Kendrick Lamar is an award-winning rapper and songwriter best known for his innovative take on life in Southern California as well as for his affiliation with rap star and super-producer Dr. Dre.
Who Is Kendrick Lamar?
Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, who performs as Kendrick Lamar, was born in Compton, California, on June 17, 1987. After writing stories as a child, he put to music some lyrics about the rough Compton streets he grew up on. He rapped under the name K-Dot, releasing a series of increasingly popular mix tapes, which brought him to the attention of hip-hop super-producer Dr. Dre. Lamar's debut major-label recording, good kid, m.A.A.d City, was released to great acclaim and impressive sales for an up-and-coming recording artist. He continued to receive accolades for his 2015 album, To Pimp a Butterfly, and his 2017 follow-up, DAMN.; both won Grammys for Best Rap Album, while DAMN. also made history as the first of its genre to earn a Pulitzer Prize.
Background and Early Life
Kendrick Lamar Duckworth (who dropped his last name to perform as Kendrick Lamar) was born in Compton, California, on June 17, 1987. His parents had moved to Compton from Chicago to escape the city's gang culture, although Lamar's father had been associated with the notorious Gangster Disciples gang. As the 1980s crack trade and West Coast gang presence increased, Lamar grew up around precarious street activity, but he seemed more influenced than harmed by it. He was a good student who enjoyed writing, first stories and poems, and then lyrics.
Lamar's family was directly touched by the violence of the streets, yet he remained thoughtful and soft-spoken, ever the keen observer, even as a child. He adopted the moniker K-Dot and began performing his lyrics as a rapper. At age 16, in 2003, he circulated a mix tape called Youngest Head Nigga in Charge, which drew a lot of interest in his native Southern California and beyond.
The project was enough to get Lamar a record deal with Top Dawg Entertainment, a respected California independent label and feeder to major labels. He went on to release two other acclaimed mix tapes, Training Day (2005) and C4 (2009), steadily working with other up-and-coming West Coast rappers like Jay Rock, Ab-Soul and Schoolboy Q. Lamar and these other performers eventually formed their own rap collective, Black Hippy.
Meeting Dr. Dre
In 2010 Lamar dropped the K-Dot tag and began using his own name. He also put out a fourth mix tape, Overly Dedicated. That same year, Lamar released his first full-length independent album under Top Dawg Entertainment. Titled Section.80, it was released exclusively on iTunes.
Lamar continued writing music and lyrics, and continued to tour and collaborate with more popular recording artists such as Young Jeezy, The Game, Talib Kweli, Busta Rhymes and Lil Wayne. Dr. Dre, one of hip-hop's most respected and influential producers, took the young artist under his wing, becoming his mentor in both music and business.
As the buzz on Lamar continued to build, Dr. Dre signed him to his independent record label, Aftermath Entertainment, alongside more established rap stars Eminem and 50 Cent (in a joint venture with Top Dawg). Aftermath was distributed by major label Interscope (Universal Music), which would have the marketing, sales and distribution muscle to take Lamar's career to the next level. Now the quiet, observant kid who made good grades in school was poised to become rap's newest superstar.
'good kid, m.A.A.d city'
In October 2012, Lamar's highly anticipated major-label debut album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, was released to wide acclaim. (Lady Gaga recorded a song with Lamar for the album, but it ultimately was not included due to "creative differences.") Hit singles like "Swimming Pools (Drank)" and "Poetic Justice," and the rapper's emergence as a talent to watch, cleared the way for him to make major American television appearances while promoting the album, including Saturday Night Live, Late Night With David Letterman and Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. This solidified his fan base, not only among hard-core hip-hop heads, but also among college students and fans of alternative rock.
The Revival of Hip-Hop
Lamar's appeal to the masses didn't stop there. The thought-provoking lyrics on his debut album caught the attention of hip-hop critics as well, with MTV naming him the "Hottest MC" of 2012—putting him in the company of other rappers who have earned the title, including Lil Wayne, Jay-Z and Kanye West.
Additionally, critics took note of Lamar's verse on the song "Control," by rapper Big Sean. Although the track was penned by another artist, Lamar's verse drew attention because of his challenge to several other popular names in the hip-hop world, including Drake, J. Cole and Big Sean himself. The bold claims in the controversial verse rapped by Lamar brought about a vibe that was reminiscent of the classic hip-hop era, drawing appreciation from critics, rappers and fans alike.
Lamar remains popular for his sharp observations of street culture, often examining the psychology of the victims of crimes. "That's the most interesting story to me," he told the British newspaper The Guardian. "At first, I was scared to show fear because you can never be sure how people will perceive you. But I dared myself to do that, to stand out."
'To Pimp a Butterfly' and 'DAMN.'
In 2015, Lamar released his next album, To Pimp a Butterfly, featuring artists like Bilal, Snoop Dogg and Pharrell Williams, among others. Butterfly was another highly acclaimed outing known for its funk-laden mix of bravura, community politics and vulnerability. Lamar was nominated for a whopping 11 Grammys later that year and won the first award of the 2016 show, specifically for Best Rap Album. (He'd already received four other Grammys pre-telecast, making him the biggest winner of the night.) He later brought the house down with a politicized performance of "The Blacker the Berry" and "Alright" that fused spoken word, live jazz, traditional African dance and a reference to the death of teen Trayvon Martin.
In March 2016, Lamar released untitled unmastered, a compilation of tracks that were unfinished demos for To Pimp a Butterfly. The release went to the top of the U.S. Billboard 200.
The artist continued to wow fans with the April 2017 release of DAMN., which featured such tracks as "Humble" and "Loyalty," a collaboration with Rihanna. Along with achieving double-platinum status, DAMN. was named by BBC news as the critics' favorite album of 2017, based on the compilation of year-end polls.
Nominated for seven Grammys, Lamar kicked off the 2018 awards show with a politically charged performance that also featured Dave Chappelle and Bono and the Edge of U2. He went on to sweep the rap categories, claiming Best Rap Album for DAMN. and Best Rap Song for "Humble," en route to an impressive five Grammy wins for the night.
Pulitzer Prize Winner
Lamar made history in April 2018 when he won a Pulitzer Prize for music for DAMN., making him not only the first person to win a Pulitzer for a hip-hop album, but also the first artist to win the prize for music that isn't classical or jazz. The Pulitzer board called the album "a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life."
Along with the hardware, Lamar stood to benefit from the expiration of his publishing deal with Warner/Chappell Music. Lamar's management company, Top Dawg Entertainment, was said to be considering offers between $20 million and $40 million for the rapper-songwriter's catalog.
Underscoring his expanding influence, Lamar in June 2018 was invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences' music branch, for his work on the Black Panther and Divergent soundtracks. The following month, he made his acting debut in 50 Cent's crime drama Power, as a homeless man.
(Profile photo of Kendrick Lamar by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)