makes me feel good about hip-hop in general. Writers like Tupac, Jay-Z, Rakim, Eminem, Q-Tip, Big Daddy Kane, Snoop. ... It lets me know that people are actually listening further than I expected. When I looked up at that man on the podium today, I just had countless pictures in my mind of my mother putting me in suits to go to school. Suit and tie, from the dollar store, from thrift shops, when I was a kid.
Let me put it to you in its simplest form. I’ve been on this earth for 30 years, and there’s been so many things a Caucasian person said I couldn’t do. Get good credit. Buy a house in an urban city. So many things—”you can’t do that”—whether it’s from afar or close up. So if I say this is my word, let me have this one word, please let me have that word.
I note that after his opening set on Kanye West’s 2013 Yeezus tour, he seemed to have flipped a switch and was a different guy—way more energized and confident as a performer. “I think it was after my trip to South Africa,” he says. “It gave me a feeling of awareness and pride, a feeling of where I belong.” One of his lyrics is about how to be rich and black in America and not “act a fool,” and he says, “We’ve got to get to the root of never having these things. I look back to when I was 16 years old and thought, ‘What would I do with a million dollars? I’m gonna buy this, I’m gonna buy that.’ ... Then I thought that me doing that is actually hurting people I’m responsible for. I’m the first in my family to have this kind of success, so I took it upon myself to wisely navigate this success, because I wanted them to be successful, too.