The role of the messiah is one that’s been cast upon rising rap phenoms for quite some time. Having that weight on an artist’s shoulders can make their career, just as it has for legends like Rakim, Ice Cube, Nas, and The Notorious B.I.G., who all garnered instant acclaim for their preternatural abilities on the mic. When it comes to carving out a place in the history books early on in their career, there very few wordsmiths who have solidified their legacies by the age of 30. On the other hand, those same expectations can also cripple an artist and make them wilt under the pressure, as a number of artists can attest to.
At the outset of the decade, when rap fans were looking for a new messiah to help move the culture forward, one of the prime candidates was Kendrick Lamar, a promising spitter hailing from Compton, California making noise with his mixtapes, Kendrick Lamar EP and Overly Dedicated. Then, a younger Kendrick began to catch the attention of transcendent figures like Dr. Dre — who eventually took the young rapper under his wing — and the spotlight turned to his major label debut album, good kid, m.A.A.d. city.
Deemed an instant classic by many, good kid, m.A.A.d city only raised the stakes for Kendrick’s sophomore album, with the threat of the infamous sophomore jinx looming over it. However, Kendrick would later take his artistry to another level with To Pimp a Butterfly, follow-up to his Aftermath/Interscope debut album.
It’s not often that an artist comes along and helps to shift the paradigm and the rules that the mainstream realm plays by, but Kendrick Lamar is one of those talents. With two critically acclaimed albums under his belt, as well as a pair of platinum plaques to show for his efforts, Kendrick is now generating chatter and debate surrounding what his place within the lineage of rap will be when it’s all said and done.
With the release of the rapper’s conversation-dominating album, DAMN., we decided to explore the factors that could influence Lamar’s legacy of arguably being the greatest rap artist of his generation.
1. DAMN. Could Be His Third Consecutive Classic Album
When looking back at the more revered rap artists in hip-hop history, one common denominator shared by those that have earned legendary status as MCs is being the creator of multiple classic albums throughout their career. Some artists don’t release their best material until late in their career, but there have been a few to come out of the gate with a streak of classic albums, with three being the magic number. From rap groups like A Tribe Called Quest, N.W.A., and Public Enemy, to soloists like Ice Cube, Eminem, and Scarface, there have been a select group of icons that were able to solidify their legacy solely off the strength of their first few albums. Kendrick appears to be the latest to join that pantheon, as DAMN. builds off the momentum set by good kid, m.A.A.d. city, and To Pimp a Butterfly and completes the rapper’s trifecta of pivotal LPs.
2. The Album Showcases His Ability As A Hit-Maker
Upon Kendrick Lamar and Top Dawg Entertainment inking their partnership with Aftermath/Interscope, one of the questions that surrounded the signing was whether Kendrick’s hype would translate into radio spins and record sales. Although he has seen some chart success with singles like “Swimming Pools (Drank),” which peaked at No. 17 on the Billboard 200, Kendrick had yet to deliver a smash hit prior to the announcement of DAMN.. That quickly changed when the rapper unleashed the album’s lead-single, “HUMBLE.” The song, produced by Mike WiLL Made It, debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200. It became the first rap song to achieve such a feat since 2010, giving Kendrick his biggest song to date and serving as proof of his ability to dominate with style and substance.
3. Comparisons To Tupac Shakur
Being a great rapper on the west coast while being compared to past legends is next to unavoidable, especially with the shadows of pioneers like Ice Cube and Tupac Shakur looming large over California. While there have been a few instances of rappers being groomed to step into those shoes, only to fail or falter under those expectations, Kendrick Lamar has not only risen to the occasion but he has embraced the challenge of building his own legacy while contextualizing his own place in rap history. After ending his To Pimp a Butterfly album with an imagined interview with Shakur, Kendrick makes it a point to subtly compare himself to the slain icon various times on DAMN., like on “ELEMENT.,” where he raps “You know careers take off, just gotta be patient/Mr. One through Five, that’s the only logic/Fake my death, go to Cuba, that’s the only option” — a nod to the legend of Pac. Before name-dropping his rap deity on the subsequent track, “FEAR” and boasting “I feel like this gotta be the feelin’ what ‘Pac was,” Cornrow Kenny puts himself in rare air on DAMN., and follows a blueprint laid down by former greats and current ones alike.
4. Masterful Collaborative Efforts
A sign of a true musical legend is the ability to not only secure high-profile talents for collaborative purposes but by doing so in ways that are innovative and unexpected, which Kendrick Lamar accomplishes once again on DAMN.. Upping the ante with contributions from Rihanna, who trades verses with Kendrick on the standout cut “LOYALTY.,” and rock band U2 (“XXX.),” the features showcase the rapper’s willingness to veer right when others go left.
5. Rare Storytelling
Storytelling is among the more vital skills when it comes to the art of emceeing. Many of the more vaunted lyricists and songwriters that have come along over the years have spun spellbinding tales that have played huge roles in securing their legacy and separating them from the pack. Kendrick Lamar has never been shy about incorporating true-to-life testimonials, recollections, and accounts into his music, dating back to his days as a rap blog darling pre-good kid, m.A.A.d. city. He carries on the tradition with a few of DAMN.‘s premier offerings. “XXX,” FEAR.,” and “DUCKWORTH.” are all tracks that continue to give insight into the life and times of Kendrick Lamar, while touching on the formative years that molded him into the man that he is today.
An ingredient for lasting success in the world of rap is having your story become synonymous with overcoming trials, tribulations, and other adversity. Kendrick Lamar has done so while making a name for himself beyond the borders of Compton. On DAMN., these aspects are continued as the rapper gives fans a glimpse into his relationships with his family, fiance, community, and most of all, himself. As opposed to his previous two LP’s, which were largely built on narratives rooted in his experience, there’s no overarching theme. However, across the album’s 14 songs, Lamar gives of himself in bits in pieces, but those occasional nuggets are worth their weight in gold and get the listener more familiar with what makes K.Dot tick beyond the beats and rhymes.
7. Respect From His Peers
Rap is by far the most competitive of all musical genres but is not devoid of reverence or respect — as Kendrick Lamar has shown over the past five years. Willing to take on any rapper in his path, the brash upstart that once threw down the gauntlet against his peers on the 2013 track “Control” has also gained fans in the very figures he’s focused on eclipsing. Rappers like The Game, Busta Rhymes, P. Diddy, and others upon praising K.Dot upon giving his latest long player a spin. It’s one thing to be success and another to be acclaimed, but when you combine both and possess them in spades, you can’t be stopped.
8. Kendrick Lamar and The Little Homies’ Creative Vision
Music videos may not hold the same weight they once did in the past, but they are still a great way to visually convey a message or inspire thought in regards to the meaning of an artist’s rhyme and reason. In his career thus far, Kendrick has shown a knack for matching his lyrical content with visual themes, resulting in some of the more memorable music videos in recent memory. He has done it with the help of collaborator Dave Free, who he teamed up with to form The Little Homies and helped co-direct a majority of his music videos. With credits for videos like “Ignorance Is Bless,” “i,” and “Alright” under their belt, The Little Homies have pushed the envelope once again with the accompanying music video to “HUMBLE.” & “DNA.,” their two latest visuals to give today’s rap fans a taste of quality music in the same way that legends like Busta Rhymes, Missy Elliott, and others did before becoming icons of the culture.
9. It’s An Exercise in Variety
Making one classic album is an accomplishment in itself, but being able to create multiple albums with varying moods, themes, and sounds is pure magic and has only been pulled off by the rarest of talents. Lamar has proven himself to be one of the savants able to make the impossible look easy and leave the crowd to marvel, just as listeners did after taking a listen to DAMN.– a stark contrast to his previous albums. While good kid, m.A.A.d. city was distinctly steeped in California gang culture, and To Pimp a Butterfly was a funk defied tale of discovery and redemption, DAMN. is free-flowing in nature and comes off as Kendrick’s most accessible offering to date. It doesn’t sacrifice the substance and guile that has helped elevate him from a mere lyrical miracle into one of the most important voices in rap today.
10. It Stamps Him As One of The More Successful and Acclaimed Rappers of All-Time
If you look at the lists of what many consider to be the best rappers of all-time, you will find a mix of those who were able to reach commercial success, but may have sacrificed artistically to reach those heights. You’ll also find a number of more respected lyricists who failed to make an impact on the mainstream and considered unsung and underrated when their body of work is compared with that of more famous rap figures.
However, Kendrick Lamar is on a short list of artists who have been able to check both boxes off, putting him in the conversation with the likes of The Notorious B.I.G., Jay Z, 2Pac, Scarface, and others who have earned platinum plaques while simultaneously releasing what is considered their best work to date. Reaching platinum certification with his first two major label albums. If early reports are any indicator, DAMN. is set to debut atop the Billboard 200 and is expected to yield Mr. Duckworth his third consecutive platinum plaque, as well as acclaim for what many are calling another instant classic, making this another reason why his distinction as a rap legend is all but a foregone conclusion.