Last week, I attempted a massive undertaking: listening to every Kendrick Lamar album ever released. To tell you the truth, I originally wasn’t a huge Kendrick fan. Sure, I could sing along to “Swimming Pools,” but I had never listened to a full album.
Lamar, then called K-Dot, began releasing music at 16. His age is evident in2005’s “Hub City Threat: Minor of the Year,” with clear ’90s rap influence recycled from Biggie and Tupac and immature lyrics about guns and girls, like the line “Big truck five girls at a time” on the track “Put That On Something.” Listening to the first mixtape, I kept laughing at how old he tries to sound, clearly lowering his voice. I was also surprised at the obvious lyrical sampling on the tape, heard on his rendition of “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” with the word “hot” replaced with similar rhymes. There’s no better way to say it: K-Dot’s first mixtape was bad.
At this point, I was nervous. Would all of his albums be this childish? K-Dot’s early style reminds me of high school rappers who’d tell everyone to “peek their mixtape on Soundcloud.” His next two mixtapes, “C4” and “Training Day,” continue in largely the same fashion as his first release, but hints of Kendrick’s budding spirituality appear throughout.The most interesting part of these mixtapes occurs when another rapper interviews him and reveals his thoughtfulness.
Kendrick’s first studio album, “Section.80,” gives the listener a glimpse of the talent he’s known for today. Instead of trying to imitate the flow of earlier rappers, Lamar heats up with lines about racism and guilt over his newfound success. Although these themes mark his transition from wannabe rapper to hip-hop icon, Lamar is still a young man, and young men love to brag. The crudest part of the album is in “Hol’ Up,” where he describes hooking up with a stewardess while other passengers look on. Kendrick’s last mixtape, “Overly Dedicated,” runs like “Section.80” with more maturity.
Listening to over 50 mediocre songs numbed my mind, but I pushed through. Luckily, I was rewarded with 2013’s “Good Kid, m.A.A.d City.” “Good Kid” chronicles Kendrick’s life in Compton, California, the infamously crime-ridden city that’s been the subject of hip-hop since N.W.A. came straight outta it. “Good Kid” has breakthrough hits like “Swimming Pools” and my personal jam “Backseat Freestyle.” Where his first mixtape was a genuine attempt to sound tough, “Backseat Freestyle” mocks Lamar’s young confidence, seen when he raps “All my life I wanted money and power/Respect my might or die from lead shower.”
Finally, I made it to what will likely be Kendrick’s crowning achievement. “To Pimp a Butterfly” amazes both lyrically and musically — the jazz backing on most tracks brings a live warmth to the album. Lyrics about institutionalized racism can reach a larger audience, educating those who may be unacquainted. My favorite track “i” begins with happiness and self-expression, but ends with Kendrick delivering a speech about the use of the n-word in the black community The single version of “i” notably lacks the speech at the end, which causedpeople to worry Kendrick softened his content. This innovative concept album builds around a poem that is revealed line by line every few tracks. It all leads up to moving closer “Mortal Man,” as he recites the poem to Tupac Shakur. They even have a conversation about how today’s issues surrounding poverty are far from new.
Nearing the end, I had one album left: 2016’s “untitled unmastered.” Surprisingly, this album was a slight letdown; I couldn’t appreciate the slow jams, and some sequences made me uncomfortable (i.e. the spoken word opener that repeats “Baby, come here”). However, I can see how it would be appealing to other listeners. “Untitled 8”’s grooving bass line was the standout track.
After listening to over 90 songs, I’m definitely taking a break from Kendrick Lamar for a while. I’m excited to see what he has planned, and I will give all future albums the listens they deserve.