No one else who has come along in the past 15 years can touch Kendrick Lamar’s imprint on hip-hop. Other people have sold more records, had more hits, but from the standpoint of pure creativity, Lamar stands alone among his generation. Now he stands at the brink of something new: a self-founded label, an auteurial mind-meld with his creative partner, and what looks like an endless runway. In other words, it’s the perfect time for a writer like Mitchell S. Jackson to try to get inside his (and his partner’s) head. Sure, at some point that’s a fruitless endeavor — to paraphrase Jackson, if Kung Fu Kenny speaks it’s in his music — but that doesn’t mean the results aren’t breathtaking.

Later, we sit at a corner table in the dim dining room of Novikov, an Asian and Italian restaurant. The restaurant is packed and at a decibel level that requires us to lean in. This close, I notice Kendrick’s eyes. How they seem to be both present and distant; both focused on the moment at hand and processing it. Ain’t none of this eyes-are-windows-into-the-soul business with Kendrick. In fact, they might be paragons of the opposite: eyes wide open with revelations few to nil. They strike me as a kind of shield, as well as a way to foster the mystique that keeps people wanting more of him than he will ever share.