Seventeen years into his rap career, Kendrick Lamar's status as a living rap icon is unimpeachable, but that status was hard-earned. After all, everyone's got to start somewhere, and for Kendrick, who first rapped under the name K-Dot, that launching pad was a collection of projects that sound more like a Lil Wayne tribute artist than the ferocious Compton wordsmith fans know today.
Featuring a cheesy cover for an even cheesier set of songs, 2004's Y.H.N.I.C. (Hub City Threat: Minor of the Year), was Kendrick Lamar's introduction to the rap world. You can hear flashes of greatness, but for the most part, this version of the rapper, then known as K-Dot, isn't much more than your rapper from ’round the way.
By the time he released his debut album, Section.80, in the summer of 2011, the fledgling freestyler had evolved into one of the most promising artists the rap game had seen in a long time. Armed with tighter flows, more individualized musicality and a more emphatic message, Kendrick then was nothing like the sounds of K-Dot prior, and soon he was a certified superstar.
After releasing two critically acclaimed major label albums by 2015, Kendrick had the rap world wondering how he'd top his first two outings. His answer was DAMN., a 2017 album that features visceral storytelling and Billboard Hot 100 singles at every turn. While many had pegged Kenny as a conscious artist, this record proved that label was a reductive one, and that Kung Fu Kenny could pretty much do whatever he wanted.
Over the course of his career, Kendrick Lamar has been everything from amateur rapper to rising star to King of Hip-Hop. Those career plateaus are self-contained period pieces on hip-hop and case studies in how to evolve your sound. Through 12 projects, Kendrick has showcased every side of himself and invited fans to take a journey. Now, it's time to retrace those steps.
Today, XXL ranks all of Kendrick Lamar's projects. Check out the rankings for yourself in the gallery below.—Peter A. Berry
See Every Kendrick Lamar Project Ranked