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Kendrick Lamar’s Biggest Steps

A closer look at the definitive milestones from one of hip-hop's most beloved figures.

by Ben Boddez

Photo illustration by Ryan Rathjen

Coming back strong after five years, the world has been waiting patiently for Kendrick Lamar’s next move since the beloved rapper dropped the widely acclaimed DAMN. in 2017. Speculatively returning with a double album after teasing his next release with a cryptic image of what is presumed to be Lamar holding two master discs, Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers is set to be his final release under the Top Dawg Entertainment label as he transitions to PGLang, his own multimedia company.

Known for his provocative performances, incisive social commentary, and dexterous flows, listeners have always trusted Lamar to return with some kind of a surprising twist, and rumours had been brewing for a while that he had been locked away in the studio working on a heavier, rock-oriented project. However, with the release of the funkier, Marvin Gaye-sampling teaser single, “The Heart Part 5,” Lamar’s next big step is anyone’s guess. Here’s a look back at the biggest moments that got him here.

Fresh Face

Scoring a spot among the annual XXL Freshman Class has always been one of the greatest prognosticators of future hip-hop stardom, and the waves Kendrick Lamar’s eye-catching flows had already been making in his early career got him on the list before even dropping his debut. A couple months before Section.80’s release, here’s the only opportunity you’ll ever get to witness Lamar spitting bars alongside the Based God himself.

The Doctor is In


While the headline-grabber from Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s joint headlining set at the 2012 edition of Coachella was inevitably Hologram Tupac, the set also provided an opportunity for one of hip-hop’s biggest icons to introduce his protégé to the world. Lamar wasn’t quite a household name at the time, but this set placed him on the same level as fellow guests 50 Cent and Eminem. Holding his own alongside Dre, a 25-year-old Kendrick performed their collaboration “The Recipe” and invited quite a few new fans into the fold. 

Putting The Game On Watch

Perhaps the most incendiary and conversation-starting verse of the 21st century (up there with Pusha T’s Drake diss track), most hip-hop fans probably remember where they were the first time they heard it. Guesting on Big Sean’s “Control” alongside Jay Electronica, Kendrick’s verse name-dropped and proclaimed his supremacy over just about every rapper on his level of popularity and advised them to strive harder to reach his degree of lyrical excellence. The track inspired over 20 responses from major-label artists and saw Lamar’s Twitter account receive a 510% bump in followers. 

Just Under Jackson

Kendrick Lamar’s 11 Grammy nods for his politically-charged jazz-rap magnum opus To Pimp A Butterfly shattered records, as Lamar became the rapper to receive the most nominations in a single night and the 2nd-most nominations of any artist in history. He fell one short of the tally Michael Jackson received for Thriller. During an interview with Jimmy Fallon, however, Lamar showed his humble side and emphasized how necessary it was that he take silver, not wanting to even fathom surpassing a personal hero until he believed he had “put in the work.” 

Alright’s Impact

While To Pimp A Butterfly not earning Album of the Year might be one of the biggest indictments of the Grammys’ relevance in recent years, the performance Lamar delivered at the 2016 ceremony helped inspire a movement. Featuring a prison break, a massive bonfire and traditional African clothing and dance, Billboard called Lamar’s medley of “The Blacker The Berry,” “Alright” and a still-unreleased song “easily one of the best live TV performances in history.” The song “Alright” went on to become the de facto anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement, being chanted at protests as Lamar’s status as a master of social commentary grew.

Hard To Be Humble

Every artist wants to craft the perfect stadium singalong, but not everyone could accomplish what Kendrick Lamar pulled off in nearly every city while touring behind the DAMN. album. While performing “HUMBLE.,” his first #1 hit single as a solo artist, Lamar took a break in the middle of the first verse to let the crowd rap the entirety of the rest of the song, a couple of enthusiastic fans even adding the ad-libs with impressive precision . Anyone who was actually there can attest to the electricity in the room as Lamar essentially managed to attend his own concert.

Pulitzer Kenny

Despite racking up an impressive number of awards over the years, not many people expected things to go this far. Becoming the first ever album not rooted in classical or jazz music to take home the Pulitzer Prize for music, DAMN. was cited by the jury as “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.”

Kendrick Joins the MCU

Continuing his path towards world domination, Lamar was tapped to curate the soundtrack for Marvel Studios’ Oscar-winning billion-dollar success story Black Panther in 2018. Appearing on five new tracks himself, teaming up with artists like SZA, Vince Staples, The Weeknd and Anderson .Paak and scoring hits like “Pray For Me,” “All The Stars,” and “King’s Dead” while continuing to pay homage to African culture through the accompanying visuals, this stands as Lamar’s last compilation of original music until the newest album drops. 

World’s Biggest Stage

Previewing his imminent return after a long hiatus, Kendrick Lamar finally accomplished what many believe to be the ultimate signifier of becoming an undeniable cultural titan for the history books when he played the Super Bowl in early 2022. Joining a roster of West Coast hip-hop and R&B icons in Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Mary J. Blige and mentor Dr. Dre, Lamar performed two of his most firestarting anthems in “M.A.A.D. City” and “Alright” while sending his streams skyrocketing in the weeks to come.

The Heart Keeps Beating

Continuing his legendary “The Heart” series, which previews each album he releases, Kendrick Lamar’s latest iteration featured yet another music video which stirred up a lot of conversation. Speaking from the perspective of a series of notable Black figures including Kanye West, OJ Simpson, Kobe Bryant, and Will Smith, Lamar used deepfake technology to transform into them for an added eerie and chilling touch to his words. Speaking eloquently on the rampant violence and discrimination that we excuse as “the culture,” Lamar’s latest track means we’re likely in for another emotional rollercoaster when Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers finally drops.