The most celebrated discography in modern hip hop is a title comfortably carried by the heavyweight known as Kendrick Lamar. With every release, Lamar has showcased a conscious desire to reinvent the wheel, never putting out two albums the same. His lyricism, imaginative song concepts and ability to create timeless moments are rarely matched. Which is why his discography is rightly filled with multiple classics, constantly analysed and celebrated in all communities of music. Mic Cheque take on the task of ranking the Compton native’s discography, all while celebrating each project he has gifted hip hop.
This ranking will cover every solo project released under the Kendrick Lamar stage name, including studio albums, compilation albums, mixtapes and full-length EPs.
8. Kendrick Lamar LP (2009)
The first project under the Kendrick Lamar name is full of prophecies. “My plan B is to win ya hearts before I win a Grammy,” he says on the interlude. Now, he has over a dozen. This is one of the many moments of the Kendrick Lamar EP that shows his hunger and desire to achieve success. Even this early in his career, Kendrick showed his ability to create a memorable project; the ambition clear from the fact he was choking in fifteen tracks and calling it an EP. Undeveloped, yes, and there may be no outstanding moments, but it is a solid display of how Kendrick’s always been destined to become a hip hop great.
Best tracks: “Celebration”, “P & P”, “Wanna Be Heard”
7. Overly Dedicated (2010)
On this mixtape, Kendrick Lamar begins to show what he’s capable of. The approached style is quite exclusive to Overly Dedicated, featuring mellow production from in-house TDE producers Sounwave and Digi+Phonics, though it also serves as an appropriate precursor to his debut album. Some of Kendrick’s strongest gems are on Overly Dedicated; “The Heart, Pt. 2”, “Ignorance is Bliss” and the impressively ignorant “Michael Jordan”. He may be far from his peak, but the rapping is crisp and would have grabbed any listener’s attention when discovering Kendrick’s music.
Best tracks: “Ignorance is Bliss”, “The Heart, Pt. 2”, “Growing Apart (To Get Closer)”, “Barbed Wire”
6. Untitled Unmastered (2016)
The compilation demanded by LeBron James features unfinished demos recorded during Lamar’s studio sessions for his third studio album. But the unfinished nature of Untitled Unmastered is its most attractive quality. Over eight tracks, Kendrick floats between free form ideas that perhaps showcase peak personality (cue the iconic “pimp, pimp, hooray!”). Tracks like “Untitled 04” and “Untitled 07” are the most abstract, while “Untitled 01”, “Untitled 02” and “Untitled 08” are the closest to complete.
As an overall body of work, Untitled Unmastered lacks replay value compared to the projects that follow, but what Untitled Unmastered showed is that even Kendrick’s leftovers are better than some artists’ best work.
Best tracks: “Untitled 03″, “Untitled 01”, “Untitled 07”, “Untitled 08”
5. DAMN (2017)
DAMN is not Kendrick’s best album, but it is the most monumental body of work of his career so far. It solidified Kendrick as the Best Rapper Alive, continuing to set the bar to a height where none of his competitors were even close to reaching in 2017. Another concept album, DAMN dissects human emotions to create polished songs that maintain Kendrick’s identity, but also appeal to a wider audience. “FEAR.” and “DUCKWORTH.” stand tall as some of Kendrick’s best songs, while songs like “LOYALTY.” and “LOVE.” saw him at his most commercial. This is Kendrick’s most abstract effort, but also leaves room for him to tackle modern trap (“DNA.”, “HUMBLE.”). It is a cyclical album at its core, allegedly telling a different story when played backwards.
It’s an accessible record full of integrity and puzzles to decipher, perhaps far too cryptic for its own good. It is home to a concept that explores Kendrick’s psyche, split into emotions of ‘wickedness’ and emotions of ‘weakness’. Yet to this day, no one has managed to convincingly crack the full narrative. It remains disjointed for the listener, regardless of whatever Kendrick worked out in his mind.
Best tracks: “FEAR.”, “DUCKWORTH.”, “FEEL.”, “DNA.”, “ELEMENT.”, “LUST.”
4. Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers (2022)
Every Kendrick Lamar album can be labelled as some form of media. Good Kid, M.A.A.D City was a motion picture, To Pimp a Butterfly was a poem, and DAMN. was a looping tape. At times, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers feels like a play. Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers follows Kendrick’s journey through therapy, finding the rapper at his most sincere, astute, and controversial. While his most personal record, it is also his most radio-friendly record, offering summer tracks like “Die Hard” and “Purple Hearts” and casual rap hits in “N95” and “Saviour”. These songs debunk the myth that Kendrick is just a conscious rapper making conscious albums.
DAMN. felt like cryptic therapy, but Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers takes off the mask entirely, bringing transparent highs in writing and diversity in tracklist. Its status will only grow in years to come.
Best tracks: “Mother I Sober”, “N95”, “Die Hard”, “United in Grief”, “Saviour”, “Worldwide Steppers”, “Auntie Diaries”
3. Section.80 (2011)
The 2011 debut album is often dismissed by hip hop fans. Yes, much greater material was in store for Lamar from this point onward. However, it is not to the detriment of Section.80 – a finely crafted body of work that superbly covers societal issues stemming from America’s crack epidemic. It introduced Kendrick’s knack for concept albums, sharp storytelling and characters in songs like “Keisha’s Song”, “A.D.H.D”, “Tammy’s Song” and “Ronald Reagan Era”. Religion and racial identity are at the centre of “Kush & Corinthians” and “Fuck Your Ethnicity” respectively. His rapping ability peaks on songs like “Rigamortis”, flowing impeccably over jazzy production that leaves listeners tongue-tied. Closing track “HiiiPower” remains one of Kendrick’s best songs, summarising what he is all about; a voice for the new generation.
When these tracks packaged as Section.80, you’re met with different chapters of adults making their way out of dark moments, some which never make it out. A local world is created, one that continued to expand in Kendrick’s music from here on.
Best tracks: “HiiiPower”, “Ronald Reagan Era (His Evils)”, “Keisha’s Song (Her Pain)”, “A.D.H.D.”, “Poe Mans Dreams (His Vice)”, “Rigamortis”, “Fuck Your Ethnicity”
2. Good Kid, M.A.A.D City (2012)
Freshly signed to Dr. Dre’s Aftermath, the highly-anticipated Good Kid, M.A.A.D City had instant impact when it was released in October 2012. Cutting-edge and complex, few hip hop albums can match up to its cinematic ilk. Twelve songs perfectly narrate a gripping tale of a day in Kendrick’s adolescence, narrating the detriments of his toxic, Compton gang-banging environment. It quite literally plays like a motion picture, every song vividly manufacturing scenes through the listener’s own imagination.
Musically, there is enough variety to compliment the narrative. The production is often atmospheric and sombre in songs like “Sherane”, “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”, “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” and “Money Trees”, which reflect the songs’ lyrical moods. But there are also upbeat tracks like “Backseat Freestyle” and “m.A.A.d city” that have aged beautifully, solidified as irremovable classic tracks.
Good Kid, M.A.A.D City success in all aspects of Kendrick’s artistry, from the storytelling, production, lyricism and conceptual ambitions. Kendrick tells a tale that refuses to get old no matter how many times you listen. It is an undisputed classic that has permanently cemented itself in hip hop history.
Best tracks: “m.A.A.d city”, “Money Trees”, “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”, “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”, “The Art of Peer Pressure”, “Good Kid”
1. To Pimp a Butterfly (2015)
When teenagers start getting into hip hop, To Pimp a Butterfly is the first album that comes up in internet discussion. The acclaim is already enough to make up someone’s mind. But to fully understand the climate, you had to be there when To Pimp a Butterfly dropped. Its initial release saw mixed reception from fans. To Pimp a Butterfly was a drastic change from Kendrick’s previous effort, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, nor did the lead single “i” give any real clues for the direction the album would be taking. It leaked a week early, pushing the official release eight days ahead of schedule.
Once a few weeks passed, the brilliance of To Pimp a Butterfly was clear. If GKMC is a film, TPAB is like a novel, dense in detail, complexity and cross-track correlations. It doubles down on Kendrick’s application of concept albums, packing in an abundance of content and bold production that draws from jazz, G-funk, neo soul and spoken word. Kendrick weaves in topics of fame, religion, depression, White America, black heritage and black excellence. “How Much a Dollar Cost” is a tale of Biblical karma. “Institutionalized” explores the captivity of ones toxic environment. “For Free? (Interlude)” is a satirical breakdown of White America. “The Blacker the Berry” is the most supercharged we have ever heard the rapper. Wider impacting songs such as “Alright”, “u” and “King Kunta” are classics in their own right. When put together, you have 16 tracks that run a single thread through them, masterminded in a way that dots all the I’s and crosses all the T’s.
It can be argued that To Pimp a Butterfly is inordinately praised. And in our opinion, the gap between it and Good Kid, M.A.A.D City is smaller than many would admit. Yet the creative risks, focal themes and Kendrick’s performances all leads to tracks that run a single thread throughout them, a musical ambition that hasn’t been challenged since.
Best tracks: “The Blacker the Berry”, “These Walls”, “u”, “Alright’, “Wesley’s Theory”, “How Much a Dollar Cost”, “King Kunta”, “Mortal Man”
This article will be periodically updated to account for any future releases.