Kendrick Lamar is a revered lyricist in hip-hop culture, and it is not for no reason. As hip-hop has seen a focus shift from lyricism to beats, Lamar has remained dedicated to blessing his listeners with both remarkable instrumentals and high-quality lyrics. That said, akin to artists such as J. Cole and Tyler, The Creator, he has managed to stay atop the rest of hip-hop due to the sheer excellence of his artistic output. Since his emergence in the early-2010s, Lamar has gone on to work with all the greats in the business and is now considered one of the best MCs of the new school.
Born and raised in Compton, after various independent releases, the DAMN. rapper had created a local buzz. Looking to guide Lamar and help him reach new heights, Anthony Griffin, the founder of Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE), contacted the musician and offered him a record deal. Releasing music under the moniker K.Dot in 2005, Lamar signed a contract with the Los Angeles-based independent label and, from there, began to thrive artistically. Shortly after landing his deal with TDE, in 2008, Lamar altered his stage name to his first and middle names.
Not one to rest on his laurels, the Compton native began crafting various bodies of work. Using the facilities of TDE to record in 2010, Lamar released his debut mixtape, Overly Dedicated. The project garnered attention from esteemed music publications nationally. As Lamar put out solo projects, he was simultaneously making a name for himself as part of the Black Hippy collective.
In 2011, Lamar released his first official album, Section.80, which quickly made its way into the hands of music mogul Dr Dre. Having already laid the groundwork and developed a cult following, the rapper was swiftly presented with a record deal by Dr Dre and soon became an official Aftermath Entertainment roster artist. Since 2011, the lyricist has continued to produce quality bodies of work and now has a dense and impressive discography.
In this article, we rank all of Lamar’s albums in order of their greatness from worst to best.
Kendrick Lamar albums ranked in order of greatness:
5. Section.80 (2011)
This 2011 project from Lamar was good and above average. However, even the Compton rapper has admitted that at this point, he was still creatively young and growing into himself as an artist. Before Section.80, the ‘Humble’ emcee had only put out bodies of work in a mixtape format. This debut project was undeniably released while Lamar was still in the adaptation phase.
In an interview with LA radio show, ‘The Neighbourhood’ on Real FM 92.3, Lamar explained how he didn’t have a strict creative direction while doing the project, stating, “I didn’t have no rules when I was doing it, I was just creating and having fun!” Although Section.80 was distributed nationwide by Asylum Records, the album only managed to peak at 113 on the Billboard 200. For the Compton rapper, the project was a stepping stone to something greater.
4. Mr Morale & the Big Steppers (2022)
Released in 2022, Mr Morale & The Big Steppers polarised hip-hop. Many praised the album as a masterpiece and regarded it as one of the rapper’s best. However, on the contrary, others didn’t take to it so well and, perhaps clouded by nostalgia, believed it wasn’t as good as his previous projects, such as To Pimp A Butterfly.
One reason many were unimpressed with the project concerned its features. The body of work included guest verses from MCs such as Baby Keem and Kodak Black—the inclusion of those mentioned above confused many fans. Both artists could fall under the “mumble rap” banner, a despised faction of contemporary hip-hop. To diehard Kendrick fanatics, this was him lowering the lyrical bar and embracing mediocrity. However, critics were not so harsh as the project was met with widespread critical acclaim. The album won a Grammy for ‘Best Rap Album’, but more broadly, it received mixed reviews.
3. Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, (2012)
Good Kid, M.A.A.D City was Lamar’s first release as an Aftermath artist. As a newly signed major-label act, the former TDE rapper now had unrestricted access to the best music-making equipment in the world, meaning he could create and craft a project able to reflect who he was as a musician. With a marketing team at the ready, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City instantly became a hit with fans old and new.
Lamar recruited the best of the best for this 2012 body of work to make an everlasting impact. The 12-track album featured guest verses from the likes of Drake, Dr Dre and even iconic Black Hippy members such as Jay Rock. Every one of the project’s singles debuted within the Top 40, and Good Kid, M.A.A.D City eventually landed at number two on the Billboard 200, only just missing out on the top spot.
The project has been certified as three times platinum by the RIAA and, to this day, is considered a classic. Speaking with the renowned hip-hop publication XXL in 2015, Lamar unveiled that he didn’t know what he had as he revealed, “I’d be lying to you to say I knew Good Kid, M.A.A.D City would be as successful as it has been. In the beginning, I was very doubtful. Once I was done, the jitters hit me so fast.”
2. To Pimp a Butterfly, (2015)
Released in 2015, To Pimp A Butterfly is Lamar’s third studio album. The project exhibited growth, proving that Lamar had found clarity concerning his creative vision and executed it beautifully. To Pimp A Butterfly was reminiscent of the Compton emcee’s 2012 project. However, it was more profound and sonically more cohesive. Akin to Good Kid, M.A.A.D City Kendrick collaborated with only the best for the project and invited the likes of Pharrell Williams and the ingenious Flying Lotus to help him curate this body of work.
Lamar explored himself and his heritage on this project. Moreover, he delivered a message. For To Pimp A Butterfly, the lyricist visited Nelson Mandela’s jail cell on Robben Island and addressed racial issues through a pan-African lens. Wanting to highlight the ambiguity surrounding African-American lineage, Lamar incorporated a vast range of musical styles on the album, including jazz, funk and blues. The album debuted at number one on the Billboard 200, making it Lamar’s first number-one project ever.
Speaking on his encounters with black people across the world and his trip to South Africa, ahead of the 2016 Grammy’s, the musician told Complex magazine, “I felt like I belonged in Africa. I saw all the things that I wasn’t taught. Probably one of the hardest things to do is put together a concept on how beautiful a place can be, and tell a person this while they’re still in the ghettos of Compton. I wanted to put that experience in the music.” To Pimp A Butterfly sold over 324,000 copies in its first week and became Lamar’s first number-one album in the UK.
1. DAMN., (2017)
DAMN. is undoubtedly Kendrick Lamar’s greatest album of all time. The 2017 album was an amalgamation of his three previous albums and, according to Lamar, struck a balance concerning having both a profound message and hard-hitting instrumentals. The 14-track album was a phenomenon when it was released and received positive reviews across the board from both fans and critics.
Speaking with radio host Big Boy for ‘The Neighbourhood’ on Real FM 92.3, Lamar explained why he considers DAMN. his best project, declaring, “I think DAMN. is a hybrid of all [my] projects. It was me finally being able to take elements from ‘Good Kid’, the message behind To Pimp A Butterfly, the sonics and beats slappin’ on ‘Good Kid’ and the rawness of just being able to do what I wanted on Section.80“
DAMN. is Kendrick’s most highly decorated body of work. The project received an AMA for the ‘Favorite Rap/Hip-Hop Album’ a BET award for ‘Album of the Year’, a Grammy for ‘Best Rap Album’, and even earned the Compton native the Pulitzer Prize for Music. DAMN. sold 603,000 copies in its first week, and debuted at number-one on the Billboard 200. Furthermore, after only three weeks, it had moved 1.014 million units. The project’s lead single ‘Humble’ has been streamed over 1billion times on Spotify, and is triple-platinum. DAMN. is truly the greatest Kendrick project released to date.