In just two short years, Compton's Kendrick Lamar, 25, has gone from underground rapper with an Internet following to being declared "the new King of the West Coast" by Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Game. The lyrical virtuoso's major label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city, is out Monday, building on the buzz of his still-rising urban single Swimming Pool (Drank) (No. 16 on USA TODAY's urban airplay chart, with 252,000 downloads sold) and his headlining slot on the 34-date BET Music Matters tour, which wraps Friday in Morgantown, W. Va.
A true-to-life album title: Despite being surrounded by gang activity while growing up in Compton, Lamar was determined to remain a "good kid" by focusing on his music and avoiding the pitfalls of what he called a "mad city." "The title is something I had planned years ahead," says Lamar, who cites Tupac Shakur and Nas among his influences.
"I knew that some day I would be in this position and I wanted to tell different stories of coming from the inner city, especially about young kids trying their best to stay away from the gang experience," says Lamar, noting that he was inspired to rap as a young kid after Tupac and Dre's 1995 California Love video shot in Compton.
While Swimming Pool has a festive vibe, the album, which boasts appearances by Dr. Dre, Drake and Mary J. Blige, has more serious tracks. "I talk about life's struggles -- mine and other people's," he says. "I just want to tell my story. Music is supposed to move people and have emotions in it that you can actually feel. I have to make that connection where people can relate to what I am saying."
Getting started: Going by the name of K-Dot, Lamar recorded his first mixtape at age 16 and started posting music on the Web for free. Soon, he was the talk of the neighborhood high schools, even though nobody really knew who he was. He quickly wound up in the hands of Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith, who was just beginning to sign rappers to his independent label, Top Dawg Entertainment.
"Top Dawg provided me with the studio where we didn't have to pay for time," Lamar says. "That was a blessing because it gave me the freedom to record and it saved a lot of money that I didn't have." He began using his real name two years as a sign of growth.
"I'll always be K-Dot in Compton. 'Kendrick Lamar' is more mature and I can talk more about what I want to do with my life. I want my legacy to be about who I am as a person, not just as an artist."
Breaking through: In 2010, Lamar started getting major attention with his mixtape Overly Dedicated. Hip-hop blogs and magazines took notice, as did Dr. Dre, who was sufficiently impressed with a YouTube video of Ignorance Is Bliss, a cautionary street anthem, that he wanted to work with the young rapper. A year later, Top Dawg released album Section.80 as an iTunes exclusive, selling 5,400 copies in its first week with virtually no promotion and 74,000 copies total. The album was critically well-received and even appeared on some year-end 10 best lists.
"My name came up in conversation, and (Dre) went and looked me up,"says Lamar, who has worked on tracks for Dre's long-awaited Detox album. "He worked with me in the studio for a couple of days. The chemistry was there. The vibe was there. He said he wanted to take it to the next level and sign me."
Top Dawg signed a joint distribution deal with Interscope Records and Aftermath Entertainment in March for Lamar and rap supergroup Black Hippy (which, in addition to Lamar, also includes Ab-Soul, Jay Rock and Schoolboy Q).
A California coronation: In recent months, Lamar has made two songs with Dr. Dre (The Recipe, which has sold 212,000 downloads, and Compton), and he's appeared with him on stage from time to time, including at a Los Angeles concert last week. He was on stage at a 2011 Los Angeles concert with Dre, Snoop and Game when they crowned him the new "King of the West Coast."
"It was a big surprise," he says. "It was exciting that all that hard work and dedication paid off. That night represented all the days I was locked in the studio. All the time I had to sacrifice. All the time my family sacrificed.That was not just my moment, that was their moment, too."