Kung-Fu Kenny a.k.a. K-Dot but best known as Kendrick Lamar is one of the headliners at this weekend’s Rolling Loud festival and will be one of the most anticipated acts the young festival’s ever booked.
The California rapper has already collected seven Grammy Awards with just three major-label album releases and with the release of his most recent album, “DAMN.,” he’s in “greatest of all time” conversations.
But if none of this sounds familiar or if you’re wondering how a rapper who used to want to be like Michael Jordan is in the same conversation as all-time greats like Tupac, The Notorious B.I.G. and Jay Z, here’s a primer on some of his work.
Overly Dedicated (2010)
“The Heart Pt. 2” ft. Dash Snow
Lamar, under his old moniker K-Dot, had a few mixtapes and an EP under his belt but 2010’s Overly Dedicated is what essentially put him on the map. This song opens the mixtape and features some of the early signs of Lamar’s ability to switch up his delivery and deliver gut-punching lines.
“Growing Apart (From Everything) “ft. Jhene Aiko
One of the first examples of Lamar’s “love songs.” On this song he talks about the difficulty of keeping his relationships intact as he pursues his rap dreams. But, as with much of Kendrick’s work, the song isn’t that straightforward and the other verses are about abstract relationships with hip-hop and his religious relationship with God.
The track begins with Kendrick saying the hardest job he has is to get his persona across in just a 16-bar verse. If it was difficult, you can’t really tell as Kendrick jumps right in and gives an early picture of the “good kid” in the mad city of Compton. Despite the gang banging all around him he says he’s not a gangster or a killer he’s just the average, everyday rapper.
Playing off one of Section.80’s themes, this song is a look at the “crack babies” born of the late ‘80s and how they find ways to cope in modern times. Almost every line filled with vices that Kendrick feels his generation has embraced because of their environment. It’s haunting and a good primer for the deeper subjects Lamar would touch on in later albums.
This is one of the most braggadocious and direct displays of Lamar’s speedy delivery. The horns kick in to get you hype at the beginning and by the final verse Kendrick is rapping at such a speed about killing the competition that it’s easy to feel like collateral damage in a rap war you didn’t sign up for.
One of the first anthems in Lamar’s discography, He asks the listener to “stand for something, or die in the morning” and proclaimed that he’d write his own hieroglyphics over a smooth J. Cole-produced beat. It’s a deceptively quiet song with a bigger message about standing up against oppressive systems.
good kid, m.A.A.d. City (2012)
This song is Kendrick playing the role of boisterous rap superstar as he brags about the women he’s got and prays that he can get uhh…”intimate” with the world for three days in an Eiffel Tower-sized way. But the trick of it all is that in the story of this album it’s Lamar rapping to impress his boys as they ride through Compton and by the album’s end he’s much more solemn and remorseful.
“m.A.A.d. City” ft. MC Eiht
This song is essentially two songs in one and begins with a more aggressive beat and almost exasperated delivery from Kendrick as he sounds like he’s fighting off the demons of his Compton upbringing. About halfway into the track, Kendrick becomes the pupil to MC Eiht’s wise professor as he gives him a brief history of what Compton was and how surviving is just as crucial as it was in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The song then ends with a funk sample that would make Dr. Dre proud.
“Sing About Me, Dying of Thirst”
Another multi-faceted track on this album, Kendrick turns into a full-on storyteller portraying multiple characters and points of view all within a few verses. He tells the story of several characters that have been part of both this album and Section.80 before questioning himself. The second part of this track is a lamentation on gun violence, life in his hood and his own sins before closing with a skit that includes a remorseful prayer.
To Pimp a Butterfly (2015)
This song has gone on to become an anthem for the #BlackLivesMatter movement and for activists around the world. Despite listing off many of the ills of the world, the song’s message is one of the simplest in Kendrick’s discography: “we gon’ be alright.” Even on dark and difficult days, there’s still some hope.
Kendrick touches on how things have changed for him since achieving fame and this song begins with a voicemail from one his homies essentially checking him on that he’s becoming a “weirdo” rapper and never answering the phone. In his verses, Kendrick seems to respond to that voicemail by stating that he’s remained as real as when he was simply a young K-Dot and that he’s not concerned with politics.
This song’s upbeat and self-affirming message was first released in 2014 but the album version is a live take on the song and as the final verse ends a fight seems to break out in the crowd. Kendrick takes the opportunity to address the crowd in an effort to stop infighting in the community by pointing out that the youth don’t have time waste as so many young black men lose their lives to gun violence.
untitled unmastered. (2016)
untitled 05 | 09.21.2014 ft. Anna Wise, Punch and Jay Rock
This compilation album mostly serves as the b-sides and demos from the recording of To Pimp a Butterfly and this jazzy track is just an example of how comfortable Kendrick can sound on a beat that’s mostly pianos and cymbals crashing over a bass line. The song is also a nice showcase for Kendrick’s labelmates Punch and Jay Rock.
untitled 07 | 2014-2016
This song’s here solely because the first part is a jam and the repetitive “levitate” from Kendrick is just too catchy to ignore. The message is another common through line in Kendrick’s music that drugs and other vices can’t truly serve as a substitute for things like music and spirituality. The rest of the track is notable as the second part features a beat made by producer Swizz Beatz’s son, Egypt. The final section of the song is Kendrick showing off his comedic side as he plots out an ideal love song in the studio and envisions his live performance.
untitled 08 | 09.06.2014
Another bouncy and funky song filled with the uplift of songs like “i” and “Alright.” Kendrick implores the listener to get rid of feeling blue and by the end of the third verse he’s shifted points of view (because of course he did) to the perspective of a poor resident of Cape Town challenging the shallow complaints that so many Americans have when compared with real struggles.
The song jumps out right after audio plays from a Fox News segment at the end of the album’s first track. Kendrick pulls no punches while indirectly referring to his rap competition and says his DNA (and his style) are not for imitation. The genius of this song is when the beat shifts following more Fox News audio from Giraldo Rivera, as he blames hip-hop for issues among young black people. Kendrick is nearly shouting as he raps over a looping Rick James vocal sample and booming bass to close out the track.
“LOYALTY.” ft. Rihanna
Kung-Fu Kenny and Bad Girl RiRi on the same track is an idea that pretty much sells itself but the song delves into the idea of trust and asks the listener to really consider who they trust, who they’re loyal to and if their loyalty is only based on what they get out of a relationship.
Kendrick has been revealing his origin story and telling the stories of both real and fictional characters from his life but this is perhaps his most pure and direct storytelling showcase. Lamar walks through the life of Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, the founder of the independent label that Lamar’s signed to–Top Dawg Entertainment. The song walks through Tiffith’s struggles until it gets to a pivotal moment and shows how just a few differ