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posted: 8/25/2013 5:00 AM

With VMAs afoot, Kendrick Lamar takes center stage

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  • Kendrick Lamar performed during this year's Lollapalooza at Grant Park in Chicago. As Sunday's MTV Awards approach, Lamar is the focus of the music world.

    Kendrick Lamar performed during this year's Lollapalooza at Grant Park in Chicago. As Sunday's MTV Awards approach, Lamar is the focus of the music world.
    Associated Press File Photo

Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- It's been almost a year since Kendrick Lamar released his major label debut, yet the rapper remains very much the focus of the music world as top stars convene this weekend for the MTV Video Music Awards, which air at 8 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 25.

That album, "good kid, m.A.A.d. city," is about to turn platinum, his diverse menagerie of memorable songs ("B----, Don't Kill My Vibe," "Swimming Pools (Drank)," "Poetic Justice") would fit nicely on any mix tape commemorating 2013, and he's left visible marks as he's made guest appearances on nearly every top rapper's album over the last 18 months.

This month, he called out basically every MC of the day in another memorable, fiery feature on Big Sean's "Control." Already hyped as the rap verse of the year, reaction was widespread and diverse. Some of his fellow MCs responded with verses of their own. Others praised him for throwing down the gauntlet and making rap competitive again.

As Sunday's awards show approaches, all anyone has been talking about is Lamar, and the question on their lips has been this: Is the 26-year-old Compton resident the best rapper in the world right now?

"Kendrick's the best," Schoolboy Q said. "Who's better? I mean tell me right now, who's better?"

As a fellow member of the Black Hippy collective, Q is admittedly biased, but the discussion about Lamar's place in the rap hierarchy was already going on -- that verse just amplified it (As for Big Sean -- called out on his own song, along with Drake, J. Cole, A$AP Rocky, Tyler, the Creator, Mac Miller, Wale and many others -- he didn't have much to say when asked whether Lamar was right about being on top: "You'll have to ask him that.").

While Lamar hasn't publicly addressed the verse heard around the world, taking over a verse is nothing new -- he's been doing it for a while. In fact, his goal is to hijack any song he's asked to contribute to.

"Any time I'm featured on a song, some of the times I don't hear the other cat's verses, but I know I'm going to be on a song with a guy that I respect, so I'm going to bring my 'A' game and now I'm going to make you match that -- or at least try to," Lamar said in an interview earlier this summer. "It's really about me just having a level of respect. If I'm offered to get on a song ... that's going to be the best verse I've ever written in my life. That's the way it's supposed to be. I hope every other artist has the same approach if you're about to send a song to me, you know what I mean? And if you let me hear your verse, then you've really messed it up for yourself. I call it homecourt advantage in the playoffs."

A prodigy who got official stamps of approval from Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, Lamar manages to balance the commercial and artistic sides of his music and comes with an approach that's of the streets, but also displays a bookish love for vocabulary and drama. "Good kid" is a cinematic tale of temptation and redemption growing up in Compton that announced his arrival to the mainstream.

At the BET Awards, he matched Drake in wins and performed several times. He's up for two moonman trophies this weekend, including best hip-hop video. He's likely to have his fair share of Grammy Award nominations when they're announced later this year. And his appearance at Bonnaroo showed his progression as a live act: After drawing about 2,000 fans in 2012 at the festival in Manchester, Tenn., before the release of "good kid," he pulled in 50,000 fans this year.

"It's almost scary," Lamar said in an interview at Bonnaroo. "The possibilities are scary for me. I truly believe anything is possible."

He's made it this far through the teamwork of his Black Hippy crew, all young, hot signees of Top Dawg Entertainment. Now that Kendrick's album is out, Schoolboy Q's up next with "Oxymoron," due out later this fall. After that, fellow members Ab-Soul and Jay Rock will take their turns.

"We really work as a team, as a machine," Ab-Soul said. "Just me personally, I'm real big on presentation and focus. ... I just want to be an artist that's historical, to be part of history, not just part of the limelight."

Sometime soon, Lamar will begin recording his follow up to "good kid." He's been working on the bars already, and thinking about the possibilities of what's next.

"I'm challenging myself to where I took 'good kid, m.A.A.d. city' to the next level," he said. "I took my writing to the next level, took my ear for music to the next level, touring to the next level. When you focus more on the music, that's when all the accolades fall down, the awards, the press, you be in all these different high places. I definitely feel the next big thing is really sticking to the script and really staying focused on the music."

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