A lot has developed since prolific Compton emcee Kendrick Lamar proclaimed he just “wanna be heard” in 2009. He changed his stage moniker from K. Dot to his real name and propelled himself into the realm of generational lyricists as well as “Top 3” associations for the decade to come. It’s safe to say, even with hiatuses between offerings, he is in fact still delivering quality projects at the peak of the rap game.
If there is anything that arguably separates Lamar from his peers at the top of the rap mountain, it is his ability to execute a dynamic composition. His albums follow some of the structures of the timeless projects that came before him, while also expanding upon their profundity. It is a tall task to rank one of the greatest consistent album constructor’s projects, but this list does its best to do his catalog justice.
8. Kendrick Lamar EP
If you go back and listen to Lamar’s music before this project under the moniker K. Dot, you can hear the difference. He had previously focused mainly on braggadocio-filled raps with skillful bars drawn from his various influences. Yet, on this EP he dove into his own internal vulnerability.
On “Faith,” he grappled with the role of religion in his life and whether the turmoil around him makes him question his beliefs. On “She Needs Me,” he reflected on losing a dedicated lover when he should’ve held her close. These storytelling elements elevated him to his sonic destiny, yet it was just the beginning, and he was still figuring it all out compositionally, thus landing this mixtape in last place overall.
7. untitled unmastered.
This roundup of leftovers from the To Pimp A Butterfly sessions presented Lamar as an elevated craftsman. While some of the tracks do in fact sound unfinished, the conceptual element of many of the cuts still outdid much of the other lyrical offerings of the year it arrived. Lamar also slipped a few pure slaps into the project, which didn’t quite fit in the TPAB realm. Yet, they did feel as if they led directly into where he was headed with DAMN. This was his most disjointed body of work, but that was exactly the point.
6. Overly Dedicated
What is arguably Lamar’s most underrated project from his mixtape era still lands on this list a bit low. That said, if Kendrick Lamar EP represented a shift, this project marked when the ideas of a cohesive K. Dot project started to materialize.
One of the most poignant Kendrick Lamar songs ever starts off the mixtape in “Growing Apart (To Get Closer),” where he raps himself into tears about the meaning of music in his life. Later you get “Opposites Attract (Tomorrow W/O Her),” where Lamar raps from both sides of a toxic relationship, diving headfirst into the gray areas of young love and lust. While the project does become a bit muddled toward the end, the universality and cohesion expressed here sounds like the precursor for everything truly falling into place.
The best of Lamar’s mixtape era is a body of work that holds its own with any of his studio albums. For the first time, he brings a clear through line with this project. His pitched-down narrator voice draws in ears speaking of the “Ronald Reagan Era” and “A.D.H.D” generation of ’80s babies who feel lost within the zeitgeist, yet power their way through in hopes of clarity and fulfillment.
Lamar balances equal parts vulnerability and philosophy here for the first time while maintaining a heavy hand in incisive raps. On “Ab-Soul’s Outro” featuring Ab-Soul, we get a resounding ideology from Lamar on his purpose, which carries him through his career: “I’m not on the outside looking in, I’m not on the inside looking out/ I’m in the dead f**king center looking around.” While some would qualify S ection.80 as messy compared to his later, more pristine masterpieces, that is in fact its lingering charm. Lamar was allowing space for imperfection while finding his true potential.
4. Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers
There is a connection of imperfection between S ection.80 and Lamar’s 2022 offering. As he dives headfirst into the process of internal excavation through therapy, it could be said that Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is the least composed of his studio albums. That said, the concept and peak moments shine with a distinct shimmer.
His multi-narrator messaging binds the book of the album as he finds which voice to listen to most clearly while he heals. Songs like “Count Me Out” and “Father Time” featuring Sampha provide an urgency in their catharsis about Lamar falling into harmful patterns and how to break free of them. The album isn’t perfect, but perfection was never the goal.
The Pulitzer winner. A masterful display of multigenerational sounds. Lamar moved back into including surefire radio hits like “LOVE.” and “LOYALTY.” featuring Rihanna, while also still getting experimental tracks like “YAH.” and “XXX.” He also made sure pure Hip Hop held its own with tracks like “FEEL.” and the jarring closer “DUCKWORTH.”
However, even with all of these songs, the biggest standouts that had videos aligned with them were “HUMBLE.,” “ELEMENT.” and “DNA.” These three tracks emphasized a necessary prideful display and balanced humility over emphatic textures that induced head nodding. Taking all this and still displaying a sonic arc of epiphany in gratitude and conviction was executed with a deft hand.
2. To Pimp A Butterfly
This is the album that many think should’ve been the Pulitzer winner. A departure album created within the confines of a jazz-filled commune of prodigal producers like Thundercat, Terrace Martin, Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington. The ever-growing poem — that aligns with the album and leads into a conversation with Tupac — contextualizes Lamar’s identity and societal grappling.
He searches for self-actualization and prophecy through whirling arrangements in a way that presents him as a singular entity in music. The album has had full-length books and college courses created on its behalf. TPAB will forever be a one-of-one offering with a resounding message, “We gon’ be alright.”
1. good kid, m.A.A.d city
The self-proclaimed “short film” and true first presentation of Kendrick Lamar as a fully realized person is still the greatest studio album he has ever produced. An instant classic designation was assigned to it and that label hasn’t left since. good kid, m.A.A.d city traverses time and space as it exists as a snapshot of the universality of adolescence.
“The Art of Peer Pressure” is as distinctly Compton as a song can be, but it still speaks to young men from every walk of life. “B**ch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” “Swimming Pools,” “Backseat Freestyle” and “Money Trees” are the most repeatable concert songs Kendrick has ever made, yet they fit distinctly within the confines of his most clearly conceptual album. The gut punch of “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” brings the entirety of his faith conundrum to a grounded lucidness that continues to resonate. It’s one of the best albums of all time.