It’s hard to believe that at the start of this decade, the majority of us lived in a K-Dot-less world. His contributions to the rap canon, hip hop culture more generally and even wider conversations around the boundaries of art and music, over the length of his career, have been so incredibly tangible and incendiary.
Over the course of the 2010s, Kendrick Lamar Duckworth of Compton, California, has represented, pushed and questioned the state of affairs at every hurdle, providing his own theories of existence as his audience grew rapidly both in size and enthusiasm. And with each project, from first mixtape ‘Overly Dedicated’ in 2010 to Grammy and Pulitzer-awarded ‘DAMN.’ in 2017, the now 32-year-old rapper, songwriter and producer has evaded categorisation and defied expectation both implicitly in his music and explicitly through his lyrics to become one of the most influential people of our generation.
After being featured in XXL’s Freshman Class of 2011, Lamar’s first independent album ‘Section.80’ released with the weight of Snoop Dogg and Dr Dre co-signs behind it, and served as an ambitious and unforgiving statement of intent for his career to come, which of course lived true.
In fact, over the hurried jazz instrumentation of soul-seeking ‘Ab-Souls Outro’, Kendrick likens his relation to the world to a newborn baby killing a grown man before pre-empting the clickbait taglines of his career and clarifying: “I’m not the next pop star, I’m not the next socially-aware rapper, I’m a human motherfucking being over dope-ass instrumentation, Kendrick Lamar!”
And that ardent simplicity, of Kendrick Lamar as just an idiosyncratic individual who talks about “money, hoes, clothes, God and history” in the same sentence, is the basis for his creative freedom to mutate and transform constantly and fully realise his art beyond the bounds of genres and trends.
“The ardent simplicity of Kendrick Lamar as an idiosyncratic individual who talks about “money, hoes, clothes, God and history” in the same sentence is the basis for his creative freedom”
Following on from ‘Section.80’, a record that held a mirror up to his community as it drew upon anecdotes to illustrate the lives of those close to him, ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’ landed in 2012 as a true elevation of that wildly compelling storytelling narrative into a cinematic coming-of-age tale with Lamar at the centre. Where ‘Section.80’ wore different masks in the form of Keisha, Tammy and more, ‘good kid…’ had you in the driver’s seat, sometimes literally for example on ‘The Art of Peer Pressure’.
Receiving immense critical acclaim for managing to fuse the fearless grit of tracks like ‘Backseat Freestyle’ with the infectious immediacy of songs like ‘Swimming Pools’ and ‘Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe’, it was hard to imagine where Lamar would venture next. Heralded with awards and titles, as well as the infamous Grammy snub, it was clear to everyone (except maybe the Grammy Academy) that he was at the top of his game.
The last three projects had been such an exciting yet natural progression for Kendrick, that his 2015 return was met with unprecedented anticipation. And ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ as a response to – or more likely in spite of – this, was the album that no-one could have predicted.
Carrying through previous themes of struggle and pain amid joy and beauty but, this time, on a significantly larger scale, Kendrick transcended the boundaries of success in a West Coast rap space altogether.
The villain of the tale that was previously Compton-specific instead became an exploitative nation, racist systems and the literal Devil a.k.a ‘Luci’. And with this newfound scope came a whole host of new sonics too: dystopic and doomful jazz piano and sax improvisations, funk riffs, exalting choirs and nostalgic vignettes weaving throughout the record to punctuate the theatrics. Even Kendrick himself stretched his vocals to new levels on songs like ‘i’ and ‘u’. T.P.A.B was an album that pushed its audience to reflect on African-American history, interrogate society for all its injustices, empty patriotism and needless structures before eventually emerging triumphant and loving oneself against all odds: one of critical tension and liberation.
“Kendrick is fearless in the search for answers and candour in chronicling the human experience”
Once again, producing something impossible to outdo, Kendrick did what he does so well and shifted the goalpost entirely. On fourth studio album ‘DAMN.’, Lamar honed in one man – himself. Instead of tackling matters of history, he employed his well-exercised philosophical muscles and unparalleled lyrical ability to explore themes within himself and humanity more broadly, unobscured by proverbs and twisting narratives, the record is more of an internal dialogue about human nature. Aware of his own critics and amalgamating all the themes of his previous works into something still challenging and packed with gems, but more immediately accessible and universal than ever before.
To attempt to define Kendrick Lamar would be to dismiss the complexities and nuances of what he is and does or has been and has done over the years, and such is the beauty of him. But what is clear is that his fearlessness in the search for answers and candour in chronicling the human experience in any shape or form, is both essential and highly original. For the last 10 years, he has showcased his ability to recast his focus from Compton, to hoods, to blackness in and out of America, to humanity – all through the innovative lens of Kung Fu Kenny. Leaving only the unanswered question of where his unique gaze will take him next. NATTY KASAMBALA
Key track: ‘King Kunta’
Key album: ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’