Rap and Hip-Hop
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Compton's own progressive rap visionary
Shattering outdated clichés of bravado and bling, Kendrick Lamar is a generational talent who, over a relatively short period of time, has continued to experiment with the boundaries of rap to reflect contemporary social issues facing Black America.
Supposedly named after Eddie Kendricks of The Temptations, the artist was born Kendrick Lamar Duckworth in 1987 in Compton, California – a city with a rich rap history, having produced the likes of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Coolio to name a few. In spite of a disadvantaged background, growing up around poverty and gang crime, he thrived at school and particularly enjoyed English and creative writing.
Like many young Americans, Lamar had high hopes of becoming a basketball star, but witnessing Dr. Dre and Tupac film the video to California Love in his neighbourhood whilst sitting on his father’s shoulders was a key turning point in his life and stayed with him growing up. As a teenager he recognised his own talents in poetry and lyricism, and taking K-Dot as his stage name released his debut mixtape The Hub City Threat: Minor Of The Year in 2004.
Though rough and ready compared to the sophistication of his later material, the mixtape clearly showed great promise and K-Dot soon signed a record deal with newly formed label Top Dawg Entertainment, in what would be the start of a long and fruitful partnership. TDE’s studio became a creative space in which Kendrick thrived, working with like-minded peers such as Jay Rock and Ab-Soul, whilst refining his own individual take on hip-hop.
After dropping several further mixtapes that each charted this development, in 2009 the young rapper decided to drop the K-Dot and use his own name, reflecting the personal and human aspect to his songwriting while proudly announcing his arrival on the already prolific West Coast scene. As he put it on his newly self-titled EP that year: “I used to wanna rap like Jay Z / Until I finally realised that Jay wasn’t me”.
It would be his next mixtape a year later, though, that truly got the wheels in motion for Lamar to become the decade’s dominating rap presence he is now; Overly Dedicated showcased his lyrical and textural dexterity, introducing his name to the Billboard charts and catching the attention of Dr. Dre, who soon became the rapper’s mentor and later his executive producer. Section.80, Lamar’s first studio album, was released in 2011 and was praised for the rapper's sharp observational skills and conceptual ideas as he examined his generation, brought up in the height of Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs.
A Pitchfork review of Section.80 at the time noted the lack of major labels poking at Lamar’s door, but they couldn’t have been more wrong. In less than a year news broke of a joint signing between Interscope Records and Dre’s own Aftermath Entertainment, who as a triad with TDE released Lamar’s major label debut good kid, m.A.A.d city. The record took the artist’s narrative skills to new heights, depicting multi-layered social commentary of Compton amidst slow-tempo and sparse beats, cooled by a light West Coast breeze with whispers of the city’s G-Funk past. Tracks such as the dazed lead single Swimming Pools (Drank) showed the artist developing his experimentation with voice to add multiple characters and dramatic mood changes.
Despite winning none of the five Grammy nominations that good kid earned him, its impact was clear: it looked like Kenny was living up to the hype of the “New King of the West Coast” – as hailed by Dre, Snoop Dogg and Game in 2011 – with everyone from Eminem to Kanye West queuing to record or tour with him. In any case, in 2015 the funky, Isley Brothers-sampled single, i, scooped its own Grammy Awards for Best Rap Song and Best Rap Performance, which would be the first of many for Lamar.
The new album from which i was taken, To Pimp A Butterfly, was so greatly anticipated that it broke streaming records on the same day of its release and became an international No.1, topping the album charts in the US, UK and Australia. Critically the record was received as a masterpiece, praised for its rich and cinematic scope as Lamar propelled issues surrounding African American communities even further to the fore, fueled by free-flowing elements of jazz, soul, spoken word and head-nodding G-funk. Connecting with its message of optimism, one of the record’s highlights Alright was adopted by the Black Lives Matter movement as an important protest song.
Such was the record’s influence that after a string of collaborations with huge names such as Beyoncé (Freedom), Taylor Swift (Bad Blood) and Kanye (No More Parties In L.A.), Lamar released Untitled Unmastered, a collection of raw demos recorded around the same time as Butterfly that entered the Billboard 200 at No.1, and in doing so re-sparking the hotly debated question of when a mixtape becomes an album. As if in answer, in early 2017 the rapper dropped the hard-hitting HUMBLE., announcing his fourth studio album DAMN.
Featuring an eclectic mix of contributors from Rihanna to U2, this next musical chapter somehow seemed to only build on Butterfly’s virtues whilst stripping some of its conceptual density to add a point-blank clarity to his rap flows. Rolling Stone hailed DAMN. a “brilliant combination of the timeless and the modern, the old school and the next-level”. It was the first non-classical or jazz work to win the esteemed Pulitzer Prize for Music.
Having already dabbled with film soundtracks, collaborating with Alicia Keys on It’s On Again for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 in 2014, Lamar was given free reign to produce original music for the Marvel blockbuster Black Panther as a counterpart to the original score by Ludwig Göransson. In August 2021, Lamar and his cousin Baby Kleem, who had also worked on Black Panther: The Album, released the aptly named single Family Ties.