Lamar [Duckworth], Kendrick
- Lauron Kehrer
(b Compton, CA, June 17, 1987). American rapper. Kendrick Lamar (Kendrick Lamar Duckworth) was the first non-classical and non-jazz artist to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize in music for his 2017 album, DAMN. He is the recipient of over one hundred awards for his music and videos, including thirteen Grammy Awards (such as Best Rap Album for To Pimp a Butterfly and DAMN.), seven BET (Black Entertainment Television) Awards and nineteen BET Hip Hop Awards, eleven MTV Video Music Awards, seven NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) Awards, and six Billboard Music Awards.
Lamar was born and raised in Compton, California, where he regularly witnessed violence and gang activity. He began his rap career in high school using the stage name K-Dot. On the strength of his first mixtape, he was recruited to join Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE), the small record label founded in 2004 by Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith. With fellow MCs ScHoolboy Q (Quincy Matthew Hanley), Ab-Soul (Herbert Anthony Stevens IV), and Jay Rock (Johnny Reed McKinzie, Jr.), he was part of the hip-hop group Black Hippy. In 2009 he released a self-titled EP, Kendrick Lamar, as a free digital download on the TDE label, and has continued recording under this name.
In 2011 Lamar released his first studio album, Section.80, whose title refers to the section 8 housing in which he was raised as well as the decade in which he was born, the 1980s. Section.80 is a concept album unified by related narrative themes in which Lamar explores generational concerns related to being born during the years of the Reagan administration. Tracks such as “Kush and Corinthians (His Pain)” explore the tensions between morality (stemming from Lamar’s Christian faith) and the vices in which people around him engage (drugs, sex, gang violence, etc.). The production has a mellow, jazz-influenced feel, reminiscent of earlier conscious rap styles.
After the critical success of Section.80, Lamar, still working with TDE, signed a deal with the major record label Interscope Records and with fellow Compton-born producer Dr. Dre’s (Andre Romelle Young) imprint, Aftermath Entertainment. good kid, m.A.A.d. city (2012), his first album released on this label, is a concept album describing a day in the life of a 17-year-old Lamar as he drives around his hometown in his mother’s car. Like Section.80, good kid explores themes of self-deprecation, alcohol use and abuse, gang violence, and Christianity. In between some songs, the album features interludes consisting of voicemail messages from Lamar’s mother and father, and other skits. These recordings, sometimes mundane and sometimes steeped in religious themes, remind the listener that the rapper’s family and community is keeping him from living a life of gang violence and drug use. Musically, good kid shows the influence of West Coast gangsta rap. “The Art of Peer Pressure,” for example, harkens back to the era of Dr. Dre’s G-funk production style. Songs range from dark and menacing (“m.A.A.d. city” featuring MC Eigt), to laid back (“The Recipe” featuring Dr. Dre) and uplifting (“Real” featuring Anna Wise).
Lamar’s third studio album, To Pimp a Butterfly (2015), is the result of his work with a large number of collaborators, including producers such as Thundercat (Stephen Lee Bruner), Sounwave (Mark Spears), Terrace Martin, Flying Lotus (Steven Ellison), and Pharrell Williams; jazz musicians Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington; and vocalists SZA (Solána Imani Rowe) and Lalah Hathaway. The result of these collaborations is a sound heavily influenced by free jazz as well as funk, the latter heard especially in “King Kunta” and on the album’s opening track, “Wesley’s Theory,” which features vocals by George Clinton. The tracks on To Pimp a Butterfly deal heavily with issues of racism but move away from the highly personal and introspective approach of good kid in favor of more broad considerations of black experiences.
In 2018 Lamar won a Pulitzer Prize for music for his fourth studio album, DAMN. (2017). This album features more pop music characteristics than his previous work. This is especially evident in the album’s three official singles: “Humble,” “Loyalty” (featuring Rihanna), and “Love.” Dana Canedy, the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, told the New York Times that DAMN. was “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.” While Canedy was speaking about DAMN. specifically, this description could be applied to Lamar’s output more generally.
Kendrick Lamar’s musical style has incorporated elements of G-funk, jazz, funk, trap, and pop. In his rapping Lamar moves smoothly between metric subdivisions, such as triplets and quintuplets, while also maintaining a melodic, almost conversational flow. His lyrical approach significantly combines personal storytelling with reflections on broader issues related to black life in the United States. Both Lamar’s musical and lyrical styles have been influential on contemporary hip-hop. He has been lauded especially for his ability to have mainstream, commercial success while also rapping about politically and socially conscious topics—an overt lyrical style that many critics argue has been absent from mainstream rap since the early 1990s. In some ways Lamar bridges generational differences in hip-hop, bringing elements of gangsta rap from that era into the new millennium.
Section.80, Top Dawg Entertainment (2011)
good kid, m.A.A.d. city, Aftermath/Interscope/Top Dawg Entertainment (2012)
To Pimp a Butterfly, Aftermath/Interscope/Top Dawg Entertainment (2015)
untitled unmastered., Aftermath/Interscope/Top Dawg Entertainment (2016)
DAMN., Aftermath/Interscope/Top Dawg Entertainment (2017)
Black Panther: The Album, Aftermath/Interscope/Top Dawg Entertainment (2018)
- J. Eells: “The Trials of Kendrick Lamar,” Rolling Stone (July 7, 2016), https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/the-trials-of-kendrick-lamar-33057/
- J.A. Burton: Posthuman Rap (New York, 2017)
- J.D. McLeod, Jr.: “If God Got Us: Kendrick Lamar, Paul Tillich, and the Advent of Existentialist Hip Hop,” Toronto Journal of Theology, vol.33/1 (2017), 123–35
- J. Coscarelli: “Kendrick Lamar Wins Pulitzer in ‘Big Moment for Hip-Hop,”’ New York Times (April 16, 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/16/arts/music/kendrick-lamar-pulitzer-prize-damn.html
- J.B. Haile III: “Good kid, m.A.A.d city: Kendrick Lamar’s Autoethnographic Method,” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, vol.32/3 (2018), 488–98