K. Dot is on the cover of the newest issue of Billboard! As the story follows, “Kendrick Lamar is wearing black sandals and white socks. It’s not a look that you associate with rappers — or with anyone, really, except possibly Alpine butterfly hunters. And yet here is Lamar, striding socks-and-sandals-first through a studio that sprawls across the second floor of a funkily dilapidated warehouse building just east of downtown Los Angeles.”
Lamar has come to this scruffy corner of the city’s Arts District for a photo shoot. Someone turns on a stereo, blasting a playlist Lamar chose himself, a mix of vintage soul and old-school hip-hop: Bill Withers’ “Harlem,” Rick James’ “Give It to Me Baby,” De La Soul’s “Me, Myself and I,”2Pac’s “All Eyez on Me.” Lamar sits down in front of a mirror to get a quick haircut from one of his friends, who has brought along an electric trimmer. Another of Lamar’s friends pipes up: “Those are some interesting huaraches, Kendrick. I didn’t know you wore sandals.” Lamar chuckles. Maybe, someone suggests, Lamar will start a new footwear trend. The rapper grins. “This look?” he says. “No one can make it trendy.”Perhaps not. But then again, the story of Lamar’s career is one of improbable trendsetting — of transforming the marginal into the popular, of smuggling counterculture into the cultural mainstream. He was a darling of the cognoscenti — the leading light of the Los Angeles-based Black Hippy collective, a favorite of rap-Internet nerds — before his 2012 major-label debut catapulted him aboveground and made him a star. That album, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, was riveting and ambitious, a gangstabildungsroman about Compton street life whose cinematic sweep justified its heady subtitle: “A short film by Kendrick Lamar.” His second album aimed even higher. To Pimp a Butterfly, released last March, is a monument to maximalism, based, seemingly, on a determination to cram in as much music, as many ideas and emotions, as its 78:51 running time will bear. There’s hip-hop and soul and funk and jazz, autobiography and agitprop and history and reportage, politics and punchlines, exultation and anger, joy and suffering, James Brown and James Baldwin. It was a self-conscious tour de force, and an undeniable one, instantly canonized by critics. It reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and has sold 797,000 copies and counting, according to Nielsen Music.