Kendrick Lamar stands atop a police car performing Alright at the 2015 BET Awards on June 28, 2015, in Los Angeles. Lamar would win the award for Best Male Hip Hop artist at the award show thanks to the release of To Pimp A Butterfly. (Photo courtesy of Kevork Djansezian, Reuters)
By: Ryan Croke
The 2010s were an incredible evolutionary time for music that saw a plethora of new advances in the industry, and in a time full of artists pushing the envelope, none did it better than Kendrick Lamar.
Lamar, born in Compton, California, pulls heavily from his childhood experiences and the experiences of the Black population of America as a whole to create gorgeous concept albums that each tell a different story.
A concept album is a difficult piece of art to successfully execute, but when it is done right, the result is a mind-blowing project whose intricacies keep the listener returning, finding more with every single playthrough. Kendrick Lamar has mastered the art of producing a concept album, and his lyricism, his ideas, his genre-bending experiments with the sounds of hip hop, and his consistent surpassing of expectations are what make him the most notable artist of the 2010s.
Breaking Into The Industry: Section.80
Following the release of a couple of mixtapes in the late 2000s, Kendrick would release his debut LP in 2011.
Section.80, a project whose narrative focuses on two characters, Tammy and Keisha, who are trying their hardest to find their place in the world as they deal with the struggles of growing up in Compton, immediately established Kendrick as an up-and-coming star. Lamar’s nasally voice was a fresh sound to hip hop, and his storytelling and lyrical abilities were put on full display, captivating those who listened to his work early on in his career.
While not looked back on as his best work today, Section.80 laid the foundation of what was to become the Kendrick Lamar who is cherished today, and his first concept album would certainly not be his last. Section.80 was a pivotal stepping stone in Kendrick’s career, and he would achieve stardom soon after with his next release.
Birth Of A Star: good kid, m.A.A.d. City
Growing up in Compton was certainly not easy for Kendrick, nor is it easy for anyone living there, as Compton is notoriously one of the most poverty-stricken and crime-ridden cities in America.
Lamar explored his childhood experiences in Compton in 2012’s good kid m.A.A.d. city, an album that would be nominated for the Grammy for Best Rap Album, but lose to Macklemore’s The Heist thanks to one of the most heinous decisions made by the recording academy in recent memory.
good kid m.A.A.d. city sees the character of K-Dot, representative of Kendrick himself, recall his experiences living in Compton, such as being caught up in crime, violence, poverty, and death everywhere he went. All the while, K-Dot is attempting to escape the confines of his hometown, realizing the issues with life in Compton in the process, and beginning to question hood politics.
good kid m.A.A.d. city was a breath of fresh air to the genre and told a deep and consistent story throughout. Text on the cover of the LP reads, “a short film by Kendrick Lamar,” and to some extent, it certainly features a film-worthy narrative. Lamar’s descriptions of the scenes he has found himself in throughout his life are vivid and thoughtful, taking the listener to that very situation.
Each track features a voicemail recording that, when played together, tells another story that is a microcosm of Lamar’s upbringing. The album is a gripping narrative about finding oneself and about Kendrick escaping the boundaries placed upon him, becoming his own man, and maturing in the process.
A now fully matured Kendrick would return to music in 2015 with one of the greatest albums ever recorded.
The Magnum Opus: To Pimp A Butterfly
To Pimp A Butterfly is an album that established Kendrick Lamar as one of the best in the business. It is a project that will be talked about for generations to come, and rightfully so; it is an LP many would refer to as career-defining.
Kendrick makes zero compromises on To Pimp A Butterfly, combining jazz, funk, blues, and more iconic sounds of Black culture in America with hip hop to tell a mind-blowing story of the black struggle in the 50 states.
Across the album, Kendrick begins and builds upon a poem, adding lines to the piece after every few tracks. This poem thoroughly examines Lamar’s life after Compton and the struggles he had to endure following his rise to fame.
Additionally, the album concludes with another poem, this one more awe-inspiring than the first. This poem, from where the album earns its name, examines the struggles that Black people in America are forced to endure, and tells the story of someone escaping poverty and violence and using their newfound experiences to become something much greater than they possibly imagined, finding themselves and their purpose in life in the process.
Not only does this narrative apply to the entire Black community, but it is also autobiographical, a fact that never fails to blow the mind of readers and listeners alike. It is an elaborate and introspective work that plenty of poets could not dream of producing.
The genius of To Pimp A Butterfly is impossible to fathom in a mere few paragraphs, and one must find the hidden meanings behind it and come to their own opinions about it through listening to the music or potentially reading more about the subject before they are truly able to appreciate this masterpiece.
Here To Stay: DAMN.
Kendrick would release a collection of “leftovers” in 2016 with untitled unmastered., which, given the quality and depth of the tracks, these throwaway tracks would be a lot of artists’ best work. untitled unmastered. helped Kendrick keep his momentum following the success of To Pimp A Butterfly, and in April 2017, Lamar returned with another full-length LP, DAMN., which was an instant success.
The lyricism and theming of the LP are nothing short of spectacular, and Kendrick would earn the Pulitzer Prize for his work, solidifying his place at the forefront of the industry when it comes to writing.
While generally not regarded as highly as To Pimp A Butterfly and good kid, m.A.A.d. city, DAMN. is certainly a work that most musicians would be incredibly proud to produce, and the fact that it is seen as inferior to not just one but multiple works in his discography by his vast fanbase is astounding.
DAMN. has a compelling narrative, telling the story of a new character, Kung Fu Kenny, as he struggles with weakness or wickedness throughout his life. The album is ingenious and can be played in reverse to tell a completely separate narrative than if it were played from front to back.
It is the listener who chooses the fate of Kung Fu Kenny by deciding which order to play the album, and this choose-your-own-adventure style listening experience adds a whole new dimension of intimacy to the record.
The concept is executed beautifully, and there are plenty of standout hits from the LP, the most popular being HUMBLE., Kendrick’s biggest hit to date.
The release of DAMN. seemed to be a victory tour for Kendrick. He was at the top of his game, he had released three consecutive outstanding records in three consecutive years, and he had proven he had the best penwork of anyone in the game, establishing himself as one of if not the greatest lyricists of all time.
But when he went silent for nearly 5 years, fans were blindsided. Kendrick would release a few songs for the soundtrack of the hit Marvel film Black Panther, but otherwise, he did nothing of note with his music career following the release of DAMN., and would not until August 20, 2021, when he announced the production of his next album through a mysterious and cryptic blog post under the alias oklama.
The Return? Or The Farewell Tour?: Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers
Fans rejoiced following the release of this blog post. Kendrick Lamar hadn’t vanished without a trace just yet, and fans eagerly awaited the inevitable release of new music.
And wait they did.
It wasn’t until April 18, 2022, that Kendrick would announce the album’s title and release date through a fax from his production company pgLang being posted to the same site as the original blog.
Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers will arrive on May 13, 2022, and his fanbase’s never-ending thirst for new music will finally be quenched for the first time in over 5 years.
After so long, it is impossible to know what to expect. Kendrick has consistently evolved with each release, finding a new sound and style for every commercial LP, one of the best qualities of his music and one of the reasons he deserves all the respect he has received.
All that is confirmed is that a new album is on the way, and the world is more than likely in for another reminder of why Kendrick Lamar is so special.
One Of The Greats
Kendrick Lamar is, to put it frankly, nothing short of the greatest rapper of this generation. He is certainly in the conversation for the greatest hip-hop artist to ever pick up the mic, and his name will one day be regarded as one of the premier boundary-pushers, forward thinkers, elite songwriters, and most important artists across any genre.
He has never failed to impress listeners, critics, and established hip-hop icons in his short career. The chances remain high that he calls it a career after the release of his newest album occurs, and even if he does, the mark he had made on music will forever be remembered.
His ability to create such incredible work with unwavering consistency over an extended period of time is unlike any other, and it is for this reason that he is firmly cemented as the defining artist of the 2010s.
Only Kendrick himself knows what the 2020s hold in store for him, but if he continues to release music, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that he will continue to show the world why he will go down in history as one of the greatest rappers of all time.