The King of Compton to his followers, KL is one of those rare MCs who has achieved critical and commercial success while earning the respect and support of those who inspired him. After several years of development, the 2010s saw him issue his first three proper major-label albums to almost universal acclaim. He also turns 33 today.
Los Angeles native Kendrick Lamar Duckworth (no relation to Jack and Vera, honestly) grew up immersed in hip-hop culture and surrounded by gang activity. As a youngster, he gradually discovered an aptitude for writing stories, poems, and lyrics, which naturally led to rapping. He made a name for himself as K. Dot. At the age of 16 in 2003, he issued his debut mixtape, The Hub City Threat: Minor of the Year. While the limited release merely hinted at the potential of the then teenager, it was impressive enough to catch the attention of Top Dawg Entertainment and led to a long-term association with the label that steadily propelled his career.
The first tape credited to Kendrick Lamar was Overly Dedicated, released in September 2010. Also the rapper’s first commercial release, it reached enough listeners to enter Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. After XXL magazine selected him for the 2011 Freshman Class feature, Lamar released Section.80, his first official album that July, and crossed into the Billboard 200.
With deeper conceptual narratives and sharpened melodic hooks, as well as comparative multi-dimensional development from primary producer Sounwave, the set acted as a kind of warning flare for Lamar’s mainstream rap dominance. In addition to the dozens of tracks he had appeared on by then, Lamar had the support of veteran West Coast stars as well. During a concert later in 2011, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Game dubbed him The New King of the West Coast, a notion Dre endorsed more significantly by signing KL to his Interscope-affiliated Aftermath label.
The record deal was the springboard for Lamar to really hit his creative and chart-topping stride. Good Kid, M.A.A.D City (2012), the Grammy-winning To Pimp a Butterfly (2015), and the Pulitzer Prize-winning DAMN. (2017) have displayed an unmatched mix of inventive wordplay and compelling conceptual narratives, examining internal conflict, flaunting success, and uplifting his community.
An innovative, progressive vanguard of a record, Butterfly broke all the rules and was even said to be the sonic inspiration for David Bowie’s desire to experiment with new sounds and textures on his final work, 2016’s Blackstar. Producer Tony Visconti told Rolling Stone “we were listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar,” during the making of the album. “We wound up with nothing like that, but we loved that Kendrick was so open-minded and that he didn’t do a straight-up hip-hop record. He threw everything on there, and that’s exactly what we wanted to do.”
Steve Pafford (and in case you were wondering about the Jack and Vera reference…)