The Kendrick Lamar Mixtapes: 10 Early Tracks that Highlight His Growth
Written by CurtisB from SUNY Purchase
The week after Kendrick Lamar released his newest cultural powerhouse, DAMN., every song on the album charted on Billboard’s Hot 100 list. There’s no denying, Kendrick Lamar is a star. A star who, in addition to his pop appeal, has garnered immense critical acclaim.
Even on his first album, Section.80, Kendrick’s lyricism, influences and ideas seemed rock solid.
In order to gain insight into his development as an artist, we must look past Section.80, at the four mixtapes, and one EP, that preceded it. These projects allow us to observe Kendrick’s artistic ascension before he was selling out stadiums and meeting with President Obama.
Here are ten tracks that foreshadow Kendrick’s later work and embody elements of the style he’s used to dominate the charts.
Kendrick, then known as K-Dot, was 16 when YHNIC dropped in 2003. On Compton Life we hear a fairly rough attempt at making a danceable, west-coast banger. Although young K-Dot doesn’t quite hit the mark here, Compton Life shows that even early on Kendrick had crossover appeal and a knack for catchy hooks.
By 2005’s Training Day, K-Dot’s rapping and songwriting had improved significantly. He sounds great over the Madlib beat that was originally used by Talib Kweli on Soon the New Day. Hpnotiq is an early instance of Kendrick rapping about a highly conceptual topic while maintaining a high level of lyricism. In this case the topic is hypnosis. K-Dot muses on how music can be mesmerizing by attempting to hypnotize the listener with a story.
The minimalist beat on I Feel It is an early example of Kendrick’s willingness to step outside of tradition and push hip-hop’s boundaries. Kendrick plays with a unique, whiny, delivery here, an early example of his experiments with voice manipulation. This technique is now a staple of Kendrick’s sound (see For Sale, u, M.A.A.D City etc.)
On Prototype K-Dot uses a slower flow to deliver a personal, conscious verse about growing up in poverty. He references the Tupac poem The Rose that Grew From Concrete, which seems appropriate given that K-Dot’s Tupac influence is on full display on here. Later in his career Kendrick would again highlight the role Tupac plays in his music on To Pimp a Butterfly, which ends with a Tupac interview.
Speaking of Kendrick’s influences, here’s a big one. Lil Wayne has an immense impact on K-Dot’s 2009 mixtape, C4, and K-Dot’s take on A Milli is a perfect homage to everyone’s favorite lean soaked martian. K-Dot imitates Wayne’s flow, his signature punchline formula and even his raspy voice. Wayne’s impact on Kendrick surfaces throughout his career, on tracks like Michael Jordan and Backseat Freestyle.
Another high-concept K-Dot track, this time about cooking dope. Compton Chemistry is a testament to Kendrick’s ability to spit at a high level while storytelling. Listening to this song is like watching an episode of Breaking Bad.
The Kendrick Lamar EP, released 11 months after C4, is when K-Dot became Kendrick Lamar. His name isn’t the only thing that became more professional though. The EP is more polished and better mastered than any of Kendrick’s previous projects. Celebration sees Kendrick shed the Wayne flow and replace it with a style that should sound familiar to any fan of his recent work. Not only does Celebration sound refined, but Kendrick is more at ease lyrically than ever before, adeptly swapping flows and casually dishing out wordplay.
An updated version of the track P & P from the Kendrick Lamar EP proved to be the biggest hit from the final Kendrick Lamar mixtape, Overly Dedicated (2010). It’s a great example of the crossover appeal that has been instrumental to Kendrick’s success. The entirety of Overly Dedicated is extremely accessible without sacrificing any of Kendrick’s lyrical finesse. A catchy beat, a poppy chorus and lyrically impressive verses come together for a formula that heavily informed Section.80 and Good Kid M.A.A.D. City. Kendrick also experiments with electronically altering his voice here, another technique that would be used throughout his career (see: Pride, Swimming Pools, The Blacker the Berry etc.)
Opposites Attract is a beautiful portrayal of a troubled relationship. At this point the lyricism, storytelling and catchy beat were to be expected from Kendrick. What makes this song notable in the context of Kendrick’s career is the tragic outro poem by Lamont Carey. This non-musical feature indicates Kendrick’s willingness to collaborate outside his genre and medium. Non-traditional collaborations like this play a massive role on To Pimp a Butterfly, which features jazz and funk artists, and are the reason we have multi-media masterpieces like God Is Gangsta.
Barbed Wire is a prime example of Kendrick’s transition from the braggadocio and playful to the political topics that permeates his later work. His verses wrestle with the idea that struggle gives way to struggle and, in the process, address political and societal issues. That’s not to say that Kendrick exclusively raps about serious topics (how could a disciple of Wayne ever be too serious?) but Barbed Wire is a telling precursor to the more focused and politically conscious music that has dominated Kendrick’s recent discography.