In the ever-growing school of hip hop, Kendrick Lamar is the most dedicated student of all. His love for the craft shows in every aspect of his artistry: from his unrelenting attention to detail, to his subtle and not-so-subtle tributes, all the way to his disdain for his underperforming peers. As far as rap music goes, Lamar settles for nothing less than A+. And he has never been afraid to let the industry know that he holds everyone else to the same standard.
Kendrick Lamar Duckworth was born on June 17, 1987 in the city of Compton, California. He was the firstborn child of Kenny Duckworth and Paula Oliver, as well as the eldest of four siblings.
The significance of Kenny and Paula in Lamar’s life has been underscored in interviews, songs, and even album concepts. In Lamar’s 2012 album “good kid, m.A.A.d. city,” the voices of his parents (especially his mother) anchor him to the values that he learned at home, amidst the chaotic gang culture of Compton.
Also, in Lamar’s 2017 song “Duckworth,” he tells the story of how his father’s kindness towards a robber essentially averted a hostile situation from unfolding at a local KFC. Lamar further testifies that, had his father perished in that would-be robbery, he would have succumbed to the temptations of gang life.
Aside from imbibing his parents’ positive outlook in life, young Kendrick would also go on to inherit their taste in music. Thanks to Kenny and Paula, the future Grammy Award winner grew to love the songs of The Temptations, the Isley Brothers, and Marvin Gaye; as well as the West Coast gangster rap of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg.
Lamar, however, had a special place in his heart for Tupac Shakur. When he was eight years old, he even got to witness Tupac and Dr. Dre film the “California Love” music video near the Compton Swap Meet. From that moment on, Lamar knew that he wanted to emulate Tupac by becoming a world-renowned voice one day.
His musical career started to take off in 2004, when he released a mixtape entitled “Youngest Head Nigga in Charge” at the tender age of 16. Thanks to the raw talent on display in the mixtape, Lamar was signed by the California-based label Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE). Both Lamar’s music career and the record label had just gotten off the ground that year, and it would be the start of a fruitful partnership for both parties. (Incidentally, TDE founder Anthony “Top Dawg” Griffith happened to be the robber that Kenny Duckworth interacted with at KFC all those years ago!)
For the rest of the 2000s, Lamar continued to carve a niche for himself in the West Coast hip hop scene. He released two more mixtapes, performed as an opening act for The Game, and joined the group Black Hippy with his fellow TDE artists Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, and ScHoolboy Q. Lamar’s rising star in the industry was validated when he was named to XXL’s Top 10 Freshman Class of 2011 (along with fellow prodigies Meek Mill, Big K.R.I.T., and Mac Miller).
In 2011, Lamar released his very first studio album. The aptly titled Section.80 was an indictment of the decade and social circumstances that Lamar was born into. This concept album was fuelled by vivid imagery and the boldness of conscious rap—characteristics that would go on to become part of his signature style. And the positive critical reception for Section.80 was a harbinger of the wider acclaim that Lamar was about to come across.
Rise to the Mainstream
Like Snoop Dogg and Eminem before him, Lamar got his big break when he came under the tutelage of the legendary Dr. Dre. The former N.W.A. member had been impressed with Lamar’s “Ignorance is Bliss” off his 2010 mixtape “Overly Dedicated.” This led to Lamar signing with Dre’s Aftermath Entertainment in March 2012.
Later that year, Aftermath and TDE teamed up in the joint release of Lamar’s first major-label album, “good kid, m.A.A.d city.” The album drew comparisons to the all-time classic “Illmatic,” and for good reason. Just like Nas‘ 1994 debut, “good kid, m.A.A.d city” was a triumph of storytelling and characterization.
It lived up to its subtitle “A short film by Kendrick Lamar” by employing non-linear narration, skits that push the plot forward, and in-depth perspectives. And, ever the student of the game, Lamar firmly grounded every song in solid rap fundamentals: catchy flows, effortless rhyme schemes, and memorable hooks.
Though “good kid, m.A.A.d city” is best appreciated as a singular narrative, its five singles found individual success as well. In “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” and “Swimming Pools (Drank)”, Lamar deftly lays his verses on smooth beats; the latter can even be played as a danceable track in a nightclub. “Backseat Freestyle” and the Drake-enhanced “Poetic Justice” highlights Lamar’s supreme competitiveness in terms of perfecting bar after bar. Meanwhile, in “The Recipe,” Lamar celebrates the glory of California with his mentor Dr. Dre.
The success of “good kid, m.A.A.d city” propelled Lamar to mainstream recognition. Media outlets such as Pitchfork, Complex, and The New York Times hailed it as one of the best albums of 2012. The album earned five Grammy Award nominations (including Album of the Year and Best Rap Album), and went on to be certified triple platinum.
In 2013, Lamar fired a salvo that solidified his hip hop persona just as effectively as “good kid, m.A.A.d city” did. Instead of quietly moving on to his next project, he recorded a guest verse that shook the rap industry to its core. In Big Sean’s 2013 song “Control,” Lamar declares his intent to “murder” the other prodigies of his generation.
This was no subliminal jab, either: all in all, Lamar name-dropped 11 rappers in his “threat.” In addition, he called himself “the King of New York,” ruffling the feathers of East Coast artists. Between an outstanding album and an audacious guest verse, Lamar defined his old-school hip hop profile: a ruthless competitor who revels in out-rapping and out-boasting every rival.
Another Classic Album
For his next major outing, Lamar stuck to his guns by deploying another concept album. In many ways, “To Pimp a Butterfly” was an homage to his childhood idol Tupac Shakur. Throughout “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Lamar reads a poem part by part. By the time he gets to the end, it is revealed that he was reciting the text to Tupac (whose rare 1994 interview was appropriated as his “response” to Lamar’s questions in their “conversation”). In the end, the iconic rapper simply stops communicating with Lamar, perhaps because his spirit is ready to move on after finding a worthy inheritor of his artistic legacy.
Lamar proved himself a worthy heir of this legacy through the album’s powerful singles. “The Blacker the Berry” and “Alright” channel a very Tupac-like rage towards unresolved issues of police brutality and violence within the African American community. Then, in “i,” Lamar points to self-acceptance as a key to navigating all this mayhem; the hook of the song (“I love myself”) is recited almost like a mantra. Meanwhile, Lamar re-affirms his claim on the throne of hip of hop in “King Kunta,” while also showing how his stardom in the music industry can be used for devious purposes in “These Walls.”
By the time that “To Pimp a Butterfly” came out, Lamar had already achieved worldwide recognition; he leveraged this popularity by letting a much wider audience know about the racial struggles that he first highlighted in “good kid, m.A.A.d city.” By the same token, Lamar’s louder and bolder voice led to a greater level of scrutiny.
His performance of “Alright” at the 2015 BET Awards—during which he stood on top of a vandalized police car—led Geraldo Rivera of Fox News to decry the supposedly harmful influence of hip hop on African Americans. (Lamar would fire back by affirming the song as “a message of hope.”)
Despite this controversy, the jazz- and funk-driven “To Pimp a Butterfly” was universally hailed by critics, who considered it one of the best albums of 2015. The album received 11 Grammy nominations in a single night, one shy of the record held by Michael Jackson and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds.
At the 2015 Grammy Awards ceremony, the first single “i” won Best Rap Song and Best Rap Performance. The following year, “Alright” was recognized as the Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song; while “These Walls” was hailed as the Best Rap/Sung Performance. The album, which was certified platinum, went on to rank 19th in Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
Making History, Going Silent
Aside from a compilation of unfinished demos (which he labeled “Untitled Unmastered”), Lamar had a relatively quiet 2016. The next year, he stole the headlines once again with the release of his fourth album “DAMN.” Whereas “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” and “To Pimp a Butterfly” followed Lamar’s perspective as he went around Compton and the United States, “DAMN.” was a predominantly introspective project.
Some of the song titles come in thematic opposites (such as “Pride” and “Humble,” as well as “Lust” and “Love”), which indicate the contradictions of Lamar’s enigmatic psyche. Adding further depth to the album are Lamar’s fundamental questions regarding faith, power, and loyalty.
Lamar debuted the album in grand fashion with the release of the single “Humble” (along with its music video) in March 2017. An ironically titled song, “Humble” is a braggadocious proclamation of Lamar’s dominance in the rap game. Though Lamar released two more singles that year (“Loyalty” and “Love”), “DAMN.” relied not so much on slam dunk singles but on the unique psychological vibe exuded by the songs as a collective. Lamar has even stated that the album’s tracks may be played in reverse, in order to generate a listening experience that is both coherent and fresh.
Though Lamar’s three major-label albums all bear different stylistic traits, their common denominator is the large wave of accomplishments and commercial success earned. In the case of “DAMN.,” Lamar won his second Grammy Award for Best Rap Album; “DAMN.” was also recognized as the best hip hop project at the American Music Awards, BET Hip Hop Awards, and iHeartRadio Music Awards. And, just like “good kid, m.A.A.d. city,” “DAMN.” received a triple-platinum certification.
“DAMN.” went on to make history by being the first hip hop album to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music. The Pulitzer Prize website describes the album as “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.”
Lamar added another “first” to his resume the following year with the release of Black Panther: The Album. Lamar produced and curated the soundtrack of the 2018 Marvel Studios film, while also contributing vocals to every song. One of the songs that he wrote and performed (“All the Stars,” which featured the singer SZA) received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song, marking the first Oscar nod of his career.
After his furious 2017-2018 run, Lamar did not release new music for three years. It was not till August 2021 that he re-emerged in the public eye. On a new website called “oklama” (presumably his latest rap persona), Lamar revealed that he was set to release his last TDE album soon. Shortly afterwards, he teamed up with his cousin Baby Keem on the song “family ties.”
In his verse, Lamar revealed that he had been “duckin’ the pandemic” as well as the “social gimmicks” and “overnight activists.” He also assured his fans that, amidst rumors of stepping away, his musical career was not over: “New flows comin’, be patient, brother.” The song “family ties” went on to win Best Rap Performance at the 2022 Grammy Awards.
More Stories with Mr. Morale
In April 2022, Lamar dropped the bombshell that his fanbase had been waiting for: the official release date of his next album. On the oklama website, he announced that the album would be released on May 13, 2022 (which, incidentally, was a Friday).
Four years after his last major project, Lamar finally dropped his fifth studio album Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers. Continuing Lamar’s personal trend of reinvention, Mr. Morale explored unchartered territory in terms of both musical style and personal narratives.
On the album, Lamar’s conscious rap is served up with a fresh blend of jazz, soul, blues, and R&B. Even more boldly, the notoriously private Lamar opens up about personal chapters that the rest of the world had not heard about before. These included admissions of infidelity; the birth of a second child (who was also included in the album’s cover art); and a dramatic tale about two transgender relatives.
Whereas Lamar’s parents were his guiding principle on good kid, m.A.A.d. city, Lamar’s longtime partner Whitney Alford is the voice of conscience on Mr. Morale. One of his children also makes a brief appearance on the album’s penultimate track “Mother I Sober.”
Keeping in step with its predecessors, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers attained both critical and commercial success. At the time of its release, the album set the 2022 record for most first-day streams on Apple Music. The album also debuted at number one on the Billboard 200—his fourth album to do so. As the countdown begins anew for Kendrick’s next major project, fans will be spending hours upon hours dissecting the layers of his latest masterpiece.
Since his arrival on the mainstream scene in 2012, Kendrick Lamar has exemplified two characteristics: his low-key profile and his unwavering devotion to the art of lyricism. For a rapper endowed with supreme linguistic gifts, Lamar continues to present himself as a quiet, down-to-earth performer who cares only about his next great performance. Throughout his musical career, he has passionately decried the fake, the superficial, and the materialistic.
As such, Lamar personifies sincere dedication to the art of rap. Along with Drake and J. Cole, he represents the next step in the evolution of hip hop after the generation dominated by Kanye West and Lil Wayne. But, whereas Drake leans heavily on pop elements in order to ensure the mass appeal of his songs, Lamar is consistent in bringing the hip hop identity of his music to the fore.
As his “Control” verse illustrated, he has a profound respect for the icons of the industry; and his ultimate goal is to prove that he truly belongs among their ranks, even if doing so comes at the expense of other emcees. Lamar, then, will be remembered as an artist whose commitment to the art of rap manifested in his fervent competitiveness and poetic eloquence.
Why is Kendrick Lamar Influential?
Ever since he burst onto the mainstream scene in 2012, Lamar has used his massive platform to espouse pure love for hip hop music. The themes and narratives of his music are in stark contrast to the glorification of wealth, violence, and drugs that can be seen in the songs of several contemporaries. In the hands of another rapper with mediocre skills, this message of authenticity might have been poorly conveyed. But Lamar gets this message across with total effectiveness because of both his passion and his mastery of the rap genre.
Aside from this moral and aesthetic advocacy, Lamar has also followed in the footsteps of his idol Tupac Shakur in terms of pushing against society’s ills. On songs like “Institutionalized” and “DNA,” Lamar paints a haunting picture of the deeply rooted discrimination against African Americans.
He also attacks the “outlets” that his fellow Blacks have been forced to turned to: the diversionary tactics of consumerism and substance abuse. Lamar also makes it clear that he is just as indignant at the internal warfare brought about by gang culture. On “The Blacker The Berry,” he mourns the death toll caused by gang warfare—a crisis that, in his mind, is just as terrible as racially motivated crimes.
Amidst these grim images, Lamar preserves a message of hope and faith in his music. Though the verses of his award-winning song “Alright” are filled with the social pitfalls that ensnare African Americans, the hook nevertheless makes for a powerful anthem: “If God got us, then we gon’ be alright.” This line would eventually find its way in the fervent cries of protesters during the summer of 2015, when the Black Lives Matter movement was in full swing.
Answer: True to his low-key, introverted personality, Lamar has not divulged many details about his love life in his songs, much less in interviews. However, this much is known about Lamar: he met his long-time romantic partner Whitney Alford way back in their high school days in Compton. In a 2015 New York Times profile, Lamar attests that Alford has given him both steady companionship and honest feedback. That same year, the couple got engaged; four years later, they welcomed their first child (a daughter, to be exact).
Answer: In his verse on the 2013 Big Sean song “Control,” Lamar bares his true feelings for his peers: “I got love for you all, but I’m tryin’ to murder you niggas.” The rappers that he name-dropped in this verse were J. Cole, Big K.R.I.T., Wale, Pusha T, Meek Millz, A$AP Rocky, Drake, Big Sean, Jay Electronica, Mac Miller, and Tyler, the Creator.
Some artists like Joe Budden and Joell Ortiz—who weren’t even mentioned in the verse—released response tracks with fierce bars aimed at Lamar. These rappers, though, made it clear that they appreciated Lamar’s competitive vibe. Other artists, though, had different reactions. Two emcees mentioned by Lamar, namely Big Sean and Drake, have since traded subliminal disses with the Compton rapper. Thus far, there has been no indication that the rap beef between Lamar and Big Sean, or Lamar and Drake, has subsided.
Answer: Lamar has partnered with the finest emcees that the rap industry has to offer: Jay-Z, Eminem, Kanye West, Drake, Lil Wayne, J. Cole, Travis Scott, and Nipsey Hussle. Lamar has also done songs and cyphers with his Black Hippy cohorts Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, and SchoolBoy Q.
Just as Eminem has frequently tapped Skylar Grey’s vocals for his songs, Lamar has a long-time collaborator in Anna Wise who has done many choruses on his studio albums. Other singers who have tied up with Lamar include Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Jhené Aiko, and Miguel.
Mr. Duckworth isn’t just a student of the rap game. He is its valedictorian that holds both his classmates and his mentors to the highest standards of the industry. Far from being a self-centered brat who spends too much time staring at his trophies, Lamar constantly elevates hip hop culture by using his powerful voice to deliver consequential messages. Though he may finally decide to graduate someday, his legacy is set and his impact is undeniable. Thus, any new pupil coming into the classroom of rap would do well to closely study the pure skill and dedication of Kendrick Lamar.