Billboard Cover: Kendrick Lamar on Ferguson, Leaving Iggy Azalea Alone and Why ‘We’re in the Last Days’

Kendrick Lamar’s not your average hip-hop savior: He’s a poetic, God-fearing introvert with maverick views on everything from police violence to Iggy Azalea — and, yes, the rapture.

Most of Kendrick Lamar‘s days begin — or maybe end — around 5 a.m., when the 27-year-old king of West Coast rap comes home from the recording studio. He lives in a three-level condo not far away from where he grew up in Compton, Los Angeles, although he could easily buy a much nicer home. “I could afford a lot of things,” says Lamar with a laugh. “I wouldn’t know what to do with myself in a mansion.” On those early mornings he lies down, his head still spinning with ideas from the session. “It’s hard to fall asleep,” he says. “I pop right back up — my brain is still working.”

THIS COVER STORY FIRST APPEARED IN BILLBOARD MAGAZINEGET THIS WEEK’S ISSUE HERE OR SUBSCRIBE TO BILLBOARD HERE

Eventually, Lamar drifts off for “a nice little nap.” He wakes for an 11 a.m. workout — “sprints and jogging, penitentiary push-ups, things like that” — then naps for another hour or two. If he doesn’t have other obligations, he passes his afternoon listening to music (recently, Marvin Gaye and Rick James) and jotting down ideas for lyrics. Throughout the day, he snacks on Fruity Pebbles, and around 9 p.m., departs for the studio, to work until sunrise: “The vampires are already there, waiting for the ideas,” he says.

Lamar introduced his “vampires” — a live band of soulful studio pros including bassist Thundercat, percussionist Bilal, singer Anna Wise and saxophonist Terrace Martin — in December, when he performed on the final week of The Colbert Report. Kendrick used the prime spot (Colbert’s second-to-last night before departing for CBS) to debut a jazzy, untitled track produced by French underground veteran Astronote. It’s unlikely to even make the final cut of his feverishly anticipated new album due out in the first half of 2015.

Kendrick Lamar: The Billboard Photo Shoot

“I just like the energy” of the song, says Lamar. “I didn’t go on there to sell a single. I just did what I felt.” Such is the prerogative of Kendrick Lamar, widely hailed as hip-hop’s savior in a period when few rappers seem committed to art for art’s sake. While image-conscious leading MCs like Drake and Nicki Minajcompetitively hone their craft and tally hits, Lamar seems intent on transcending what he calls the “sport” of rap: “I pride myself on writing now rather than rapping,” he says. “My passion is bringing storylines around and constructing a full body of work, rather than just a 16-bar verse.”

For this, Lamar has been lionized by pop-culture authorities ranging from Chris Rock, who called him one of top five MCs of all time, to Taylor Swift, who recently told Billboard, “I wish I was best friends with Kendrick Lamar, and I’m not.” In contrast to Compton’s first superstar, N.W.A., Lamar took a novelistic approach on his 2012 debut, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City — less Boyz in the Hood, more Catcher in the Rye. Certified platinum, it hit No. 2 on the Billboard 200. “I know when I’m listening to Kendrick Lamar that each word was put there for a reason,” says Imagine Dragons lead singer Dan Reynolds, who performed with Lamar at the 2014 Grammys. “A lot of thought goes into it.” Says John Janick, chairman/CEO of Interscope, which has a joint-venture deal with Top Dawg Entertainment, Lamar’s label: “Kendrick pulls culture toward him. He doesn’t mirror it.”

Kendrick Lamar Debuts Untitled Song on ‘Colbert Report’: Watch

Sitting in a small dressing room at Smashbox Studios in Culver City, wearing red slippers, Lamar is polite but guarded. He seems flattered, in his low-key-slash-philosophical way, that Swift — who has called his track “Backseat Freestyle” her personal theme song — wishes the two were besties. “I thought she just liked the song. That’s a beautiful thing, Taylor Swift enjoying that song and knowing the words.”

The first single off Lamar’s new album — which he says he has already named, although he won’t share the title — “I,” peaked at No. 39 on the Billboard Hot 100after its release in September. But its hypnotic old-school groove (on loan from The Isley Brothers‘ “That Lady”) mapped out new territory for Lamar. It also earned him two Grammy nominations, for best rap song and best rap performance. And he teased further ambitions when he performed on Saturday Night Live in November, wearing black contact lenses that evoked Method Manand a riot of braids that paid tribute to Ol’ Dirty Bastard (“He was an individual — his hair was crazy, no matter what he had on”). “I don’t want people to take away how cute I look, or how the light is shining off my chain,” says Lamar. “I want you to take away a great-ass performance.”

Kendrick Lamar Releases Groovy Video for ‘i’

Like Barack Obama, Lamar is an introvert with an extrovert’s job. “I’ve been called a recluse,” he concedes. “There’s definitely truth in that. I like to spend time alone.” He rarely is seen in the clubs, he doesn’t drink a lot or smoke weed, and he has been with his girlfriend, Whitney Alford, since they were both in high school. (She’s also in her late 20s.) She has been spotted with Lamar at the Grammys and in South Africa, and is so at ease sassing him that she joked about him being “cheap” in front of a New York Times reporter. “I wouldn’t even call her my girl,” he says. “That’s my best friend. I don’t even like the term that society has put in the world as far as being a companion — she’s somebody I can tell my fears to.”

Lamar spent much of his childhood on the streets, and he’s cagey about the trouble he might’ve gotten into. “Oh, man, I won’t be able to say that on record. I got into some things, but God willing, he had favoritism over me and my spirit.” He also has been treated unfairly by the cops — “plenty of times. All the time.” Asked about the high-profile killings of African-Americans by police in 2014, from Ferguson, Mo., to Staten Island, he says, “I wish somebody would look in our neighborhood knowing that it’s already a situation, mentally, where it’s f—ked up. What happened to [Michael Brown] should’ve never happened. Never. But when we don’t have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us? It starts from within. Don’t start with just a rally, don’t start from looting — it starts from within.” Lamar, who has said that he wasn’t raised devoutly religious, fingers the small figure of Christ dangling from a chain around his neck. “We’re in the last days, man — I truly in my heart believe that. It’s written. I could go on with Biblical situations and things my grandma told me. But it’s about being at peace with myself and making good with the people around me.”

Kendrick Lamar Says Taylor Swift’s Remarks Help Himself, Hip-Hop

Surprisingly for such a hyperliterate lyricist, Lamar is not much of a reader, saying that he mostly learns by talking to people from different walks of life. The Autobiography of Malcolm X stands out for him from his high school reading, though. “What do you want your legacy to be at the end of the day?” he says, describing what the book taught him. “Going back and looking at all the great leaders, I tend to put that in my music the same way Martin Luther King did.”

Lamar’s parents moved to Compton from the South Side of Chicago before he was born. They hoped to escape the violence in Chicago, not realizing they had found another neighborhood plagued by gangs. Lamar remembers his family — he’s the oldest of four kids — relying on food stamps and getting kicked out of their tiny apartment when he was about 8 (the property had been sold) and having to live in a hotel for six months. “2Pac had just passed,” recalls Lamar. “My uncle was in jail, and we was in a hotel. My moms never owned a house until I was able to afford it for her.” (Lamar recently bought a four-bedroom home in Eastvale, an hour east of L.A., as a gift for a family member, although he won’t specify whom.)

Top Dawg’s Kendrick Lamar & ScHoolboy Q Cover Story: Enter the House of Pain

Lamar quit drinking and smoking weed when he was 16 or 17. “Teenagers don’t get it — we selfish. Go drink, go smoke, go get f—ed up,” he remembers. “Why did I do these things? Because I was brought up around it? It damn sure was in the household. I said, ‘I know what happens to my family and certain friends when they get drunk and they smoke. They get out of their minds, they get violent. And that’s in my blood.’ I have little sips on special occasions, but getting all the way out of my mind may not be a good idea.” Those insights inspired his first hit (No. 17 on the Hot 100), the harrowing “Swimming Pool (Drank)”: “You’re like me, making excuse that your relief/Is in the bottom of the bottle and the greenest indo leaf.”

Lamar got serious about rapping around the same time he cooled out on partying. “Before finding music, I didn’t have too many aspirations,” he says. “I wanted to hang out, make a little money from whatever I had to do. Because that’s all you see in the four-block radius.” But as a teen, after he started rhyming, he still set his sights too low: “I wanted to go back to the neighborhood and say, ‘I got signed.’ F— putting an album out, f— selling records, f— being on TV. All I wanted to do is put my name on the dotted line.”

Hear Kendrick Lamar Sing Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off’: ‘I Love That Song!’

“I was his hype man,” says Schoolboy Q, a Top Dawg Entertainment rapper whose success followed Lamar’s. “I saw his first check for a show: $4,000. We thought that was the most money in the world.”

In 2011, Lamar signed to Dr. Dre‘s Aftermath label. Recognition truly arrived in 2013, with his incendiary guest verse on Big Sean‘s “Control.” Lamar called out 11 rappers — including Drake, J. Cole and Big Sean himself — declaring, “I got love for you all, but I’m trying to murder you n—as.” The verse inspired dozens of response tracks and seemed to bother Drake in particular. “Drake is definitely a great artist in this world,” Lamar now says. Then he grins. “I’m a great artist in myworld.” (Lamar has collaborated with acts from Kid Cudi to Foster the People, recently quoting $250,000 to record lyrics on a track.)

One highly debated rapper Lamar refuses to knock, even playfully: Iggy Azalea. “She’s doing her thing,” he says. “Let her. People have to go through trials and tribulations to get where they at. Do your thing, continue to rock it, because obviously God wants you here.” Lamar was similarly gracious in 2014, when he got shut out at the Grammys after earning seven nominations. Macklemore beat him out for best new artist and best rap album, then texted Lamar an apology for doing so (which he also posted to Instagram). Lamar called Macklemore “a genuine dude,” adding, “I wish him much success.”

Kendrick Lamar Lays Down a Series of Freestyles for L.A.’s Power 106

“That’s not my overall goal,” says Lamar of winning awards. “I appreciate them recognizing me. It’s best to just go and enjoy the festivities.”

Lamar says that “the end is in sight” with his unfinished album, which is bittersweet for him. “My enjoyment is creating the music,” he explains. “Once it gets pressed up, with bar codes on it, then it’s not really fun anymore.” The musicians who joined him on Colbert constitute the core of his vampire crew. “These are guys I’ve been around for years, in the L.A. music circuit,” he says. “This wasn’t a situation where somebody put us together. When you’re playing instruments, all that stuff comes from the soul. It’s real individuals pushing these sounds out. I get that same impact when I push the words out behind it.”

Even if the untitled song from Colbert never resurfaces, it shows the breadth of Lamar’s ambition, and the crossroads where he stands. Does he want to be Jay Z— who famously declared himself “a business, man” — or a self-styled radical, like Nas? Does he plan on dominating the game, or escaping it through art? “I” could be interpreted either way: It’s an affirmation of self-belief in even the hardest of times, with a chorus chant of “I love myself.”

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“That’s hard to say every time you wake up in the morning,” says Lamar, who wrote the lyric to lift himself up during a period of self-doubt. He leans forward conspiratorially. “That’s a psychological trick I wanted to play on myself. Now that I put this song in the atmosphere, what’s going to happen? I have to perform it every night for the next three years when we go on tour. Every time I’m in a weird mood or something goes on at home that I can’t handle, I’ve got to perform it anyway.”

President Obama Announces Proposal For Free Community College

Story by Rashad Drakeford

President Barack Obama put students and social media in a frenzy last night (January 8) when the White House announced a proposal that would make the first two years of community college free. According to the White House, by 2020, an estimated 35 percent of job openings will require at least a bachelor’s degree and 30 percent will require some college or an associate’s degree. President Obama believes this plan will help America meet that need.

Here are some of the key points of the plan:

  • To be eligible, students of any age must have a C+ average (2.5 GPA) and attend school at least half-time.
  • The plan will benefit approximately 9 million students per year.
  • This proposal could save a full-time community college student an average of $3,800 in tuition per year.
  • Community colleges will be expected to offer programs that are either A) academic programs that fully transfer credits to local public four-year colleges and university’s or B) occupational training programs with high graduation rates and lead to in-demand degrees and certificates.
  • Federal government will cover three-quarters of the average cost of community college and participating states will be expected to contribute the remaining funds necessary to eliminate the tuition for eligible students.

The president, alongside Vice President Joe Biden will formally announce his “America’s College Promise” today during a visit at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee and expound upon it more during his State of the Union address later this month.

Click, here, to watch Obama’s announcement of his proposal on Facebook.

TONIGHT!! TONIGHT!! TONIGHT!!! @SurrenderVegas

Andrae Crouch, legendary gospel figure, dies at 72

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Andrae Crouch, a legendary gospel performer, songwriter and choir director whose work graced songs by Michael Jackson and Madonna and movies such as “The Lion King,” has died. He was 72.

Crouch died Thursday afternoon at Northridge Hospital Medical Center, where he had been admitted Saturday after suffering a heart attack, said his publicist, Brian Mayes.

Crouch and his sister, Sandra Crouch, lived in the Pacoima area of Los Angeles, Mayes said. They were pastors at the New Christ Memorial Church in the Los Angeles suburb of San Fernando.

Born in San Francisco, Crouch wrote his first gospel tune at age 14.

In a career that spanned more than half a century, Crouch wrote dozens of songs, including gospel favorites such as “The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power,” “My Tribute (To God Be the Glory)” and “Soon and Very Soon,” which was sung at a public memorial to Jackson.

Since he debuted in 1960, Crouch collected seven Grammys. He also helped pioneer the burgeoning “Jesus Music” movement from the late 1960s and ’70s that started the spread of contemporary Christian music.

But his influence crossed over into in pop music. Elvis Presley performed his song “I’ve Got Confidence” for a 1972 gospel album, and Paul Simon” recorded “Jesus Is the Answer” for a 1974 live album.

Crouch worked with many other stars, from Diana Ross to Ringo Starr, and his gospel albums sometimes featured performers from other musical genres. His 18th solo album, “The Journey,” released in 2011, featured Chaka Khan, Shelia E., Take 6, Kim Burrell and Marvin Winans.

Crouch was one of only a handful of gospel performers to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

His choir, The Disciples, sang background for Madonna’s song “Like a Prayer.” Crouch helped Michael Jackson arrange the King of Pop’s 1987 hit song, “Man in the Mirror.”

He also arranged music for the 1985 film “The Color Purple” — which earned him an Academy Award nomination — and Disney’s “The Lion King” in 1994.

His success came despite a lifelong struggle with dyslexia. To create, he would make drawings that allowed him to grasp the concept. For the Jackson song, he drew a mirror with an image in it.

“I memorized everything through sight, the shape of the word,” Crouch told The Associated Press in 2011. “Some things that I write, you’ll see a page with cartoon pictures or a drawing of a car — like a Ford — or a flag. I still do it on an occasion when a word is strange to me.”

“So when I finish a song, I thank God for bringing me through,” he continued. “You have to press on and know your calling. That’s what I’ve been doing for all my life. I just went forward.”

Crouch said his dyslexia contributed to his success.

“If I was sharp in every area, I might be too big-headed or something,” he said.

Crouch had health issues in recent years, including diabetes and cancer. Last month, he was hospitalized for pneumonia and congestive heart failure and had to cancel a tour.

Is ‘Empire’ Realistic? Industry Insiders Weigh In

Jeff Robinson & Jeff Sledge sound off on Fox’s new music drama.

So how realistic is the portrayal of the music industry in Empire, which premiered Wednesday night on Fox? Television critics aside, two music industry veterans weigh in with their opinions: MBK Entertainment CEO Jeff Robinson, whose past and current clients include Alicia KeysElle Varner and Gabi Wilson, and former Jive Records VP of A&R Jeff Sledge.

‘Empire’: TV Review

Jeff Robinson:
First things first, after watching the premiere episode of EmpireI have to say the show got off to a good start. I just hope it doesn’t become progressively generic as the season continues.

On a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being best, I’d say the show ranks a 7 1/2 in terms of its realistic portrayal of the music industry. For instance, I loved how Terrence Howard’s character, Empire Entertainment CEO Lucious Lyon, coached the emotion and feeling into the singer’s vocals during the show’s opening scene. That’s very true to life. It’s also worth noting that sometimes solutions to songs that artists, songwriters and producers get stuck on in the studio are resolved in random jam sessions or by playing it for someone else with a more musical ear. Another check on the plus side: Lyon’s gay son Jamal (played by Jussie Smollett) sings like Michael Jackson. I can’t wait to hear him sing on the show.

However, a couple of unrealistic situations stood out. One: Out of nowhere, Lyon’s gofer/stooge Bunky flips on the CEO after 20 years. There was zero buildup to that situation. And two: Cats will pay off an extortion attempt rather than commit murder, the latter of which was depicted on the show. As for the gay son, homosexuality is much more in the open now. But sadly I’d imagine quite a few parents back in the day would have reacted angrily, like Lyon did, to their child displaying homosexual tendencies. But wait, putting your kid in the trash for that? C’mon, son.

Speaking of Howard’s character, he looks a bit like label chief Big Red from Robert Townsend’s 1991 industry-focused musical drama The Five Heartbeats because he has the conk [perm] in his hair. And Taraji P. Henson (Lyon’s ex-wife Cookie) is gangster, beating kids with broomsticks. LOL. The donkey rope chain worn by Bunky is circa 1988. But every label has a few of these guys hanging around.

As for the show’s premise — which of the sons will inherit the company — I think children of moguls make poor heirs to lead labels, as they usually grow up feeling privileged. Hunger is what really fuels drive and success, not privilege. But you rarely see labels being passed down to family members anymore. In the meantime, until the next episode, I’m off to put some conk in my hair, because all moguls should wear that kind of laid-back ‘do — and own at least two velvet jackets.

Terrence Howard on ‘Empire’: Hip-Hop Success Comes With a Great Deal of Issues

Jeff Sledge:
Empire is a very skewed look at what the hip-hop music biz was from 1995 until about 2004. Everything  is over the top … yachts, conference rooms with basketball rims in them, huge apartments with garish furniture, maids, all the video clichés.

The idea that an indie R&B/hip-hop label would be going public is completely unrealistic but makes for a good storyline. Going public would mean the label, which seems to only have one semi-rapper and one R&B singer, is generating money like Sony or Universal? Uh, I doubt it. But hey, it’s TV.

The other angle that doesn’t mesh is how homophobic Terrence Howard’s character is. There’s no way he could be in the music biz that long, be that successful and not have worked with gay or lesbian folks. It’s impossible.So for him to hate his son that much for being gay isn’t realistic.

It’s very hard to judge a show based on one episode (especially the first episode). But my take is that Empire is a nighttime soap opera using the black music biz as a backdrop. Most of it isn’t realistic, and the scenarios are over the top. But folks are going to eat it up; people will invest in the characters. And most people think this is what the music business is anyway.

Bill Cosby Jokes About Sex Scandal During Canadian Stand-Up Show

As Bill Cosby faced his first hecklers over his mounting sexual assault allegations during his Canadian tour, the embattled comedian reportedly poked fun at the growing scandal during a Thursday night date in London, Ontario.

The National Post newspaper reported that Cosby at one point during his Budweiser Gardens appearance asked a woman exiting the front row where she was going. When she said to get a drink and would he want one, Cosby reportedly replied “I already have one,” pointing to a bottle of water next to him on stage, before adding, “You have to be careful about drinking around me.”

Read more ‘Black-ish’ Creator Calls Judd Apatow’s Bill Cosby Tweets “Strangely Obsessive”

That reply apparently brought gasps from the audience, before a round of applause. Some of the nearly two dozen women who stepped forward in recent months to accuse Cosby of sexual assault decades ago allege they were drugged by the former sitcom star.

Blackburn News reporter Ashton Patis on her Twitter account recounted another audience member at one point calling out “You are a rapist,” after which Cosby told the audience to “stop yelling” and to be patient. Other reporters in the London, Ontario, audience tweeted that the heckler was quickly ejected from the theater by security guards.

Cosby performed the first of his three Ontario concerts on Wednesday night in Kitchener with a protest outside Centre in the Square theater, but without any hecklers during the concert performance, as had been predicted. He will close out the Canadian swing of his North American tour on Friday night in Hamilton.

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