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Revisiting "Overly Dedicated," The Album That Birthed Kendrick Lamar's Career

You can't understand Kendrick Lamar's career unless you understand "Overly Dedicated."
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Friday Night Lights was the soundtrack that blew from the speakers a chill that mirrored the icy wind of my Atlanta winter—the weather matched the subdued yet sanguine mood that the music teetered on. J. Cole picked the perfect time to emerge from the sidelines when he decided that November would be the month of his release.

He was still considered a new artist, one that beamed with potential, Friday Night Lights solidified why he was given Jay Z’s co-sign. To my surprise, he didn’t wait to reach the position of a mogul before giving out his own co-sign. In an interview that took place near the end of 2010, when asked about his favorite album of the year, I was ready for him to crown Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, maybe Eminem’s Recovery, or even Drake’s Thank Me Later. He didn’t name any of them. The person he named wasn’t on the radio, wasn’t big on blogs, I don’t think he had a major record deal. It was the first time that I heard of Kendrick Lamar and his album Overly Dedicated.    

When the album was finally in my eager possession, play was pressed with excitement, I wanted to hear the rapper that even J. Cole publicly adored. The first thing I realized was how much his voice was affecting the experience, youthful and scratchy with a touch of rasp, puberty never arrived to gift him a more mature tone. Imagine my disappointment, after a few songs I was back to playing Friday Night Lights trying to forget what I just heard. It wasn’t the most pleasant first impression but before being fed to my recycle bin I wanted to give him a second listen. I can’t explain what was different, but this time around the music hit me like an audio punch to the eardrums. “The Heart PT 2,” the album’s introduction, knocked me off my feet; the way his calm slowly became a calamity, the buildup of emotions was like a volcano going from dormant to eruption. The same scratchy, raspy voice was cloaked in relentless passion. The intense breathless flow that brings the song to a close left me wondering if he was human, questioning how I overlooked such obvious talent, my ears were opened, I was finally hearing what impressed J. Cole and what would eventually impress the world.

It’s been five years since the release of Overly Dedicated, looking back, this album foreshadowed the artist he would grow to be. Look at it as the demo tape that’s necessary to secure the label deal except it was released on iTunes and not passed around by A&Rs. While the Kendrick Lamar EP introduced the good kid, it was OD that displayed the more refined, polished rapper. He was far from the days of sounding like an off brand Lil Wayne, Kendrick found his voice and the confidence that it takes to make others believe in your vision.

Vision is one thing that Kendrick has, there are a lot of themes that appear on this album that became recurring throughout his career. One is alcohol, the song “P&P 1.5” is an early version of “Swimming Pools,” one that highlights two vices that he dives into. It's guaranteed to resonate with those who are going through something in life and are leaning on vices to be the umbrella in the storm; escapism at its finest. I also love that the song starts with a Martin skit before it was common knowledge that the '90s sitcom is his favorite series. The song "H.O.C" establish that Kendrick doesn’t smoke despite always being around it, it’s not until GKMC that we understand why. The album is full of glimpses into the Kendrick that we would later get to know in depth.

Another huge perspective is how he frames the city of Compton. We really get a partial view of a city where uncles are jailed, boys are fatherless, jobs aren’t kept, the innocent aren’t safe, relationships are turbulent, and money is the motivation that can drive the most upstanding citizen to the edge of despair. Even Kendrick, our protagonist, isn't above being tainted by d'evils, if his right on time conscience was a second late, he would be behind bars instead of rapping them. A lot of these nameless characters that inhabit his city who are trapped behind the barbed wire return as homies, enemies, lovers, and lessons that haunt and help him.

Kendrick makes being an average Joe relatable on all fronts, even if you never stepped foot into his hood, it’s easy to imagine yourself in his shoes. OD captures all the angst and frustrations of the growing pains that come with chasing a dream in a tunnel with little light. Religion is another heavy topic he continues to explore. Before speaking with Jesus and Lucifer on TPAB, we see how Kendrick imagined “Heaven & Hell” on the finale track. Sadly his voice fades out before he completes his view of Heaven. Notice that in the background of the cover are the faces of incredible artists who were immensely dedicated to their craft but died tragic deaths. It’s also worth noting that the Dash Snow snippet that plays at the beginning of “The Heart Pt 2” is extremely eerie when you realize that he died of a drug overdose. When you think about songs like “Sing About Me” and “U,” mortality and legacy are thoughts that he’s constantly exploring in his music.

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Overly Dedicated broke the barrier that separated Kendrick from the people and also his peers. J. Cole becoming a fan is what lead the two to become collaborators, and eventually brought us “HiiPower.” More important than his relationship with Cole, without Overly Dedicated, Dr. Dre doesn’t discover “Ignorance Is Bliss” on YouTube. That’s probably one of the most pivotal moments in Kendrick’s career. Not only did Overly Dedicated establish who Kendrick Lamar is, it also allowed the world to see the other artists, producers, and affiliates that were building the foundation for TDE’s dynasty.

This is back in 2010, ScHoolboy Q was just transitioning from hype man to rap artist. His verse on “Michael Jordan” did wonders in helping him break out as his own star. Ab-Soul was already becoming a name in the underground, his strong closing verse on "P&P 1.5" likely sent people searching for more. Those that did were treated with the mixtape Longterm 2: Lifestyles Of The Broke & Almost Famousthat came out early that same year, one of his best bodies of work I must say.

Jhené Aiko and BJ The Chicago Kid were practically unknown at the time, two songbirds that were trying to build a nest in the music industry, their stellar features were huge looks for both artists. While Ash Riser isn’t the most known artist, he is someone whose voice can be heard on every Kendrick album except GKMC. That’s a level of loyalty you don’t see every day in this industry. R.I.P to Alori Joh, another member of TDE that appears on the album who passed away in 2011. Tae Beast, Soundwave, and Willie B, before becoming the acclaimed TDE producers, were delivering quality production when the label was still on its ground floor. Without them, there is no TDE sound, there is no Kendrick Lamar. Even though Jay Rock is missing from this album, it’s been well documented that his presence has been critical for the growth of Kendrick and TDE.  

The Kendrick Lamar that we see today is much different than the man who rapped on this album. His album to album evolution is nothing short of astounding, somehow he continues to grow far beyond our imaginations. Even with all the changes, looking back, there’s still so much he carries from the past into his present. From the styles to the concepts, you can trace almost everything back to his earlier work, the first real album of his career. Overly Dedicated is essential in understanding where Kendrick was before adopting the alien voices or embracing a more experimental sound. This one is completely hip-hop, for those seeking a lyricist with ideas and substance.

This is where it all begins—the arrival of Kendrick Lamar.   


By Yoh, aka YohOD, aka @Yoh31

Photo Credit: iTunes



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