Kendrick Lamar is the rare musician to enjoy being called the “greatest rapper alive,” a testament to his uncanny power as a verbal pugilist, his intoxicatingly complex lyrical themes and no small amount of pop savvy. But the MC didn’t emerge as a fully formed virtuoso. Instead, much like Jay Z in the years before his 1996 debut, Reasonable Doubt, Lamar honed his technique out of the spotlight for years, save for a few cameos with boldfaced names like the Game and help from music industry mentors. When the world was finally ready to hear Lamar, he was ready.
** The Hub City Threat: Minor of the Year (YNIC) (Konkrete Jungle Muzik, 2004 or 2005)
**1/2 Training Day (Top Dawg Ent., 2007)
*** No Sleep ‘Til NYC (with Jay Rock) (Top Dawg Ent., 2007)
**1/2 C4 (Top Dawg Ent.) (Top Dawg Ent., 2009)
***1/2 Kendrick Lamar EP (Top Dawg Ent., 2009)
***1/2 OD: Overly Dedicated (Top Dawg Ent., 2010)
Lamar has long said that he and DJ Dave Free made Hub City Threat (2004 or 2005), a tape that helped him land a deal with then-local rap label Top Dawg Entertainment, when he was 16. However, he freestyles over the Game and 50 Cent’s fall 2004 hit “How We Do,” which means he would have finished the project at the age of 17. (Details are murky since the demo wasn’t widely distributed on the internet until 2013.) Regardless, Hub City sounds like the work of a teenager, albeit one who’d eventually mature into the best in the business. He has an unerring sense of rhythm and timing, but his flow is overly beholden to thought leaders like Jay Z and Lil Wayne, and his off-the-dome bars are clumsy: “I’m a talented brother/Plus I move so quick/It’s like my name came with a joystick,” he raps over Jay Z’s “Hovi Baby.” There’s one original track, “Compton Life,” a would-be radio single that celebrates “Chevy lights/Women you like.”
Thanks to TDE’s mentorship, Training Day (2007) sounds better than his neophyte debut, with more varied production and a well-executed (if somewhat cliché) concept that intersperses snippets of Denzel Washington in full “King Kong ain’t got nothin’ on me” mode. Though Lamar still occasionally stumbles with an eye roll-inducing couplet, he had certainly improved as a rapper. “You forgot you left the West Coast for dead, play it off/Like the paramedics was coming, instead we dusted off/Pulled the bullet out of our heads, left a permanent scar,” he raps impressively on “Good Morning America,” one of the tape’s few original tracks. He also alludes to his short-lived development deal with Def Jam, which led to studio time but not much else. “Does he really fuck with President Carter/My reply is that I can’t stay away from the bosses,” he brags during a freestyle over DJ Khaled’s “Grammy Family.” Plus, there’s the added pleasure of hearing him rhyme over a J Dilla beat, namely Slum Village’s “Players.”
By the time of No Sleep Til NYC (2007), Lamar’s collaborative tape with then-TDE breadwinner Jay Rock, he had evolved into a terrific bar-for-bar microphone fiend. It’s fun to hear the duo (along with TDE family like Ab-Soul, Punch and Bo) spit punchlines over vintage Eighties and Nineties beats. Check how Lamar casually twists Jay Z’s opening bar on “Brooklyn’s Finest” to his own ends: “Peep the style and the way the cops sweat us/Artillery, got a gun for every letter/In the alphabet, while your family in pajamas/I’ll be stepping in your house like Alpha Beta Gamma.” He also offered a decent 2Pac impression on the latter’s “Death Around the Corner,” and recites the Notorious B.I.G.’s first verse on “Kick in the Door” word for word. No Sleep Til NYC is a fun cipher session, nothing more, nothing less.
Oddly, Lamar then embarked on a tape-long tribute to Lil Wayne’s 2008 world conqueror Tha Carter III, which his camp promoted as “blessed” by Weezy himself. (Wayne and Jay Rock collaborated on a track for the latter’s would-be Warner Bros. debut Follow Me Home. After Jay Rock left the label, Tech N9ne’s Strange Music released the album in 2011.) Given the fact that Lil Wayne’s No Ceilings – which many fans consider the last great release of his classic “best rapper alive” era – dropped around the same time, Lamar’s C4 (2009) felt like a wrongheaded homage to a year-old, well-worn album. There are a few interesting but inessential digressions. On “Compton Chemistry,” Lamar propagates a “how to make crack” stereotype over a loop of David Axelrod’s “Holy Thursday.” Somewhat better is “West Coast Wu-Tang,” a roundelay with Ab-Soul and Punch where he brags, “I’m in the booth with an apron/Cooking up shit like Martha Stewart was my bitch.” He tries to posit “I’m Single” as a pseudo-trap jam in the key of Shawty Lo, but it falls flat.
Stung by criticism over C4, Lamar returned with the first standout project of his career. Kendrick Lamar EP (2009) is redolent of peak blog-rap – there’s a track, “Is It Love,” where he delivers a long verse that reads like a soliloquy over a wash of laptop blues, just like Mickey Factz, Charles Hamilton and other then-leaders of the new cool. Yet the EP is also a Rosetta Stone of ideas Lamar would perfect in the near future. On “Thanksgiving,” he refers to himself as a “good kid from the mad city holding a cereal box instead of a glock.” For “Faith,” he describes himself as a man who embraces God out of necessity as well as love: “And this from a person who never believed in religion/But shit my life is so fucked up I can’t help but give in.” Throughout, he unburdens himself with disarming honesty. Gone are the dreams of being the next Jay Z and pretending that he’s a gang-banging shooter out of Compton. He doesn’t waste time freestyling over radio hits anymore, instead focusing on his songwriting over lovely yet doleful production by Sounwave, Dave Free and others. “She Needs Me” is a generous and perhaps even feminist take on romance. He harmonizes the chorus for “P&P,” a melancholic song that shows how the working class distracts itself from everyday troubles with liquor and sex: “I grew up with killers, man/People who killed men/But my character never could be like them, man/And they respect that/Say that I’m real, man,” he protests on “Let Me Be Me,” leaving behind once and for all past gangsta pretensions like “Compton Chemistry.” And in a preview of the rivalry Lamar would nourish with Drake – who dominated conversations at the time with his So Far Gone mixtape – he raps on “Determined,” “She listening to Drake/And all I can say/Is damn, these niggas that much better than me, baby?”
The excellent, cathartic Kendrick Lamar EP didn’t get the major attention it deserved, but it restored his reputation, and the single “She Needs Me” fomented enough of an underground buzz that there was real expectation surrounding his next project. OD: Overly Dedicated (2010) is partly a victory lap – he revisits four of the EP’s tracks, and brags on the superior “The Heart Pt. 2,” “Got all of these niggas approaching they mixtapes different/They said seven tracks, I said 15/Called it an EP, they said I’m tripping/But little did they know I’m trying to change the rules/That we’ve been confined to so the corporate won’t make decisions.” He pushes back against the “conscious” tag that resulted from his EP, instead striking a middle ground between the flag-waving gangster-ism of West Coast street rap, and the “street knowledge” of forebears like Ice Cube and 2Pac, while making G-funk homage like “Average Joe” that anticipated later, slicker efforts like “King Kunta.” “The critics are calling me conscious/But truthfully, every shooter be calling me Compton,” Lamar asserts on “Ignorance is Bliss,” a track that subtly picks apart the gangsta rap archetype, and which reportedly led Dr. Dre to recruit Lamar to his Aftermath imprint.
In fact, these songs mark the emergence of Kendrick as over-thinker, composing songs that shift in perspective and tones. He switches “Opposites Attract”‘s point of view from second to third person; for “Growing Apart (To Get Closer),” he questions his devotion to God, and then subjects the world around him to the same analysis. The tape ends disappointingly with two superfluous remixes: “She Needs Me (Remix),” which doesn’t have the softness of the original (though it gives underrated L.A. vets Murs and Dom Kennedy a chance to shine), and “I Do This (RMX).” Yet the dense personal journals of Overly Dedicated set the stage for his next project, his widely hailed 2011 “debut” Section.80, and the commercial and critical acclaim that would follow.