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Kendrick Lamar

  • O.verly D.edicated [DatPiff download, 2010] A-
  • Section.80 [Top Dawg download, 2011] B+
  • good kid, m.A.A.d city [Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope, 2012] A-
  • To Pimp a Butterfly [Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope, 2015] A-
  • untitled unmastered. [Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope, 2016] A-
  • Damn. [Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope, 2017] A-
  • Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers [PGLand/Top Dawg Entertainment/Aftermath/Interscope, 2022] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

O.verly D.edicated [DatPiff download, 2010]
Despite Young Thug, Nicki Minaj, the incomparable Lil Wayne, etc., my working assumption is that mixtapes are uneven-by-design promotional come-ons doubling as status markers for early adopters. But with the artist formerly known as K-Dot so iconic he's marketing outtakes as a concept album, it was clearly time to check out this easily downloaded 2010 double-dare-ya, the crown jewel of more freebies than I can list. And soon I found it was on a par with official debut Section.80. Only three classics: the besotted "Alien Girl," the merely sexed-up "P&P 1.5," and "Average Joe," a position paper for the gangsta realism to follow. But the many cameos document a party-crashing crew utterly delighted by how good they are at this shit. There's a sense of fun and antic possibility here Lamar abjured on his road to iconicity. In pop music, that's a spiritual resource there's never enough of. A-

Section.80 [Top Dawg download, 2011]
The Dr. Dre-anointed Lamar isn't a guy who writes a lot of indelible songs yet, especially if you try to find them toward the top of his much-praised second album. Thus he's liable to leave the curious wondering what the fuss is about. But as I re-relistened I noticed myself perking up with every hook. Not that every track has or wants one, but that, for instance, the sung intros to the cosmetics debate "No Make-Up (Her Vice)," track four, and then the crack generation shout-out "Ronald Reagan Era," track seven, come as well-timed structural respites from his thoughtfully private to defensively street raps, which have their musicality too. And then, just when you're thinking not bad at all, come some songs. B+

good kid, m.A.A.d city [Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope, 2012]
The rap-versus-real dichotomy Saigon moralizes anthemically Lamar enacts softspokenly in this so-called "short film." (Concept album? In 2012? Nah.) The accuracy of its intimate autobiographical details is irrelevant--what matters is that this album helps you feel the internal struggles of a good kid who may not be good enough as he risks derailing his life by succumbing to the kneejerk loyalty, petty criminality, and gang warfare of the hood he calls home. Nobody is heroic here, including Lamar--from Christian strivers to default sociopaths, all the players are confused, weary, bored, ill-informed, with disconcertingly naturalistic, almost verit? skits dramatizing their limitations. The commitment to drama has musical drawbacks--there are no dancefloor bangers here, and not many fully distinct songs, although more hooks than you'll first believe. But the atmospheric beats Dr. Dre and his hirelings lay under the raps and choruses establish musical continuity, shoring up a nervous flow that's just what Lamar's rhymes need. A-

To Pimp a Butterfly [Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope, 2015]
What I admire most and enjoy most about this album is that it addresses African-Americans straight up and leaves the rest of the hip-hop audience to listen in if it wants. It's a strong, brave, effective bid to reinstate hip-hop as black America's CNN--more as op-ed than front page, but in the Age of Twitter that's the hole that needs filling. Fortunately, the concept starts with the music, which eschews party bangers without foregoing groove, sampling rhythm godfathers P-Funk, Michael Jackson, and the Isley Brothers and building a house band around jazz pianist Robert Glasper and what-you-got bassist Thundercat. But it's even more racially explicit in lyrics that don't protest racism because what good does that ever do--just assumes it as a condition of life for his people, root cause of the cultural breakdowns he laments and preaches against throughout. Acknowledged only in passing is a mega-success too obvious to go on about, not to mention enjoy--a privilege that's also a temptation, to which he responds not with hater paranoia but with a depressive anxiety that resurfaces as a narrative hook without ever starting a pity party. Lamar knows he's got it good. For his people he wants better. Few musicians of any stylistic persuasion are so thoughtful or so ardent. Few musicians have so little need of a hooky review. A-

untitled unmastered. [Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope, 2016]
I can't stand Bilal's endless Barry White impression, "untitled 07" proves the young artiste is right to question his own self-regard, and to beware of the crappy jazz lesser rappers will soon foist on a gullible marketplace. Right, even these negatives have positives--with Bilal sated "untitled 01" sets an aptly apocalyptic tone, Lamar doesn't wander out of control until the last third of that overblown eight-minute track, and Thundercat's exceptional bass finds drums to match all over the record. Moreover, the darkness of tone suits the connoisseurship and marginality this side project's format and release strategy insist on. So right, said project is worthwhile, occasionally exciting. But in addition to untitled and unmastered, it's unfinished, and a bit of a cheat. A-

Damn. [Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope, 2017]
Thematically, these thoughts of a pushing-30 superstar are almost conventional compared to the rest of his official output--good kid, m.A.A.d city's top-this narrative, To Pimp a Butterfly's political ambition and jazz-hip sweep, even untitled, unmastered's barrel-scraping scatter. Old head Greg Tate is reminded of De La Soul Is Dead--it's the kind of album you make after you've experienced fame's drawbacks from the inside. But this one's much harder to resist. Lamar's pensive self-doubt and modest buying habits are reassuring if you wish him well as a person, as why shouldn't you, and the simple keys-percussion-chorus beats flatter his cushiony timbre. Musically, Damn. is as calm as To Pimp a Butterfly is ebullient; lyrically, its only misstep is a pseudo-scriptural "don't call me black no more" that inspired Tate to quote Franz Fanon. Remaining skeptics should proceed directly to what vinyl fetishists know as side two, with its hit single, its "Lust"-to-"Love," its remembrance of ass-whuppings past, and its autobiographical miracle. He got what he wanted without squandering what he had. A-

Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers [PGLand/Top Dawg Entertainment/Aftermath/Interscope, 2022]
Five years after his unprecedented not to say dumbfounding Pulitzer, Compton's favorite son returns with an album only he could make. Rags-to-riches miracles are a pop music meme because in few other endeavors is the transformation so lickety-split, so unpredictable. That said, however, not many instant cynosures have the guts or brains to make much artistically of the privilege and displacement that come with instant riches and renown--that's Beatles and Dylan territory, maybe in their very different ways Prince and Neil Young, and in not one of these cases was Pulitzer-size validation part of the deal. So it's to Lamar's credit that many of his new songs deal so unbraggadociously with the obvious theme of how bizarre and confusing fame and the sudden wealth it generates can be. Sure he buys the impossible cars and exotic timepieces that signify status in hip-hop. But he doesn't so much show them off as check the appropriate boxes while admitting that he doesn't know what to make of his riches. Nor does he brag about the pussy-chasing "lust addiction" with which he saddles the long-suffering Whitney, his fiancee of seven years, the mother of his two children, and perhaps too the inspiration for the raw six-minute spoken-word exchange with Taylor Paige that Lamar unloads smack in the middle of the album, rendering it impossible to play front-to-back as music solely: a mean, painfully detailed sex fight in which the two lovers insult each other till almost the end, when out of nowhere they start to fuck instead. Also of note is the one that begins "My auntie is a man now/I think I'm old enough to understand now." Not that he does, necessarily. But anyone unimpressed that he has the decency to bring it up is living in a bubble. A-

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