He began his own music career in 2003, as a precocious 16-year-old, releasing the Youngest Head Nigga In Charge mixtape under the moniker of K Dot. It found its way to local label Top Dawg, beginning a long relationship with the imprint that continues to this day. A second mixtape, Training Day, followed in 2005. Lamar spent the next four years building his name on the local circuit, making guest appearances on releases by Jay Rock and The Game, before a third mixtape, the Lil Wayne-indebted C4, followed in 2009. That same year, Kendrick reverted to using his birth name, releasing a soulful, self-titled EP – the first of his efforts to bear a distinctive style. He also formed the Black Hippy collective with fellow rappers Ab-Soul, Jay Rock and Schoolboy Q, and the quartet have continued to work across each other’s releases ever since.
2010’s Overly Dedicated mixtape heralded a significant artistic leap forward. A free online release, it was packed with gems such as ‘Growing Apart’, ‘Ignorance Is Bliss’, ‘Alien’, ‘Barbed Wire’ and ‘HOC’, and received enthusiastic press reviews. It made commercial inroads too, reaching No.72 on the US Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop charts. Crucially, the mixtape also caught the ear of Dr Dre, who took the fellow Comptonite under his wing, signed him to his Aftermath label and put him to work on his (eventually abandoned) Detox album.
At the beginning of 2011, Lamar was included in hip-hop magazine XXL’s annual Top Ten freshmen list, and he released his debut album as a digital download in July of that year. Titled Section.80, it built on Overly Dedicated’s promise, revealing Lamar as a wise, thoughtful rapper unafraid to tackle racial and societal issues alongside the usual ghetto tales. The productions, by Top Dawg acolytes Digi+Phonics, alongside Terrace Martin and J Cole, mined a rich groove, exemplified by the dark atmospherics of ‘ADHD’, the jazz-rap of ‘Rigamortis’ and the soulful wash of standout ‘Kush & Corinthians’. Enthusiastically received by critics (it made Pitchfork’s Top 50 of that year), the album confirmed Lamar as one of hip-hop’s brightest talents.
In the wake of Section.80’s success, Lamar was hot property and his star continued to rise over the following year. He made high-profile guest appearances on albums by The Game and Drake, signed to major label Interscope, and received a vocal endorsement from both Dr Dre and Snoop Dog, who proclaimed him “the new king of the West Coast” at an LA concert. Yet even Lamar’s most vociferous supporters must have been taken aback at the success of his next album.
Released in October 2012, Good Kid, MAAD City was a staggering achievement. An autobiographical concept album that upended the Compton gangsta rap rulebook, it weaved a documentary-style story of family and ghetto life, told from the perspective of a good kid from a loving, Christian family. Thoughtful and erudite, it revealed Lamar as a storyteller of genuine warmth and subtlety, while his versatile rapping style transformed throughout the work to reflect his character’s moods. The diverse production styles also reflected the various narrative strands, ranging from the smooth soul of the Drake-guesting ‘Poetic Justice’ to jet-black trap fare such as ‘Swimming Pools (Drank)’, and G-funk cuts the likes of ‘The Art Of Peer Pressure’ and the Dr Dre-guesting ‘Compton’. Penultimate track ‘Real’ found Lamar seeking final salvation in the warmth of family life over a devastatingly beautiful production from Terrace Martin.
Met with a rapturous critical response, it debuted at No.2 on the US Billboard chart, selling 242,000 copies in its first week alone, while three of its singles, ‘Swimming Pools (Drank)’, ‘Poetic Justice’ and ‘Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe’, reached the Top 10 on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Chart. Come Grammy time, in January 2014, the album was showered with seven nominations, including Best New Artist and Album Of The Year, though Lamar would end up leading empty-handed.
He had a busy couple of years after the album’s release, initially making the TV rounds with appearances on Saturday Night Live and the Late Show With David Letterman, before joining Kanye West on his Yeezus tour. More guest spots transpired, including a turn on Eminem’s Marshall Mathers 2 LP, though an uncharacteristically pugnacious verse on the Big Sean track ‘Control’, in which Lamar name-checked rival MCs he wanted to lyrically “murder”, while proclaiming himself “king of New York”, unleashed a wave of controversy among his peers.
Lamar had dropped hints of a follow-up to Good Kid, MAAD City throughout 2013, though it was the following year before any new music appeared. The Isley Brothers-indebted single ‘i’ was a feel-good, celebratory song which peaked at No.39 on the Billboard charts and earned the rapper two Grammys, for Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song, at the 57th Annual Awards, on 8 February 2015. The following day, he issued the album’s second single, ‘The Blacker The Berry’, a furious, racially charged invective that hinted of darker themes to come.
Released on 15 March 2015, a week earlier than originally planned, To Pimp A Butterfly proved a radically different beast from its predecessor. Harnessing the freedom brought about by his past success, Lamar bypassed commercial concerns as he assembled a crack team of his favourite producers and musicians. Gone were the myriad stylistic digressions of Good Kid, MAAD City , replaced by a more unified, old-school sound that harnessed funk, soul and jazz. Key to the new direction was the addition of pianist Robert Glasper, bassist Thundercat and the (then little-known) saxophonist Kamasi Washington, whose transcendent horn blasts added a modal sensibility that went way beyond the looped piano refrains of 90s jazz-rap. A predominantly groove-based record, the skill of those musicians allows for moments of genre-broadening experimentalism, as demonstrated on the tracks ‘For Free? (Interlude)’ and ‘u’. The former is an abrasive slice of slam poetry in which Lamar scats a witty tale of sexual politics over a free jazz workout, while on ‘u’, wild Kamasi horn blasts underpin Kendrick’s cracked and broken rapping, as he denotes his character in a drunken state.
Other guests of note included George Clinton, who pops up on cosmic P-Funk opener ‘Wesley’s Theory’ (a track produced by experimental beat-maker Flying Lotus) and Bilal, who adds his distinctive vocals to both the future soul of ‘These Walls’ and the irresistibly funky ‘Institutionalized’ (the latter also boasting a memorable cameo by Snoop Dogg).
Conceptually, To Pimp A Butterfly was harder to penetrate than Good Kid, MAAD City. As on that album, Kendrick himself is the focal point, and the work unfolds as a series of vignettes – bookended by slices of a poem – of his struggles with the trappings of fame, love for his home city, and his thoughts on race and the experience of being black in America. That final strand is keenly addressed on songs such as ‘King Kunta’, ‘The Blacker The Berry’ and ‘Alright’, while the album ends on an interview between himself and his hero 2Pac (spliced together from old footage of the late rapper), in which Lamar completes the emblematic poem of the titular butterfly.
Met with universal critical acclaim upon its release, the album debuted at the top of the US Billboard chart, selling 324,000 copies in the US in its first week, while also topping the charts in the UK, New Zealand and Australia. It was also streamed 9.6 million times on Spotify, setting a new global record first-day record. Further singles ‘King Kunta’, ‘Alright’ and ‘These Walls’ helped continue the album’s strong sales, but it has ultimately been the work’s forthright views on race which has resulted in it gaining a cultural and social significance unseen in hip-hop since the days of Public Enemy and NWA. ‘Alright’ was adopted as a civil-rights anthem, with police-brutality protesters chanting its chorus in the streets, while the album’s message has even been taught in American schools.
After dominating the end-of-year polls, Lamar won five Grammys at the 58th Awards ceremony (including best Rap Album), contributing a memorable performance on the night. After a notable guest turn on Kanye West’s ‘No More Parties In LA’, Lamar released a surprise new album, untitled unmastered., on 4 March 2016. Composed of unfinished demos from the To Pimp A Butterfly sessions, its stellar collection of sketches, exemplified by the groove-heavy ‘untitled 03 | 05.28.2013’, further exemplified Lamar’s hot creative streak, as the album debuted at No.1 on the US Billboard 200 the week of its release.
Words: Paul Bowler
Hip-hop debuts don't come much more "highly anticipated" than Kendrick Lamar's. A series of killer mixtapes displayed his talent for thought-provoking street lyrics delivered with an attention-grabbing flow, and then there was his membership in the Black Hippy crew with his brethren Ab-Soul, Schoolboy Q, and Jay Rock all issuing solo releases that pleased the "true hip-hop" set, setting the stage for a massive fourth and final. Top it off with a pre-release XXL Magazine cover that he shared with his label boss and all-around legend Dr. Dre, and the "biggest debut since Illmatic" stuff starts to flow, but Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City would be a milestone even without the back-story, offering cool and compelling lyrics, great guests (Drake, Dr. Dre, and MC Eiht) and attractive production (from Pharrell, Just Blaze, Tabu, and others). Here, Kendrick is living his life like status and cash were extra credit. It is what makes this kid so "good" as he navigates his "mad" city (Compton) with experience and wisdom beyond his years (25). He's shamelessly bold about the allure of the trap, contrasting the sickness of his city with the universal feeling of getting homesick, and carrying a Springsteen-sized love for the home team. Course, in his gang-ruled city, N.W.A. was the home team, but as the truly beautiful, steeped-in-soul, biographic key track "The Art of Peer Pressure" finds a reluctant young Kendrick and his friends feeding off the life-force of Young Jeezy's debut album, it's something Clash, Public Enemy, and all other rebel music fans can relate to. Still, when he realizes that hero Jeezy must have risen above the game -- because the real playas are damned and never show their faces -- it spawns a kind of elevated gangsta rap that's as pimp-connectable as the most vicious Eazy-E, and yet poignant enough to blow the dust off any cracked soul. Equally heavy is the cautionary tale of drank dubbed "Swimming Pools," yet that highlight is as hooky and hallucinatory as most Houston drank anthems, and breaks off into one of the chilling, cassette-quality interludes that connect the album, adding to the documentary or eavesdropping quality of it all. Soul children will experience déjà vu when "Poetic Justice" slides by with its Janet Jackson sample -- sounding like it came off his Aunt's VHS copy of the movie it's named after -- while the closing "Compton" is an anthem sure to make the Game jealous, featuring Dre in beast mode, acting pre-Chronic and pre-Death Row. This journey through the concrete jungle of Compton is worth taking because of the artistic richness within, plus the attraction of a whip-smart rapper flying high during his rookie season. Any hesitation about the horror of it all is quickly wiped away by Kendrick's mix of true talk, open heart, open mind, and extended hand. Add it all up and even without the hype, this one is still potent and smart enough to rise to the top of the pile.
Words: David Jeffries
Becoming an adult ultimately means accepting one's imperfections, unimportance, and mortality, but that doesn't mean we stop striving for the ideal, a search that's so at the center of our very being that our greatest works of art celebrate it, and often amplify it. Anguish and despair rightfully earn more Grammys, Emmys, Tonys, and Pulitzer Prizes than sweetness and light ever do, but West Coast rapper Kendrick Lamar is already on elevated masterwork number two, so expect his version of the sobering truth to sound like a party at points. He's aware, as Bilal sings here, that "Shit don't change 'til you get up and wash your ass," and don't it feel good? The sentiment is universal, but the viewpoint on his second LP is inner-city and African-American, as radio regulars like the Isley Brothers (sampled to perfection during the key track "I"), George Clinton (who helps make "Wesley's Theory" a cross between "Atomic Dog" and Dante's Inferno), and Dr. Dre (who literally phones his appearance in) put the listener in Lamar's era of Compton, just as well as Lou Reed took us to New York and Brecht took us to Weimar Republic Berlin. These G-funky moments are incredibly seductive, which helps usher the listener through the album's 80-minute runtime, plus its constant mutating (Pharrell productions, spoken word, soul power anthems, and sound collages all fly by, with few tracks ending as they began), much of it influenced, and sometimes assisted by, producer Flying Lotus and his frequent collaborator Thundercat. "u" sounds like an MP3 collection deteriorating, while the broken beat of the brilliant "Momma" will challenge the listener's balance, and yet, Lamar is such a prodigiously talented and seductive artist, his wit, wisdom, and wordplay knock all these stray molecules into place. Survivor's guilt, realizing one's destiny, and a Snoop Dogg performance of Doggystyle caliber are woven among it all; plus, highlights offer that Parliament-Funkadelic-styled subversion, as "The Blacker the Berry" ("The sweeter the juice") offers revolutionary slogans and dips for the hip. Free your mind, and your ass will follow, and at the end of this beautiful black berry, there's a miraculous "talk" between Kendrick and the legendary 2Pac, as the brutalist trailblazer mentors this profound populist. To Pimp a Butterfly is as dark, intense, complicated, and violent as Picasso's Guernica, and should hold the same importance for its genre and the same beauty for its intended audience.
Words: David Jeffries
Kendrick Lamar's debut album first released in 2011 and includes the tracks 'HiiiPoWeR', 'A.D.H.D', 'Chapter Ten' and more!
Issued without advance notice 17 days after Kendrick Lamar's riveting 2016 Grammy Awards performance, untitled unmastered. consists of eight demos that are simply numbered and dated. Apart from segments previewed at the Grammys and late-night television appearances, there was no formal promotion. A postscript, it's (artfully) artless in presentation -- not even basic credits appear on the Army green liner card in the compact disc edition -- yet it's almost as lyrically and musically rich as To Pimp a Butterfly. The dates indicate that the majority of the material was made during the sessions for that album, and the presence of many of its players and vocalists is unmistakable. This was assembled with a high level of care that is immediately evident, its components sequenced to foster an easy listen. Track-to-track flow, however, is about the only aspect of this release that can be called smooth. After an intimate spoken intro from Bilal, the set segues into an urgent judgment-day scenario with squealing strings and a resounding bassline as Lamar confronts mortality and extinction with urgent exasperation. He observes terrifying scenes all the while sensing possible relief ("No more running from world wars," "No more discriminating the poor"). untitled unmastered. offers this and other variations on the connected themes of societal ills, faith, and survival that drove the output it follows, with Lamar at his best when countering proudly materialistic boasts with ever-striking acknowledgments of the odds perilously weighted against his people. Remarkably, this hits its stride in the second half. The stretch involves a rolling, ornamented retro-contemporary production from Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad (with vocal assists from Bilal and Cee Lo Green), a stitched suite that is alternately stern and humorously off the cuff (featuring Egypt, five-year-old son of Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz, as co-producer and vocalist), and a finale of Thundercat-propelled funk. Even while coasting over the latter's breezy and smacking groove, Lamar fills the space with meaning, detailing a confrontation with sharp quips and stinging reprimands. While Lamar referred to these tracks as demos, and not one of them has the pop-soul appeal of "These Walls" or the Black Lives Matter protest-anthem potential of "Alright," untitled unmastered. is no mere offcut dump. It's as vital as anything else its maker has released.
Words: Andy Kellman