The Tragic Truth About Kendrick Lamar

The following article includes mentions of mental health issues, suicide, and addiction.

Some would call him a rapper, others might call him a poet, but one thing that we can all widely agreed on is that Kendrick Lamar is a musical genius. Since stepping into the spotlight with his debut studio album, "Section.80" in 2011, Lamar has evolved from an unknown up-and-coming emcee to one of the industry's most revered lyricists.

In a 2014 interview with The New York Times, Pharrell Williams compared Lamar to the late Bob Dylan — who is largely regarded as one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time. "You can just see the kid's mind like a kaleidoscope over a beat," Williams added. In a separate interview with Apple Music, the "Happy" singer shared that one of the things responsible for Lamar's excellent songwriting skills is that he "knows how to be very disciplined with a subject matter."

Despite his legendary artistry, Lamar has been faced with great measures of tragedy through his years. In his 2010 track, "Cut You Off (To Grow Closer)," the rapper touched on the death of his grandmother, who was actively involved in his life as a child and with whom he had shared a great bond. "Ever since grandma died, everyone parted ways / Argue on holidays," he rapped, in part. This, however, is only one of the many tragedies Lamar has been faced with through the years.

Kendrick Lamar was born to a former gang member

On June 17, 1987, Kendrick Lamar was born to hairdresser Paula Oliver and Kenneth "Kenny" Duckworth, a former gang member. In a 2015 interview with Rolling Stone, Lamar opened up about his father's affiliation with the Gangster Disciples, a gang in Chicago's South Side– a lifestyle his mother did not approve of. To prove her displeasure, Oliver gave Duckworth an ultimatum, asking him to leave the gang life. "She said, 'I can't f*** with you if you ain't trying to better yourself. We can't be in the streets forever,'" Lamar recounted.

The couple subsequently packed up to move to California, eventually settling in Compton. "They were going to go to San Bernardino. But my Auntie Tina was in Compton. She got 'em a hotel until they got on their feet, and my mom got a job at McDonald's," Lamar told Rolling Stone. Barely getting by at the time, Oliver and Duckworth juggled between sleeping in their car and motels. "Eventually, they saved enough money to get their first apartment, and that's when they had me," the "DNA." rapper added.

Despite their move to California, however, Duckworth and his wife never fully left the street life. "They wasn't no perfect mothaf***as. My pops did his thing. My moms did her thing. In the streets, you know what I'm saying? Together. They stayed with it for the sake of me. I'm their first born," Lamar explained in an 2010 interview with Paul Cantor.

His family battled poverty and homelessness

After starting their family, Kendrick Lamar's parents, Paula Oliver and Kenneth "Kenny" Duckworth, struggled to make ends meet, relying on government welfare and food stamps. "My moms used to walk me home from school — we didn't have no car — and we'd talk from the county building to the welfare office," Lamar recounted to Rolling Stone in 2015. But while Oliver and Duckworth tried to hide their financial woes from their little son, it didn't take him too long to figure it out. "I realized his work schedule wasn't really adding up," he said of his father's time working at KFC. "They wanted to keep me innocent. I love them for that."

In a separate interview, Lamar recounted seeing his father do anything to make money. "He was in the streets. You know the story. I remember always walking to the government building with Mom. We got our food stamps fast because we lived across the street," he shared with Spin.

Despite their financial challenges, Lamar's childhood had good memories. His parents frequently had house parties in their home, some of which he snuck into. But even better, Oliver and Duckworth always made sure to give their son a gift on special occasions. "I didn't know it was hard times because they always had my Christmas present under the tree and for my birthday," he recalled to Spin.

Lamar witnessed a murder as a child

Growing up in Compton, Kendrick Lamar had an undeniably hard life. At only 4 years old, he experienced the chaos of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, which broke out following the acquittal of the four policemen involved in the 1991 assault of Rodney King. "I remember riding with my pops down Bullis Road, and looking out the window and seeing motherf***ers just running," Lamar recounted to Rolling Stone.

After the protests broke out and chaos erupted, many, including Lamar's father Kenneth "Kenny" Duckworth, saw it as an opportunity to loot. "I can see smoke. We stop, and my pops goes into the Auto-Zone and comes out rolling four tires. I know he didn't buy them. I'm like, 'What's going on?'" he added. But rioting and looting weren't the worst things Lamar witnessed as a child.

When he was only 5, Lamar saw a teenage drug dealer get killed in a drive-by shooting in Compton. "It was outside my apartment unit. A guy was out there serving his narcotics and somebody rolled up with a shotgun and blew his chest out," he shared during an interview with NPR. Unsurprisingly, these unfortunate incidents ended up shaping Lamar and influencing his music. Since getting his big break in the industry, Lamar has continuously addressed police brutality in his songs. Particularly, Lamar's 2015 single, "Alright," has become widely recognized as a protest song in the Black community.

He dealt with depression in his teenage years

In 2015, Kendrick Lamar released "u," a track off his "To Pimp a Butterfly" album, in which he detailed his struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts. "I know your secrets, n****, mood swings is frequent, n**** / I know depression is restin' on your heart for two reasons ... And if this bottle could talk I cry myself to sleep," Lamar rapped in the song.

In a 2015 interview, Lamar explained that he drew inspiration for the song from his upbringing. "Nothing was as vulnerable as that record, so it's even pulling from those experiences of coming up in Compton ... the experience of going through change," he shared in a conversation with MTV. Lamar further shared that a part of his mental health struggle stemmed from survivor's guilt after losing some of his childhood friends to the rough life in Southern California.

In "I," another song off the "To Pimp a Butterfly" album, the Compton native once again touched on his struggles, revealing: "I've been dealing with depression ever since an adolescent." To address his troubles, Lamar sought out therapy. Though it would prove helpful to him, going to therapy was a strange experience for him as a Black man. "To challenge myself to go therapy, s***, that's like a whole new step in a whole new generation. That's growth," he shared with Spotify during a trip to Ghana.

Lamar ran with a rough crowd, surrounded by gang violence

When he was in the tenth grade, Kendrick Lamar enrolled in a summer school that he had to walk to every day. At the time, two rival gangs in his neighborhood were at war, making the journey to school unbearable for young Lamar. "This was the time the gang rivals was heavy between my neighborhood and the neighborhood a few blocks down. We would always debate, like 'Damn, I hate going to this summer school class cause we gotta walk home at this time in the summertime where we know the war likes to pop off around the evening,'" he recounted in a 2012 Vevo Lift interview.

Sadly, Lamar was eventually sucked into the gang lifestyle almost synonymous with growing up in Compton. While still in high school, the rapper joined a group of friends with whom he would carry out several illegal activities, including home invasions and robberies. It wasn't long before a young Lamar got himself in trouble. While one of his crew members once got shot, on another occasion, police visited Lamar's home to inform his parents of his criminal activities in the neighborhood. To discipline him, Lamar was sent out of the house for two days — an experience that left him terrified. "That's a scary thing, because you might not come back," he told Rolling Stone.

He lost his friend to a drive-by shooting

During his 2015 interview with NPR, Kendrick Lamar opened up about the tragic death of his friend Chad Keaton. "Chad Keaton. He was like my little brother; we grew up in the same community,"  he shared, explaining that he had been best friends with Keaton's older brother, Jason before his incarceration. "And him just always telling me to make sure that Chad is on the right path. And, you know, he was on the right path," Lamar added. Unfortunately, Keaton ended up getting gravely injured in a drive by shooting while Lamar was on tour in 2013.

Given his promise to Jason, Lamar was riddled with guilt following Keaton's tragic death. Even more so, because he had been unable to visit the 23-year-old in the hospital before he died. "Chad was a really hard one for Kendrick. It was really hard for him because Chad was younger than us. The little bro," Lamar's friend and business partner Dave Free said in an episode of "The Big Hit Show." "We were supposed to go see him, and we didn't even get to see him ... we didn't make it back to see him before he passed."

His struggles with sex addiction

He doesn't drink, he doesn't smoke but like everyone else, Kendrick Lamar also has his own vice. In his 2022 album "Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers," Kendrick Lamar opened up about his battle with sex addiction, leading him to cheat on his longtime partner, Whitney Alford.

"Insecurities that I project, sleepin' with other women / Whitney's hurt, the purest soul I know, I found her in the kitchen / Askin' God, 'Where did I lose myself? And can it be forgiven?' / Broke me down, she looked me in my eyes, 'Is there an addiction?'" Lamar rapped in "Mother I Sober." Despite his troubles, Lamar initially lied to Alford about his addiction, choosing instead to keep her in the dark. Alford would later catch on and encouraged the rapper to seek help. "Pure soul, even in her pain, know she cared for me / Gave me a number, said she recommended some therapy," he explained in the song.

Lamar and Alford started out as high school sweethearts, but their relationship has since evolved into something deeper. In 2015, the rapper, who's notoriously private, confirmed his engagement to Alford. The couple has since welcomed two children together, daughter Uzi born in July 2019, and son Enoch, born in 2022. "I wouldn't even call her my girl. That's my best friend. I don't even like the term that society has put in the world as far as being a companion — she's somebody I can tell my fears to," Lamar gushed to Billboard in 2015.

If you or anyone you know needs help with mental health issues or addiction issues, or is in crisis, contact the relevant resources below: