The Evolution of Kendrick Lamar
It has been almost a decade since my ears were first graced with the melodic storytelling of the soon to be “best rapper alive.” I remember so vividly the summer of 2009. I just graduated high school and was yearning for a summer gig to make some extra money. Hip Hop was led by the Carter III, which seemed to be the soundtrack for the whole summer. Lil Wayne was the undisputed rap champion with what seemed little competition, but there still was a yearning for something new. Something special. Now back in 2009, Livemixtapes, DatPiff, HotNewHipHop, and occasionally YouTube were great mediums to find emerging artists striving to get noticed on the larger scale. It was an amazing summer that year. I happened to be on YouTube, and I stumble across a song by the name of Ignorance is Bliss. Little did I know my life would be changed forever.
As the audio poured, I was in heaven. The story telling was extremely sobering, but the delivery was out of this world.
One knew an emergence was near. This track lay home to a mix tape named Overly Dedicated which is critically acclaimed as an underground classic. The entire project bleeds an artist who yearns to be on the top of his genre, but you notice apprehension about his environment and the outside pressures deviating him from his desires. Songs like “Cut You Off’ reflect on how peers can be distracted by menial decisions that don’t amount to anything substantial long term. Kendrick’s frustration also deepens on tracks “Average Joe” and “Barbed Wire”, tracks reflecting being a normal kid dodging danger and how the city can tempt one’s desires by the obstacles put in the way, respectively. The project ends with “Heaven and Hell” which entails a quick contrast on how both heaven and hell just may be able to molded by perception and the decisions we make whilst still on earth.
An impressive project to say the least, but there was much anticipation in the air on which direction the Compton emcee would go. Already proving himself as a expert lyricist on covers on the likes of Lil Wayne and Lupe Fiasco, Kendrick stays faithful to his carving his own lane with mixtures of jazz band instrumentation, some G-funk, mixed with his almost impeccable flow. The follow up to OD and the first impression to the larger world came in the package of Section .80. To say a home run would be an understatement. A more appropriate analogy would be like getting to the playoffs the first year you get drafted. When Compton was mentioned back then, and maybe a little today, there was this misconception of extreme violence, undying pride, and blatant ignorance. It would have been too easy to bask in negativity, or join every other rapper in celebratory chants of wealth, but Kendrick proved to be on a mission with this project. Coming a year after his last mix tape, his debut album proved to be a sonic shift in paradigm.
Section .80 pulls you in on an audio journey learning of the crack epidemic, co-in-tel pro, and the “Ronald Reagan Era” to name a few, and the drawbacks it had on the lower income community. Still whilst having this knowledge of cracks and holes in his crystal stair, Dot continued to climb to greatness. It opens giving the listener an “abolitionist” feel, as if this journey was meant to make your grow as an individual instead of keeping you stagnant. If you ask a millennial to give you an artist that will always be in the forefront of their list, there’s a good chance it will be Kendrick Lamar. If you ask them what is one of the most nostalgic songs possibly of their time, there may be resistance but I’m more than sure the answer will be A.D.H.D 8 times out of 10. The definition of chill and total relaxation. It gives one the sensation to go for a night drive and just reflect. That’s one of my favorite things about Kendrick’s impeccable discography. It’s human music.
You can clean to it. Study to it. I feel it is truly nutrition in many ways.
Going deeper into the psyche of a young black male, you will always find a young black woman. Kendrick pulls no punches with thought provoking tracks “Tammy’s Song,” and “No-Make-Up” displaying the trials and tribulations young black women face and how some of those pressures are perpetuated by their counter parts. “Keisha’s Song” bears so much pain, and it honestly made me hug my sister really tight. The pressures of the world on women are often ignored, and it was honestly refreshing to see someone take a stand for those who may not see any hope. I can’t imagine getting through the emotions to draft such art. Perhaps my favorite track on this album was “Poe Mans Dreams” an amazingly produced song, gave impressions of all the chaos and perhaps impending doom the city offered there were just the small things in life that made everything worth working and getting up for. The total theme of growing up and wanting more out of life couldn’t have been any better orchestrated.
Getting past the lyrical gymnasium that is “Rigamortus”, you’ll find yourself at the end of the album with “HiiiPoWer.” One of the most powerful songs Kendrick has recorded to date. A focused young man, not to be deterred by petty desires, but extremely determined to answer a higher calling. The track brings more emphasis as it was produced by friendly rival J. Cole. The two were and still are held as the two Side A Side B of Hip Hop, rising the standards of the new up and coming rappers to not only step up their bars, but step up their expectations. Speaking on late leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King and Bobby Seale spoke volumes as a man so knowledgeable about his history, that his future was to be shaped and prophesied only by him. If the goal was to be in the conversation for the top up and coming artists with Section .80, it was achieved times over.
“The hardest thing for me to do....is to get you..... to know me....within 16 bars.....that’s the hardest thing” -Kendrick Lamar Average Joe Overly Dedicated
Another difficult thing to do is to top a critically acclaimed album in a time where hip hop seems to be on ICU. Section .80 was Kendrick’s debut release, but it was an independent release only to be sold on iTunes. Any physical copies would have been purchased directly from TDE themselves. 2012 proved to be the year for Mr. Lamar as he picked up a major distribution deal in one of his hometown heroes Interscope, with legendary famed composer Dr. Dre. Kendrick’s first major debut to be released on a mass scale acquired much attention as it was reported this project would be completely different than its predecessor. Finally, October 22, 2012, the world was graced with “Good Kid M.A.A.D City”. The acronym M.A.A.D TBD to the listener. Nothing will ever be the same. Sticking strictly to his hometown sound, Kendrick not only sharpens his story- telling, he gives us a memory trip to his teenage years, which prove to be some of the most stressful and trying times of his life.
The short film starts off with “Sherane” a small prayer with loved ones that seems to be a recurring theme for the project. It then blends into a nice groove with reminisce of meeting girls with hopes of getting acquainted. From house parties to lusting over the phone, Kendrick gives us details on how easy it is for young men to get caught up when their head isn’t on their shoulders, or more appropriately thinking with the wrong one. An amazing intro to be continued with “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” a song true to it’s title that’s puts you in a trance like state of meditation. This album was pure storytelling, and due to the dying thirst of something different, it was truly like listening to an audio book. Even the up-tempo “Backseat Freestyle” is very enjoyable to the ears and almost makes one want to mimic Kendrick’s flow. Back to the story telling of adapting and learning to your environment.
The album gives us scenarios of dealing with “The Art of Peer Pressure” on a constant journey to get “Money Trees”. The album gives us more life lessons and some of the hard consequences that ensue with those problems. Good Kid M.A.A.D City revolutionized not just hip hop, but music as an art form. Both tracks, respectively, display a sense of vulnerability, shame, and slight hostility. The aggression is short lived with the sobering “Sing About Me, Dying of Thirst”. A track that rather deserves a listen, than explanation, due to a deep sense of regret and loss.
Ending the project with an anthem to his city, Kendrick seemed to have taken the game by storm as the next great new artist. The wave was spreading like wildfire as there was a new King on the horizon. From accolade to accolade, the start of Mr. Lamar’s career was taking off and the criticism was quickly triumphed over almost effortlessly. Any attempt to reach toward the throne was either for mere attention or envy. As the rumors swirled about the arrival of a new king, some wondered how long or what direction Kendrick would go in next. Almost three years after his legendary installment, Kendrick surprises the world yet again, with “To Pimp a Butterfly”. A play off of the childhood read “To Kill A Mockingbird”, this album is very introspective as it delves into issues not just one faces on the superficial level, but at the spiritual level as well. A total different direction, sonically, it blends so much funk with live instrumentation. It almost seems to be an internal battle within as well.
Tracks such as “King Kunta”, and “Hood Politics” shed light on young Kendrick basking in the light of being considered the best rapper of his generation, but simultaneously negating the status as meaningless and more important matters like his loved ones well being is his higher priority. The breakout single, “I” covers an Isley brother sample and proclaims the love for his people and his self. This song can be countered with, “u” a harsher self reflecting tone on Kendrick’s anger towards his short comings. He proved he sometimes can be his own worst critic speaking of past pain and missed time due to building a larger platform musically. Two strong tracks that seem to stand from the project the strongest would have to be “Alright”, and “How Much A Dollar Cost”. “Alright” was a stand alone anthem against the rampant police brutality against the indigenous Americans and Black Americans that still are not only relevant, but more important than ever. A rally cry that gave a generation much needed hope and aspiration for a beam at the end of the tunnel. “How Much a Dollar Cost” weighs in on the economic gap and disparity Kendrick is noticing as he works harder to achieve his goals. His reluctance to help street bums and maintain a somewhat selfish demeanor may proved to trouble the rapper, but it proved to be the favorite song of the then POTUS, Barack Obama. Earning him a trip to the White House seemed to be prophetic after the slightly foreshadowing. Being able to perform for the President and officially getting the Presidential stamp of the most influential rapper of his generation had to be humbling for Kendrick as he did what seemed to be the impossible and top his already deemed classic predecessor album. It ends with and incredibly deep track,”Mortal Man”.
If there was any distinction between Tupac Amaru and Kornrow Kenny, this was definitely it. Kendrick goes full poet on this track, and brings all his fears to the forefront putting the responsibility on the fans as to how he should be immortalized. A equally creepy as well as self aware state. Right as the song ends, it blends into a conversation with Tupac giving the impression that the revolutionary wants Kendrick not only to bear the torch, but do not let his name die in vain. Of the many years of listening to Kendrick up to that point, that was the first time I shed a tear to his music. It gave me a sense not just of struggle, but the reminder of one’s mortality and can I really accomplish all of my heart’s desires before that time is expired. A very chilling experience to say the least.
With the success of To Pimp a Butterfly, the possibilities seemed limitless. Kendrick could do no wrong with a loyal fan base a a presidential head nod. The talent exudes to such an extent, that last year, TDE President Top Tiffith released a compilation of lost tracks recorded from the times “Good Kid” to “To Pimp a Butterfly” which still not only out sold other released albums from other artists, but still sounded better conceptually. That speaks so much precedence. Kendrick literally effortlessly took the attention from all artists not contributing anything of substance. The small project proved to be an appetizer for the most recent album, DAMN. This, possibly, is Kendrick’s greatest work yet. Never knowing with the creative genius of Mr. Lamar DAMN hasn’t reported to be an acronym, but a word, or rather a feeling. Upon listen on any track, you will find yourself thinking DAMN. Incredibly hard to explain, but much easier to listen to. Some don’t know whether to listen to it beginning to end, or to start from the end and move backward. It still will take some time to grow with and decode all of its hidden gems. Fans worldwide knew they had something special, and intended on hanging on to every word the rap prophet spoke. Never a socialite, if anything somewhat of an introvert, Mr. Lamar has grossed so much anticipation with every release. He could freeze the game at will, constantly sending ripples of consciousness, humility, and hunger.
DAMN, takes storytelling to a whole different plane. Kendrick’s oratory skills are displayed at full power on tracks such as “FEEL”, “ELEMENT”, and the fan favorite “DUCKWORTH”. The album itself comprises not just music, but true emotion on every track aptly leading to their title. “DUCKWORTH”, the last track on the project, tells an amazing story of not just how Kendrick got introduced to his now CEO Top, but an even more amazing prophecy of decisions and those consequences they will bear. A true eyebrow raiser to say the least. Kendrick dives into talking about his “FEAR” of not necessarily death, but losing all of the traction he has gained to bring him this far. The monetary status that has been able to stabilize his family would be tested by the decisions in the current climate of fear that we live in. Truly an amazing record.He continues to evoke more emotion with tracks like “YAH” which serve to be more of a spiritual awakening. The even faster paced “DNA” showcases Kendrick loving the different flaws that have manifested themselves into who he is today. From where he is from to the decisions in his professional career, in a short 6 year commercial success, Kendrick has solidified his space as the greatest artist of his generation. The only debate left would be, is King Kunta the greatest artist of all time?
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