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good kid, mAAd city, To Pimp a Butterfly, or DAMN.?

Last Updated: May 26, 2022
Ahead of the much-anticipated release of Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers, the Boardroom staff answers one question: What’s the best Kendrick Lamar album there is?

Kendrick Lamar occupies rarefied rap game air. There are more than a few reasons why his visage is indisputably chiseled into hip-hop’s modern Mount Rushmore; his “The Heart” series is an indispensable one.

Dating back to April 2011, the Compton icon has served up a “The Heart” single to prime the palette for a subsequent album or mixtape. Lead singles have forever been staples in any record’s rollout; K.Dot dared to put his own stamp on the old industry standard, and it worked. Every installment of “The Heart” has bewitched the culture whether or not it later ended up on a long player’s tracklist.

This year, Mother’s Day was topped off by a bouquet only Kendrick Lamar could gift: “The Heart Part 5,” whose arrival was accompanied by a deepfake video equally as thought-provoking as the bars he spat as himself, Kobe Bryant, Kanye West, OJ Simpson, Jussie Smollett, and Nipsey Hussle.

“Part 5,” the 14-time Grammy winner’s first solo release since 2018, sets the stage forMr. Morale & the Big Steppers , his first proper album (and maybe a double album?) since DAMN. in 2017.

Directed by Kendrick and Dave Free, his pgLang co-founder, the deepfake choice isn’t a gimmick. Embodying Nipsey permitted Kendrick to rap all the more poignantly from the perspective of the Crenshaw rapper who was murdered three years ago at age 33. It’s also a metaphor for the role Kendrick Lamar has played in his fans’ lives since (at least) good kid, m.A.A.d city: when he speaks, he’s speaking for you, too. As the title card put it, “I am. All of us.”

Before Kendrick conquers the summer (and sociocultural discourse well beyond the coming months) with Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, Boardroom took the opportunity to look back at what the rapper has already given us. How have his three biggest studio albums stood the test of time?

And most importantly, which one is the very best?

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EDDIE GONZALEZ: Ranking Kendrick Lamar’s albums almost seems like a fool’s errand. The progression of his catalog of albums also represents a shift in perspective, both in viewpoint and in scope. Whereas good kid, m.A.A.d. city is the vivid “short film” of a day in his neighborhood, painted with lush strokes of genius, his world grows larger and his outlook more vast with each step forward in life. Still, it’s the most insular of Kendrick’s silos that houses his best work — in many ways, the album he spent a lifetime crafting.

With its transitions and dynamic characters and plot twists, GKMC plays out like a movie just as advertised, and even creates a cinematic universe that spans his entire catalog (and YG’s, to boot). So, why is it the best? Kendrick’s jarring and almost painful realization of self and all that’s around him is such a musical revelation, that it almost stains all of the greatness that follows it. “I suffer a lot,” he raps on one of the greatest songs a rapper has ever penned, “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.” “And every day that glass mirror get tougher to watch / I tie my stomach in knots.”

Kendrick is tortured by his existence and everything he’s seen and everything he feels will inevitably come either with his success or his impending doom. That remains the foundation for everything that would follow.

GKMC is ahead of the rest of the pack because it’s the master magician’s first trick. Kendrick penned greatness in a way that it was practically ho-hum the next time he decided to do it.

MICHELAI GRAHAM: good kid, m.A.A.d city holds a special place in my heart. It’s nostalgic and timeless. I was a sophomore in college when the album dropped. It was football season and I went to a Big Ten university, so you know what that means. I get lost in memories every time I come across a track, especially “Money Trees.”

JONATHAN WIENER: Kendrick Lamar has never made a bad record. good kid, m.A.A.d city and DAMN. are both great albums. That said, they do not touch To Pimp a Butterfly, which is the best hip-hop (an admittedly derivative term for categorizing this work of art) album and one of the best overall albums in the past 20 years. Period. In terms of ingenuity, influence, and generally moving the music world forward, I challenge anyone to find another album this century that approaches Kendrick’s genre-defying masterpiece.

The unique blend of jazz, hip-hop, spoken word, beat poetry, funk, and soul invigorates and captivates, begging the question we ask of any original piece of music: “What the fuck am I listening to?” What I would give to be a fly on the wall to hear Flying Lotus, Thundercat, Kamasi Washington, and Kendrick brainstorm the structure of TPAB.

My favorite track is “i,” with its psychedelic guitar riff and deeply personal, thoughtful lyrics, but the beauty isn’t in any individual track — the best way to experience the record is from start to finish. No breaks. Eat your vegetables. Each track is a chapter in the book. It reminds me of a Pink Floyd concept album; until you get the entire picture, you get none of the picture. This isn’t for mindless enjoyment. This is fucking Ulysses.

MEGAN ARMSTRONG: To dissect Kendrick Lamar’s discography is an unenviable task. First, how do you choose the microscope? Awards? Sales? Streams? Tours? Copycats? Maybe it’s the coward’s way out, but I’m always a sucker for firsts. You can never replicate the moment an artist transcends the threshold and goes from starving to star; good kid, m.A.A.d. city properly introduced Kendrick as a grand-scale auteur while simultaneously granting him immortality. As he chronicles his life up to that point, an unvarnished authenticity animates the proceedings.

The album is by definition a concept album, but it’s likewise a feat of cinematic scale. Specifically with m.A.A.d city, K.Dot became Kendrick — and in that moment, we learned that processing the world without considering Kendrick’s perspective can only amount to an incomplete history.

NATE LOUIS: Kendrick Lamar was the first person to turn 25 and decide it was time for jazz. 2016’s untitled unmastered is left-of-center, in the best way — unexpected and sprawling, yet keen enough to remain tied to the source material. Recorded between 2013 and 2014’sTPAB sessions, these “untitled” (just numbered and dated) and “unfinished” (unmastered) cuts were arranged into an eight-track, 35-minute surprise project.

Even when Kendrick flexes his earned artistic freedom on demos as raw as these, the songs still work to further his career’s broader explorations. From Section.80’s prophesying to GKMC’s storytelling mastery to the politically charged TPAB and DAMN’.’s intimate departure, his albums are a continuous build; untitled unmastered managed to stay faithful to that arc.

My personal favorite is “untitled 6 | 06.30.2014.” The raps are stream-of-consciousness, something Lamar does with an iconoclastic, spiritual awakening, an army’s worth of writer’s camp hands could only clasp together to pray for.

That full-proof belief in self, as part of a greater mission, is inspiring. It worked for Kendrick, too, as the surprise compilation debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 200 — and not long after, he was tapped to curate and produce what would become an impressive soundtrack for Marvel’s history-making Black Panther. All the more reason why untitled unmastered was a refreshing, revelatory win for a prolific rapper who’s never really sought out such gaudy victories.

JOHNATHAN TILLMAN: GKMC is the modern Illmatic. Like Nas 30 years ago, it’s the coming-of-age story we’re glad Kendrick made it out of to give us the music he gives us. DAMN. is that artistry we would have been denied if the stories of GKMC went another way, but TPAB is his best and most essential work.

RANDALL WILLIAMS: The everlasting debate as to which Kendrick Lamar album is the premier project ends here. It is good kid, m.A.A.d city.

No hip-hop album has managed to find the mountaintop that good kid reached upon dropping in October 2012. GKMC is the create-a-player you constructed in the NCAA Football video games back in the day. Highlight reel explosiveness takes over in “Backseat Freestyle” and “M.A.A.D City,” two records liable to turn insulated introverts into moshpit maniacs. Technical precision is on full display with “The Art of Peer Pressure” and “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.” And if a fan is looking for swagger, Kendrick high-steps on “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” “Money Trees,” and “Poetic Justice” (with an assist from Drake).

At the beginning or tail end of each song is a skit that perfectly bridges together each cut on the project — a narrative throughline alluded to in a simple but telling detail scrawled on the album artwork: “a short film by Kendrick Lamar.” But even if his album was quite literally a short film, an Oscar still wouldn’t do justice to it.

That should end today’s debate.

Don’t get me wrong, To Pimp a Butterfly cuts a stark contrast to everything else Kendrick has released. I still think it’s phenomenal, but I don’t find myself revisiting it. DAMN., on the other hand, still resides healthily in my playlists. The records are incredible; I would say K.Dot shot 13-14 from the field on DAMN., with “GOD.” being the only iffy track for me. But where GKMC is a short film, DAMN. feels more like a trailer that leaves you exhilarated but not quite clear on exactly what happened (or why Kendrick was killed).

At this point, I’m comparing Lamborghinis to Ferraris. Still, the details are important. Why? Because I just proved to you and the rest of the world why GKMC reigns supreme.

SAM DUNN: A dish like To Pimp a Butterfly calls for fine china and Waterford crystal and silverware that’s actually silver. These are not the place settings you sit down to every evening; you’re busting them out for a fancy dinner party that you know is gonna have truffle oil in the equation. It’s a bespoke backpacker’s banquet with a dusting of fleur de sel from the hidden compartment in the rear of Flying Lotus and Thundercat’s jazzman spice rack.

A snack like “King Kunta” treats just about any appetite, but “Alright” requires more chewing — and regarding the revolutionary “The Blacker the Berry” and “These Walls,” well, sometimes, an unforgettable dish is still too rich to eat every night. This is why we need good kid, whose “short film” storytelling conceit gives it a groundedness that’s downright plug-and-play. This isn’t fine dining — it’s In-N-Out. Its grandiosity springs from its sheer comprehensibility.

If you’ve got money trees, cool. But truffle oil is not at all required to tease out the nuance of GKMC‘s flavor profile.

IAN STONEBROOK: The best Kendrick Lamar album is all of them, but my favorite is Section.80. “F*ck Your Ethnicity” could drop as the first track and lead single in 2022 and it’d be just as strong today — and sadly, just as topical. Honestly, I think I like this song more than I like the album, but it’s such a tone-setter for the entire project. It’s upbeat and direct without being poppy or preachy.

Compared to GKMCTPAB, and DAMN., it’s got many more skips, but I still think I like the highs more. “Ronald Reagan Era,” “HiiiPower,” “Rigamortus,” “Blow My High,” and “Poe Man’s Dreams” appeal to every strand of rap fandom, and not a single one is a reach. Is it as deep or decadent as his later work? No, but I’ll sacrifice that for lessons with a lighter touch.

With Section.80, K.Dot arrived with the backing of TDE and the help of RZA, J. Cole, and GLC. I’m here for evolution, and Kendrick’s done it with more depth and sonic range than any peer to his point. Still, “I gotta get down with God cuz I’ve got my sins up” is as relatable, rational, and warming as any bar I’ve heard. There’s influence of 2Pac, Outkast, and rap-on-steroids Lil Wayne all over the album without Kendrick ever sounding like a carbon copy.

As we’ve come to find out, it’s because he’s not.

Who’s argument wins out? Which Kendrick Lamar album is the GOAT? Sound off on Twitter and Instagram @boardroom.

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