The perpetual argument of hip-hop: Everyone has their opinion of the greatest rapper dead or alive, and it’s never long before comparisons start being drawn between the past and present pioneers who each stake a strong claim to the throne — Nas, Rakim, Jay-Z, Tupac, Eminem, B.I.G. The list goes on.
The untimely (and often tragic) death of rappers can elevate them from stars of their era to bona fide legends in hip-hop. I’m not suggesting a direct correlation between death and success of rappers like Biggie or Big L — even if there was some truth in this, that rappers become martyrs from dying doing what they love, who is to say where these men would be today. Biggie probably never made a bad song in his life and who knows what else he would have been able to achieve. On the flip side, DMX was a legend, but not so much these days.
Big L had 5 albums, releasing only one album in his short but profound career. All Eyez on Me was Tupac’s fourth & final album to be released prior to his death in 1996; both their post-humous careers are a credit to the relevancy of their music through the ages. But to those who think this discussion is premature and Kendrick hasn’t paid his dues: We live in a world that immortalises the dead and it shouldn’t take something as ultimate as death for us to realise how special the likes of Big L or Pac really were – or Kendrick is. Sad but true.
Let’s get another thing out the way. I’m well aware any label stating Kendrick Lamar as the greatest rapper to have ever lived is uncommon, and in some circles, borderline blasphemous. No, we aren’t speaking of a rapper enjoying the twilight years of an illustrious career, or one that has unfavourably passed away. In fact, you’re probably thinking at the very least, ‘Meh, maybe a bit too soon’.
"Trap and other types of experimental rap have given birth to alternative hip-hop sub-genres; heavy bass-led production with very little lyrical substance"
“You ain’t gotta lie to kick it, my ni**a”
The recurring rags to riches theme has underpinned hip-hop as a reflection of the rappers’ lives, and as a young boy, I couldn't work out how hip-hop artists, many of whom were former convicts, could maintain the lifestyle of the generic hustler – from selling drugs to violent crime, but somehow still managed to make it on stage by the evening. I supposed it was some kind of get-out-of-jail free card that always had credit. Naïve I suppose I was to assume this dual-life of crime and fame existed, but I don’t think I was the only one guilty of this assumption. I suppose Bobby Shmurda had the same kind of thinking, much to his detriment of his albeit short life of fame.
I guess I almost relieved to found out rappers’ lyrics were not a true reflection of their lives, but the realisation left me disappointed. I mean, why glorify the hustle when you are one of the lucky few who no longer had to do any hustling? I began questioning what did hip-hop stood for: Why did hip-hop fail to address the problems from its communities? What was the whole purpose of hip-hop? Today’s music that makes you say, ‘It doesn’t make sense, but shit sounds nice’, but is that enough to sustain the genre?
What we are witnessing is the biggest change in hip-hop where trap and other types of experimental rap have given birth to alternative hip-hop sub-genres; heavy bass-led production with very little lyrical substance. Despite how fire the beats of the new age are, the bottom line is mumble rap and other forms of rap today lack rationality & purpose.
“For me, that’s what separates me as an artist; I’m going to give you the gift… and I’m going to give you the curse”
In what can only be described as a cinematic mind-fuck of rhythmic clarity, Kendrick Lamar’s politically-charged lyrics highlight both the internal & external ills, trials and tribulations of an everyday working-class African-American, illustrating a true depiction of his society, one vivid masterpiece at a time. Over the past decade, he has owned his craft, studying those who have come before him and drawing upon these influences to create music soaked in the origins of hip-hop in every sense of the word — enlightenment, representation and education.
Shit that makes you just wanna say, DAMN.
I began questioning what did hip-hop stood for: Why did hip-hop fail to address the problems from its communities? What was the whole purpose of hip-hop?
“You really can't categorize my music, it's human music”
Any great lyricist, writer or speaker understands one thing: the way you convey your message is equally as important as the message itself. Equipped with the wisdom of a 1,000-year-old prophet, Kendrick weaves together vivid imagery and conceptualises narratives, big and small, that you may just find go over your head, under your feet or right through your soul. The closer you pay attention to the words of Kendrick, the greater the understanding of yourself. Accompanied by faultless infused production and instrumentation, each song takes a leaf out the book from a multitude of eras and genres, often simultaneously – blues, rap, 90's R&B, 70's funk, rock, gospel, spoken word, 60's jazz, soul; through his discography, you’ll find nearly every genre effortlessly interlaced as an ingredient of his expression.
“If Pirus and Crips, all got along”
Fashion has always been a fundamental aspect of expressionism when it comes to hip-hop, even more so now as it spills into other genres and becomes more prominent in modern culture. When you think of hip-hop in the commercial world, it's hard not to resonate with collaborations such as Kanye West & Adidas, or Michal Jordan & Nike. But Kendrick’s collaboration with Reebok was arguably the most slept on.
Money will always play a major the role of commercially successful collabs, however, the red and blue Reebok ventilators signified a premise more than just money. They addressed Kendrick’s key take on the social commentary of gang violence in his hometown of Compton, and it’s hard to discover a greater way an artist has used their platform to shine a light on a social issue so prominent in their community. The last to do so in such a way for the black community in America were human rights activists.
In recognition of his dedication to promote unity and enlighten who follow him, I never find it too incomprehensible to categorise Kendrick Lamar outside of hip-hop against socio-political figures such as Martin Luther King the same way I compare other great rappers to one another because whilst their mediums may differ, what they aim to achieve is the same.
“Critics want to mention they miss when hip-hop was rapping… Motherfu**er if you did then Killer Mike would be platinum”
It’s evident the frustration Lamar wears on his shoulders, the burden of carrying hip-hop’s heavier than the ground he walks on. His music refuses to allow what hip-hop has always stood for to one day dissipate into a genre of no meaning. Neither will he fret to challenge what he sees as obstacles to maintaining this purpose, with lyrics that often provide enough information about his perspective without giving too much by way of his own opinion, “This is why I say that hip-hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years”, addressing Geraldo Rivera’s take on hip-hop sampled in Kendrick’s latest opus, DAMN.
“I don't do it for the 'Gram, I do it for Compton”
Whether addressing drug tolerance on ‘A.D.H.D’, presenting an unapologet honest take on death and suicidal on ‘U’, or exploring the works of political figures and black empowerment on ‘HiiPower’, Kendrick is creatively topical in the way he presents his insights and perspectives. In each song, his cadence accompanies a completely new personality that serves as the perfect vessel to the ears and mind of any listener. From the transition from K.Dot to Kendrick on Good Kid M.A.A.D City, the evil Temptress Lucy in ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’, or the alter-ego on DAMN, Kung-Fu Kenny, the seamless intensity of his delivery illustrates the symbolism of each character and personality.
It’s not uncommon for rappers to bite flows, ad-libs or even names from one another. Today you can even get away with calling yourself 22 Savage after a relatively new rapper in 21 Savage and still be relatively successful. Whilst labels are not so important these days, rap has continued to evade the term ‘conscious rap’.
It’s seen to confine artists who enjoy the benefits of collaborating with artists and creating music outside of their genre. Hip-hop, as with all genres, is heavily policed by agents of political correctness aka the Internet who are always quick to question, challenge or oppose what they see as contradictions to an artists’ personal views and the ever-changing definition of consciousness. The reality is hip-hop’s roots were built from consciousness — Tupac, Public Enemy, Mos Def, Eminem, KRS-One were conscious rappers whether we choose to accept this or not. It’s what hip-hop and rap once stood for – building consciousness through music, and when you come to think about the history of hip-hop, it’s ‘conscious’ rappers that have elevated the genre, with purpose. Political or conscious rap IS Hip-hop.
Each project is a concise reflection of where Kendrick finds himself on this journey of self-discovery, mastering and decrypting the art form of rap, as done by those before him.
Here is a man who understands what rap once stood for, who trolls mainstream hip-hop for what it has become, who provokes the demeaning nature of the genre’s artists, and who effortlessly shifts between political rhetoric and personal awareness and reflection. More importantly, he’s made it look sexy by popularising consciousness in rap, paving the way for artists such as J.Cole and Joey Bada$$ to follow suit. Whatever the topic of discussion, the sense of purpose in his lyrics and production are nothing short of mesmerising with each song, feature or hook.
Seemingly with nothing to prove, and often consciously unapologetic (referring to himself as the greatest rapper alive on several occasions), the heights this man will transcend to remain a mystery. Each project is a concise reflection of where Kendrick finds himself on this journey of self-discovery, mastering and decrypting the art form of rap, as done by those before him. What we do know is that we are witnessing of one of the most cerebral and enlightened MCs hip-hop has ever encountered.
Where he ranks in terms of all who have done so is debatable, but it’s not too far-fetched to state Kendrick Lamar as being up there with the greatest contributors of hip-hop, hands down. This question should evolve around where you determine Kendrick’s place on the podium of Hip-hop because what Kendrick Lamar has accomplished for a genre that very needs much lifting is undeniable, even for the haters.
To what heights can Kendrick Lamar elevate hip-hop? How many personalities, concepts, creative contributions and politicised theories can he address? In the famous words of Kanye, 'I ain't got the answers Sway'. But if there’s one thing you should take away, it’s this: Subtract Biggie from Hip-hop in the early 1990s and you’re left with Big L, Biggie, Big Pun. Subtract Nas from Hip-hop in the late 1990’s/2000’s, we have Jay-Z, Eminem, Lil Wayne. Subtract Kendrick Lamar from hip-hop today and what do we have? To those thinking Drake right now, I take nothing away from the man but I’m surprised you got this far into this discussion.
Kendrick Lamar has taken upon himself to pioneer the new-age of hip-hop as it continues to face the challenge of the mainstream: combining culture, colour, politics, philosophy, personal dialogue, and self-education. My purpose here, as with Kendrick’s in his music, is to inform and present to you a perspective you may have not yet considered. Maybe comparisons shouldn’t be made between Kendrick and the likes of 2Pac or Biggie. Maybe there are simply all the greatest in their own right, each a pioneer of their time passing the torch.
Maybe comparisons shouldn’t be made between Kendrick and the likes of 2Pac or Biggie. Maybe there are simply all the greatest in their own right, each a pioneer of their time passing the torch of hip-hop.
But one thing is for sure: because of Kendrick Lamar, hip-hop isn’t dead, just yet.
Maybe, just maybe, we gon’ be alright.
© 2017 VictorDavies1