Kendrick Lamar covers GQ Style for the first-ever holiday issue and takes part in a lengthy interview with music great Rick Rubin for what may be one of the most dense conversations we’ve ever seen Lamar engaged in. Part of the credit goes to Rubin, his warm, soothing voice and his extensive understanding of music as a whole. Over the course of an hour, he’s asking Kendrick every question under the sun, almost from a deep fan level.
With the respect Rubin’s name alone commands, Lamar answers each question in complete detail, covering his musical influences growing up, unconsciously tapping into jazz for To Pimp a Butterfly, making music for himself first before taking anyone else into consideration and more. The latter topic extends into the journey he went through to make “Alright,” the fiery track that became one of last year’s most important songs. In order to make the track, Kendrick had to zone out and block out everyone, even one of the song’s creators: Pharrell.
“The beat sounds fun, but there’s something else inside of them chords that Pharrell put down that feels like—it can be more of a statement rather than a tune,” he says. Initially, he couldn’t find what it was the beat was telling him to create. He ended up sitting on it for weeks, then months. All the while, Pharrell and co-producer Sam Taylor were frequently hitting him up to see if he’d recorded anything. The answer was effectively “no” for an extended period of time. Six months, to be exact. Imagine the pressure of having Pharrell asking you of your progress on a piece of the production he’s clearly proud of? Most MCs would crack.
But not Cornrow Kenny.
“[W]ith Pharrell and Sam asking me—Am I gonna rock on it? When I’m gonna rock on it?—it put the pressure on me to challenge myself,” he says. “To actually think and focus on something that could be a staple in hip-hop. I wanted to approach ‘Alright’ as more uplifting—but aggressive. Not playing the victim, but still having that We strong, you know?”
Originally, all Lamar had was the beat and Pharrell’s “alright” that’s repeated as part of the hook. Lamar says he sat on it, lived with his thoughts ideas for the prolonged period before it all came together for him. He explains “P had the alright. That’s him on the hook. And just saying the alright phrase—what does We are gonna be alright represent? I’m glad that sparked the idea, ’cause that song coulda went a thousand other ways.”
Meanwhile, Taylor admits he was getting more worried than expectant dad-to-be. “I’m starting to get scared,” he says. “I’m losing sleep over this. These guys will one day be considered two of the greatest of all time. But this could be the worst if he never records the song.”
“I used to consider the listener,” he says when describing how he goes about making music. “But now I’m in a space where if I’m not inspired, I can’t really do the music. I can’t feel it. I put in enough hours to be able to pen a hundred-bar verse on the spot at any given moment. But for me to actually feel an idea, it has to come from me. ”
When the song did begin to come together, Lamar couldn’t wait to share it. “I remember hitting P on a text like, ‘Man, I got the lyrics.’ And typing the lyrics to him. He’s like, ‘That’s it’.”
He was right. He knew it. Pharrell and Taylor knew it, too. The latter two just didn’t find out how right they all were until K.Dot was ready to share it.
“Now it’s the day before the mastering of the album—so it’s not happening,” Taylor says. “I walk in the studio. Kendrick says, I wanna play you something. I heard those opening Ah-Ahhs and I just ran right out of the studio. I was so in awe that it got done. Finally, he sends it to me, and I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, this isn’t just a record. This isn’t just a song. This is something that’s going to stand the test of time’.”
As cool as ever, Kendrick reflects on the process and puts it casually: “I’m glad that they put that pressure on me to challenge myself.”
Watch the full interview above and read the story at GQ Style.