Kendrick Lamar Sucks. J Cole Sucks. Mainstream Hip-hop Sucks. Let's Talk About It.
Kendrick Lamar Used To Be My Hero.
You remember Stan? If people knew how much I loved Kendrick Lamar from 2011-2014, they would start calling obsessive, disgustingly invested, borderline psychotic fans "Cassidys." I loved K.dot since hearing O.D., called him the savior since Section.80, and threw him into GOAT conversations as soon as Good Kidd completed it's first tear wrenching spin. He was MY artist; I worshiped Kendrick's accomplishments and his seemingly unlimited potential for growth, identified with his come-up and felt like I knew him, and thought for real that Kendrick Lamar proved once and for all that real rap wasn't dead. If it sounds like I am talking about the Good Kidd like he's the one that got away, like some girl I used to be in love with in High School who I can't look at anymore, then you're mostly right.
It's funny: I haven't STOPPED listening to Good Kidd since it dropped, but I only really started listening to it again in a deep way when 2014 Forest Hills Drive snuck up on us all late last year. Cole has always been another of my favorites too, and I couldn't resist putting K.Dot up against Cole when I heard a lot of similarities in the two great albums.
I do consider Cole a top tier MC, but I have always felt that his major label releases have been missing something. Unlike most people, I feel that way about 2014 as well. Yes, it is a very powerful and personal album. Yes, it features Cole at his best technically and has a lot of impressive elements. But there are several parts of several songs where the messaging just feels off to me (more about that soon...).
I can't deny that Cole's new ish is powerful from the start...
And as soon as I started bashing on Cole's new album in public (I promise, I WILL explain why I don't love 2014 Forest Hills Drive) a smart friend called me out on it.
"Yo, if Kendrick put this album out, you would be running around yelling 'BETTER THAN GKMC,' you are such a STAN."
Ouch. Hurts, but mostly true; when Kendrick's "I" came out I heralded it as the second coming, the best thing since sliced Pac, the proof (again) that K.Dot deserved to be called a master. But at my friend's urging, I listened to "I" again, listened to GKMC again more critically, and generally came to the conclusion that Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, and that evil boogey man "Mainstream Hip-hop" all kind of suck. Here's why.
"Good Kidd, M.A.A.D. City is NOT a Classic"
There, I said it. I read a great article very recently over at DJBooth that argued quite effectively the opposite, that GKMC deserves that Classic stamp. Mr. RefinedHype himself, Nathan, made the claim in his piece that Good Kidd deserves the "Classic" denomination because it has somehow improved with age, and reads as prophetic considering tragic recent events in the African American community. So, what's my rebuttal? It may be corny, but Illmatic.
Nas's first album sets the standard for the "Classic" moniker in my opinion. Illmatic isn't just skilled poetry, it is timely commentary. The quite politics of Nas's MC persona, which often erupt in violent and exciting bursts throughout the seminal work, are a PERFECT window into the artist's time and place, and give a perfect picture of Nas's role in that world as a poet and revolutionary. GKMC does NOT meet that high bar.
There is no denying that Kendrick is an elite level rapper in a technical sense, but there is more to making classic albums than rapping your pants off. Ask R.A. tha Rugged Man, who is probably among the top 5 best MCs alive mechanically but has no classics.
A classic has a message that is pressing and relevant; a message that DOES mature with age like Nathan notes, but is also so undeniably, viscerally encompassing of a unique world. A "Classic" takes you to a time a place, and puts you into the reality the artist creates. Reasonable Doubt's Brooklyn of the mid 1990s, starring a pride filled Jay-z. Kanye West's Windy City and Big Apple skyline in 2004, with College Dropout painting a unique vision for where the Art of Rap should move during a time of stagnation and aimlessness within the industry. The vast majority of classic rap albums are powerful yes due to their technical brilliance, but more so due to their tailored and urgent message, which is crafted to answer the ills of a specific reality, and adds something important and progressive to the discourse surrounding a time and place. Time is illmatic.
Kendrick's Message Sucks.
Kendrick Lamar's GKMC does have a strong and central message. But it is not the progressive or revolutionary message that many contemporary critics claim.
"Sing About Me" DOES Have a Message, But it Kind Of Sucks.
Lamar describes the situation facing his generation in vivid and heartbreaking detail, epitomized in the seminal "Dying of Thirst." I agree with DJBooth whole heartedly here that Kendrick reaches a level of vulnerability that most artists in any field only dream of achieving. But his answer to the drama that "Dying of Thirst" elicits is weak and misdirected. People are DYING, and leaving behind nothing but anonymity and empty dreams, and Kendrick talks about "humbly repenting for his sins." He defines real as "god" and taking care of your family; admirable moral standards, perhaps, but not very fitting for Compton circa 2012 as Lamar describes it, and even less fitting in a world that question whether #BlackLivesMatter.
"I Love Myself!"
I am sure that track is stuck in your head now; it is a catchy record and I love it. Even though it kind of sucks.
Maybe it's because Kendrick isn't playing a 17 year old, or maybe it's because of the sad state of race relations in our country today, but the central message to "I" seems even more naïve in its explicit declarations than GKMC's was in it's subverted politics. Loving yourself is fine and dandy, but will it stop a cop for shooting you because you are black? Will it stop a jury from acquitting that cop, despite video evidence in your favor? Will it really make any black communities any safer?
Maybe. I don't know. I like to justify my thinking here with a concept from every Pyschology 101 class: Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Yes, youth of all races and creeds, and probably especially minority youth due to the structurally racist nature of our society, NEED mental liberation. But don't children first need freedom from the fear of physical harm? When Killer Mike raps about seeing his family die, he isn't worried about them getting good jobs or having self respect: sadly enough, he is worried about their very survival in the face of an oppressive regime.
Kendrick misses this. Doing so discredits the message of his music in a fundamental way.
J Cole Sucks Too.
I told you I'd get back to lil ol Jermaine.
Again, I would never call Cole a bad rapper. I am sure you've noticed; I use the term "sucks" intentionally flippantly throughout this piece. However, 2014 Forest Hills Drive commits some big messaging errors itself which will stop it from every achieving classic status in its own right.
Cole's best message. Not included in "2014."
Starting with the song "No Role Modelz." Really, Cole? After speaking so eloquently about your own youth and lack of positive figures, J spits the ever so catchy and trife "she shallow but the pussy deep." That line could come out of 2 Chainz mouth as easily as Jermaine's. Not that this is a bad thing, but it has to be noted: despite his deep and provocative thoughts on a lot of things, Cole has never afforded gender issues their proper attention, and too often falls into the silly rap fallacies that de-legitimize women. He is, frankly, rather shallow where gender is concerned.
And the song everyone is talking about, "Fire Squad." Really, Cole? You're "just playin." REALLY? If you don't know what I'm talking about, "Fire Squad" is worth a listen, despite the fact that it sucks.
Mainstream Hip-hop Sucks.
I love hip-hop. I spend more time with albums like GKMC and 2014FHD than I do with my own family. But as a hip-hop fan (Stan?), I have to admit that mainstream hip hop SUCKS right now. Not because there isn't talent, and not because the state of the game is even all that bad. But because, more than any other time in recent memory, Mainstream Hip-hop missed a chance in 2014 to do something powerful. Artists like Cole and Kendrick missed the chance to make music with an aggressively progressive message; they missed the chance to make truly revolutionary art with messaging that would justify calling an excellent album like GKMC a classic.
I'll turn to one last Cole song as my final example. J. Cole was very involved in the protests and demonstrations in Ferguson, and recorded the song "Be Free" as a visceral and powerful emotional reaction to the police brutality he witnessed. And then he decided not to put it on his album. Sure, his choice, whatever. What bothers me is that the message wasn't there either. Cole could have done whatever he wanted with 2014FHD. In a big way, it feels like he did. But where are the politics, Cole? Barely hidden digs at women, a few powerful lines here and there, and "just playin" don't cut it. We want "Be Free." The fact that we didn't get it? Well, that's just why Mainstream rap sucks I guess.
Let's Talk About It.
You don't have to think that mainstream hip-hop sucks to see why messaging in rap music is important. Heck, I don't even think the "mainstream" sucks most of the time; I am just prone to fits of rage and disappointment, two things I especially never expected to feel when digging through GKMC again more deeply. If we stop pretending that Cole and Kendrick are speaking enlightenment, or delivering a message close to the potential that their creativity, skill, and intellect could produce, we can demand better. If we admit that more needs to be said, that more can be said, and that someone needs to say it, these voices will bleed in to the mainstream. Let's stop yelling "classic!" or "savior!" and really demand that the artists we love deliver a message that meets their potential as revolutionary poets. I do respect the good kidd, mAAd City, but I also know that Kendrick can do better. His message can be better. It sucks that it isn't yet.