1987–2009: Early life and career beginnings
Lamar was born in Compton, California, to parents from Chicago, Illinois. His birth name was given to him by his mother in honor of singer Eddie Kendricks. In 1995, at the age of eight, Lamar witnessed his idols, Tupac Shakur and Dr. Dre, film the music video for their hit single “California Love”, which would later prove to be a very significant moment in Lamar’s life. As a teenager, Lamar attended Centennial High School in Compton, where he was a straight-A student.
In 2003, at the Mother’s Day, Lamar released his first full-length project, a mixtape titled Youngest Head Nigga in Charge (Hub City Threat: Minor of the Year), under the pseudonym K-Dot. The mixtape garnered enough local attention for Lamar to secure a recording contract with TDE, a newly founded local indie record label, based in Carson, California. He began recording material with the label and subsequently released a twenty-six track mixtape two years later, titled Training Day (2005). Throughout 2006 and 2007, Lamar would appear alongside other up-and-coming West Coast rappers, such as Jay Rock and Ya Boy, as opening acts for veteran West Coast rapper The Game. Under the moniker K-Dot, Lamar was also featured on The Game’s songs “The Cypha” and “Cali Niggaz”.
In 2008, Lamar was prominently featured throughout the music video for Jay Rock’s commercial debut single, “All My Life (In the Ghetto)”, which features American hip hop superstar Lil Wayne and was backed by Warner Bros. Records. Lamar garnered further recognition after a video of a live performance of a Charles Hamilton show surfaced, in which Hamilton battled fellow rappers who were in the audience. Lamar did not hesitate and began rapping a verse over the instrumental to Miilkbone’s “Keep It Real”, which would later appear on a track titled “West Coast Wu-Tang”.
After receiving a co-sign from Lil Wayne, Lamar released his third mixtape in 2009, titled C4, which was heavily themed around Wayne’s Tha Carter III LP. Soon after, Lamar decided to drop K-Dot as his stage name and go by his birth name. He subsequently released a self-titled EP in late 2009. That same year, Lamar formed Black Hippy, a rap supergroup, with his TDE label-mates Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, and Schoolboy Q.
2010–11: Overly Dedicated and Section.80
Main articles: Overly Dedicated and Section.80
Throughout 2010, Lamar toured with Tech N9ne and Jay Rock on The Independent Grind tour. On September 4, 2010, Lamar unveiled the cover art for his fourth mixtape Overly Dedicated, designed by RedefineCreativity. On September 14, 2010, he released the visuals for “P&P 1.5”, a song taken from Overly Dedicated, featuring his Black Hippy cohort Ab-Soul. On September 14, Lamar also released Overly Dedicated to digital retailers under Top Dawg Entertainment, and later on September 23, released it for free online. The project fared well enough to enter the United States Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart, where it peaked at number 72.
The highly acclaimed mixtape includes a song titled “Ignorance Is Bliss”, in which Lamar glorifies gangsta rap and street crime, but ends each verse with “ignorance is bliss”, giving the message “we know not what we do;” it was this song specifically that made legendary hip hop producer Dr. Dre want to work with Lamar after seeing the music video on YouTube. This led to Lamar working with Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg on Dre’s often-delayed Detox album, as well as speculation of Lamar signing to Dr. Dre’s record label, Aftermath Entertainment. In December 2010, Complex spotlighted Lamar in an edition of their “Indie Intro” series.
Kendrick Lamar performing in Toronto on June 16, 2011
In January 2011, Lamar stated his next project was 90% finished. In early 2011, Lamar was included in XXL’s annual Top 10 Freshman Class, and was featured on the cover alongside fellow up-and-coming rappers CyHi the Prynce, Meek Mill, Mac Miller, Yelawolf and Big K.R.I.T., among others. On April 11, 2011, Lamar announced the title of his next full-length project to be Section.80, and revealed he would release its lead single the following day. As promised, on April 12, 2011, Lamar released “HiiiPoWeR”, the album’s first single, the concept of which was to further explain the HiiiPoWeR movement. The song was produced by fellow American rapper J. Cole. The song marked their first of many collaborations to come.
On the topic of whether his next project would be an album or a mixtape, Lamar answered: “I treat every project like it’s an album anyway. It’s not gonna be nothing leftover. I never do nothing like that. These are my leftover songs y’all can have ’em, nah. I’m gonna put my best out. My best effort. I’m tryna look for an album in 2012.” In June 2011, Lamar released “Ronald Reagan Era (His Evils)”, a cut from Section.80, featuring Wu-Tang Clan leader RZA. On July 2, 2011, Lamar released Section.80, his first independent album, to critical acclaim. The album features guest appearances from GLC, Colin Munroe, Schoolboy Q, and Ab-Soul, while the production was handled by Top Dawg in-house production team Digi+Phonics as well as Wyldfyer, Terrace Martin and J. Cole. Section.80 went on to sell 5,300 digital copies in its first abbreviated week, without any television or radio coverage and received mostly positive reviews.
Lamar in 2012
In August 2011, while performing at a West Los Angeles concert, Lamar was crowned the “New King of the West Coast” onstage by Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, and Game. On August 24, 2011, Lamar released the music video for the popular Section.80 track, “A.D.H.D”. The video was directed by Vashtie Kola who had this to say of the video: “Inspired by “A.D.H.D”s dark beat and melancholy lyrics which explore a generation in conflict, we find Kendrick Lamar in a video that illustrates the songs[sic] universal and age-old theme of apathetic youth. Shot in New York City during the sweltering July Summer heat, “A.D.H.D” is the third video to be released from Kendrick Lamar’s album Section.80.” In October 2011, Lamar appeared alongside fellow American rappers B.o.B, Tech N9ne, MGK, and Big K.R.I.T., in a cypher at the BET Hip Hop Awards. Also in October, Lamar partnered with Windows Phone, and crafted an original song with producer Nosaj Thing entitled “Cloud 10”, to promote Microsoft’s new product. That same year, Lamar appeared on several high-profile albums including Game’s The R.E.D. Album, Tech N9ne’s All 6’s and 7’s, 9th Wonder’s The Wonder Years and Canadian recording artist Drake’s Grammy Award-winning Take Care, which featured Lamar on a solo track.
2012–13: good kid, m.A.A.d city and controversies
Main article: good kid, m.A.A.d city
On February 15, 2012, a song by Lamar titled “Cartoon & Cereal”, featuring fellow American rapper Gunplay, was leaked online. Lamar later revealed that the track was for his major-label debut studio album and that he had plans to shoot a video for it. Although the song would later be ranked #2 in Complex’s Best 50 Songs of 2012 list, it would ultimately fail to appear on Lamar’s debut. In February 2012, it was announced that FADER had enlisted both Kendrick Lamar and Detroit-based rapper Danny Brown, to appear on the cover of the magazine’s Spring Style issue. In February, Lamar also embarked on Drake’s Club Paradise Tour, opening along with fellow American rappers, ASAP Rocky and 2 Chainz.
Lamar performing in 2012
In March 2012, MTV announced that Lamar had signed a deal with Interscope Records and Aftermath Entertainment, marking the end of his career as an independent artist. Under the new deal, Lamar’s projects, including his album good kid, m.A.A.d city, would be jointly released via Top Dawg, Aftermath, and Interscope. Also in March, Lamar appeared on Last Call with Carson Daly, where he spoke on Dr. Dre and his hometown of Compton, California. On April 2, 2012, Lamar premiered his commercial debut single “The Recipe”, on Big Boy’s Neighborhood at Power 106. The song, which serves as the first single from his good kid, m.A.A.d city, was released for digital download the following day. The song was produced by West Coast producer Scoop DeVille and features vocals from his mentor Dr. Dre, who also mixed the record.
On May 14, 2012, J. Cole again spoke on his collaborative effort with Lamar. In an interview with Bootleg Kev, Cole stated: “I just started working with Kendrick the other day. We got it in, finally, again. We got maybe four or five [songs] together.” On May 21, Lamar made his 106 & Park debut alongside Ace Hood, joining Birdman and Mack Maine on stage to perform “B Boyz”. Lamar also talked about his style and sound, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, and his upcoming collaborative LP with J. Cole. On May 21, Lamar also released “War Is My Love”, an original song written and recorded for the video game Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, for which he appeared in a mini promotional clip earlier that month. On May 24, Cole posted pictures on his DreamVillain blog of himself and Lamar working in the studio. On November 13, 2012, in an interview with the LA Leakers, Lamar revealed that the two are still working on the project, and that there will be no given release date for the joint album: “We gone drop that out the sky though. I ain’t gonna give no dates, no nothing. I’m just gonna let it fall.”
Lamar performing in 2013
On July 31, 2012, Top Dawg, Aftermath, and Interscope serviced “Swimming Pools (Drank)” as the lead single from Lamar’s debut album. The song’s music video, directed by Jerome D, premiered on August 3, 2012, on 106 & Park. The song peaked at number 17 on the Billboard Hot 100 in its thirteenth week of gradually climbing up the chart. On August 15, 2012, Lady Gaga announced via Twitter that she and Lamar had recorded a song titled “PARTYNAUSEOUS” for his debut album. The song, later re-titled “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”, ultimately did not feature Lady Gaga due to timing and creative differences. On August 17, 2012, Lamar released a song titled “Westside, Right on Time”, featuring Southern rapper Young Jeezy. The song was released as part of the “Top Dawg Entertainment Fam Appreciation Week”. During 2012, Lamar also toured with the rest of Black Hippy and MMG rapper Stalley on BET’s Music Matters Tour.
Lamar’s major-label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city, was released on October 22, 2012. The album was met with critical acclaim and debuted at number two, selling 242,122 copies in its first week. In December 2012, FUSE TV named Lamar’s single, “Backseat Freestyle”, one of the top 40 songs of 2012. In a few months’ time, the album was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). HipHopDX named Lamar “Emcee of the Year” for their 2012 Year End Awards.
On January 26, 2013, Lamar performed the album’s lead singles “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and “Poetic Justice” on NBC late-night live television sketch comedy and variety show Saturday Night Live. He also appeared alongside host Adam Levine and comedy band The Lonely Island, in an SNL Digital Short, which spawned the single “YOLO”. On February 22, 2013, Lamar released the video for “Poetic Justice”, the Janet Jackson-sampling collaboration with Canadian rapper Drake. On February 26, Lamar performed “Poetic Justice” on the Late Show with David Letterman. Just nine months after its release, good kid, m.A.A.d city was certified Platinum by the RIAA, Lamar’s first Platinum award.
In August 2013, Lamar’s verse on the Big Sean track “Control”, made waves across the hip-hop industry. In the verse, Lamar vows to lyrically “murder” every other up-and-coming rapper, namely J. Cole, Big K.R.I.T., Wale, Pusha T, Meek Mill, ASAP Rocky, Drake, Big Sean, Jay Electronica, Tyler, The Creator and Mac Miller. During the song, Lamar also calls himself the “King of New York”, which caused controversy among several New York-based rappers. Many New York rappers, including Papoose, The Mad Rapper, Mickey Factz, JR Writer, Mysonne, Joell Ortiz and more, took offense to this. Furthermore, fellow American rappers such as Meek Mill, Lupe Fiasco, Cassidy, Joe Budden, King L, Bizarre and B.o.B, among many others, released a response or diss track, within a week. In the days following the track’s release, Lamar’s Twitter account saw a 510% increase in followers, while his Wikipedia page garnered 200,000 page views.[
Lamar performing “Money Trees” during the Yeezus Tour
On September 6, 2013, American recording artist and record producer Kanye West announced he would be headlining his first solo tour in five years, in support of his sixth album Yeezus (2013), with Kendrick Lamar accompanying him on tour. The Yeezus Tour began in October. In October, it was also revealed that Lamar would be the only rapper to be featured on Eminem’s eighth studio album The Marshall Mathers LP 2. On October 15, 2013, Lamar won five awards at the BET Hip Hop Awards, including Album of the Year and Lyricist of the Year (the latter of which he had also won the year before). At the award show, Lamar performed “Money Trees”, and was also featured in a cypher alongside his Top Dawg label-mates Jay Rock, Schoolboy Q, Isaiah Rashad, and Ab-Soul. During an October 2013 interview with XXL, Lamar revealed that following The Yeezus Tour, he would begin to start working on his next album.
In November 2013, he was named GQ’s “Rapper of the Year,” and was featured on the cover of the magazine’s “Men of the Year” issue. During the interview, he stated that he would begin recording his second major-label studio album in January 2014. Following the issue’s release, TDE’s CEO Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith pulled Kendrick Lamar from performing at GQ ’s party that accompanies the issue, calling out writer Steve Marsh’s profile, “Kendrick Lamar: Rapper of the Year,” for its “racial overtones.” GQ editor-in-chief Jim Nelson responded with the following statement: “Kendrick Lamar is one of the most talented new musicians to arrive on the scene in years. That’s the reason we chose to celebrate him, wrote an incredibly positive article declaring him the next King of Rap, and gave him our highest honor: putting him on the cover of our Men of the Year issue. I’m not sure how you can spin that into a bad thing, and I encourage anyone interested to read the story and see for themselves.”
Lamar received a total of seven Grammy nominations at the 56th Annual Grammy Awards (2014), including Best New Artist, Album of the Year, and Best Rap Song, but did not receive any of the awards. Many felt that The Recording Academy snubbed Lamar, including Seattle-based rapper Macklemore, who won Best Rap Album, for which Lamar was also nominated. Despite this, Lamar performed “m.A.A.d city” and a remix of “Radioactive” in a mash-up with American rock band Imagine Dragons at the awards ceremony. The remix was again performed by Lamar and the band on February 1, 2014, during the airing of Saturday Night Live, marking Lamar’s second appearance on the show.
2014–present: To Pimp a Butterfly
On February 28, 2014, during an interview with Billboard, Lamar stated he was planning to put out a new album in September 2014.[During the same interview, which also included Schoolboy Q, Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, and Dave Free, the possibility of a debut effort from the Black Hippy collective appearing in 2014 was announced. On July 31, 2014, it was announced that Lamar would premiere his short film m.A.A.d at Sundance’s inaugural NEXT Fest in Los Angeles on August 9. The film is inspired by good kid, m.A.A.d city, and was directed by Kahlil Joseph, who had previously worked with Lamar on the Yeezus Tour.
On September 23, 2014, Lamar released “i” as the first single from his third album. On November 15, 2014, Lamar once again appeared on Saturday Night Live as the musical guest, where he performed “i” and “Pay For It”, appearing alongside Jay Rock. Through his appearance, with blackout contacts and his braids partly out, Lamar paid homage to New York-based rapper Method Man, whose debut album Tical celebrated its 20th anniversary that day. In December 2014, it was announced that Lamar had started a partnership with sportswear brand Reebok. On December 17, 2014, Lamar debuted a new untitled song on one of the final episodes of The Colbert Report.
On February 8, 2015, Lamar won Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song for his song “i” at the 57th Annual Grammy Awards. On February 9, 2015, he released his third album’s second single, titled “The Blacker the Berry”. Originally expected to be released on March 23, 2015, his new album To Pimp a Butterfly was released a week early on March 16, 2015.
On May 11, 2015, Lamar received the California State Senate’s “Generational Icon Award” from State Senator Isadore Hall III (D–Compton) who represents California’s 35th district. From the senate floor, Lamar told the legislature, “I thank you from the bottom of my heart for honoring me today.”
On May 17, 2015, Lamar featured on the official remix of Taylor Swift’s song “Bad Blood”, as well as appearing in the music video.