Let me take you back to January 24, 2014: It’s the 56th Annual Grammy Awards, and arguably the biggest night of Kendrick Lamar’s young career. He’s nominated for seven awards behind good kid, m.A.A.d city, including Album of the Year, Best New Artist, and Best Rap Album—none of which he’ll win. After the show, rapper and human Twitter thread Macklemore will send him the equivalent of a hungover apology text, calling bullshit on his own Best Rap Album victory. The next day, he’ll post it on Instagram. But something else important happened that night.
About halfway into the show, Kendrick would join the aggro-Cirque du Soleil rockers of Imagine Dragons for a “m.A.A.d city” and “Radioactive” mashup. As an introduction to Kendrick, this might have been a captivating preview of his talents—at least the dimed-out, fire-breathing side of them. But for anyone even remotely familiar with the Compton prophet’s first two albums, it was confounding. A good rule of thumb is to never trust anything that Taylor Swift enjoys this much (and based on this timeline of events, I’m convinced that it was the first time she’d ever heard Kendrick, and laid the seeds for their ghastly “Bad Blood” remix).
In the context of his now-legendary run, it’s easy to forget about these missteps. Now that Kendrick’s given us consecutive classics (and a great batch of leftovers), his blemishes are less concerning and don’t incite sincere panic about how his next album might turn out. But it’d be dishonest to ignore them outright, or how their timing subconsciously affects our expectations for King Kendrick.
He takes a bit longer between albums than most other rappers operating close to his wavelength. We’ve come to expect one new Drake project per year, and multiple Future projects per year. (If he doesn’t, then something’s up.) The gap between Kendrick’s albums can feel longer than the norm in rap—but a reasonable person would just assume it’s Kendrick’s perfectionism and commitment to getting it right that’s at play here. He rarely gives us insight into his process, and when he does let us in on the scraps —like with last year’s untitled unmastered.—his work is presented as such. He’s not trying to exceed your expectations here, and one would think, he’s not trying to skirt them either. But what of the Imagine Dragons collaboration? That one song with Robin Thicke? His baffling birthday sex verse on Maroon 5’s last smash?
I won’t begin to defend any of these choices, or paint them as part of a calculated effort to lower our standards—even if most of Kendrick’s pop assists tend to have this effect. But it’s in these what the fuck is he doing moments where a broader trajectory emerges: a steady, gradual dissolution of expectations between albums, followed by a sudden reassertion of dominance in the weeks leading up to a new release.
The Kendrick Lamar Offseason, post-good kid, can be boiled down into four essential phases, which sometimes overlap. Through a smattering of hit-and-miss features, endorsement deals, and reminders of his dexterity, there’s a natural arc to what comes in between Kendrick albums.
1. Reaffirmation of Faith
Kendrick’s the rare MC who can keep his humility in check, but still goes for the windmill jam when he’s up by 30. This happens roughly once a year after each of his studio albums. Our first taste of this came in August 2013, when he violently hijacked Big Sean’s “Control,” declared himself the king of both coasts, and ran down the list of every rapper who couldn’t get on his level. It was the searing, hungry work of someone who still had something to prove. Sean somehow still maintains that he walked away unscathed from his own song, but the score was clear.
Around this same time last year, he followed an astonishing Grammy medley (and was Macklemored yet again for Album of the Year) with a casually brilliant demo collection. With its unfussy green cover art and lower-cased stylization, untitled unmastered. was transparent in its intentions. Kendrick reintroduced some restless, transcendent late-night performances that seemed like they’d never see proper release, and proved that even his cutting room casualties are worthy. No one had to ask if it was a mixtape, album, or playlist—the message was clear enough: his afterthoughts were better than your final thoughts.
2. Losing My Religion
It’s hard to remember now, but there was some genuine concern in the months before To Pimp a Butterfly. Following a spotty run of feature appearances, the single version of “i” resulted in mixed reception and skepticism over his embrace of posi-vibes and retro-soul samples. Luckily, in the context of his conflicted third album, it took on a new life (and benefited from a sharp, live-band re-recording). But let’s get back to those features.
I’m willing to entertain this idea for a minute: Kendrick’s run of alarming features is a deliberate outlet for all of his worst ideas. Get them out of your system now, cash the check, and save the good stuff for your next solo LP (or at least a TDE affiliate’s). It’s a cynical possibility, but wouldn’t we rather that than the thought of Imagine Dragons actually getting his blood pumping? It’s more likely that he’s assumed a sort of “one for them, one for me” mindset (or contractual stipulation) with his record label, Interscope Records. Many of his uncharacteristically off-kilter pairings—including Imagine Dragons, Robin Thicke, and Maroon 5—all trace back to other Interscope artists. These singles could be out of obligation, or they could be bred from sincere attempts at inspiration. We’ll never know.
Taken with his recent endorsement deals—the soap-sniffing American Express campaign and his line of Reeboksthat aimed to conquer racism—this phase of the Kendrick Offseason inspires some reasonable doubt. After two dazzling full-lengths, our expectations for Kendrick come with a pretty high floor at this point. But it’s always around this time in the cycle when somebody has to wonder out loud: “Maybe Drake’s the best rapper alive right now?”
This is the part where Kendrick pulls off a subtle renaissance. It’s not always the features themselves that improve, but his decision-making sharpens. Maroon 5 aside, 2016 was a mostly great year to see the phrase “feat. Kendrick Lamar.” He triumphantly splashed alongside Beyoncé for black liberation on “Freedom,” lent a hand to TDE associates when they called on him (a great, slippery verse on Isaiah Rashad’s “Wat’s Wrong”), and jumped on one of the best posse cuts in recent years, Danny Brown’s “Really Doe.” Even without any solo singles pointing to a new release, like he offered in late 2014 before To Pimp a Butterfly, his cryptic early interviews ahead of LP4 were enough to keep anticipation fully intact.
It came with minimal warning, but Kendrick launched into this final phase two weeks ago when “The Heart Part 4” appeared online. In one respect, it was a letdown—earlier that day, he posted the Roman numeral to Instagram, leading many of us to believe it was teasing his fourth album. But on the other hand, this was a sudden reminder that he’d returned to the game of merciless braggadocio (“‘One, two, three, four, five / I am the greatest rapper alive’ / So damn great, motherfucker I’ve died / What you hearin’ now is a paranormal vibe”). He’d follow it the next week with the video for another new song, “HUMBLE.” As we all know at this point, the song was a masterful inversion of its title (and made a strong case for LP4 to be a visual album).
Kendrick singles this close to an album cycle usually pull the rug out—”The Blacker the Berry” and “King Kunta” also vaporized fears without warning before To Pimp a Butterfly. But within the framework of a Kendrick Lamar Offseason, it now becomes easier to see the value of his pop features. They’re boneless mild buffalo wings—a bland placeholder of an appetizer that’ll do just fine unless someone wants to step up and order the calamari platter. When Kendrick finally returns with his own product, it’s an invigorating upgrade that tastes even better after we’ve been treated to chewy, mostly flavorless kitsch. Bring on the porterhouse.