Top 5 Dead or Alive
GQ Style|Holiday 2016

We always knew Kendrick Lamar could rap. But nobody expected his album to pimp a butterfly to be a staggering musical masterwork that galvanized Grammy voters and protest marchers alike. The big question now is: what will k.dot do next? We got Rick Rubin to ask him.

Rick Rubin

Here’s where Kendrick Lamar stands as 2016 comes to a close:

He is currently the best rapper alive.

He has busted his way into the conversation about the top five MC's of all time, dead or alive.

He is eliciting comparisons to musicians beyond the borders of rap. Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder: strident artists who shook up the culture and awakened the consciousness of their day.

Kendrick’s kept a pretty low profile in 2016. Yet his 2015 album, To Pimp a Butterfly—a multi-layered LP that unfurls slowly over many, many listens—is still percolating, especially as the single “Alright” continues to be the unofficial anthem of nationwide police-brutality protests.

In March of this year, Kendrick also dropped a surprise album called Untitled Unmastered. It’s really a compilation—a loose gathering of perfectly unpolished songs, death-defying rap verses, and improvised vamps from the sessions that birthed Butterfly. (Side note: We might have LeBron James to thank, at least in part, for the album. After Kendrick performed an untitled track at the Grammys, James tweeted at the CEO of Kendrick’s label, Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, imploring him to release the music.)

Untitled held fans over for a while, but we’re starting to get antsy. So the real question right now isn’t where Kendrick belongs in the firmament—it’s where he’s taking us next.

To tease that out, we asked venerable producer and noted genius-whisperer Rick Rubin to interview Kendrick at Rubin’s own Shangri La studios in Malibu. The two had never previously met. They spoke on the lawn of Shangri La for an hour. Then they walked directly into the studio and started recording new music.

What follows are excerpts from their conversation.— WILL WELCH

RICK RUBIN: What were the inspirations along the way for you—musically, lyrically, or philosophically—that got you to this stage?

KENDRICK LAMAR: Oh, man. First off would have to be how I was raised. The environment. My father being a complete realist, just in the streets. And my mother being a dreamer. It starts there first, before I even heard any type of melody or lyric. That’s just DNA. It’s always the yin and the yang, the good versus the evil. And that pushed me toward the music that I love to listen to. You know, Tupac, Biggie, Jay. Your usual suspects. These were the people that was played in my household.

Was the music playing in your house your choice of music, or was it the music your parents were listening to?

Definitely my parents. My parents were fairly young in the city of Compton. So the things that they played—you know, that was the hip crowd. So I was being exposed to all these ideas, from Big Daddy Kane to Eazy-E to the Bay Area— Too Short, E-40—you know, back to Marvin Gaye and the Isley Brothers. This field of music just broadened my ideas to come. We never would’ve thought in a million years that I’d be doing it.

When did jazz find its way into your world?

It’s a trip, because I was in the studio one day, and my guy Terrace Martin noticed something about the type of sounds that I was picking. He was like, Man, a lot of the chords that you pick are jazz-influenced. You don’t understand: You a jazz musician by default. And that just opened me up. And he just started breaking down everything, the science, going back to Miles, Herbie Hancock.

So when was that moment?

About three months into my second LP, To Pimp a Butterfly.

After hearing the first album, when the second album came, it was completely unexpected. Like, nobody was expecting you to make that.

Yeah, definitely. I knew from the jump that it was gonna be a challenge for my listeners’ ear. But if I’m challenging myself in the studio, I want to challenge you as well. I just went full-fledged with it, man. We built everything from scratch.

This is kind of a funny thing, because I’m going to ask you to project into the future here. But do you feel like Butterfly— what do you refer to it as?

Butterfly, To Pimp a Butterfly. It’s a few things.

Okay, I thought maybe To Pimp. But let’s say the second album. Do you feel like that’s more indicative of where things will be in the future? Or is it more like, based on the difference between the first album and the second album, we should continue to expect it to change?

That’s a great question.

It may not even be possible to answer, but tell me your best thoughts.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM GQ STYLEView All

Bird Man

Tony Hawk has invented countless tricks, built skate parks around the world, and created a billion-dollar video-game franchise. but his legacy is greater than all that: Meet his son Riley.

10+ mins read
GQ Style
Fall 2017

Diplo In Africa

What happens when a superstar DJ leaves a pile of Coachella cash on the table to go break even on a tour of Africa—where a red-hot music scene is on the verge of going global? We flew to Uganda and Ethiopia to find out.

10+ mins read
GQ Style
Fall 2017

Master Class

After the smashing success of season two of his Netflix show, ‘ master of none,’ Aziz Ansari vowed to go analog. No social media. No e-mail. No laboring over season three. So we invited the stand-up turned auteur to be our plus-one at paris fashion week—and got him to teach us the art of unplugging.

10+ mins read
GQ Style
Fall 2017

Brutal Darlings

For 16 years, the German magazine 032c has been the  fashion insider’s bible,but recently founder joerg koch expanded his vision, got down with Kanye, and started selling T-shirts. The changes are raising eyebrows in the industry, but no matter—‘032c’ has become a full-blown movement.

9 mins read
GQ Style
Fall 2017

Wet Dreams

When the futuristic, wedge-shaped cars we lusted after in the ’80s and ’90s went out of style, they went all the way out of style. But a new generation of auto freaks has revived these vintage beauties. Nobody laughs or calls them ugly anymore. And prices are skyrocketing. THIS IS THE STORY OF SPORTS CARS, THE MEN WHO LOVE THEM—AND THE SHIFTING TIDES OF VALUE AND TASTE.

10+ mins read
GQ Style
Spring 2017

Are You Not Entertained?

Last year, the swaggering former plumber Conor McGregor became the first UFC FIGHTER to hold two belts at once. The thrilling brutality of his knockouts— along with his notorious trash talk and lavish tastes— has made him into a phenomenon, THE RARE ATHLETE WHO IS BIGGER THAN HIS SPORT. We caught up with McGregor and met a man at war: with his league, with Floyd Mayweather, and, most of all, with himself.

10+ mins read
GQ Style
Spring 2017

Finding Fashion Bliss in Japan's Retail Paradise

United Arrows has 256 stores— but somehow each of them feels like a lovingly crafted high-end boutique. And now the CEO has his eyes on westward expansion. So we traveled to the company’s Tokyo HQ to experience firsthand what’s coming to America. (And yes, to shop up a storm.)

10 mins read
GQ Style
Spring 2017

How to Hack Any Wine List

Whether you’re out on a date, romancing clients, or just eating with friends, the mostintimidating part of any meal is ordering the wine. Luckily, our chief value correspondent has developed a foolproof method for nailing it every time. Take a long sip and let the compliments roll in.

4 mins read
GQ Style
Spring 2017

Top 5 Dead or Alive

We always knew Kendrick Lamar could rap. But nobody expected his album to pimp a butterfly to be a staggering musical masterwork that galvanized Grammy voters and protest marchers alike. The big question now is: what will k.dot do next? We got Rick Rubin to ask him.

10+ mins read
GQ Style
Holiday 2016