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A Masterful Discography: Kendrick Lamar


Kendrick Lamar: Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers Promo

Of all the rappers to emerge in the 2010s, none have made an impact quite like Kendrick Lamar. Of course, there are bigger hitmakers out there, but when it comes to the fundamentals of hip hop – rhythm and poetry, as Rakim said – few artists are on the level of K-Dot. His ferocious feud with Drake is just a footnote in a career of creative masterworks, through his discography delivering some of the most well-written and groundbreaking rap music to ever grace the genre.

 

Section.80 by Kendrick Lamar

Section.80 (2011)

 

After a series of hit-or-miss mixtapes through the late 2000s, Kendrick made his major label debut with Section.80. Conceptually, the album takes on the form of a novel, with each song representing a chapter. This allows the rapper to treat each track as a lyrical vignette, exploring myriad themes through a range of styles and stories. As an introduction to his sound, Section.80 is a masterful debut. “Keisha’s Song” shows off his knack for storytelling, recounting the tragic tale of a prostitute abused and murdered by her clientele. “Fuck Your Ethnicity” and “HiiiPower” display his poetic pen game, diving into grim topics of racial inequality and poverty through his elegant rhymes. Perhaps the most obvious standout, “Rigamortus” sees Kendrick flex his flow and delivery, effortlessly spitting bars over a fast-paced scattering of drums and horns. In terms of writing, Section.80 holds a unique place in his catalogue. Every verse is littered with clever one-liners, which is unusual for Kendrick who, later in his career, would write entire verses focussed on an expansive concept rather than deliver a set of unrelated but equally impressive quotables.  Every song is its own entity, but together, they culminate to form a cohesive project wherein every tune reflects a different strength of the rapper. Some songs haven’t aged quite as well – such as “No Make Up” with its monotonously moody hook – but for the most part, Section.80 is everything a rapper could hope to achieve in a debut.

 

good kid, m.A.A.d city by Kendrick Lamar

good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012)

 

Just a year later, Kendrick dropped his monumental sophomore album; an LP that improved upon every aspect of Section.80, perfecting the rapper’s conscious sound. Whereas his debut played out like a novel, good kid is framed as a film, and for good reason. The entire album narrates the story of a youth in Compton being sucked into a world of gang violence, with Kendrick’s storytelling painting a vivid picture of every scene and development. Sonically, the record steps away from the fast-paced jazz of Section.80, instead embracing the pop-infused glamour of the West Coast. There are hard-hitting bangers like “Backseat Freestyle” and “m.A.A.d city” as well as more laidback, emotional cuts like “Real” and “Sing About Me”. Even in the album’s most upbeat and lively moments, there is an element of tragedy on repeated listens, knowing the misery that awaits the speaker later in the record. With a versatile arsenal of flows, Kendrick proves himself a technical wizard on the mic with countless cadences, bombastic deliveries, and a smooth melodic flair to inject pop appeal into the album’s darkest moments. Balancing dense lyrics with commercial production, good kid, m.A.A.d city is a project rap purists and casual listeners alike know as a masterpiece.

 

Kendrick Lamar: The Heart Part 5 Music Video

Iconic Features: 2013 & 2014

 

Following good kid, m.A.A.d city, K-Dot was treated like a hip hop prodigy. Hailed as the face of the new generation and a clear contender for rapper of the decade, his feature-work following the release of good kid only intensified the praise around his name. In 2013, he featured on Big Sean’s “Control”, offering a verse so unapologetically aggressive and iconic that listeners forget that Big Sean is even on the track. Calling out a host of talented rappers from Drake to Mac Miller, K-Dot promises to end all their careers, not out of malice, but simply because no rapper could ever hope to rival his talents. He proved that claim just a few months later with his verse on Pusha T’s “Nosetalgia”, a phenomenal feature where the rapper uses a complex network of wordplay to compare his music to a brick of cocaine.

 

To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar

To Pimp a Butterfly (2015)

 

Having built up a reputation as hip hop’s saviour, it seemed like Kendrick would never be able to match expectations with his next album, but somehow he exceeded them again. To Pimp a Butterfly is arguably the greatest concept album of all time, exploring every avenue of its themes in excruciatingly vivid detail. The project follows the loose story of a man being tempted into a corrupt label and intoxicated by fame, only to realise his self-worth and tackle the issues of greed, racism, and injustice that plague his life and society. There is no single word to sum up the theme of To Pimp a Butterfly because Kendrick covers an ambitious range of topics, leaving no stone unturned. It’s about label execs and the corruption of the music industry; it’s about racism and the colourism that further divides the black community; it’s about the power of fame, the morality of the famous, and the duty of celebrity in society. The production is just as layered and rich in detail as the subject matter. With help from George Clinton, Thundercat, Terrace Martin, and many more, the album is a jazz rap masterclass filled with funky basslines, summery horn passages, and a lively rhythm section. K-Dot takes the live jazz aesthetic Guru pioneered on Jazzmattazz and modernises it with an assortment of pristinely produced jazz rap highlights. Every few tracks, Kendrick ends the song with a cryptic poem, gradually adding lines until, by the end of the LP, he’s reciting a lengthy stanza summing up his emotional journey. Using a poem to tie all the themes together was a clever move because, unlike the book of Section.80 and the film of good kid, To Pimp a Butterfly plays out like a poetry collection. Just like poetry, there are layers of meaning to every line; there are dozens of metaphors and motifs sprinkled throughout; and with repeated listens, as those layers are peeled back, it only gets better.

 

untitled. unmastered. by Kendrick Lamar

untitled. unmastered. (2016)

 

B-sides have a tendency to be forgettable, released to the public simply to profit over whatever hype is leftover from the main album, but untitled. unmastered. is a phenomenal exception. Despite being comprised of throwaways from To Pimp a Butterfly, the project has its own musical identity, boasting eight tracks of dynamic rapping and eclectic production. “untitled 01” and “untitled 03” share the same rich, jazzy soundscape as the previous album, with K-Dot offering the same lyrical depth and energetic mic presence, switching up his flow over waves of soulful horns, bass, and drums. “untitled 02” sounds like a darker evolution of good kid, showcasing the rapper’s most eccentric vocals over a sinister trap-style instrumental. “untitled 05” and “untitled 07” are different beasts entirely. The former is an ear-shattering, triple threat rhymefest with Jay Rock and Punch; the latter is a three-part banger with various beat switches and an endlessly charismatic performance from Kendrick. Being a leftovers album, untitled. unmastered. could never have been as cohesive or as groundbreaking as the rapper’s mainline output, but it remains one of the most entertaining and exciting projects in his catalogue.

 

DAMN. by Kendrick Lamar

DAMN. (2017)

 

DAMN. is Kendrick’s most commercially successful album, and it is easy to see why. Production-wise, the project goes in a completely new direction, abandoning the lively jazz of To Pimp a Butterfly to embrace a more digestible pop rap sound. There are trap bangers as well as melodic hits, with the singles “HUMBLE”, “LOYALTY”, and “LOVE” summing up the LP’s mainstream sound. However, though the production may not be as daring, Kendrick’s writing is as ambitious as ever. The songs are divided into virtues and vices, with the summery romance of “LOVE” contrasted by the dark and disturbing “LUST”. This allows K-Dot to live in both worlds, using the virtues to explore more melodic, mainstream sounds and using the vices to experiment with a darker, more unpredictable style. Kendrick uses each song to reflect on a different side of himself, with the record as a whole acting to illustrate his multifaceted psyche, conflicted with his place in hip hop as a saviour of the genre, plagued by doubts amongst all the benefits of his status. As nuanced as the LP can be, however, it still has its weak points. The aforementioned “LOVE” and “LOYALTY” – along with the penultimate track “GOD” – lean too heavily into melodic rap for my taste, with K-Dot’s moany vocals distracting from the writing rather than enhancing it. Moreover, despite how catchy DAMN. can be, the radio-friendly pop rap is nowhere near as compelling or memorable as the richest parts of good kid or To Pimp a Butterfly. Winning him a Grammy and a Pulitzer Prize, DAMN. lifted Kendrick to even greater heights, but we would not receive another album from him until five years later.

 

Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers by Kendrick Lamar

Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers (2022)

 

Mr. Morale is the most open and vulnerable album in Kendrick’s discography. Having gone through therapy, that process is reflected in the structure of the LP, with various songs written to face his insecurities and come to terms with his place in the world. Above all else, the album tackles an issue that has plagued K-Dot’s career since as far back as Section.80: his reputation as a saviour. He opens up about the pressure to act the hero, but ultimately, his realisation and acceptance that he is as flawed and vulnerable as anyone else. “Worldwide Steppers” sees K-Dot critique himself and the harm he has caused through his influence; on “Auntie Diaries”, he uses his evolving relationship to the trans people in his family to reflect his greater journey of healing; and with “Mother I Sober”, he confesses his remorse and self-hatred after cheating on his partner, but ultimately, his desire to heal with those around him. Mr. Morale, unlike any other project in K-Dot’s catalogue, is far from a fun listen. Although there are catchy, melodic moments, the bulk of the record is composed of heavy realisations and soliloquys of introspection, with the album itself acting as an audible therapy session through which the listener is invited to watch the rapper’s growth and evolution. Instrumentally, Mr. Morale is a fusion of everything up to that point in his catalogue. There are pop rap bangers like “N95” and “Die Hard”, as well as more jazzy cuts like “The Heart Part 5”. With its uncompromising subject matter and some of the best-written tracks in his discography, Mr. Morale is further evidence that Kendrick Lamar is one of the greatest rappers to ever pick up the mic. With a run of phenomenal albums, even K-Dot’s worst output is excellent, building a masterful discography more consistent than most rappers in the genre.

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