Kendrick Lamar vs. J. Cole: The Best Rapper Alive, #BlackLivesMatter, and the The Politics of Hip-hop
J. Cole vs. Kendrick Lamar: Who is the Greatest Rapper Alive?
Let's get something out of the way: I know Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole are friendly collaborators, have no ill will against each other, and are probably never going to get into a good old fashioned rap feud, let alone a bonifide hip-hop battle. Additionally, I love both rappers, and don't necessarily prefer one over another most days. But hip-hop music and culture is about competition, and as two of the hottest young rappers making unique and beautiful music today, Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole are well positioned to be pitted against one another, head to head, in determining who is the Greatest Rapper Alive. So, reality aside, who takes the crown in this fantasy hip-hop battle royale, and why?
Kendrick and Cole: Similar Stories, Similar Credentials
While Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole have wildly different family backgrounds and personal histories (Compton vs. Fayetteville is a whole different article...) both have had similar relationships with the Rap game throughout their career. Both Kendrick and Cole started as underground MCs with impressive independent mix tape releases and dedicated indie followings, were co-signed by Rap legends (Dre and Jay, respectively) who vaulted them into the mainstream, and both were able to maintain a surprising amount of their indie credibility and fan base as they started producing music for a wider audience. Kendrick has a better reputation for consistency among hip-hop nerds, but with Cole's stellar new album "2014 Forest Hills Drive," the North Carolinian ROC rapper is finally receiving some well deserved critical acclaim. (Come to think of it, "Good Kidd, M.A.A.D. City was about Kendrick's hometown and growing up as well...) So, overall, both rappers have had impressive and similar career trajectories.
When you compare their rapping abilities, both MCs have similar credentials as well. Both are renowned story tellers who can deftly incorporate creative lyrics in to stellar narrative tracks. Both have multiple flows they employ well, and notably both can go HARD on tracks if they so choose, busting out aggressive styles that are energetic and unique (See "M.A.A.D. City" and "Firing Squad"-->). Their styles are not identical: Kendrick favors imagery where Cole favors punchlines, and Cole's flow is on average more laid back and accessible while Kendrick's is more complex and unexpected. But as far as the skills go, both rapers got em, and it would be hard to argue that one or the other was a better MC on a technical level.
Kendrick Lamar vs. J. Cole: The Politics of Rap
So if both rappers have so many things in common, how can we compare the two? Cole and Kendrick are undoubtedly two of the best cats rapping, but who takes the crown, and why?
Back in the days of Public Enemy, before the Jay-z's and Snoop Dogg's of the world changed what sold in Rap, MCs were obsessed with an idea whose meaning has changed so much that it has become unrecognizable: "keeping it real." Starting in the mid 90's, "realness" became associated with being a criminal or "gangsta," but in the late 1980s and early 1990s "keeping it real" meant speaking on real things, and making sure your music had a real message to it. This "politics of rap" has faded a great deal in the mainstream, but there are still MCs who "keep it real" by speaking truth to power. J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar are two such MCs. In judging who is the best alive then, I will be basing my comparison on a term as old as rap itself. Between Kendrick and Cole, who is the "realer" MC? Who is able to more meaningfully and interestingly comment on the the social and political issues of the day, and successfully incorporate the politics of rap into their music?
#BlackLivesMatter to Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole
While Cole has been much more public then Kendrick about his anger surrounding police brutality and the recent tragic deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and others, we are not judging who is the better tweeter or social commentator. This is about the music. Yes Kendrick has been notably absent from the debate around #BlackLivesMatter lately (see below...) but that doesn't mean his music hasn't confronted the issue. As the biggest social and political movement of the moment, especially in the hip-hop community, I will be judging Kendrick and Cole on who "kept it realer" in handling the recent related issues of police brutality and black oppression.
Police Brutality in J. Cole's "Be Free"
Before he released his newest album "2014 Forest Hill Drive," Cole dealt with the issue of police brutality head on in the online, non-album release of his incredible "Be Free." The song was penned as a direct response to the death of Michael Brown, and drips with emotion and raw power. No doubt about it, the track is as real as it gets.
When Cole performed "Be Free" on Letterman earlier this month, he took the emotion of the track to another level. His raw and passionate vocals, especially in his echoing chorus of "all we wanna do is take the chains off, all we wanna do is be free," portrays his emotional response beautifully. And then, when you don't think Cole can get any more emotive, he ends the track with a bridge that makes his voice crack and shake:
"Are we all alone, fighting on our own/ Please give me a chance, I don't wanna dance/ Somethings got me down, I will stand my ground/ Don't just stand around, don't just stand around"
Cole delivers the entire performance expertly and beautifully, and there is no doubt while watching him that Cole is most certainly a "real" artist. Some lines in the track are mediocre, especially when he breaks into rap mid song and declares oddly that he has "other s*** to think about, like my bank account." The line is likely meant to be self reflective and ironic, but it falls flat. Overall though, "Be Free" is a stellar track and proves Cole is the definition of real.
Black Oppression in Kendrick Lamar's [Untitled] New Track (featured on Colbert)
Not to be outdone by anyone, King Kendrick appeared this week on The Colbert Report as Stephen Colbert's last musical guest ever and premiered an absolutely amazing as of yet untitled track which deals with the oppressed nature of African Americans in U.S. society very directly.
In typical Kendrick fashion, there are so many lines here that need dissecting and need to marinate for a while that it is hard to pass judgement on the MCs lyrics right away, but the immediate imagery that does shine through on my first dozen listens is incredibly powerful. While in a hypothetical conversation with a record executive, Kendrick asks the question, "What if I compromise?" and gets back "it don't even matter," making some commentary on how he as an artist is valued and treated. However, the song quickly becomes about more than Kendrick and the rap game, as he begins chanting "I will enjoy the fruits of my labor if I get free today." Finally, Kendrick asks "what does the black man say?" before entering a rousing chant of:
Tell em we don't die! Tell em we don't die! Tell em we don't die! We multiply!
At this turning point, it becomes obvious that, like on so many other brilliant Kendrick songs, his personal narrative journey has become a piece of commentary on a larger issue. With the obvious incantation of "we don't die" that Kendrick positions as a saying of "the black man," Lamar makes this track about Ferguson and police brutality and all of the things happening in the nation that need to be talked about. But he does it in a very different way than J. Cole.
Liberation of the Body vs. Liberation of the Mind
Cole's "Be Free," as well as a lot of his great commentary on "2014 Forest Hills Drive," is a visceral, emotional reaction to the unjust killings of Brown and others. It's power lies in the fact that it is a straight forward call for justice, for freedom from the kind of tyranny that results in dead minority kids and free police officers doing the killing. Cole is most concerned with a liberation of the body; of the freedom to live and breathe peacefully without getting shot by an agent of the system like Darren Wilson.
And Kendrick is concerned with this obvious travesty as well, as he echoes "tell em we don't die." However, he is concerned with much more: "we multiply" is a warning to the establishment, and to anyone who hopes that #BlackLivesMatter and the protests surrounding Ferguson will simply fade in to obscurity. In his new untitled song on Colbert, as well as on his stellar single "I," Kendrick speaks profoundly about the liberation of the mind, about changing and shaping the nation's consciousness as both a means and an end to ensure #BlackLivesMatter. Kendrick is worried about the rise in police brutality in the nation, but he wants more than safety for the black youth he speaks to: we wants genuine freedom, and speaks about shaking off the chains not only of violent oppression but of psychological oppression as well.
The Greatest Rapper Alive
By demonstrating a complexity far beyond what Cole puts forward, both as a lyrical complexity and a depth and nuance of message, Kendrick proves that he still deserves the crown. Despite not putting out a full album since 2012, Kendrick Lamar is still the realest rapper around, and is able to engage with the politics of rap in such an elegant and meaningful way that it will be hard for any other rapper to unseat him as long as his upcoming album meets the bar set by "I" and his new untitled track. Cole is a brilliant MC, and has a lot to say about Ferguson and police brutality, but he chooses to do so in a more direct and simplistic way. Where Cole delivers his message emotionally, Kendrick constructs a detailed and intellectual canvas that none the less isn't lacking for passion, and expertly handles the politics of rap and the social issues of the day. Kendrick Lamar has proven, yet again, that he is the realest MC putting out music, and the greatest rapper alive.
Do you agree?
Is Kendrick the Greatest Rapper Alive?
Final Note: Support the Art!
If you like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole, or you were touched by any of the music that I linked to here, please support the artists. Kendrick and Cole represent something very positive and important for hip-hop and mainstream culture, and buying their music means you like what they have to say and want to see more rappers use the stage like these two do. So put your money where your mouth is.
© 2014 Cassidy Michael Kakin