Platinum-selling, Grammy- and Pulitzer-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar is one of the rare artists who has achieved critical and commercial success while earning the respect and support of those who inspired him. A native of Compton, California, Lamar originally rapped as K. Dot and released a series of mixtapes under that name. Youngest Head Nigga in Charge (2003), issued when he was only 16 years old, caught the attention of Top Dawg Entertainment and led to a long-term association that helped raise the rapper’s profile. Training Day (2005) and C4 (2009) also preceded his decision to go by his birth name. The latter was issued the same year he became part of Black Hippy — beside fellow Top Dawg artists Ab-Soul, Jay Rock, and ScHoolboy Q — a group whose members, for the most part, appeared on one another’s mixtapes and albums. Overly Dedicated (2010) was the first Kendrick Lamar mixtape and fared well enough to enter Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart that October. His first official album, Section.80 (2011), was released as a digital download the following year and entered the Billboard 200 at number 113.
By that point in his career, Lamar’s reputation had been strengthened through guest appearances on dozens of tracks, and he had the support of veteran West Coast stars as well. During a 2011 concert, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Game dubbed him “The New King of the West Coast,” a notion Dre endorsed more significantly by signing Lamar to the Aftermath label. Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City was released in October 2012 and debuted at number two on the Billboard 200. Three of its singles — “Swimming Pools (Drank),” “Poetic Justice,” and “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” — reached the Top Ten of Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop chart, with each one enjoying lengthy stays on playlists of urban U.S. radio stations. More significantly, the album showcased Lamar as an exceptional storyteller capable of making compelling concept albums. Good Kid, M.A.A.D City was nominated for five Grammy Awards.
Rather than rest, Lamar remained active during 2013-2014, with touring as well as appearances on tracks by the likes of Tame Impala, YG, and fellow Top Dawg affiliate SZA. The proud single “i” was released in September of the latter year and led to Lamar’s first two Grammy wins (Best Rap Performance, Best Rap Song). Early in 2015, he announced that his third album, To Pimp a Butterfly, was due that March, with tracks featuring Snoop Dogg, Bilal, Thundercat, and George Clinton. A technical accident caused the digital album to be released eight days early, but it immediately earned rave reviews and topped the Billboard 200 with sales of 325,000 copies within its first week. It made numerous best-of lists at the end of the year, and earned five Grammy Awards in early 2016. In March, Lamar released untitled unmastered., an eight-track album consisting of demos he’d recorded around the time of To Pimp a Butterfly. Like the previous release, it debuted at number one.
Led by “Humble,” his first number one pop hit, DAMN. followed in April 2017 and likewise entered the Billboard 200 at the top. Remarkably, all 14 of its songs entered the Hot 100. The album featured contributions from the likes of Rihanna and U2, but at this point, the supporting roles were beneficial more for the guest artists than they were for Lamar, whose artistic complexity and versatility was unrivaled. Certified double-platinum within three months of release, the album was released in a deluxe edition near the end of the year, and led to another five Grammy wins. Lamar was involved with every track contained on yet another number one hit, Black Panther: The Album, released in early 2018. That April, DAMN. won the Pulitzer Prize for Music, the first time the judges recognized a work outside the genres of classical and jazz. ~ Andy Kellman