Kendrick Lamar realized his life had changed while backstage at one of his sold-out shows. “Let’s see,” he says, trying to paint the picture. “Dre’s there. Snoop is in the room. Beautiful women are in the room. Homeboys are in the room, and everyone’s just mingling, man. It’s one of those moments when you’re like, I’m really a rapper now.” He laughs to himself, the way one does when describing the convergence of fantasy and reality. “Shit like that trips you out,” he says. “Even just walking onto your tour bus and seeing a full-blown studio in there, you’re like, Damn, I’m really doing this shit.”

The 25-year-old emcee adores his tour bus, which is fortuitous given he spends most of his time on it. “It’s a big-ass hangout when we’re on the bus,” Lamar says. “It’s me and my homeboys, just clowning around and shit, or watching motherfucking SportsCenter all day.” If that sounds like goofing off, Lamar can be forgiven. After releasing four mixtapes, a self-titled EP, and an independently produced album called Section.80, as well as writing hundreds of songs, Lamar finally dropped his major label debut, the autobiographical good kid, m.A.A.d city, in October 2012 through Top Dawg Entertainment/Aftermath Entertainment/Interscope Records.

The album, which debuted in second place on the Billboard 200 and has sold nearly one million copies, chronicles a single day in Lamar’s teenage past, as he artfully dodges his neighborhood’s G-force pull—girls, gangs, and green—and ultimately finds salvation in his music. It also shows off Lamar’s profound dexterity as a lyricist, with the rapper rhyming in hip-hop’s fabled double and triple times. Pitchfork named it the best album of last year, and it made Lamar, who, in early 2012 opened for Drake on his Club Paradise tour, an instant headliner. “I couldn’t really appreciate it like I wanted to, because I was doing so much promo,” Lamar says of the week following the album’s release, in which it sold 242,000 copies. “It was a big blur.”

In the eight months since the release of good kid, m.A.A.d city, that blur has metastasized into Lamar’s day-to-day reality. He has toured the globe, appeared on magazine covers, performed on Saturday Night Live, amassed close to two million Twitter followers, and was named the number one “Hottest MC in the Game” by MTV in a list that provoked Kanye West to call the radio station Hot 97 to vent about his placement at number seven.

For someone who once rapped, “Sometimes I need to be alone,” Lamar rarely is. In person, you’d never know the fivefoot-six, baby-faced kid from Compton has reached stadium status. He’s laid-back, if not lethargic. His eyes always appear either halfclosed or half-open. He is polite and speaks in hushed tones. He doesn’t wear the custom gold grills of Lil Wayne, the full-length furs of Yeezy, or the two chains of, well, 2 Chainz. When we meet, he’s dressed in black jeans, a gray hoodie, and a white T-shirt, and when asked a question, he repeats it before considering his answer. His biggest material indulgence, he says, has been a $10,000 Rolex watch, and even that was a gift.

He spends Bullets entire first interview, in the back of a Cadillac Escalade, politely ignoring the two tacos housed in a Styrofoam container on his lap even though he’s admittedly famished.

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Kendrick Lamar Goes Straight Outta Compton and Into the Spotlight