A Guide To Getting Into Kendrick Lamar

Photo via Top Dawg Entertainment

Fair warning: this is going to be shocking, but there are still people in this world who don’t listen to Kendrick Lamar. Don’t worry, I’m saddened, too, but this article is for all those lost to Kendrick’s music and need a little guidance to getting into one of the greatest artists of our time.

Let’s begin this journey together with a little background. Kendrick grew up in Compton, California and began releasing music at a young age under the name K-Dot. Eventually, his mixtapes got noticed by Anthony Tiffith who founded record label Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE). Kendrick was signed to Top Dawg at 15 years old. The label began to catch spark when rappers Jay Rock and Ab-Soul were signed. Kendrick’s first release on TDE was a mixtape titled Training Day. He worked on songs with Jay Rock and opened for rappers like The Game. His career was beginning to take form. Fast forward to 2010 when Kendrick Lamar caught the eye of rap legend, Dr. Dre with his album Overly Dedicated. Subsequently, Kendrick signed to Dr. Dre’s label Aftermath Entertainment.

Kendrick released his first full length Section.80 in 2011. It received critical acclaim and Kendrick gained national attention for his musical ability. Section.80 was produced by members of TDE, including Kendrick himself, and fellow rapper J. Cole; it featured big names like Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul and Wu-Tang Clan member RZA.

Next, Kendrick released the single “Swimming Pools (Drank)” in 2012 which shot to the top of charts and received air play on radio stations across the country. This single was followed up by his full-length LP good kid, m.A.A.d city, an album that some consider his best work. Let’s ignore the fact that the album is stacked with features like Drake, Jay Rock, MC Eiht, Dr. Dre, Mary J. Blige and JAY Z. Besides its features, the album tells complex, heartbreaking and intense stories of growing up in Compton. His excellent lyrical work and stellar execution of his bars characterize this work as a masterpiece.

Album good kid, m.A.A.d city catapulted Kendrick into a high level of recognition. Following that LP, he was featured on many releases of popular rappers and pop singers. He toured with Kanye West on The Yeezus Tour in 2013 and revealed he would be working on a new album after the tour was over. His next album To Pimp a Butterfly was released in 2015 and earned Kendrick 11 Grammy nominations, winning 5 of them. The album deals with subjects similar to his previous LP like growing up in Compton, violence, his battles with depression, race relations in the United States and the realities of being an African American man in the current political and social climate. The album features many different genres like spoken word, jazz, soul and funk.

Following To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick released an album, untitled unmastered. It featured never released, untitled demos recorded during the making of To Pimp a Butterfly.

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Photo by Batiste Safont

As of April 2017, Kendrick released his latest project DAMN. One month later, DAMN. was certified platinum and number one on the Billboard 200 chart. Additionally, Kendrick was the number one artist on Billboard Hot 100 with his single “HUMBLE.”

Now that I’ve given you the most generalized, shortened, and incomplete background on Kendrick Lamar’s career, let’s get into the nitty gritty of learning to love and appreciate his music. The first time I ever heard a Kendrick Lamar song was with my brother in his car. He played “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and I hate to admit it, but I actually didn’t like it. However, a few weeks later I decided to check out his music despite not being interested before. That decision changed my life forever. That sounds dramatic, but it’s true. I started to listen to good kid, mA.A.d city and the first song I remember being entranced by was “Money Trees.” The catchy hook and repetition in Kendrick’s verses caught my ear. I especially loved Jay Rock’s verse to finish off the track. I began to explore the rest of the album and fell in love with Kendrick’s artistry. I listened especially to “Money Trees,” “Backstreet Freestyle,” “m.A.A.d city,” and “Poetic Justice” until I had exhausted them.

I then began to search through more of his anthology and discovered his previous works like Section.80 and Overly Dedicated.  I loved so many of the songs as I researched. I had never dug so deep into an artist’s work before. I particularly loved “A.D.H.D” off of Section.80 and later overplayed “Hol’ Up” to a ridiculous level.

Not long after discovering and digging deep into Kendrick’s music, I was a bona fide Kendrick fan desperately waiting for his next release. I held Kendrick to high expectations, and To Pimp A Butterfly did not disappoint. What I love most about Kendrick has always been (and will forever be) his honesty. To Pimp A Butterfly is one of the most honest pieces of work I’ve ever listened to. Kendrick raps about things that he has experienced personally, things his community in Compton has experienced, and what the African American community experiences every day. Kendrick’s experiences in life are something that I will never understand and, frankly, cannot understand. This notion of ignorance is the entire reason I want to learn about him and his experiences. It’s a special thing when another human chooses to share intimate details about their life with you and Kendrick shares intimate details with millions of people through his music.

It took me a long time to listen thoroughly to each song on To Pimp A Butterfly. The songs are deeply complex on all levels. The music boasts many genres, unique melodies and completely original structures of composition. The lyrics tell different stories intertwined together. There are many plotlines to follow, many subjects to grapple with and many allegories and symbols to annotate. The same goes with untitled, unmastered. Considering the songs are exactly what the name of the album says they are, they tend to be completely unique composition-wise and the subject matter circles around the same topics as To Pimp A Butterfly.

In April of 2017, Kendrick graced us with an album that is much easier to appreciate immediately. Somehow DAMN. manages to be pleasing to the ear and to the eye. The aesthetic of the album is carefully thought out. The cover photo of Kendrick grimacing is supremely relatable. I, too, make that exact face probably on a daily basis. The simple font and bright, red lettering of the title perfectly contrasts his white shirt and the dark, maroon wall behind him. Every song name on the album is in all caps font and has a period at the end. DAMN. is consistent, simple and pleasing.

Every song on DAMN. slams. Once I heard “HUMBLE.” I knew this album would be unique and smart, as well as radio and party friendly. Songs like “DNA.” and “ELEMENT.” can easily be incorporated into anyone’s party playlist, but also offer substance on a deeper level in their subject matter. Kendrick has remained honest in his music while simultaneously reaching a diverse demographic. Kendrick collaborates with Rihanna for the first time on track “LOYALTY.” He also brings in rising star Steve Lacy, a member of the band The Internet, to produce his song “PRIDE.” Furthermore, Kendrick employs the help of the band U2 on track “XXX.” I was skeptical about this collaboration, but strangely enough that track is one of my favorites on DAMN.

iH9ynT4Photo credit: Gozamos at Pitchfork, 2012

If you’re convinced now to give Kendrick a listen, I recommend following a similar journey that brought me into his world. Start by listening to songs that easily please our brains’ need for a catchy melody. It’s perfectly valid to listen to an artist’s so called “hits” and still be a fan. Listen to the insane verses and chants on “m.A.A.d city.” Listen to the smooth, chill melody of “Money Trees.” Listen to “Poetic Justice,” a song that follows a pretty standard composition structure and features another popular rapper. Or start with DAMN., an album that boasts catchy melodies and beats on almost every song. Once you start to appreciate Kendrick’s music and message, listen to To Pimp a Butterfly and untitled unmastered, which are more dense in subject matter and more complex composition wise. You’ll be able to appreciate the funkiness of “Wesley’s Theory,” and the whirlwind track that is “These Walls.”

The truth is, you can train your ear to enjoy almost anything, but it’s true that if we develop an emotional response to music, we tend to enjoy it more. I have definitely developed an emotional attachment to Kendrick’s music. He has inspired me to be more honest and true to myself as he is in his music and because of this, I’ll probably find a way to like every project he releases. However, if you can’t develop an emotional response to Kendrick’s music, maybe you can appreciate some element of genius that goes into his music. Whether it be the beats, the lyrics, the flow, the composition, his voice or the person he features on his songs, I hope you are inspired to give Kendrick’s music at least the college try.

I can honestly say most of my peers like or appreciate Kendrick’s music, but maybe you listened to Kendrick three years ago and became uninterested. Maybe you recently became a fan and love DAMN., but don’t really know what else by Kendrick to listen to. Maybe you are a diehard Kendrick fan that merely appreciates the high praise in this article. Maybe you have never even heard of Kendrick and have been apparently living under a rock for years. Whoever you are or whatever your situation, there is something in Kendrick’s music to appreciate and I sincerely hope you find it.


Kendrick is on tour right now and will be at the Tacoma Dome in Tacoma, WA on August 1st. Check the dates here.

Ready to listen? Check out his music on iTunes, Spotify and YouTube.

ERIN PHELPS | sitting down and humbled | Assistant Program Director

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