Kendrick Lamar is the rapper’s rapper of the 2010s. His breakout 2010 mixtape O(verly) D(edicated) and his 2011 debut studio album Section.80 were both ground-level musings signaling Lamar as rap’s next eloquent everyman. Both his 2012 major-label debut good kid, m.A.A.d. city and its follow up, 2015’s To Pimp A Butterfly, flexed his conceptual muscles while breaking new ground for rap’s relationship to both cinema and jazz. His bars refused to toe the lines of rap, blending influence and mediums without ever losing their general appeal.
One of Kendrick’s most valuable gifts is his showmanship, which allows him to rap from as many perspectives as necessary in service of his ultimate point. He can serve high-octane party songs painting neutral portraits of gang violence and alcohol abuse and tongue-twisting parables about an entire neighborhood’s relationship to God in the same series of tracks. 2017’s DAMN. followed in lockstep, collapsing weighty questions about faith and Godliness into a handful of digestible narratives. Kendrick’s views on women, at times, are stuck in the past, but his willingness to widen his lens lends his perspective more credence.
Kendrick’s panoramic view has taken him as far as his rapping skills have over the last decade. The five songs I’ve chosen to encapsulate Kendrick’s decade touch on every corner of his expertise: his conceptual writing, his flair for deceptively thoughtful pop hits, and his exceptional technical skill. This is the story of Mr. Duckworth.
“The Heart Pt. 2” (2010)
Kendrick’s breakout mixtape O(verly) D(edicated) begins with a moment of confusion. He doesn’t know whether the verse for “The Heart Pt. 2” should be written or rhymed off the dome. He’s questioning his faith in God (“Lord knows that I know better, but I ain’t perfect / I ain’t seen too many churches or know them testament verses”). He’s facing down death itself. In a moment, it all becomes clear: “Fuck a funeral, just make sure you pay my music respect, nigga.” All of this happens within 24 seconds of his first line.
Over an extended recording of The Roots’ “A Piece of Light,” Kendrick approaches concepts and topics he will spend the rest of his career grappling with: religion, gang violence, the music industry, and Ninja Turtles. There’s no questioning God’s will on 2017’s DAMN. without Kendrick first questioning himself on “The Heart Pt. 2.” Here we have Kendrick’s insecurities and raw emotions bubbling over for the first time; it’s the pour-your-heart-out moment to end all pour-your-heart-out moments. “The Heart Pt. 2” is the Big Bang of Kendrick’s professional career.
If you were a young rap fan scouring YouTube in 2011, chances are you came across this song. Section.80 drew the rap world’s attention for many reasons, but few songs on the album were as lyrically dexterous as “Rigamortis.” The infamous fast-paced sample of Willie Jones III’s “The Horn” demands nothing less. Kendrick begins by informing listeners it’s his third take, a move meant to bring him down to Earth. But even at his most humble, the Kendrick Lamar of 2011 is out to kill your favorite rapper.
Make no mistake—this record isn’t a vapid lyrical circle made to coax listens out of mechanical gymnastics. Bodies are caught all over the track. “Rigamortis” is a precision attack; a balance of flows, breath control, and lyrical savagery (“don’t be forging all my signatures, my listeners reply / And tell me that you biting style, you got a hell of an appetite”) brash enough to pop heads across hip-hop’s age spectrum. With “Rigamortis,” Kendrick put his pen to good use by baiting the trap: Come for the fast raps, stay for the thoughtful meanderings. The second verse still gives chills.
“Swimming Pools (Drank)” (2012)
“Swimming Pools (Drank)” wasn’t the first time Kendrick disguised a powerful message with a radio-ready beat. “A.D.H.D.” utilizes a roll call of drugs on its hook while deconstructing drug tolerance in a jaded youth on its verses. “Swimming Pools (Drank)” supercharged the bait-and-switch formula. Here was a song that sounded like any number of liquor anthems on the radio, chased with a harrowing story of alcoholism. Kendrick even spends the song’s second verse in a wrestling match with his conscience and on the verge of alcohol poisoning.
Kendrick’s story is both gripping and unsanctimonious. Sympathy comes easier for a man openly grappling with his own life instead of talking down from a pedestal to the rest of the party. Millions of people can relate to the art of peer pressure behind, asking, “Why you babysitting only two or three shots?” “Swimming Pools (Drank)” is a watershed moment in Kendrick’s discography for two reasons: It can move crowds like the best of his hits can (“m.A.A.d. City,” “Money Trees,” “HUMBLE.”) and it was the first of Kendrick’s singles to turn his Trojan horse messaging into a smash hit.
“Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst” (2012)
good kid, m.A.A.d. city is a conceptual house of cards stacked together with meticulous detail. Nowhere does the connective tissue come to a head as dramatically as on “Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst.” The first half of the song ties together three of the album’s loose ends:
- The brother of a slain friend from a previous skit showing appreciation before being gunned down himself.
- The sister of a sex worker Kendrick unfairly judged on a song from Section.80 issues a kiss-off.
- Kendrick himself addressing both while contemplating death and his relevance in the rap game.
Righting present wrongs as a means to repent for the past isn’t a morally bulletproof approach, a fact Kendrick seems to understand. The song’s second half delves into Kendrick attempting to atone for his sins in the eyes of both God and his mother, ending with the moment where he ceases to be the kid who could barely remember bible verses from “The Heart Pt. 2.” The payoff of “Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst” was all the encouragement he needed to keep those muscles sharp for future projects.
Yes, I know, this final selection was predictable, but how could “Alright” not be the end of the road? To Pimp A Butterfly expands Kendrick’s eye for detail to macro status, shining a light on a fundamentally broken world. As a whole, the album is incensed with its surroundings. Survivor’s guilt over the racism and poverty he left in his beloved Compton eat at the edges of Kendrick’s sanity as he lashes out over jazzy beats equally ready to spill over in protest. From the boisterous “King Kunta” to the blistering self-effacement of “u,” much of To Pimp A Butterfly features Kendrick Lamar at his most pissed-off.
“Alright” cuts through the clutter. In fact, “Alright” is the album’s blinding light of hope. All of the vices and ills surrounding Kendrick and, by extension, the Black America of 2015, take a seat on the back burner as producer Pharrell Williams’ beat swells: “I’m at the preacher’s door / My knees gettin’ weak and my gun might blow, but we gon’ be alright.” The sense of triumph is palpable. “Alright” was as much a balm for Kendrick’s cynicism as it was when it became an unofficial chant for Black Lives Matter protests in real life. Sometimes, the most straightforward message is the most effective: “We gon’ be alright.”