How Kendrick Lamar Has Reigned Rap While Hiding in Plain Sight
He’s here. He’s there. He’s everywhere. You just might need to crank up the brightness or the volume—or look beyond the liner notes and track lists—to find him.
Reclusive and enigmatic yet proficient and prolific, the post-Pultizer Kendrick Lamar recently popped up in the video for TDE R&B artist SiR’s searing new single, "Hair Down," for his forthcoming Chasing Summer LP. Yet, as is increasingly becoming the Kenny way, the featured artist is hardly seen, his face shadowed by a thick, woolen black hood or hazily reflected in rippling water as he breathes his fire and unveils yet another fresh flow on the track. The focus may be laser-eyed, but the MC's expressions forever remain shrouded, recalling Star Wars' Jawa drip.
“Kendrick dressed like that character you gotta unlock,” quipped one astute YouTube commenter.
Not unlike the invisible wheels of SiR’s lowrider in that visual ode to the Westside, we must only assume Kendrick Lamar is present even though he’s obscured from view. That’s just how Kung-Fu Kenny moves these days.
Lamar, 32, has shunned the adjective “shy” when describing himself, and his tour de force opening of the 2018 Grammy Awards and uber-confident headlining set of last summer’s 30-city TDE Championship Tour would certainly serve to back that up. “Introvert” is the man’s preferred term.
“I like to be alone a lot. I need that. It’s that duality: I can go in front of a crowd of 100,000 people and express myself, then go back, be alone, and collect my thoughts all over again,” Lamar told Vanity Fair one year ago, during his most recent mainstream interview. “I spend 80 percent of my time thinking about how I’m going to execute, and that might be a whole year of constantly jotting down ideas, figuring out how I’m going to convey these words to a person to connect to it.”
We are now two years and four months removed from Kendrick Lamar’s last studio LP, 2017’s intricate and brilliant Damn, and the threat of his longest break between full-length studio albums is real. (Although, in the era of the surprise release, would you really be shocked if he dropped a bomb before Christmas?) So, it’s no wonder diehard fans are getting antsy.
Whereas the bulk of Kendrick’s contemporaries feel compelled to pop up on other artists’ LPs and float out half-hearted, hey-don’t-forget-about-me mixtapes, shoot commercials, flog sneakers or smartphones, update their Soundcloud pages and splash the 'Gram on the regular, Lamar seems to purposely be adopting a less-is-more approach to rap dominance.
His rather dormant official website is still promoting the 18-month-old Black Panther soundtrack he executive produced but decided not to give himself vocal credits for on multiple songs. A grand total of four tweets have been sent from his verified Twitter account in 2019: three to promote other artists' work and one to send his condolences to the family of deceased Philly battle rapper Tech 9.
If Lamar is retreating from a fame he surely could’ve helped swell, he’s not straying from the art. His contribution to Anderson .Paak’s single, “Tints,” for example, is typically great, but he appears in fewer than 30 seconds of the single’s video.
Kendrick lent vocals to arguably the best songs on recent long-players by labelmates Jay Rock (“Win”) and ScHoolboy Q (“5200”), with acknowledgement of his contributions buried in the liner notes. And his indelible hook on Dreamville's Revenge of the Dreamers III’s intro, “Under the Sun”—“I woke up for some moooooonay!”—is entirely uncredited.
While Drake fills any Billboard blip by dropping a collection of old material or a two-song EP, and J. Cole has embarked on a whirlwind mission to steal the rapper-of-the-moment’s album with a feature, Kendrick has quietly slipped into some sort of half-hibernation state, poking out his jaws to snatch the odd selective snack as he plots his next feast.
An intro there, a hook here—Kendrick has made small contributions to several diverse projects of late, collaborating with Beyoncé on The Lion King soundtrack’s “Nile,” adding his twist to 2 Chainz’ “Momma I Hit a Lick,” and going ham on “Don’t Jump,” a leaked snippet from Kanye West’s Yandhi sessions.
Today, he appears on Raphael Saadiq’s “Rearview,” the closing track on the brand-new album from the R&B icon who’s been on a hiatus of his own. "How can I see the world stuck in this box?" Kendrick wonders on the song—yet another ghostly appearance in which his name won't pop up in your iTunes.
“He stopped by one day and we listened to music, then he jumped on a couple of different records that I had," Saadiq told Billboard of working with K-Dot. "He’s just got this soulful feeling about his music. When I was going through all the BS with my last manager, Kendrick’s ‘Alright’ was my go-to when I’d drive back to the Bay Area. That’s why I put him on the last track, because what I’m saying is, there’s more life ahead of you than behind you. And Kendrick is the only person I knew that could speak to that.”
Lamar’s ability to keep his craft at the forefront and stuff his personal life in the wings reached a peak this summer, when it was reported that he and high school sweetheart, fiancée Whitney Alford, welcomed their first child on July 26. It’s a girl, according to reports. But we don’t yet know her name, and Kendrick himself hasn’t commented publicly on the life-changing addition.
Sure, it’s not our business, and new parenthood can pull even the most fervent microphone fiend away from the studio and promotional circuits. But in the information age, Kendrick’s cloak of privacy makes him stand out even more so than those who scream for retweets and likes, churn out content to feed the never-satiated beast and would never let a hit song slip away uncredited. —Luke Fox
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