On a near bi-monthly basis, some incremental piece of information will rise to the surface and stoke excitement for a new Kendrick Lamar record. Aside from the curation of 2018’s Black Panther soundtrack and intermittent guest spots, the Compton MC turned international phenomenon has been conspicuous by his absence. Granted the distinction of hip-hop’s first ever Nobel Prize winner last year, the speculation around a new album from K-Dot all began when Polydor records announced that he’d be part of their release slate in 2019. Nestled alongside artists such as TDE labelmate Schoolboy Q, Billie Eilish, Madonna and Tove Lo, their swiftly retracted Instagram story may hold weight considering that most of the other talents have either released music or laid out plans to do so this year. Rebuffed at every turn by his label’s upper management, it remains to be seen whether their vehement denial is part of a grand deception that’ll keep his penchant for blindsiding audiences with music or if he truly has no plans to re-enter the fray in 2019. Consistently acclaimed but unpredictable in their conception and execution, it’s no wonder that millions are clamouring for the latest addition to the Kendrick canon. Until we get some official clarification, there’s ample time to reacquaint ourselves with his storied back catalogue and establish what is the true crown jewel in his discography. Before things get underway, it’s important to note that this whistle-stop tour through his music will only account for his first studio album onwards (and we are including Section.80 under that umbrella). While there is a great deal of merit and longevity to be extracted from mixtapes such as the Lil Wayne-indebted C4 or Overly Dedicated, they’re an entity of their own. Without further ado, let’s tackle the highly contestable task of ranking his main bodies of work from “worst” (!) to best.
5. Untitled Unmastered (2016)
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During a roundtable for the now defunct Red Bull Music Academy, a slew of TDE’s in-house productions maestros gathered to discuss their process. Among other noteworthy anecdotes, one of the biggest talking points emerged courtesy of Tae Beast. Flanked by Sounwave and MixedByAli, the Digi+Phonics stalwart touched on an idiosyncratic personality trait of one Kendrick Lamar: “If you make something and somebody [in TDE] hears it’s, it’s a wrap. Kendrick’s like a beat hoarder, too. He has like 97,000 gigs of beats from everybody. If it gets to Kendrick’s hands it’s probably never going to leave.” Corroborated by Sounwave and his claim that “You can give him a beat for Good Kid, M.A.A.d City and it’ll end up on DAMN.,” it provides a newfound context for the existence of Untitled, Unmastered. Comprised of only eight tracks, this 2016 mini-album may lack the grand conceptual underpinning of Kendrick’s most cherished works but is no less of a powerful vessel for his multi-faceted flows and biting lyricism.
Littered with haunting imagery, double entendres and every other lyrical trope at his disposal, his innate creativity shines through most blindingly on “Untitled 02,” “04,” “08” and its solitary single “07 (Levitate).” After the outpourings of adoration that followed 2015’s To Pimp A Butterfly, this refreshingly loose and free-spirited project serves as a victory lap for an MC that was acutely aware that he had the industry at his mercy. An extension of TPAB in terms of its dalliances with more freeform, jazz-indebted production, its lyricism encapsulated the socio-political ground of its predecessor whilst hinting towards the grimly prophetic and spiritually preoccupied world of DAMN. Fleshed out by stellar cameos from SZA, Bilal, Ann Wise, Jay Rock, Punch, Cee-Lo and Thundercat, that penchant for beat-harvesting served him well and provided a varied array of canvasses to experiment on from his regular cohorts alongside productions from Adrian Younge, Mono/Poly, Swizz Beatz and even Swizz’s 5-year-old son Egypt. A whirlwind 34 minutes of artistic prowess that tackles post-apocalyptic premonitions and self-acceptance with similar panache, it speaks volumes about Kendrick’s reverence that a collection of offshoots and leftovers shifted 160,000 units and debuted at the top of the charts. In the words of K-Dot himself, “Pimp-pimp, hooray.”
4. Section.80 (2011)
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Prior to Section.80’s release in 2011, Kendrick Lamar was an immensely talented MC that could’ve easily gotten lost in the shuffle amid a generation of rising stars. After all, there was a time where hip-hop’s poet laureate-in-waiting was viewed by TDE’s upper management as a second-stringer to Jay Rock. Tasked with the role of his on-stage hype man, it wasn’t until the emergence of his first official studio album that Kendrick definitively set himself apart. Built around the sort of overarching linear concept that’d become one of his trademarks, this 16-track odyssey is where he’d shed the last vestiges of K-Dot as your average mortal rapper and became the near-otherworldly entity we’ve come to know as Kendrick Lamar. Anchored by the talismanic figures of “Keisha” and “Tammy,” Section.80 was the young Compton MC at his most aggrieved and discontented with the world that he saw around him. As opposed to honing in on a few central thematic concerns, Section.80 finds time to broach the corrosive effect of drugs on his community and the lingering effects of Reaganomics before laying out a manifesto for revolution on the stirring “Hiipower.” Amid all of the highly politicized idealism, Kendrick still takes time to assert his technical ability and lateral thinking on “Rigamortis,” “Hol Up” and the conceptual glue of the project that is “Ab-Soul Outro.” Instilled with the spirit of The Black Panthers, The Civil Rights Movement and Tupac Amaru Shakur all at once, what makes this acclaimed project all the more awe-inspiring is that Kendrick knew it was only a a stepping stone to the greatness that he’d achieve:
“I want to let this Section.80 sit and let everybody soak in what I have to talk about before I really give them the big bang or the real story. Everything that I’ve been putting out has been premeditated for what’s going to happen and what I really want to say. I held a lot of stuff back for my debut album. Believe it or not, Section.80 is just a warm up. People are really blessing it as one of the greatest albums of the year and I love that. It just excites me because I know I have so much more to say.”
3. DAMN. (2017)
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How do you defy the odds and follow up the all-consuming bombast of an album such as Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly? Well for all intents and purposes, you don’t. Rather than plough ahead in that musically eclectic vein, Kendrick returned to hip-hop’s zeitgeist of spacey, trap-fuelled beats in order to prove that the efficacy of his words still hold up in more limited confines. Less hellbent on mending society’s ills, DAMN. is the sound of Kendrick’s fledgling attempts to reconcile with his own frayed state of mind. Driven to the end of his tether, the album sees Kendrick compartmentalize all of the intersecting emotions that had seared into his mind. “Pride,” “Fear,” “Love,” “Lust,” “Loyalty,” they’re all making their presence known and wreaking havoc on the psyche of a man struggling with the weight of the whole world on his shoulders. With Mike-Will-Made-It, The Alchemist, 9th Wonder and TDE’s entrusted cabal of in-house producers behind the boards, the beats veer from unobtrusive soundscapes to earth-shattering rallying cries on tracks such as “DNA,” “Humble” and the duality-riddled “XXX.” Tasked with depicting the struggle between Kendrick’s “wickedness” and “weakness,” DAMN. is a project with unending replay value and is one of the most intricately layered albums of any genre to be released in the 21st century. Unconvinced? Take it from Kung Fu Kenny himself:
“The initial vibe listening from the top all the way to the bottom is … this aggression and this attitude. You know, ‘DNA,’ and exposing who I really am. You listen from the back end, and it’s almost the duality and the contrast of the intricate Kendrick Lamar. Both of these pieces are who I am.”
2. To Pimp A Butterfly (2015)
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Anointed as the heir to the west coast’s throne, Kendrick could’ve remained in the same headspace as Good Kid, M.A.A.D City and still received near-universal praise. Ever prepared to hurdle over boundaries and audience expectations, K-Dot veered away from the sonic doctrine of GKMC in order to pull off something truly audacious. The antithesis of background music, the sprawling expedition that is To Pimp A Butterfly is an album that requires time for digestion. But just like how its namesake must burst out of the chrysalis in order to expose its beauty to the world, taking the time to consume TPAB in its intended fashion is to experience an unparalleled artistic statement from a mainstream hip-hop artist. Musically, the album is an exhaustive and comprehensive ode to black music that ranges from blues to jazz, funk, soul and R&B. Endorsed by the P-funk mastermind George Clinton and Ronald Isley himself, their appearances on “Wesley’s Theory” and “How Much A Dollar Cost” feel like a passing of the torch and a conscious decision to entrust Kendrick with upholding the legacy of his musical forefathers. On the lyrical side of things, Lamar is charged with lowering the microscope upon a sickly, broken-down society that’s still beset by systemic racism, injustice and historical prejudice that permeates through to the modern era. Never conceived as self-important sermonizing, Kendrick is more than willing to hold himself accountable and self-flagellate for his failings on “U” and “The Blacker The Berry” among others. Incisive, thought-provoking and essential, it’s an album that is predestined for immortalization in The US’ Library Of Congress right alongside Public Enemy’s Fear Of A Black Planet and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Conflicted as he may have been during its creative process, the melting pot of circumstance and societal plagues that Kendrick was afflicted by produced the sort of awe-inspiring record that is a genuine once in a lifetime occurrence.
1. Good Kid, M.A.A.D City (2012)
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No matter how impactful To Pimp A Butterfly’s arrival was, it ultimately pales in comparison to his first project under the tutelage of his Compton forbearer Dr Dre. Without this exhilarating, autobiographical ride through Kendrick’s formative years, he’d never have been allotted the unimpeded freedom that allowed him to enact the visions of TPAB and DAMN. Despite its status as his sophomore album, Good Kid M.A.A.D City is the record that realigned Kendrick from a celebrated rapper to an artist that wields an indivisible power to imprint himself on culture. Fraught with danger and environmental trip hazards that too many of his peers fell foul of, GKMC could take the most sheltered suburbanite and temporarily embed them in another, far more deprived world courtesy of Kendrick’s lyrical insights and its conversational interludes. An immersive album that at once confounded the mainstream critics but was heralded as the arrival of the prodigal son for hip-hop heads the world over, Dave Free, Drake, Pharrell Williams, Sounwave, MC Eiht, Pharrell and Jay Rock all lended their services to an album that turned hip-hop on its axis. An avenue for Kendrick to explore everything from youthful infatuation to clandestine street operations and trespasses against the community’s code of honour, it Is now a standard-bearer for the genre in much the same way as The Chronic, The Low End Theory, Illmatic and Aquemini have been widely mythologized ever since their release. Whether it’s the deceptively sedate grooves of “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” and the intersecting strains of narrative on “Sing Of Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst” or the abrasive cautionary tales of “The Art Of Peer Pressure,” “M.A.A.D City” and “Swimming Pools (Drank), GKMC singlehandedly reconfigured the genre in its own image and firmly placed Kendrick in the annals of history. A high watermark for storytelling, the album’s success proved that lyricism didn’t have to be side-lined in favour of inanity and its execution will be marvelled at for decades to come. No matter what comes next, it’s hard to envision that anything Kendrick releases could mirror or exceed the earth-shattering impact of Good Kid M.A.A.D City. Until such time that he delivers a more seminal record, it will take pride of place as his most important body of work.
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