Kendrick Lamar treated fans to quite the gift with the release of his fifth studio album Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers this past May.
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Lamar has said that Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers will be his final album with Top Dawg Entertainment, writing in a letter, “As I produce my final TDE album, I feel joy to have been a part of such a cultural imprint after 17 years. The Struggles. The Success. And most importantly, the Brotherhood. May the Most High continue to use Top Dawg as a vessel for candid creators. As I continue to pursue my life’s calling. There’s beauty in completion. And always faith in the unknown. Thank you for keeping me in your thoughts. I’ve prayed for you all.”
Since releasing his debut album, Section.80, Lamar has gone on to win fourteen GRAMMYs, produce the soundtrack for the wildly successful Black Panther film, and even win a Pulitzer Prize for his groundbreaking 2019 album, DAMN. In honor of the arrival of Lamar’s final TDE album, we’re breaking down our favorites from Lamar’s monumental discography. Join us in reeling in Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers by tuning into our Kendrick Lamar Radio!
6 untitled unmastered.
Untitled Unmastered is a special treat from Lamar; this compilation album contains unreleased demos from To Pimp A Butterfly that incorporate genres like Jazz, Hip Hop and Funk. Even though the song’s titles are ambiguous (every song is titled 01, 02, etc), each track on the album contains something extremely unique and sonically gorgeous. “Untitled 07,” mesmerizes its listeners with the hook, “levitate, levitate, levitate, levitate” followed by an introspective look into Lamar’s role as a global artist, rapping, “Black excellence, pessimist, die countin' my coin, Hope it's evident that I inspired a thousand emcees to do better, I blew cheddar on youth centers, buildings and beamers and blue leather, Forecastin' my future, this is the future, The mastermind, until my next album, more power to you.” With other standout tracks like the philosophical “Untitled 02” and the groovy, “Untitled 08,” Lamar landed another masterpiece that incorporated effervescent West-Coast Hip Hop sounds while also furthering the social consciousness of his audience.
It’s hard to believe that this impressive album was Lamar’s debut. Released in 2011, Section.80 proves that Lamar has always been a master of his craft. From his very first album, Lamar was discussing hard-hitting themes like the 1980s crack epidemic, drug abuse and poverty. The album’s title, Section.80, refers to the Section 8 Housing Title Voucher Program, America’s largest rental assistance program. Songs like “Ronald Reagan Era: His Evils” depict how Reagan’s political agendas like the “War on Drugs” had racist consequences in cities across America. The track “ADHD” further explores the idea of modern drug abuse, with Lamar rapping, “You know when you part of Section.80, You feel like no one can relate, 'Cause you are, you are, a loner, loner, Marijuana endorphins make you stronger, stronger.” With other songs like “Keisha’s Song (Her Pain)” describing the agony of a prostitute, the album paints a picture of the detriments that the American political system have inflicted onto low-income neighborhoods. Even on his first album, Lamar was ready to paint a portrait of his city and highlight the strife that he saw growing up in his community.
4 good kid, m.A.A.d city
good kid, m.A.A.d city contains some of Lamar’s most beloved songs. Filled with great hooks and addictive lyrics on tracks like, “Backstreet Freestyle” and “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe,” this album is one that propelled Lamar to international acclaim. Lyrically, the album delves into Lamar’s upbringing in Compton; songs like “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” find Lamar playing with different narrators from Compton to help build a complex story of crime and strife in his community. Speaking about the song in an interview with Life + Time Decoded, Lamar said, “It’s an obvious true story. It hits home, as far as the past members of tragic situations that happened in my life. That one particular situation is my homeboy getting smoked while I’m right there, and I’m being the last one right there just seeing him take his last. [The verse is] his brother being irrevocable, a street cat, and him just thanking me for being right there, and wishing that he could’ve found a passion in something – maybe music, maybe sports – but [it’s] him recognizing the fact and truth that he was already in too deep.” Lamar does a particularly good job of taking painful situations he’s experienced and turning them into powerful and gripping tracks. While discussing the lead single off of the album, “Swimming Pools (Drank)” Lamar told Complex,“I wanted to do something that felt good, but had a meaning behind it at the same time. Really bringing that mainstream world to us, rather than a rapper with content along to the nation. What better way to make something universal than to speak about drinking? I wanted to do something that’s universal to everybody but still true to myself. I’m coming from a household where you had to make a decision—you were either a casual drinker or you were a drunk. That’s what that record is really about, me experiencing that as a kid and making my own decisions.” good kid, m.A.A.d city is a testament to Lamar’s ability to craft a story of his home that embodies both the beauty and darkness within the city.
3 Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers
Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers features a culmination of Lamar’s greatest strengths such as lyrically playing with different narratives and thematically exploring a wide range of topics like morality, queerness, cancel culture and fatherhood. As one of the strongest voices of our generation, Lamar always has a unique take on cultural phenomenons. For instance, the second track off of the album, “N95,” refers to the COVID-19 pandemic while also using the mask as a symbol for materialism and disguise, rapping, “Take off the Chanel, take off the Dolce, take off the Birkin bag, Take all that designer bulls*** off, and what do you have?” While Lamar knows that he has great insight to offer, on “Savior” he explores the topic of celebrity and how public figures are not saviors, rapping, “Kendrick made you think about it, but he is not your savior, Cole made you feel empower, but he is not your savior, Future said, ‘Get a money counter,’ but he is not your savior, 'Bron made you give his flowers, but he is not your savior, He is not your savior.” Referring to rappers like J Cole and Future as well as basketball star LeBron James, Lamar is reminding fans that even though influential figures help shape and define culture, true power comes from within and it is not always wise to put your faith in anyone but yourself. The song also features Lamar’s cousin, Baby Keem, who raps the chorus, “B****, are you happy for me? Really, are you happy for me? Smile in my face, but are you happy for me? Yeah, I’m out the way, are you happy for me?” Echoing the song’s theme of cultural influence, Baby Keem is questioning whether his fan’s love for him is genuine or if it will disappear overtime. With additional features from artists like Blxst and Summer Walker along with narration from philosopher Eckhart Tolle and even Lamar’s fiancé, Whitney Alford, this album serves as a final solicitous and cogitative reflection on not only our society but Lamar’s journey as an artist.
2 To Pimp A Butterfly
It’s hard to put into words the beauty and wisdom that Lamar weaved into To Pimp A Butterfly. The inspiration for the album largely derived from a trip the artist took to South Africa in 2014. During his stay, Lamar visited locations like Nelson Mandela’s jail cell that ultimately influenced the pertinent political and social themes he explores in TPAP. About his time in South Africa, Lamar told Complex, “I felt like I belonged in Africa. I saw all the things that I wasn’t taught. Probably one of the hardest things to do is put [together] a concept on how beautiful a place can be, and tell a person this while they’re still in the ghettos of Compton. I wanted to put that experience in the music.” Working with West Coast producers like Sounwave and Dr. Dre, Lamar pieced together an album that explores genres like Jazz, Funk, Soul within the influential sonic scope of Southern California Hip Hop. Throughout the album, Lamar pays homage to Compton artists like Mausberg whose track “Get Nekkid” inspired the beat to “King Kunta.” The musical styles in the album accentuate the lyrical themes of race, political corruption and bigotry in America. “King Kunta” specifically refers to the stereotypes and discrimination that Black people face in America, with Lamar telling MTV in an interview, "In the state of just being a Black man, I've been called many things. From my ancestors, they’ve been called many things. But it's taking that negativity and being proud of it and making it into your own. Saying I am a king no matter what you call me." While every song on this album is incredibly idiosyncratic, songs like “Alright” and “The Blacker The Berry'' standout for Lamar’s ability to utilize his own musical introspection to reflect the Black experience in America. With features from artists like Snoop Dogg and Funkadelic’s George Clinton, To Pimp A Butterfly is a feat in utilizing the power of music to philosophically progress and understand the American psyche.
Kendrick Lamar’s fourth studio album, DAMN., might be one of the most thoughtful and masterful albums in the history of music. The album finds Lamar talking himself through various moral dilemmas that function as the titles to the tracks. The song “LOYALTY.” featuring Rihanna explores the trials and tribulations of being in a faithful relationship, while the song “PRIDE.” warns of the arrogance that can arise from having too much hubris. The sample for "PRIDE" comes from the artist 9th wonder, whose voice croons, “Love's gonna get you killed, But pride's gonna be the death of you, and you and me.” While these songs explore a more introspective morality, tracks like “XXX” dive into the American political system and dangers of gun violence, with Lamar rapping, “The great American flag, Is wrapped and dragged with explosives, compulsive disorder, sons and daughters, Barricaded blocks and borders, Look what you taught us, It's murder on my street, your street, back streets, Wall street, corporate offices, banks. Employees and bosses with homicidal thoughts, Donald Trump's in office, we lost Barack, and promised to never doubt him again. But is America honest or do we bask in sin?” Overall, this Pulitzer Prize winning album from Lamar is a gorgeous ode that probes the essence of human life at both its greatest and lowest moments. The leading single off of the album, “Humble,” ironically earned the rapper his first number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100. With gorgeous production from artists like Sounwave, The Alchemist, James Blake, Mike WiLL Made-It and many other incredible producers, DAMN. is quite literally one for the history books as it guides us through Lamar’s perception of being a citizen of America in the 21st century.