When you visit Kendrick Lamar's Wikipedia discography, you'll see his acclaimed 2011 breakthrough, Section.80, listed as an "independent album," and his upcoming debut for Interscope Records, Good Kid, MAAD City, classified as a "studio album." It's clearly inaccurate, but don't blame overzealous Wiki editors for the error. Rappers -- not necessarily Kendrick Lamar, but if he did he wouldn't be alone -- often claim that when they sign with a major-label deal, they begin work on their first "real" album. This argument devalues the vital work they make as independent artists, and puts unreasonable expectations on the financial success of their major-label recordings, which often seem inevitably watered-down and pop-oriented in comparison.
Lamar's first two full-lengths, 2010's Overly Dedicated and Section.80, are not just freestyles pasted over popular hip-hop instrumentals. They're "real," quality albums that introduced this Compton-raised rapper with an unusual lyrical style and a winning personality. Listening to him rap gives you the impression that he's one of the good guys, and not just because he trumpets a post-racial society on "F*ck Your Ethnicity" and exhorts his fans to "write your own hieroglyphs" on "HiiiPower." You can hear his determination and optimism ringing in his voice.
In an era when crossing over to a pop audience is key for a one-time underground rapper to achieving lasting success, whether it's a light and inoffensive ditty like J. Cole's "Work Out" or a club-baiting tune like Big Sean's "Dance (A$$)," Lamar's essential humanity, as well as his undeniable skills, are key assets. That's a crass way of judging him, though. Regardless of his marketing prospects, the fact is that his debut major-label single, "The Recipe," is one of the best rap songs of the year so far. Tellingly, it's produced by Dr. Dre, who is trying to mentor Lamar and his Black Hippy crew -- which also includes reformed street hustlers Schoolboy Q and Jay Rock and druggy iconoclast Ab-Soul -- to wider national acceptance.
Lamar can rap with anyone, whether it's E-40, Rick Ross, or Birdman ("B Boyz"). He is both part of the current rap scene and somehow beyond it. On "Buried Alive," an interlude on Drake's Take Care, he first subverts, and then completely destroys Drake's premise of hip-hop celebrities as tortured demigods. "Dig a shovel for the money, for the power, for the p*ssy, for the fame, and bury yourself alive," he raps. "Then I died."