The King of New York!
Warning: Just about every track in this post contains the n-word, the f-word, the s-word, and probably plenty of other words that you may not want your youngins to hear. I recommend headphones if you’re at work or around anyone under the age of 30. If you’re offended by such words, you may want to skip this one. However, you will miss some seriously good hip hop if you do. Also, lyrics mostly taken from Rap Genius.
Back in mid-August, Big Sean, a young rapper from Detroit, released a track called “Control” that had not made the cut* for his then soon to be released third album, Hall of Fame. In addition to a verse by Big Sean, the track featured one verse each from Kendrick Lamar and Jay Electronica. Both Lamar and Jay frequently record verses for other artists’ albums, so ordinarily this would be no big deal. When I heard about the track on Twitter, I didn’t bother to listen to it. Then around midnight that evening, I got a flurry of emails, IMs, and one phone call (again, around midnight! argh) from friends and one of my brothers asking me if I’d heard Lamar’s verse. Since pretty much everyone I know is aware of the extent of my Kendrick Lamar fandom — I’m quite certain that he’s the best young artist in hip hop, and probably the best in a long, long time — I assumed that’s why they were telling me about it. So I clicked on one of the YouTube links, figuring I’d listen to it quickly before bed, and then I heard this:
Hole-Lee Shee-yut! (Look at that, it made my Tennessee accent come out!)
Did I just hear what I heard? Did Kendrick Lamar, from Compton, California, just call himself the king of New York, and did he then proceed to call out every young rapper out there:
But this is hip-hop and them n_____ should know what time it is
And that goes for Jermaine Cole, Big KRIT, Wale
Pusha T, Meek Millz, A$AP Rocky, Drake
Big Sean, Jay Electron, Tyler, Mac Miller.
Including Jay Electronica, whose verse follows his, and Big Sean on his own damn song?! On his own damn song! Now, a ubiquitous feature of hip hop is rappers telling the world that they’re the greatest, and it’s not uncommon for them to call out other rappers in a verse, but naming that many names? And dissing an artist on his own song? I can’t think of anyone doing that ever. And a West Coast rapper saying he’s the king of New York, to boot. That, as they say, is some shit.
The backlash began immediately. New York rappers, and rappers from pretty much everywhere, had released responses by that evening, and responses continued to come out all week. And Twitter lost its ever-loving mind. Instead of going to bed that evening, I spend about an hour on Twitter. For the next week, in fact, my feed was filled with responses. For example, from my favorite Twitter comedian, @desusnice (whom you should follow immediately):
Soon as Papoose puts those boost mobile mins on his phone, he coming for Kendrick.
Lupe spitting an ill rebuttal right now and everyone in Starbucks is like “sir u gotta buy something or leave.”
Very disappointed that neither Meet the Press nor the McLaughlin Group discussed the fallout from Kendrick’s verse.
Even Lebron James reacted: This is real hip hop at his best! @kendricklamar boxed em into a corner. We going crazy over here people!! And Sean Combs (Diddy): KENDRICK!!!!! Ohhhh Shiiitttttt.
Lost in the hubbub over his calling out of all of hip hop was the fact that it was an incredible verse. I mean, that is as good as it gets. Seriously, go up there and listen to it again. The Big Sean verse that precedes it (from which I mercifully spared you) and the Jay Electronica verse that follows it pale in comparison. They come off not just ordinary, but downright dull. As @desusnice put it (seriously, are you following him yet?): Big Sean verses are like Jehovah Witnesses ringing ur bell. U just gotta wait it out and stand still till it’s over. (No Religion!)
Suffice it to say, this was the hip hop moment of the year, and it comes as a surprise to absolutely no one that Lamar was at the center of it. Since he released his second full-length album Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City late last year, it has been impossible to discuss the state of hip hip without mentioning him, and virtually everyone agrees that he is a force to be reckoned with.
Lamar’s been around for a decade now, since he released his first mixtape (in hip hop, mix tapes are low budget, low production collections of tracks) at age 16 back in ’03, under the name K-Dot, and another a couple years later. Those mixtapes featured songs like this one:
While it’s clear on those early mixtapes that he hasn’t yet gotten his legs under him, or fully discovered his voice, you can hear the promise, and the trademark Kendrick vocal style: smooth and laid back, but at the same time forceful. It’s an amalgam of West Coast rappers like Tupac and Dre, with a little Lil Wayne and East Coast (Rakim, Wu Tang) thrown in for good measure.
By 2011, when he released his first full-length studio album, Section.80, there was no doubt that he was something special. It’s an album about the struggles of Millennials, mostly in the inner city. For example, ADHD, in which Lamar talks about a generation so frequently given psychoactive medication that taking drugs, whether they have a prescription for them or not, just comes naturally:
My generation sippin’ cough syrup like it’s water
Never no pancakes in the kitchen
Man, no wonder our lives is caught up
In the daily superstition
That the world is ’bout to end
Who gives a fuck? We never do listen.
Or relatedly, hopelessness and attempting to come to terms with the harshness of life, on “Kush and Corinthians”:
To the meaning of life
What’s my purpose? Maybe this Earth is
Ain’t a good place to be
How far is heaven? Let’s see
Is it in the clouds like they said it would be?
I wonder when I die
Will he give me receipts?
I wonder will the eyes of the lord look at me?
Look at me, look at me, I’m a loser, I’m a winner
I’m good, I’m bad, I’m a Christian, I’m a sinner
I’m humble, I’m loud, I’m righteous, I’m a killer
What I’m doing, I’m saying that I’m human
These are not the lyrics of your average 23-year-old rapper. This is something newer, deeper, more reflective, and more revealing. Since the late 80s rap has so often been about hiding pain, insecurity, and one’s true self in talk of drugs, alcohol, sex, machismo, and real or imagined violence, but here is a young man worried that the lifestyle of his peers, still with drugs, alcohol, sex, machismo, and real or imagined violence, might be little more than escapism, a means to the ends of avoiding having to face one’s conditions, of avoiding having to ask oneself what is right and what is wrong, or in the worst cases, avoiding the tragic facts of a life that seemingly cannot be escaped.
He also touches on race and hip hop:
And prostitution, from the perspective of the prostitute (instead of just calling women ho’s):
Common topics in hip hop, to be sure, but given a fresh new perspective.
As good as Section.80 is, and it is damn good, I don’t think it prepared anyone for what Lamar did with his second studio album, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. This is an album so good that, unless one expected perfection, one could not help but be surprised by it. It is The Chronic good. It is Ready to Die good. It is Illmatic good. In hip hop, there is no higher praise.
Good Kid is a sort of concept album, telling the story of Lamar’s life as a teenager and 20-something on the streets of Compton. As on Section.80, he talks about sex, drugs, and violence, but again, not to celebrate them, but to genuinely struggle with them, and how to escape them; how to be something more:
Smoking on the finest dope, aye aye aye aye
Drank until I can’t no more, aye aye aye aye
Really I’m a sober soul but I’m with the homies right now
And we ain’t asking for no favors
Rush a n____ quick then laugh about it later, aye aye aye aye
Really I’m a peacemaker but I’m with the homies right now
And momma used to say
One day, it’s gon’ burn you out
One day, it’s gon’ burn you out, out
One day, it’s gon’ burn you out
One day, it’s gon’ burn you
I’m with the homies right now.
“The Art of Peer Pressure” may be my favorite track on the album. Where in hip hop can you find lyrics better than this?
We made a right, then made a left, then made a right
Then made a left, but we was just circling life
My mama called – “Hello? What you doin’?” “Kicking it”
I should’ve told her I’m probably ‘bout to catch my first offense with the homies.
On Good Kid, Lamar has fully developed a unique style. It’s still got those old West Coast elements, and the New Orleans (Lil Wayne, Drake, who’s Canadian, but might as well be from New Orleans, style-wise), and a little Kanye as well, which is particularly evident in Lamar’s new penchant for altering his voice, as Kanye is wont to do, but it’s all brought together and transcended in something uniquely Kendrick:
For example, unlike in Kanye’s music, the voice alterations serve Lamar’s narrative on this track. You get the partier, in sober and faded versions, his conscience, and Lamar himself reflecting after the fact.
And while much of the album feels almost anti-hip hop in its stylistic elements, he can do classic hip hop with R&B hooks just as well (here you can hear the similarity to Drake, who raps his ass off on this track):
Lest I come off too fawning, and assuming that pretty much everyone stopped reading some time ago, I’m going to go ahead and end things here, but I can’t resist posting one of my favorite Lamar verses, on a track that features two more of my favorite artists, Talib Kweli and Curren$y. I hope that, even if you’re not a hip hop fan, you’ll give Kendrick a listen. I promise you that if there is any chance that you might enjoy hip hop ever, you will enjoy this. It is that good.
At this point in his career, when Kendrick Lamar tells you he’s focused, you fucking believe him.
*There were problems with the rights to one or more of the samples.