Many prominent artists that have ever made a mark in Hip-Hop tend to have made that mark with their major label debut album. However, many of them fail to reach the same level of quality in their music on their second attempt. This can be said about the commercial success of those albums too. This could be explained by a number of factors: they shot their proverbial load and don’t have much left to say; their allure has diminished and therefore no longer seem like that breath of fresh air they once were or; a change in environments such as: new labels and producers. Kendrick Lamar now has these potential issues to overcome.
When you think of classic Hip-Hop debuts you have to start from the top - Nas’ “Illmatic”. Released in 1994, Nas spent 39 minutes and 51 seconds telling us his story in a mind blowing lyrical fashion.
Kendrick Lamar’s debut shares the same effort to tell stories. Another similarity between both albums is the artwork. They are similar in nature with both of them displaying the artist in-question in their adolescence (a cliché in Hip-Hop that Nas seems to have started). “Illmatic” is the best example of one of the earlier Hip-Hop albums having more than one producer throughout the album. Lord Finesse, DJ Premier, Q-Tip, Pete Rock (and more) all came together to produce the music for what is widely regarded as not only the best Hip-Hop major label debut, but the best Hip-Hop album of all time. Some lofty standards to try and keep up.
Nas' second album “It Was Written” didn’t match those standards. Although it sold better than “Illmatic” when it was first released, it is not regarded in the same bracket as his debut album.
“As I got a little older and started working on my first album, I realised ‘this is like a musical. It’s not a movie - it’s music’. And it’s just like a flick though, but you just listen to it.”
- Nas - Speaking about his debut album
On the cover of Kendrick’s debut album, it says “a short film by: Kendrick Lamar". Another debut classic which had comparisons to a movie was The Notorious B.I.G’s “Ready To Die” album.
Released in 1994, “Ready To Die” put Biggie Smalls on the map in a huge way. His simple but-yet complicated rap style had everyone talking. It received rave reviews in-which the album was compared to the style of a movie:
“Big weaves tales like a cinematographer, each song is like another scene in his lifestyle.”
- The Source - “Ready To Die” Review - 1994
“Ready To Die” contained the infamous storytelling tracks such as “Gimme The Loot” and “Warning” which ended with a skit in-which we heard Biggie’s home intruders being murdered. These were the type of tracks which garnered the movie-like comparisons.
Biggie posthumously managed to somewhat overcome the sophomore curse with the release of “Life After Death”. Although it’s generally not regarded to be as good as his debut, it is still considered a classic on it’s own accord.
A year before the release of “Ready To Die”, we saw Kendrick’s west coast colleague, Snoop Dogg release his debut album titled “Doggystyle”.
Snoop was Dr. Dre’s first protégé and he benefited hugely under his guidance and production. Snoop was seen as a breath of fresh air on “The Chronic” album and everyone wanted to hear what he would offer on his own project.
“Doggystyle” debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart. It sold 802,858 copies in its first week alone, which was the record for a debuting artist and the fastest-selling album ever until Eminem's “The Marshall Mathers LP” in 2000. Not only was it a commercial success, it was critically acclaimed by fans and critics a-like. To this day - it is regarded as Snoop’s best album. “Doggystyle” was the complete opposite of Nas’ “Illmatic” album in terms of production - it was fully produced by one person - Dr. Dre (who also executive produced the album alongside Suge Knight).
Like many have done on their debuts, Snoop Dogg shows his story-telling skills on tracks such as “Lodi Dodi” and “Murder Was The Case”. Another similarity between Snoop and Kendrick’s debut’s are the structure of the albums. “Doggystyle” has no breaks throughout the album and most songs are accompanied by a skit/interlude relating to the upcoming track. From Snoop being murdered to Dre and Daz playing dominoes etc. “good kid, m.A.A.d city” shares this same trait as the album is tied together through skits which serve as bridges between songs to tell an overall story.
Much like Kendrick Lamar on his debut, Snoop Dogg’s approach to “gangsta-rap” wasn’t the norm. What gave Snoop his allure was his style - he wasn’t a typical “gangsta-rapper”.
“Me and Snoop represent the nucleus of the entire ghetto. Snoop represents the more calm, all-legit, right-by-the-book, no waves, ‘let’s get our business handled’. I represent the hardcore, no-holds-barred, no prisoners, relentless thug.”
- Tupac Shakur
After eleven attempts, it is widely regarded that Snoop has still to top his 1993 debut effort. After Dr. Dre left Death Row Records, Snoop’s sophomore “Tha Doggfather” failed to strike any chords with the Hip-Hop community. Even Dr. Dre didn’t like the album:
“But to be perfectly honest, I don't like Snoop's new album. And it has nothing to do with me not working with him, because I'm just like everybody else: I like it, or I don't. There's really nothing that was said on there that hasn't been said 50 times before.”
- Dr. Dre - Spin Magazine Interview - 1997
Just like Snoop, Kendrick’s debut boasted Dre as an executive producer. If Dre was absent from Kendrick’s follow-up album, it will be interesting to see if the album would suffer the same fate as Snoop’s second effort.
Another artist helped by Dre to create a classic debut album is New York rapper 50 Cent. Dr. Dre shared the executive producer responsibilities with Eminem (the person who "discovered" 50) on the 2003 album “Get Rich Or Die Tryin’”.
“Probably the most hyped debut album by a rap artist in about a decade, most likely since Snoop's Doggystyle (1993) or perhaps Nas' Illmatic (1994)”
- Jeff Birch Meier - AllMusic.com Review
The album was a smash both critically and commercially with excellent reviews across the board and the album selling 872,000 copies in its first week. Dre produced a handful of tracks on the album and people were invested in another Dr. Dre protégé.
Following the success of “Get Rich Or Die Tryin’”, 50 Cent released “The Massacre” as his second album in 2005. The album sold even better than his debut with 1.14m copies sold in the first week of release. Although the album received good reviews, it is widely considered that 50’s debut “Get Rich Or Die Tryin’” is his best album.
Did 50 Cent beat the sophomore curse? It depends on how you look at it. Musically or commercially. Musically; it can be argued that he did not. Commercially speaking and in terms of first week sales; not only did he beat the curse but he showed improvement. However, “Get Rich Or Die Tryin’” is still his best selling and best received album to date. Now that Kendrick has achieved the-now elusive platinum status for (what many see as) a classic debut album, some may wonder if Kendrick can not only maintain the standard of music, but also the level of sales for his second album. 50 Cent achieved 50 percent of that equation.
Two years later, once again people were intrigued by another Dr. Dre protégé who would go on to drop a classic debut album - Kendrick’s fellow Compton rapper/mentor The Game.
In 2005, The Game was seen as the artist to “revive” Hip-Hop on the west coast. His debut album “The Documentary” was highly anticipated and once again, Dre took executive producer role (alongside 50 Cent). Dre also produced eight of the eighteen tracks of the album. “The Documentary” sold 586,000 copies in it’s first week and has since sold seven million copies. The Game spent the entire album telling his story about living on the streets of Compton and paying homage to the rappers he looked up to. Fans were not let down and critics praised the album.
“The Documentary is an excellent debut that also hints at a lot of potential.”
- Andy Kellman - AllMusic.com Review
Complex.com also added the album to their “25 Rap Albums From the Past Decade That Deserve Classic Status”
A year later, The Game released his sophomore album “Doctor’s Advocate”, selling over 358,000 copies in its first week. Fans and critics praised the album however, “The Documentary” is still regarded as his best album. Game doesn’t see it that way:
“The ‘Jesus Piece’ album, it’s my best work lyrically since ‘Doctor’s Advocate’ which is the best album of my career. Everybody says ‘The Documentary‘, but I think ‘The Documentary’ was titled such a classic because that was my first album. As was ‘Illmatic’ to Nas or Reasonable Doubt to Jay-Z or ‘Ready to Die’ to Biggie, but still, Life After Death was the shit for Big. I actually like ‘Life After Death’ more than ‘Ready to Die’.”
- The Game - Complex.com Interview - 26th October, 2012
Just like his former mentor 50 Cent, The Game can be considered as a Hip-Hop artist who somewhat beat the sophomore curse. Although “Doctor’s Advocate” didn’t sell as many copies as “The Documentary”, listeners of the second album considered it to be just as good as his debut entry, if not, better. The potential seen by reviewers was starting to be fulfilled.
If you have been following Kendrick Lamar’s career in some degree then you might remember his features on The Game’s mixtapes in tracks such as “The Cypha” and “Cali Niggaz” when he was still known as “K-Dot”. After releasing a few mixtapes of his own, in 2010 "Overly Dedicated" sold around 12,000 copies. This was the mixtape that grabbed Dr. Dre's attention. He built on this success by selling around 78,000 copies of his iTunes exclusive project titled “Section.80” (which also received huge praise). He then again went on to top that with his debut “good kid, m.A.A.d city”.
Can Kendrick Lamar beat the sophomore curse? This will depend on various factors such as: Will Dr. Dre remain involved in his music? Will he stick with a similar sound? Or will he go in a more pop direction? Does Kendrick still have concepts and content in order to write songs of the same quality, if not, better? Will he sell more albums than his debut release now that the mainstream know his name?
Those questions will go unanswered until the second album actually happens. One thing that we know right now is that Kendrick Lamar has all the talent and potential required to beat the infamous sophomore curse that many Hip-Hop legends have failed to do so in their great careers.