LOS ANGELES • On To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar's overflowing post-fame album, he was, in his own words, a king, a hypocrite, a sinner and a prophet.
Awash in black music, black pride and shame, he attempted to propel the ghosts of late South African leader Nelson Mandela, rapper Tupac Shakur, Black Panther co-founder Huey Newton and pop star Michael Jackson through the will of his conflicted rhymes. "As I lead this army make room for mistakes and depression," he warned at the end. Heavy was the head.
But on one afternoon last month, he was just content. The 28-year- old had reason to exhale: He was recently nominated 11 times in nine Grammy categories, including song (Alright) and album of the year (for the second time).
Besides being last year's most critically acclaimed album and topping many year-end lists, To Pimp A Butterfly (TDE/Aftermath/ Interscope) has also sold more than 750,000 copies and been streamed 375 million times, said Nielsen, all without a hit single. Instead, the song Alright, which earned four nominations, has become the unifying soundtrack to Black Lives Matter protests nationwide.
When it's outside of the concerts, then you know it's a little bit more deep-rooted than just a song. It's more than just a piece of a record. It's something that people live by - your words.
RAPPER KENDRICK LAMAR on Alright becoming an anthem for Black Lives Matter
"This album did what I wanted it to do," he said while wearing a hoodie that read Compton, his hometown, within the silhouette of the African continent. "That's not necessarily to sell tonnes of records - though it didn't do bad at that - but to have an impact on people and on the culture of music."
The Grammy nominations are proof, he added.
In 2014, he infamously went zero for seven at the awards with his major label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d. city. He insists those losses, including the one for best rap album to Macklemore, did not stick with him. (He did win two Grammys for the song i last year.) But that is not to say he does not want to win now (the ceremony will be on Feb 15).
Lamar looked back on his banner year, including learning that United States President Barack Obama is a fan and coming to terms with his own role as a generational spokesman. The following are excerpts from the conversation.
You've made a point not to covet traditional milestones such as platinum plaques or hit singles. Where do you stand on the Grammys?
Being acknowledged for your work is always a great accomplishment, whether it's people in my city, kids in the street, all the way up to the Grammys.
Were you surprised that the Recording Academy responded so strongly to the scope of your vision, which wasn't necessarily for these institutions?
I wasn't surprised. The Grammys have taste. They've had taste for a long time. I'm just more excited that they recognise the time and effort put into the project - gathering all these musicians in one place for six months to a year at a time. It is truly appreciated that they can hear the different influences inside the record.
That's the biggest accomplishment as far as the nominations go: that people recognise it as an album. It's not just a collection of songs. I wanted it to be that body of work, the same way with my first record. This time, I wanted to make sure that not only were the lyrics appreciated or the beats, but also the musicianship, as far as my writing skills and my arrangements. That's me challenging myself.
Eleven nominations is one fewer than Michael Jackson's record.
I'm still soaking that all in. Michael will forever be the greatest. I'm glad it was at 11. I would never want to think about putting myself on the same level as Michael, simply because I haven't put in the work that he did. It couldn't be a better number.
Is there one award you want to win above all?
Ultimately, for the hip-hop community, I would love for us to win them all. Because we deserve that. Period.
A hip-hop album winning those general interest categories would be a statement.
I want all of them. Because it's not only a statement for myself, but also a statement for the culture. They're all important because of the foundation the forefathers laid before me. Nas didn't get a chance to be in that position. Or (Tupac). So to be acknowledged and to actually win, it's for all of them.
When did you realise that Alright was becoming an anthem for Black Lives Matter?
When I'd go to certain parts of the world and they were singing it in the streets. When it's outside of the concerts, then you know it's a little bit more deep-rooted than just a song. It's more than just a piece of a record. It's something that people live by - your words.
Did you expect it to connect on that level?
Definitely. Simple phrase: "We gon' be alright." It's a chant of hope and feeling. I credit that to Pharrell, for being able to present an arrangement and to inspire me to do a record like that. Immediately, I knew the potential.
Does this feel to you like an artistically vibrant moment for political and explicitly, radically black music?
Music moves with the times. It's not something we have to consciously do. This is what's happening in the world - not only to me, but also to my community. Whenever I make music, it reflects where I'm at mentally. And this is where we're at. When you look at other artists doing the same thing, it's of the times. And it's much needed.
Mr Obama said How Much A Dollar Cost was his favourite song of the year. Did you know before everyone else or did you find out from People magazine?
I found out when everyone else found out. It's crazy. That's one of my favourite records too. A lot of times, we forget that people in higher places are human. To hear that he liked the same kick drums and the same snares that I like, it just makes him much more relatable as a person, rather than just a president.
What was your favourite rap music of the year?
Of course, Future killed it. He smashed. Drake smashed. Future's work ethic was crazy, his energy. This is the thing about hip-hop music and where people get it most misconstrued: It's all hip-hop. You can't say that just what I do is hip-hop, because hip-hop is all energies.
James Brown can get on the track and mumble all day. But guess what - you felt his soul on those records.
NEW YORK TIMES