Kendrick Lamar is the best rapper alive. Let's get that out of the way before we dig into the nitty-gritty. I concede a very good argument can be made for Jay-Z given his extensive body of work spanning several decades, and even for Kanye West if you ignore the last four years of terrible music and horrendous public statements. But, right this very second, nobody can match K-Dot.
I'm glad we all agree. Now, on to the meat of this here article. good kid, m.A.A.d city is absolutely his best album. I will start by addressing arguments for his other albums, and then heap praise upon the best rap album of the decade, and hands down one of the best of all-time.
Overly Dedicated is great, but it was his first album and wasn't nearly as polished or cohesive. No one will argue it's his best piece of work, even if it is the favorite of some individuals. It's the same with Section 80 and Untitled. Section 80 was the first glimpse we had of Kendrick's true potential, and the true predecessor to GKMC. It has some of my favorite Kendrick songs ("Ronald Reagan Era" and "Poe Man's Dreams" still make regular appearances in the rotation), but there are few too many short songs that could serve as interludes if you didn't know any better. Untitled is basically a collection of loosies. The fact that it's still better than many a rapper's full albums speaks to his skill, but it can't hold a legitimate claim to being the best album he's put out.
DAMN was great. But it wasn't his best work as a storyteller or as an artist. It combined the themes of his previous albums and was debatably his strongest album lyrically, but the pieces didn't fit as well together comparatively. This is like degrading John Wick in order to argue The Matrix is better, but we must criticize what we love in order to prove a point. Such is life when one has opinions.
Which brings us to To Pimp A Butterfly, the only true contender to the throne in this discussion. TPAB was an incredible piece of work. A statement on society that very few, if any, rappers have ever been able to make so poignantly with such majesty. Musically, it was remarkable. No one has ever been able to combine jazz/soul and rap as successfully as Kendrick does on that album. The themes that make up its foundation will always be relevant to societal discourse. It's as timeless as a rap album can get.
That said, replay-ability and general appeal must be taken into consideration when we're arguing about the greatest piece of work in an artist's discography. TPAB falls behind good kid, m.A.A.d city in those regards. TPAB is an extremely intense album, slamming the listener over and over again with vicious lyrics that makes him or her reevaluate their worldview. That's what makes the album great, but it is also what makes it difficult to listen to sometimes. It isn't an album for every color on the mood ring. I recognized the greatness of the sound of the album above, but that kind of combination isn't widely appealing. You don't need to be a jazz connoisseur to appreciate what Kendrick did. But you need to have a taste for it to throw on TPAB on a regular basis.
good kid, m.A.A.d city checks all of these boxes. Lyrically, it's incredible. It's one of the few albums out there you need to listen to in order, otherwise the listener misses much of what makes it great. Kendrick paints a grabbing and thrilling narrative over the course of 12 tracks. It has a wide range of rap beats with bountiful variety in terms of pace. There's a song on there for however you're feeling. "m.A.A.d City"? Banger. "Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe"? Smooth as silk. "Backseat Freestyle"? Straight heat. "Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst" is objectively one of the greatest rap songs ever. It ties together Kendrick's narrative perfectly over the course of 12 minutes. Twelve minutes! A 12-minute rap song that doubles as the best song on the album is an achievement few can ever hope to match.
To Pimp A Butterfly is probably more impactful as a piece of art. DAMN is a more spiritual listen. I shan't begrudge any of you for preferring either of those over the album that solidified Kendrick's status as one of the best rappers out there (and, unbelievably, lost to freaking Macklemore for Rap Album of the Year at the Grammys in 2014. I'll be dedicating 800 words to that next week.) But good kid, m.A.A.d city has something for everyone-- and that's what makes it great. That is, indeed, what makes it Kendrick Lamar's greatest rap album.
P.S. Kendrick, please save us and release new music. I beg you.