Mike A. Bryan, Staff Writer
Kendrick Lamar’s name, face, and voice have become synonymous with today’s hip hop culture. He has guested on tracks and collaborated with basically every important voice in modern hip hop, R&B, and even rock, making him one of the most well-known figures in music today.
Hailing from the Compton area of Los Angeles, Lamar Duckworth started off his career with Top Dawg Entertainment at the end of the last decade, along with the other Black Hippy Collective members, including ScHoolboy Q, Jay Rock, and Ab-Soul. All four of the Black Hippy members have been named in the XXL “Top 10 Freshman class,” starting with Jay Rock in 2010, then Lamar a year later, and Ab-Soul and ScHoolboy following in 2013. By the third album, Lamar’s label TDE had partnered with Aftermath and Interscope, which helped propel him to mainstream popularity.
In 2010, K-dot released his first album, “Overly Dedicated.” Groundbreaking in many ways, his combination of dark and sensual jazz samples, raspy voice, and spoken word/poetic flow are featured prominently on this first album. A standout track is “The Heart Pt. 2”, which focuses on a stark personal reality: “We used to beefing over a turf, f*** beefing over a verse / N****s dying, motherf*** a double entendre / And this is Comp-ton, lions in the land of the triumph.” Irony is also at work here, for Kendrick loves to use double entendre. Both Ab-Soul and ScHoolboy Q guest on tracks, along with lesser known Chicago-area R&B singers Jhene Aiko and BJ the Chicago Kid. Underground hHip hHop fans love his passionate, unique style, which has grown and evolved in the years since.
“Section.80” was released the next year, and solidified his underground following with the release of his first major single, “Hiiipower.” Lamar goes hard on the track, with multiple references to the Black Power Movement: “I be off the slave ship/Building pyramids, writing my own hieroglyphs,” showing his ability to take the power back.” This album doesn’t feature as many prominent guests, except for his labelmates, Ab-Soul and ScHoolboy Q. It is less darkly weird than the first, with a focus on real-life stories with which his audience can easily connect; solidifying his ability to connect with a large audience. Verses on this album vary from a plea to women to wear less makeup, to a manifesto titled “F*ck Your Ethnicity,” to a dark and drug-influenced situation on “A.D.H.D.” The beats and production are still jazz-tinged, with nods to classic soul and funk as well.
Kendrick’s third album, “good kid, m.A.A.d city” bridges the gap between his underground following and mainstream fans. With multiple popular singles and guest spots by Dr. Dre, Drake, and his labelmate Jay Rock, “good kid, m.A.A.d city” serves as his first major-label release. Again, on this album, his verses run the gamut from inspirational and uplifting, to bleakly serious and tragic. “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” “Poetic Justice,” and “Swimming Pools (Drank)” are certainly standouts on this album, with Dr. Dre’s contribution of “Compton” not to be overlooked. After only nine months, this album was certified platinum, a first for Lamar. No matter your age, race, religion, or sexual orientation, there is something moving and memorable to be found in the first three albums. But his fourth and fifth releases have truly solidified his following and brought him into mainstream popularity.
With the release of “To Pimp a Butterfly,” the fourth album, K-dot’s revolutionary and radical side emerges more strongly than ever before. Many of the songs are politically-charged, and he definitely has some important things to say about our modern American police-state: “Ain’t nothing new but a flow of new DemoCrips and ReBloodlicans / Red state versus a blue state, which one you governin’?” Artists Bilal, Anna Wise, and Thundercat are each on two songs on the album, with other tracks featuring George Clinton, Snoop Dogg, and one of the Isley brothers.
This album takes Lamar’s music from the underground to the forefront of hHip hHop in our time, and should be considered a classic hHip hHop album. Billboard critics commented at the end of the year, “Twenty years ago, a conscious rap record wouldn’t have penetrated the mainstream in the way Kendrick Lamar did with ‘To Pimp a Butterfly.’ His sense of timing is impeccable. In the midst of rampant cases of police brutality and racial tension across America, he spews raw, aggressive bars while possibly cutting a rug.” This album garnered him numerous well-deserved Grammy awards, cementing his spot at the top of the rap game.
Amazingly, Lamar followed this groundbreaking album with another possibly classic hip hop work, “DAMN.” The politically-charged, revolutionary voice of the fourth album is still present here, but the album also showcases some true bangers, which have been heard on mainstream radio and in every club in the country. Rolling Stone called it a combination of “the old-school and the next-level.” The album title and song titles are all capitalized, contributing an aggressive, loud stance to the track listings. Rihanna and U2 are the standout guests on this album, showing Kendrick’s versatility and continued willingness to experiment with his continually evolving sound. This album has also been certified platinum, and is still being played everywhere, months after its release.
For the true Lamar fans out there, another album/mixtape exists titled “untitled unmastered.” These tracks all have dates instead of names, most of which were recorded at the same time as “To Pimp a Butterfly.” The album has a lot of variety, with the same connecting themes that make the other albums stand on their own. No guests are credited on the tracks, but voices such as Cee-Lo Green and SZA can be heard. Some might overlook this album as demos and extra songs that were not good enough to be included on the fourth album; those people are missing out on another great piece of groundbreaking musical genius that nicely fills the gap between the fourth and fifth albums.
As mentioned earlier, Lamar is a member of a rap collective called Black Hippy. There are three other members, all signed to TDE as well; none of those rappers has risen to the level of K-dot. Not surprisingly, ScHoolboy Q, Jay Rock and Ab-Soul have some good music of their own, but most of their best tracks are collaborations with Lamar. We can only hope that the group will release an album of their own one day. Until that happens, we have one of the greatest rappers of all time, and definitely the best of his generation, to tide us over with amazingly thoughtful, provocative, deep, head-banging jams. Lamar deserves his Grammy’s, and will earn more as time goes on. hip hop heads eagerly await his next project.