It's hard to believe that Kendrick Lamar is only 25-years-old, or that good kid, m.A.A.d city, on Dr. Dre's Aftermath imprint, is his major label debut. Visiting Toronto for a media blitz before this week's record release, Lamar already exudes the easy confidence of an industry veteran. Then again, that could be because he kind of is one.
Despite his young age, Lamar already has nearly a decade of experience under his belt. He released his first mixtape under the moniker K-Dot in 2003. Section.80 -- the independent album he put out in 2011 -- was widely touted as one of the best rap albums of the year. He's also toured Europe, made guest appearances on albums by everyone from The Game to Drake and was crowned the "New King of the West Coast," by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg during a concert last year.
All the independent success is probably why Lamar is so casual when talking about recording his major label debut, essentially calling it just another day at the office.
"Creatively, nothing changed, the only difference is, now you have that time limit on you," he says. "Certain things need to be done by a certain time in order to move things forward. That's the only difference."
Lamar certainly isn't the first rapper to blow up on the Internet before getting a major deal -- in the last three or four years, its almost become standard -- but he may be the one of the best examples of how young rappers are end-running the music industry and forcing labels to come to them.
"When you do the groundwork independently, the majors respect that and want to build off it," he says. "For a long time, the labels were like 'No, you need us,' but you don't have a label if you don't have artists on it. You'd be knocking on that door with your demo, trying to be that artist, and the label would be like 'We don't care. We already have 50 Cent or whatever, selling 10 million records.'"
That said, he acknowledges that there's a dangerous downside to this new path to fame. Artists risk flooding the market, to the point that fans are sick of them before their first official album is even released. He also says that even "established" artists are forced to hustle constantly, lest they be overtaken by hungry upstarts.
"The downside is record sales," he says. "You have to put more work into it. You have to be like an independent artist, even if you're signed to a major label. You have to constantly be in people's faces, you have to constantly be putting new music out. You've almost got to over-saturate it, because there's someone under you trying to take that spot... It waters down the impact of a debut album, because people are still putting out the music you put out last year."
Still, it's hard to imagine Lamar being too envious of his forerunners, even if they weren't forced to constantly release new material. In fact, he sees himself and other young, web-famous rappers like him as redefining success and righting some of the music industry's historical imbalances.
"Before, you'd get signed, and you'd be the one that made it, the kid that made it out of the hood," he says. "Now, you can still be that same kid, making YouTube videos in your living room, and you're getting 10 million views and you're on stage with Jay-Z. It puts the energy to back into the artists favor... It gets back to the essence where labels are dependent on artists, and not the artists dependent on the labels."