Artist of the Decade: Kendrick Lamar

Duality has always been a facet of the overarching narrative of hip-hop. At its core, the music is woven together, with every rapper contributing a different part of the same anthology of stories. Every release adds to a sort of invisible balance that gives the audience a temperature check on the overall health of hip-hop at any given time. Throughout the 2010s, Kendrick Lamar single-handedly kept this gauge balanced.

Without discrediting the host of other incredible MCs that emerged during the decade, Kendrick’s role in moving the genre forward was bigger, and bolder. Through a near-perfect run of releases, his music built a new environment for contemporary hip-hop to live in, and recast the ambition of the rappers attempting to play in his house. As brilliant and as “conscious” as he is, Kendrick Lamar, very early in his career, understood the importance of amplifying dynamics—morality alongside pleasure, exasperation in tandem with hope, pain as a catalyst for redemption— to give us a front row seat into his ever-changing emotions, ideas, and feelings that led him to produce the most consistently inspiring work of the 2010s.

On December 31, 2009, the artist formerly known as K-Dot reintroduced himself as Kendrick Lamar with a self-titled EP that ran over an hour long—so, not an EP at all—and offered a clear indication that Kendrick, and his camp, might not be all that interested in playing by the rules. To follow up, he released a companion piece to the full-length EP, Overly Dedicated. The project ended up outshining its parent, garnering Kendrick accolades on the blogs of the time with personal songs about childhood, family, and relationships like “Cut You Off (To Grow Closer)” and “Average Joe” alongside a Lex Luger-esque, Schoolboy Q-introducing knucklehead banger “Michael Jordan” and a beautifully introspective manifesto with “The Heart Pt. 2.”

It wasn’t just his versatility that stood out, but also the distance between his subject matter and how comfortably he was able to shift between them. By the end of the year, he’d effectively carved out a niche for himself, building up a following of fans, peers, and critics alike, including his Compton, California hometown hero, Dr. Dre.

While a bigger deal between Dre and Kendrick’s label owner Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith was brewing, he readied the pivotal Section.80. On “The Spiteful Chant”, Kendrick says “Everybody heard that I fuck with Dre and they want to tell me I made it / N*****, I ain’t made shit, if he gave me a handout, I’ma take his wrist and break it.” As he was about to venture off into super stardom, partly off the impending Dre backing, it was a point for Kendrick to establish that he has made it on his own merit. He went extra hard on Section.80 to prove he could make a classic before the big budgets and official co-signs were involved. It will always be part of Kendrick Lamar’s legacy that he laid a foundation as a successful independent artist, before taking off, and Section.80 exemplifies that.

A year later, it didn’t take much to unearth the dichotomies in good kid, M.A.A.D. city. For the hyped Kendrick Lamar—at that point, hip-hop’s next chosen messiah—to speak so candidly about navigating feelings of ostracisation in his own neighbourhood, saw him immediately cash in on that hype as audiences who might’ve initially come for the bars were able to connect and relate to Kendrick on a deeper level. For an artist as young as Kendrick to be so vulnerable was a breath of fresh air.

Kendrick lays out his options in “Money Trees” picking between “Halle Berry or hallelujah,” using references to sexual attraction and religion to symbolize instant gratification and doing the right thing. It’s something Kendrick has had to balance as an artist as well; delivering hit songs—leaning on current trends to help attain radio play—or aiming for individualism and originality in timeless albums.

When the 2014 Grammys chose to bestow Macklemore with all of Kendrick Lamar’s awards for good kid while also asking him to share the stage with Imagine Dragons for his performance at the ceremony—which, arguably, actually wasn’t that bad—it seemed like Kendrick had finally taken a loss. But there was triumph in this defeat: It further galvanized hip-hop fans around Kendrick Lamar.

In 2016, he went on to win six Grammys for the critically-lauded To Pimp A Butterfly, a rich, sprawling album that saw Kendrick’s sound move deeper into jazz and funk while speaking about the Black experience in America on a broader level. The record’s rallying cry, “Alright,” became immortalized as an unofficial anthem during Black Lives Matter protests.

DAMN. saw Kendrick Lamar winning five more Grammys in 2017, and a Pulitzer Prize in Music. The album was Kendrick Lamar hitting on all cylinders; covering themes of family, Blackness, and destiny through tight, melodic, catchy bursts. The absolute slapper “HUMBLE.”, featuring production from Mike WiLL Made-It was still an unapologetically “Kendrick” song, landed at #1 on the Hot 100. He put together a soundtrack for Black Panther in 2018 and continues to turn in jaw-dropping guest spots for everyone from Beyoncé to Taylor Swift (his other #1, “Bad Blood” in 2015)—not that he’ll ever do one that could garner more response than his name-naming verse on Big Sean’s “Control” in 2013—to keep his catalog varied and relevant.

It matters to listify Kendrick’s decade in chronological order because at the tail-end of 2019, recognizing his accomplishments provides an opportunity to remember his growth. It’s not only that he comfortably straddles the line between pop classics and backpack rap, or that he effortlessly bounces from sage wisdom to brash ignorance, it’s the fact that Lamar has structured his career to reject sonic and thematic binaries at every juncture. Alongside his undeniable talent, it’s the secret to his accessibility, relatability, and impact. And it’s one of the reasons why he was so captivating during a decade that ultimately became his.