Six definitive songs: The ultimate beginner’s guide to Kendrick Lamar
On June 17th, 1987, Kendrick Lamar was born in Compton and since first releasing his debut Section.80 in 2011, he has become one of the most influential voices in popular culture.
At eight-years-old, Kendrick knew that being an artist was the route he wanted to follow after witnessing Tupac and Dr Dre filming the video for ‘California Love’—a pivotal time that would end up being a significant point in his life.
This month was supposed to mark the moment that Kendrick confirmed himself as a superstar to anyone who was still in doubt. With his scheduled booking to headline the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury Festival, the rapper would solidify his iconic status. The event, which of course, has been forced to cancel due to the ongoing pandemic and put his coronation on hold.
We are going to take a chronological trip travelling through the splendid career to date of the 33-year-old musician, providing the perfect beginner’s guide to his work for anyone who has still not hopped about his train.
‘A.D.H.D’ features on Kendrick’s first full-length independent release Section.80 and sees the rapper showcase his skill for writing eloquently about societal issues. On this track, Lamar discusses the high drug and medication tolerance of people born during the Reagan era of the 1980s.
The track is neither a celebration of drug use or condemnation of it either, more a close look at how society uses drugs as a coping mechanism. The Compton rapper would later say: “The focus isn’t the drugs, but rather, that basic human experience of apathetic youth. That simple mood of emptiness which we choose to either address or self-medicate.”
‘m.A.A.d city’ (2012)
Lamar didn’t waste any time when it came to making his second record which was released just a year after his 2011 debut. Coming off the back of his independently released debut, the rapper was quickly snapped up by Interscope Records who provided him with a big budget to create magic with and Good Kid, M.A.A.D City sees Kendrick scale everything up.
This title track sees Lamar discussing his childhood in Compton, he talks about how witnessing crime shaped him and, after seeing the harrowing moment of his uncle being shot at a local burger stand, he knew this was a route that he wanted to do everything to avoid. ‘m.A.A.d city’ sees Kendrick put in a sincere performance straight from his heart as he unleashes fury about the memories which have been eating him up inside since his adolescence.
‘King Kunta’ (2015)
Kendrick would announce his comeback in 2015 with ‘King Kunta’ — a song that saw Lamar level up once more after he had become one of the most talked-about names in music following the monumental success of ‘good kid m.A.A.d city’ which had catapulted his talents into the attentions of the mainstream.
Describing the track to NME, Lamar explained that it was “the story of struggle and standing up for what you believe in. No matter how many barriers you gotta break down, no matter how many escape routes you gotta run, to tell the truth. That’s what I think we all can relate to. Just being the most confident in the things that I wrote and the ideas that I have.
He continued: “Going back to the essence of being a true lyricist at heart.”
The track was taken from his seminal politically-charged album To Pimp A Butterfly that became one of, if not the greatest album of the 2010s and is nothing short of a masterpiece. Fiery lead single ‘King Kunta’ epitomising the spirit of the album of being proud of his heritage and the man he has become, whilst acknowledging how different it could have been completely different.
The triumphant record would earn Lamar 11 nominations at the 2016 Grammy Awards, which was the most nominations for any rapper in a single night, including wins for ‘Best Rap Album’ and ‘Album of the Year’.
‘Untitled 08 | 09.06.2014’ (2016)
After making the universally adored and widely considered album of the year To Pimp A Butterfly, the world was in Kendrick’s hands as he weighed up what his next release would be and, to everyone’s shock on March 4th 2016, Untitled Unmastered would surface on Spotify. The release contained eight untitled tracks which all have a date included in the title which indicates when the songs were written and recorded.
The final track on the release sees Lamar and Thundercat collaborate on this sunny number. The material speaks volumes about Kendrick’s confidence of To Pimp A Butterfly that he never bothered to include it on the 2015 release. It really is being up there as some of his very best work, with the album closer capturing him at his most experimental to date and signifies his growth as an artist.
Kendrick announced the release of his fourth official studio album DAMN just a week prior to its release on April 14th, 2017. The album sees Lamar offer his most commercial on the Rihanna collaboration ‘Loyalty.’ and also features a strange link-up with U2 on ‘XXX’ which somehow works but ‘DNA’ sees the rapper deliver arguably his best technical performance of his career, as he showcases his unparalleled flow.
During the bridge, there is a sample of a clip of right-wing pundit Geraldo Rivera complaining on Fox News about Lamar’s 2015 BET Awards performance of ‘Alright’ with him declaring that “hip hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years.”
Kendrick who has been nothing but a positive influence and a beacon for good in a world of darkness quite rightly took issue with Rivera’s statement and ‘DNA’ sees him deliver a politically charged anthem for the ages as he stands proudly defiantly in the face of organisations such as Fox News.
‘All The Stars’ with SZA (2018)
In 2018, Kendrick took on a project which was unlike anything he had attempted before when he alongside SZA created the incredible soundtrack for the groundbreaking Black Panther film. The score, as momentous as it is, had the sense of a moment of real cultural significance.
On the 14-track project, the duo worked with some of the most sought after names in music such as The Weeknd, Travis Scott and Future but the stand-out track on the release is when it’s just Lamar and SZA on the breathtaking ‘All The Stars’. The track shows just how versatile of an artist that Lamar is and proves that he can turn his hand to just about anything.
‘All the Stars’ would go on to received numerous accolades and nominates including ‘Best Original Song’ at the 76th Golden Globe Awards and the 91st Academy Awards, as well as receiving four nominations at the 61st Grammy Awards including ‘Record of the Year’ and ‘Song of the Year’.