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How Kendrick Lamar Became Rap’s Newest Superstar

By 10.22.12
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If you're a fan of hip-hop, it's tough to not be excited for Kendrick Lamar, the 25-year-old rapper whose major label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city, comes out tomorrow. Honestly, he does everything right: his insightful, effortless lyrics about growing up in Compton are imaginative, without ever being too boastful, and the beats never overwhelm, yet always impress. It's no wonder he's being considered the savior of West Coast hip-hop.

good kid, m.A.A.d city will likely turn Kendrick into a superstar the likes of which we haven't seen Kanye, so now's as good a time as any to check out where he came from, what he's released, and how he became one of the biggest names in music today (for more on Kendrick, check out the Smoking Section, too.)

When Kendrick was 16, he put out his first mixtape, Youngest Head N*gga in Charge, or Y.H.N.I.C., for the non-asterisk crowd. It's tough to find a copy of it anymore, but according to the Compton-born rapper:

“We put it out on a local scale and built a buzz in the city and eventually got to this guy named Top Dawg, he had his own independent label and I’ve been with them since and we’ve just been developing my sound and branching off of that mixtape to eventually have a debut album.” (Via)

He released the tape under his K-Dot moniker, and did the same for 2005's Training Day and 2007's No Sleep 'Til NYC, with Jay Rock. The "Top Dawg" in question is Anthony Tiffith, who cut a deal with Interscope Records and Dr. Dre's Aftermath Entertainment to release good kid, m.A.A.d city.

Kendrick's big breakthrough moment came at the behest of Charles Hamilton (I haven't thought about him in years, but in 2012 alone, he's put out approximately 394 mixtapes, including Minaj Kitty and Coke Whore Habits), in which he took on the Cleveland rapper at one of his shows — and destroyed him in a freestyle contest.

Around 2006-2007, Kendrick began to frequently collaborate with Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, and Schoolboy Q, and the four of them teamed up to form the "Black Hippy" supergroup. You can hear their masterful work on Watts Finest Vols. I-III, Schoolboy Turned Hustla, and 30 Day Takeover. As for an official Black Hippy album:

During an interview with HHW, Ab-Soul said that listeners shouldn't expect an album from the quartet, but it was unclear if he was merely being facetious.

“No, never, ever!” he said when asked about a Black Hippy release. “Fa real, seriously.” (Via)

The Game was also a big fan, and Kendrick appeared on his 2007 mixtape, You Know What It Is Vol. 4: Murda Game Chronicles.

Speaking of big fans, Kendrick had one in Lil Wayne, who gave his blessing to C4, a 2009 mixtape that was inspired by Tha Carter III, with freestyles over instrumentals from Wayne's album. It was so well received that theories began to swirl that Kendrick was a ghost lyricist for Tha Carter, and many even claimed C4 was superior to the original. No matter your opinion, it was all good news for K-Dot, who finally ditched his (kind of dumb) moniker in 2009 and began going by his real name.

The first official "Kendrick Lamar" release was a self-titled EP in 2009, and less than a year later, Overly Dedicated, an underground-turned-mainstream sensation (it landed on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart) that confirmed Kendrick was not only one of the finest rappers on the West Coast, but in the entire country. He found new angles on familiar hip-hop topics, with a devilish flow and smooth beats that never distracted from his message. Overly Dedicated was dark, but honest, and you never felt like Kendrick was asking for your pity, or rapping about things you couldn't understand unless you lived them. The mixtape caught the attention of Dr. Dre, who would later work with Kendrick on 2012's "The Recipe," and Snoop Dogg, a big admirer, who last year, according to the Smoking Section, "pass[ed] the proverbial torch to Kendrick in front of the hometown L.A. crowd."

In 2011, Kendrick was picked, along with Meek Mill, Mac Miller, and Big K.R.I.T., among others, to be on the cover of XXL Magazine for their prestigious Freshman Class issue, and a few months later, he put out Section.80, his first full-length independent album. It received near-unanimous positive press, and in Complex's best albums of the year write-up (it landed at #7), they wrote:

"People say I speak for generation Y," explains 24-year-old Kendrick Lamar on his crucial album Section.80. "Why lie? I do." That might sound like a bold claim but after listening to the Compton rapper's latest independent release, we've got to agree. Touching on everything from "A.D.H.D.," drug addiction and sexual abuse to fake industry types and crabby-ass haters, the artist formerly known as K. Dot doesn't just rhyme from the perspective of today's youth, he speaks their truth. (Via)

Kendrick claimed the album was inspired by a dream he had about Tupac, his childhood idol and the person who convinced him to give rapping a shot (when Kendrick was a kid, he saw Makaveli and Dre film the music video for "California Love"), and he took on Tupac's message-heavy concepts with lines like, "You know why we crack babies cuz we born in the 80s." In case 2011 was eventful enough, Kendrick also appeared on Game's The R.E.D. Album, Tech N9ne's All 6's and 7's, and Drake's Take Care.

Which brings us to 2012 and the release of good kid m.A.A.d city: a short film by Kendrick Lamar, the rapper's major label debut on Interscope Records. So far, the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive:

What makes Good Kid, m.A.A.d City resonate so well is how Kendrick relates his own personal guilt of partaking in the street lifestyle without being condescending to the gangbangers who still are living the ‘hood life. Ironically, he even compares himself to Cuba Gooding Jr.’s protagonist “Trey” in Boyz in The Hood – a morally-sound youngster who tried out gangster lifestyle only to find out he would be better off admiring it from afar. (Via)

I've listened to the album three or four times all the way through, and while I do think it drags at times with too many spoken interludes (and that "Now or Never," with vocals from Mary J. Blige, should have been moved from the "Deluxe Edition" disc to the actual album), it's still one of the year's finest releases. Kendrick is in complete control of his abilities: he's confident, clever, and uninterested in aping for credibility in a way not heard since Kanye's early albums. The uneasy, often nervous beats are top-notch, too, with touches of jazz, West Coast hip-hop, and indie rock (Beach House, a Twin Sister sample) all well represented. It's been a meteoric rise for Kendrick, and that's not only good for him and for us; he's the much-needed, trope-tweaking superstar that rap needs.

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