Kendrick Lamar: 'I Can't Change The World Until I Change Myself First' Even with To Pimp A Butterfly's success, Lamar is still conflicted about his place in music. "How am I influencing so many people on this stage rather than influencing the ones that I have back home?"
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Kendrick Lamar: 'I Can't Change The World Until I Change Myself First'

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Kendrick Lamar: 'I Can't Change The World Until I Change Myself First'

Kendrick Lamar: 'I Can't Change The World Until I Change Myself First'

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

When our colleague David Greene interviewed Kendrick Lamar, the rapper had this to say about his childhood.

KENDRICK LAMAR: I was raised inside the gang culture.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: That reality hung over our entire conversation. And I should say there is language coming some might find offensive. Now, when you think of music in 2015, you have got to think Kendrick Lamar.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALRIGHT")

LAMAR: (Singing) Alls my life I has to fight.

GREENE: His album "To Pimp A Butterfly" scored 11 Grammy nominations - more than any other artist. And this song became an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement against police abuse.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALRIGHT")

LAMAR: (Singing) We gon' be alright. We gon' be alright.

GREENE: Lamar grew up in Compton, Calif., in the '80s and 90s. He was surrounded by poverty and gang wars.

Do I have this right? You saw your first murder when you were 5 years old?

LAMAR: Yes, sir.

GREENE: What happened?

LAMAR: It was outside of my apartment unit. A guy was out there serving his narcotics and somebody rolled up with a shotgun, blew his chest out. We're kids playing in this apartment unit, you know, riding our bikes or whatnot. So immediately, it had done something to me right then and there to let me know that this is not only something that, you know, I'm looking at but it's something that maybe I have to get used to. You dig what I'm saying?

GREENE: How close were you to going down a really bad path as a teenager?

LAMAR: How close? I was on the edge, fast, in a hurry. You grew up inside these neighborhoods and these communities and you have friends - friends that you love, friends that you grew up with since elementary and you have their trust and you have their loyalty. So it brings influence. So no matter how much of a leader I thought I was, I was always under the influence, period. Most of the times when they were involved in these acts of destruction, I was right there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE ART OF PEER PRESSURE")

LAMAR: (Singing) We made a right then made a left then made a right. Then made a left. We was just circling life. My mama called...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hello? What you doin'?

LAMAR: Kickin' it. (Singing) I should've told her I'm probably about to catch my first offense with the homies.

GREENE: Kendrick Lamar says he has hurt people and that music saved him. He spent long nights in the studio instead of on the streets. Three years ago, he made an album that went platinum, but the sudden success was overwhelming.

LAMAR: You can have the platinum album. But, you know, when you still feel like you haven't quite found your place in the world, it kind of gives a crazy offset. When you go inside these places, no matter how much money you have, no matter how much success, when you still feel like you're not comfortable, where's the feeling in that?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WESLEY'S THEORY")

DR. DRE: (Singing) What you want you? A house or a car? Forty acres and a mule? A piano, a guitar? Anything. See, my name is Uncle Sam on your dollar. You can live at the mall.

GREENE: Am I right that this album, "To Pimp A Butterfly," you're trying to work out a lot of these emotions we're talking about?

LAMAR: Definitely. Hundred percent.

GREENE: There's a refrain that you keep coming back to. It's sort of a spoken word.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MORTAL MAN")

LAMAR: Resentment that turned into a deep depression. Found myself screaming in a hotel room. I didn't want to self-destruct.

GREENE: You describe yourself literally screaming out in agony.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "U")

LAMAR: (Screaming).

GREENE: What was going on? What was the feeling?

LAMAR: What was the feeling? The feeling was missing home. The feeling was, I should be with my family right now when they're going through hardships with the loss of my dearly friends that's constantly passing while I'm out on this road. The feeling was, how am I influencing so many people on this stage rather than influencing the ones that I have back home? That's the feeling - being inside the hotel room and these thoughts are just pondering back and forth while I look at this ceiling all night.

GREENE: So you're out there on tour and you literally have friends back home who are still involved in violence and, in some cases, you're losing them.

LAMAR: Yeah, they're losing lives, my closest friends. I probably lost more friends in this past summer than any other summer.

GREENE: Is there a person you lost who you'd want to tell me about, someone who really felt close to you?

LAMAR: Yeah, definitely. Chad Keaton, he was like my little brother. We grew up in the same community. I was actually best friends with his older brother which is incarcerated right now and him just always telling me to make sure that, you know, Chad is on the right path, you know? And he was on the right path, but, you know, things happen where, you know, sometimes the good are in the wrong places. And that's exactly what happened.

GREENE: What happened to him?

LAMAR: He got shot.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "U")

LAMAR: (Singing) You ain't no friend. A friend never leave Compton for profit or leave his best friend little brother. You promised you'd watch him. Before they shot him where was your antennas?

GREENE: As much as Lamar makes this album personal, people have taken the music to mean much more. There's this one lyric that's created a lot of controversy, especially because Lamar's music has been so important to the Black Lives Matter movement. He insists he is singing about himself here, but some think he's calling on people to look at their own behavior before they take out anger on the police. And there is a word here that some could find offensive.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BLACKER THE BERRY")

LAMAR: (Singing) So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street when gang bangin' make me kill a [expletive] blacker than me? Hypocrite.

LAMAR: That's not me pointing at my community, it's me pointing at myself. I don't talk about these things if I haven't lived them. And I've hurt people in my life. It's something I still have to think about when I sleep at night.

GREENE: So when you call yourself a hypocrite, what message are you sending to yourself there?

LAMAR: The message I'm sending to myself - I can't change the world until I change myself first. For instance, when Chad was killed, I can't disregard the emotion of me relapsing and feeling the same anger that I felt when I was 16, 17, when I wanted the next family to hurt because you made my family hurt. Them emotions were still running in me, thinking about him being slain like that. Whether I'm a rap star or not, if I still feel like that then I'm part of the problem rather than the solution.

GREENE: This has been such a somber conversation. Does this capture sort of your world as a musician, or are there moments when you can have some fun making music and, you know, don't have to think at such a deep level?

LAMAR: Yes, definitely. Definitely, it is (laughter). But I think that the depth is needed. And there's a lot of other artists that's doing things outside of that depth that I enjoy, that music that, you know, I can actually have fun to and not be in depth and think about, and I appreciate that. But as long as I'm doing it right now, I'm going to continue to say just a little bit more that pertains to, you know, what's going on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KING KUNTA")

LAMAR: (Singing) I got a bone to pick.

GREENE: Kendrick Lamar, a real pleasure talking to you.

LAMAR: Likewise, thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KING KUNTA")

LAMAR: (Singing) I'm mad.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) He mad.

LAMAR: (Singing) But I ain't stressed. True friends - one question. Where were you when I was walkin'?

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