Kendrick Lamar Duckworth has risen from underground upstart to the de facto poet laureate of hip-hop in roughly ten years. He’s won 13 Grammys and a Pulitzer Prize. He’s been an Oscar nominee. How well has his music aged? What is his best album? What is his worst? Here’s my list of Kendrick’s albums, from worst to best, since his debut in 2011.
4) Section.80 (2011)
It’s usually a good trend when your worst work is your first work. But to say that Section.80 is bad would be both a damn lie and a disservice to Kendrick’s output. As with many early projects, it’s unpolished and a little raw. The Compton MC is still finding his voice, but his concept album streak ideas are already present here. He’s got wordplay, vision, and solid producers, but you could tell he was still experimenting with how to turn things into a marketable sound.
Best Tracks: “Hol’ Up,” “No Make-Up (Her Vice),” “Rigamortus,” “HiiiPower”
3) DAMN. (2017)
I want to start by saying that DAMN. is probably the most approachable Kendrick Lamar album. It effortlessly blends conscious and commercial hip-hop, mixing trap rap, pop, and gangsta rap into a palindrome album. Every track has depth and can be listened to independently of the others, allowing listeners to enjoy either the album as a whole or specific tracks without worry. It’s a Grammy Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning album. It’s also his highest-rated album commercially. So, why is it so low on the list? Truthfully, despite the accolades, it’s hard to put it above the other two.
Best Tracks: “DNA.,” “ELEMENT.,” “XXX.,” “DUCKWORTH.”
2) good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012)
All Macklemore vitriol aside, this Grammy-nominated album was an instant classic. Subtitled as “a short film by Kendrick Lamar,” GKMC lives up to that moniker with its various interludes and the overarching narrative of teenage K-Dot. The hip-hop world was immediately engrossed in this near-cinematic experience, laughing, crying, and head nodding through the Compton native’s worst day ever. It’s hard to rank anything above this from Lamar, but it’s number two for a reason.
Best Tracks: “Backseat Freestyle,” “Money Trees,” “m.A.A.d city,” “Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst”
1) To Pimp a Butterfly (2015)
An artist’s (major label) sophomore effort is rarely as good, or better than, their debut. It’s rarer still that this sophomore project matches or exceeds that quality while taking more risks than its predecessor. TPAB managed to arrive at the right time in the middle of the decade, at the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement which adopted one of its standout tracks. Similar to GKMC, it was also a different experience: musical theatre. The poem repeated throughout the album, piece by piece and combined with the interludes, helps to paint the picture of Lamar’s journey from boy to man. He sees how small his worldview was when he was still in Compton and the impact he has on his community back home. It’s a dense, introspective body of work that, while seemingly pretentious, pays off for those willing to listen and pay attention.
Best Tracks: “Institutionalized,” “These Walls,” “Alright,” “How Much A Dollar Cost”
It’s very difficult to order these albums. In truth, I think Kendrick’s had a solid three-album run since 2012, each of which is extremely close in quality. But, this is just my ranking of them. What about you? How would you rank Kendrick’s albums?