With new album, Kendrick Lamar emerges as artist of the year
NEW YORK — Rappers who morph into superstars usually follow a well-traveled path that includes an overabundance of collaborations with other artists, radio-friendly pop hits, a bit of tabloid buzz and a conscious effort to eschew anything that might get too political or socially conscious.
Kendrick Lamar took a different path and still emerged as the artist of the year, and it’s one reason he’s been elevated to superstar status with “DAMN.,” which has dominated pop culture since its release last month. The album, a searing lyrical masterpiece that touches on societal breakdowns, politics, relationships and his own vulnerability — has spawned limitless think pieces, conquered the charts and has had some people calling him a new rap god.
Last year it was Beyonce and her epic “Lemonade” visual. This year it’s Lamar and “DAMN.”
“In a way, Kendrick is the opposite of a lot of what’s popping right now. He’s the other side of the pillow,” said Tuma Basa, Spotify’s global head of hip-hop.
Lamar was a platinum-selling, Grammy-winning star before “DAMN.,” but the release of his third studio album has put him on another level. It started with his song “The Heart Part 4,” which led to a viral guessing game about which rapper — or rappers — he was referring to on the powerful track featuring his signature sharp rhymes. A week later came “Humble,” an insta-hit that topped Billboard’s Hot 100 chart and launched a debate about women and butt injections, creating yet another pop culture moment for Lamar.
Two weeks later, “DAMN.” is finally out, becoming another critically revered and commercially successful album for Lamar, and assimilating his stance as the reigning king of rap and pop music’s unlikely juggernaut.
“If the forefathers of hip-hop had all gotten together and been like, ‘Man, where do you hope the music will be in 30 years?’ they would have wanted it to be a kid like Kendrick Lamar,” said Peter Rosenberg, the veteran radio personality at Hot 97.
“That’s what they would have wanted.”
“DAMN.” has sold over 1 million equivalent albums in just three weeks, and it has spent all three weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s 200 albums chart. Nielsen Music says it’s the second best-selling album this year, behind Ed Sheeran’s “Divide,” released March 3.
“The beauty of ‘DAMN.’ is that the more you listen to it, the more you like it. I think that’s the quality of a great piece of work — whether it be an album or even a movie — the more you get into it, the more you like it. It means you’re unpeeling layers. It’s a complex piece of work that wasn’t some cut-and-paste, copied (album),” Basa said.
Despite its pop star success, “DAMN.” is one of the most highly regarded releases in hip-hop history, following Lamar’s acclaimed albums, 2015’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” and 2012’s “good kid, m.A.A.d city.”
“To me he was everything that true hip-hop heads always wanted. Like, we always wanted a guy who represented what the essence of what hip-hop was supposed to be from a cultural standpoint, from a political standpoint, from a socioeconomics standpoint — he does everything right,” Rosenberg said.
“And on top of that, the kids love him.”
It’s not just kids who rally behind the 29-year-old Lamar. The Compton, California-born rapper has practically checked every box when it comes to his audience: His concertgoers are diverse in race, age and sex, and they range from the cool kids of Coachella to the children from the ‘hood to Swifties. LeBron James plays his music before basketball games, and he’s a favorite of former President Barack Obama.
Lamar has become a critical darling, topping several end-of-the-year lists and earning top awards, including seven Grammys.
The real question is: Who isn’t a Kendrick Lamar fan?
Gail Mitchell, a senior correspondent at Billboard, compares Lamar’s appeal to Tupac Shakur, and more widely, Stevie Wonder.
“He’s one of the rare artists who has the ability to transcend generations. A lot of hip-hop, I think, whether warranted or unwarranted, people think it’s segregated or should be segregated to one demographic, mind-set, et cetera. But I think Kendrick has broken through those confines and he’s able to reach out to older, younger, white, black, Asian, whatever. He’s just an all-around artist,” she said.
“Twenty, 30 years down the road, he’s going to be one of the standard chapters — not just in hip-hop — but in music in general.”
Lamar’s success on the pop charts is being shared with other rappers: Many of the recent Top 10 hits include acts with anthemic and upbeat jams, including DJ Khaled, Future, Migos, Big Sean, Lil Uzi Vert and KYLE. But Lamar’s sound isn’t radio-ready or pop-adjacent.
“I don’t necessarily consider him a ‘conscious rapper’ … he’s different than that, but obviously his message is thoughtful, progressive, incredibly smart, and I don’t know that there’s ever been another artist in hip-hop who’s been so successful making thought-provoking important music,” Rosenberg said.
Spotify’s Basa described the moment Lamar is having as a “renaissance.”
Lamar will launch a North American tour this summer. Some even feel that “DAMN.” could earn him album of the year at the Grammy Awards next year. He’s been nominated for the prize twice, and a win would make him the first rap act since Outkast (the duo won in 2004) to take home that prize.
“You look at folks who evolve and take you on that journey … you see Beyonce with ‘Lemonade’ and now you see Kendrick with this third album, and I think, yeah, he stands a very strong chance,” Billboard’s Mitchell said.