Kendrick Lamar’s Unconstrained Next Chapter

“And not to say it’s bad,” he goes on. “Everybody got their own journey. I was just fortunate enough to have a group of guys around me that gave me that courage to feed myself with the arts, whether it was the street cats in my neighborhood, whether it was Dave who pushed me to be an artist, whether it was Top from the projects, the Nickerson Gardens. I always was allowed to be myself.”

Kendrick and Dave share a watershed for them, one that happened back when they were in their mid-20s, when just about all they knew was home.

They drove over to their boy Fredo’s house to edit the video for “HiiiPower,” a song off “Section.80,” their official first album on T.D.E. Fredo shot the video and was supposed to edit it, but they had to commandeer the duties. “We were telling them this needs to be this, and they didn’t want to hear us,” Dave says. “They’re like, ‘No, this is how it needs to be done.’ So it was just me and Kendrick in there being like, ‘No we’re going to do it like this.’” Once their boys got burned out, Dave asked them to teach him how to edit. Two hours, five, 10. He and Kendrick kept going because it was their job to make sure it was perfect, because they couldn’t put their livelihoods in someone else’s hands.

Kendrick jumps back into the story. “To see somebody that much devoted to artists’ crafts, where he’s willing to sit with them and edit the video himself, it lets me know what type of not only businessman, but what type of friendship and what type of dedication he has for something he believes in. It was my song. Not his song. I go on tour and perform that song and make millions of dollars. So, for him to be willing to sit there and do that, day in day out, that let me know. OK, this is a person you want to be around. He got the best interest to really thug it out with you without even thinking about a check at that point. We just thinking about being creative and the best, and from that day forward, everything flipped.”

Under dark dusk and through the rainy streets that bespeak the Old Smoke’s subpar drainage system, we ride to the Saatchi Gallery. The director leads us to the second floor, where there’s a photo exhibit curated by the art critic Antwaun Sargent titled “The New Black Vanguard.” The exhibit is extraordinary, photograph after remarkable photograph, all of them of Black subjects, against walls painted in striking palettes: pale yellow, royal blue, fuchsia, tan.

Dave, who’s fly in a Prada nylon jacket, indigo cargo pants and radiant yellow sweater, spends the most time analyzing a Kwabena Sekyi Appiah-nti portrait of a young woman posed in front of a painted truck. He calls Kendrick over to see it. “Look at the background,” he says, excited, and he points out the rich rust tones saturating the image, how the model is looking back at us. Dave making me think of something Charles Simic wrote, “The attentive eye makes the world mysterious.” It’s moving to see him and Kendrick in this space, curious, impressed, choosing and citing references. Yeah, Kendrick’s the GOAT and Dave’s an accomplished artist in his own right, but they are also Black men about the same age as my youngest brothers. Not soon after we met, Kendrick asked me what it was like growing up in Portland, Ore., and I joked that whatever was happening in L.A. happened 20 minutes later in my hometown. Which was also to say that in fundamental ways, we come from the same world. And yet, here we are across the pond, admiring art created by and featuring Black people. Look at us, dear Langston, living beyond the dream deferred.

Later, we sit at a corner table in the dim dining room of Novikov, an Asian and Italian restaurant. The restaurant is packed and at a decibel level that requires us to lean in. This close, I notice Kendrick’s eyes. How they seem to be both present and distant; both focused on the moment at hand and processing it. Ain’t none of this eyes-are-windows-into-the-soul business with Kendrick. In fact, they might be paragons of the opposite: eyes wide open with revelations few to nil. They strike me as a kind of shield, as well as a way to foster the mystique that keeps people wanting more of him than he will ever share.

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