He watched House Party and ate Apple Jacks, sold Sega games while his cousin sold crack, pumped Reeboks while his uncle pumped packs. Since his introduction to the world, Kendrick Lamar has been the good kid from an ugly city. He embraced his roots, accepted being a boy from the hood, painting himself as Tre instead Doughboy. Since birth, he was inducted into the madness.
We’ve seen the album cover, a baby at a table with a 40 next to a baby bottle. Heard the tales his homies, how he witnessed their departure into darkness. He could’ve been them. Somehow, he stayed away from the gangs. Kept his head in a notebook instead rolling up papers. He left Compton untainted, a survivor, and told the world his story. Just as Obama became a symbol hope when he was elected, Kendrick’s story has made him into an example for kids living in the same jungle.
What if Kendrick wasn't always so good? What if something traumatic happened that changed his life?
“Been feeling this way since I was 16” – “The Blacker The Berry”
“If I told you I killed a nigga at 16, would you believe me? Or see me to be innocent Kendrick you seen in the street” – “m.A.A.d City”
“So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street, when gangbanging make me kill a nigga blacker than me” – “The Blacker The Berry”
“As a kid I killed two adults, I’m two advanced” – “Hol' Up”
“My innocence been dead” – “Ab-Soul’s Outro”
When Kendrick sat down with Rob Markman MTV to discuss TPAB, he brought up the last line “The Blacker The Berry” and Kendrick said his lyrics are from his experiences, his real life. “I been through a lot, I seen a lot, where I come from, I’ve done a lot to tear down my own community,” he said. I wanted Rob to dig deeper. What, exactly, had he done to tear down his community? Kendrick’s face shows there’s something he’s keeping below the surface. As soon as you even allow yourself to ponder the idea, to consider even the hypothetical scenario that Kendrick has truly murdered another man, your brain starts to shut down. It’s like if Batman killed the Joker, no one would believe it. That goes against his moral code, no matter what the crime or criminal, there’s a line he wouldn’t cross. Or, maybe more accurately, a line we think he wouldn't cross as if we really know his life as if we really know Kendrick Lamar Duckworth.
If these were Bobby Shmurda lyrics there would be no doubt. They would match his image, a young man that turned his reckless lifestyle into rap music. When Bobby said Mitch caught a body a week ago it was more than a catchy lyric, we all believed him. The police believed him. Yet, Kendrick says he killed a man, and we mask it as metaphorical. Assume it’s conceptual, that he’s speaking from another perspective. And it very well may be…but what if he's not? Just allow yourself to think if for a moment. Kendrick has also insisted that the stories he tells are real ones, although not always his story. But what if he really did shoot someone? What if gangbanging really did make him kill someone? Even if he confessed the entire story, would you believe him?
On “Sherane,” Kendrick’s mom tells him, “If he keeps fuckin' around in the streets, he won’t make it to the next grade, 11th grade.” Between 10th and 11th grade you're likely 15 or 16 years old. This time period seems to hold great significance. This is when he’s breaking into homes, smoking weed and roaming the streets in his momma’s van. He's been in circles that were causing mayhem in the streets, at the age nine he was hanging with a crew kids packing vans with guns and seeing someone get their brain evicted from the skull. Not saying he was active, but Kendrick is able to document the mad city because he was in the heart it. Flags didn’t hang from his back pocket, but his affiliation with friends likely threw him into dangerous situations and scenarios. One unlucky night was around each corner, grandma staying in the wrong neighborhood could lead to guns drawn and bullets soaring. Kendrick went from being a product his surroundings to escaping through music. Something triggered this mentality change, what if the change was brought because he killed someone? Imagine if the ending GKMC is fictional, instead, it’s like Boyz n the Hood except Tre doesn’t get out the car. You've got a bunch boys, filled with rage, who just witnessed a friend die. I believe they got revenge before an old woman with holy water baptized them.
“u” is Kendrick at his most personal. It’s chilling how he was able to convey such emotion. The song highlights his faults, moments where he let himself down. Failing as a role model, failing as a brother, failing as a friend, confessing his suicidal thoughts, it all pours out him like punctured blood vessels. That last verse it seems like he’s about to make a confession, but instead decides to chug from the bottle. An incident that shook him to the core, an altercation that could have lead to confinement. He carries an immense amount survivor’s guilt, it’s apparent on a good portion TPAB, but it feels like he’s haunted by more than just escaping. Through music, he’s seeking redemption for the all the wrongdoings in his past. By becoming a beacon light, he stops the cycle that stole his friends, enemies, and his innocence.
There’s a song called “His Pain” on BJ The Chicago Kid’s mixtape, Pineapple Now & Laters, that I always felt should’ve been placed on Section.80. The title is fitting and Kendrick completely dominates with a grief-stricken performance. He raps three verses before BJ even appears on the song. The hook is Kendrick repeating, “I don't know why He keep blessing me,” while illustrating the cold world that he’s currently trapped in. The second verse, he talks about home invasions, murder, and domestic violence. He’s talking loading bullets and blasting, being shot at, surviving but a stray bullet hitting a bystander. We can assume this is incredible creative writing or incredibly candid storytelling. In the third verse, he says, “I analyzed on how a saint can play the villain,” self-reflecting on who he is, and who he is becoming right before having a revelation. He believes God blessed him so he can bless us. That’s the Kendrick Lamar mission. To redeem himself by using his life to redeem others.
This is the theory that my buddy Kelechi and his brother Ukandu brought to my attention in a group text. I was in denial when they first shared the evidence, claimed it all as reaching, but it’s hard not to at least seriously consider once all the dots connect. The text thread is literally full “oh shit,” “fuck” and “you have to write this.” It feels dirty to even think. Kendrick is hip-hop’s golden child. We finally had a rapper that wasn’t just about money, bitches, and violence, his thoughts are bigger than the clichés, and I would hate to taint his image with mistakes made during adolescence. I respect the fact that he puts it out there, like an Easter egg for listeners to find. Something happened during Kendrick’s 16th year, possibly an accident, maybe self-defense, but it changed him forever.
I know friends that come from good homes, great parents and still get tangled up with the wrong crowds. The kind guys that never break into homes but stand outside as lookouts. They wouldn’t rob a bank, but they have been a part check fraud. This is how I always imagined Kendrick, flirting with danger, but never giving into the temptation. If he held a pistol, it was unloaded. He got fired from his job after being pressured to stage a robbery. This isn't the kind guy that is expected to be a kingpin crime. I figured he spoke as a witness, he rapped from the perspective an observer. That’s the person I connected with, who I rooted for. He symbolized overcoming a life in a rough environment. The thing about being a rap fan, the lyrics are sacred. We spend time dissecting and separating the real, phony, and exaggerations. His stories were real, but when he touched on subjects that seemed out character, I dismissed them as just that—Kendrick channeling a character. Now, things have changed a bit. The information isn't new, it's always been there, I'm just now seeing the puzzle with all the pieces.
Now, this is not an article saying that Kendrick did it; as much as the police are increasingly trying to blur the lines, as much as rappers try to blur the lines, song lyrics are art, not a confession. But ever since the day I first started thinking about this article, I began to look at him differently.