When crowning the most talented rapper of the 2010s, there isn’t too much debate.
Well, of course there’s debate; everyone’s got an opinion.
However, if you were to decide the main frontrunners for the title, Kendrick Lamar would undoubtedly be one of them.
For almost the entirety of the decade, Kendrick Lamar has been the utmost standard for lyricism and artistry in today’s world of hip-hop.
In a time where many oldheads and edgy millennials declare the rap game as dead, Kendrick has been a beacon of hope to hip-hop fans old and young alike. In the four studio albums he has released, we have received some of the most important music of our generation. While he has exemplified grade-A hip-hop, he has done so while strategically playing with other genres and delivering some of the most important political commentary, storytelling, and artistic statements of our time.
Without someone like Kendrick, the rap game probably would be dead, in all fairness. All the trap and sadboy music is cool, but Kenny delivers what is needed to keep things balanced- soul, lyricism, narrative, artistic vision. Of course Kendrick isn’t the only one delivering those elements to the rap game, but he’s arguably the best at his craft. Not to mention, arguably the most high-profile; Kendrick is one of the only mainstream artists who can get people to actually give a fuck about real lyrics, real production, and real stories.
(NOTE: In my mind, the only competitor to Kendrick is Kanye. But don’t fret; there will be a big Kanye GOTM when the time is right. This is Kendrick’s time.)
With everything above being said, I will take you on a walk through Kendrick Lamar’s legacy- essentially a domination of the 2010s. I will also analyze what makes Kendrick so special, but bear with me- it isn’t always easy to do full justice for someone as talented as Kendrick Lamar.
Kendrick Lamar Duckworth was born on June 17, 1987 in the notorious city of Compton. His parents were from Chicago, but made the move to California in search of a better life before he was born (the backstory is explained well on “DUCKWORTH”, which I personally consider to be one of his best songs).
FUN FACT: As a kid, K-Dot witnessed the video shoot of “California Love” by Tupac and Dr. Dre. Kendrick has since reflected that it was a very impactful moment in his life, likely sparking his passion for hip-hop.
Kendrick attended Centennial High School and graduated with straight A’s. He grew up on welfare and lived in section 8 housing, both hardships eventually becoming integral pieces of his subject matter.
He first began his career in 2004 with his debut mixtape- Youngest Head N***a In Charge (Hub City Threat: Minor of the Year). Throughout his early career, he released his music under the moniker K-Dot. After a string of mixtapes as K-Dot, he made the switch to his government name in late 2009 after releasing The Kendrick Lamar EP. That same year, Kenny and his labelmates formed Black Hippy- a supergroup comprised of himself, ScHoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, and Jay Rock.
In 2010, Kendrick made a breakthrough with his fourth solo mixtape- Overly Dedicated. The mixtape was well-received, setting Kendrick up for his push to stardom that would follow in the coming years. Many critics and fans began to see Kendrick as the new face of West Coast hip-hop, hungry for more gems from Cali’s finest. Luckily, 2011 brought us a major gem in Section.80.
As his debut studio album, Section.80 confidently confirmed that Kendrick was not playing with us.
Section.80 put a new spin on conscious rap, refreshing the lost art form. Section.80 also reconceptualized the lost art form of the concept album, delivering an enrapturing story centered around antiheroes Tammy and Keisha as they endure the array of hardships and systemic injustices that come with life in the ghetto.
The 80s are a major theme of the album, featuring many references to “80s babies” such as Kendrick, Tammy, and Keisha and often criticizing the Ronald Reagan era. The crack epidemic is analyzed and contrasted to the new kinds of drug addiction seen today, namely opioid addiction.
Section.80 saw features from ScHoolboy Q, GLC, Ab-Soul, BJ the Chicago Kid, and Colin Munroe and production from J Cole, Sounwave, and THC. The album received solid reviews but did laughable opening numbers, not receiving its deserved appreciation until years later (a likely catalyst may have been the feature of “ADHD” on Grand Theft Auto 5).
Section.80 was a more-than-solid debut album, earning Kendrick his first real stripes.
GOOD KID MAAD CITY
Setting the bar sky high with his debut studio album, Kendrick really had to come with something crazy for his sophomore album.
He came with one of the best albums of the decade.
GKMC, on its infamous minivan album cover, is described as “a short film by Kendrick Lamar”. GKMC is truly a short film; it has a protagonist (Kendrick), love interest (Sherane), supporting characters (homies & family), an evolving storyline, an ending. Kendrick vividly paints a picture of his past life, supported by nostalgic production and features such as Drake and Dr. Dre and producers such as Hit-Boy, DJ Dahi and Just Blaze. GKMC is one of the best displays of storytelling we have received from this generation of hip-hop artists.
I could go on about GKMC all day, but I feel like it’s a “if you know, you know” type of thing by now. It’s widely considered to be one of the best hip-hop albums of our time, received stellar views, and sold 242,000 copies first-week after only selling 5,000 on Section.80’s first week. GKMC was a statement for the history books.
Two and a half years later, he would return with an even more historic statement.
TO PIMP A BUTTERFLY
To Pimp a Butterfly is the decade’s crown jewel of conscious rap. To Pimp a Butterfly will be spoken about for decades to come.
For his third studio album, Kendrick took the avant-garde route, creating one of the most interesting collections of music to date. TPAB encompasses jazz, soul, funk, boom-bap, and spoken word on top of Kendrick’s top-tier lyrical capability and artistic vision. The themes are clear- race, culture, mental illness, injustice, politics.
As you could expect, To Pimp a Butterfly was adored by fans and critics. TPAB earned Lamar a total of five Grammys- 2015 Best Rap Song and Best Rap Performance for “i”, 2016 Best Rap Performance for “Alright”, 2016 Best Rap/Sung Performance for “These Walls”, and 2016 Best Rap Album.
In March 2016, Kendrick released untitled unmastered, a compilation of unreleased songs that didn’t make it onto TPAB. Frequent collaborator Thundercat described untitled unmastered as “completing the sentence” of To Pimp a Butterfly.
For his fourth studio album, Kung Fu Kenny tied all of his styles together for one euphoric listening experience.
As the first hip-hop album to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music, DAMN is in a league of its own. DAMN also took home the Best Rap Album Grammy for good reason- it was easily the best hip-hop album of 2017.
The tracks transition flawlessly, holding your attention from front-to-back. Kendrick shows frequent glimpses of his best work yet while delving into new sounds with the help of artists U2, Rihanna, and Zacari. DAMN received production from greats such as The Alchemist, Cardo, and Mike Will Made It as well as the band BadBadNotGood. DAMN took elements of trap, elements of rock, elements of R&B/pop, elements of street poetry, and added a splash of K-Dot swagger to create a true work of art.
As the most recent solo album we have received from Kendrick, DAMN keeps our hopes high for the future of Kung Fu Kenny. As we patiently await his next studio album, we can only hope that it will surpass the bar he has set with his first four.
Kendrick Lamar saved this decade of music.
Kendrick Lamar saved real hip-hop.
Thank you Kenny.