Rather than pen another think piece to add to the glut of columns that have surfaced after the surprise release of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly — along with the ridiculous amount of tweets praising its “unapologetic blackness” without really understanding the context of the phrase and how it applies to the album — I decided to revisit a column that I penned back in 2011 titled “Kendrick Lamar Is The Best Emcee Of The Digital Era.” Was the title wrapped in hyperbole? Maybe. But that’s the point.
When the following column was originally written shortly after the release ofSection.80, the amount of vitriol it was meant with was interesting, to say the least. Interesting because many felt that the crowning of Lamar was a bit premature and said he needed more time. How convenient it is that, in less than 24 hours after To Pimp A Butterfly hit the web, there are already claims of the album being a classic.
It’s fascinating how the digital era has completely annihilated the concept of a classic. Once upon a time, album reviews by professional journalists hit magazines well before the album was heard by the masses. Once said album finally hit shelves, the people were able to judge without the element of social media and instant gratification of their often uneducated opinions. But, here we are, in an era of extreme turnover where a “hot” song or album can be completely forgotten about in a couple weeks when the new shiny thing releases. The fact that Kendrick Lamar has emerged from the staggering brigade of emcees to be pegged as one of the finest emcees of our time is a testament to his talent. More importantly, it’s not completely out of the blue as elements of what could potentially make him great were visible as early as the release of Section.80. The following column illustrates that and you can praise it, trash it or whatever the hell it is you do with columns. Like most rappers, you’ll forget about this tomorrow anyway.
Kendrick Lamar Is The Best Emcee Of The Digital Era
Around late 2008, hip hop entered the digital era. An era where blogs overtook the web and emcees no longer had to go the conventional route of being heard. Rather than upping the cash for studio time and then pressing up hard copies of CDs, artists began dropping numerous songs and projects on the internet for a relatively low cost. The upside was that the record labels no longer had the power to break artists like they once did. The downside of all this was the fact that the internets were literally crawling with emcees out of ever digital nook and cranny and it became difficult for anyone to keep up with the massive amount of new music hitting the web. Gone are the days when release dates are actually anticipated, and in its place are a glut of disposable emcees who remain hot for the moment and evaporate as soon as the next big thing comes along.
In short, nobody cares as much as they used to. This has easily become the era of music where “too much of a good thing” applies. Nevertheless, there have been a few artists who have separated themselves from the pack of rapping wolves longing to take a bite out of your iPod. Artists like Drake, J. Cole, XV, Big K.R.I.T., Curren$y, Asher Roth and Wale have all used the net to their advantage. But none may possess the potential to impact a generation of ADD hip-hop fans like Kendrick Lamar. Before you go slamming your laptop or iPad in anger while proclaiming that the aforementioned names have either already made it or have a bigger buzz, allow me to explain.
In a post-Obama hip-hop climate, the motivation has changed for many emcees. The music is littered with self-masturbatory riddles where artists spend more time patting their own back rather than speak on society’s ills. Because, frankly, once Barack Obama got in office, everything changed and most forgot what it was they were fighting for. The rhymes about telling the system to kiss our collective ass evaporated because “our” president was now part of that system. Racism isn’t necessarily a thing of the past, but it’s certainly not a topic that is addressed without being provoked. The new generation has a short attention span when it comes to society ills. Sean Bell, Shaniya Davis, Oscar Grant, Danroy Henry and a list of others who have been killed by police are hardly spoken on after the fact. You see, this is a new generation of emcees. A generation that grew up with Playstation, cell phones and the internet. A lazy generation that has all the knowledge in the world at their fingertips, but are too busy on Facebook to care about the Gaza Strip or the root behind our immigration laws. A generation that remembers Tupac and Biggie like I remember Marvin Gaye — too young to truly experience their contributions to music. This isn’t to say that they don’t understand, it’s to say that they digest what they are told about their history without giving it a second thought. Malcolm X and The Black Panther Party are slowly being erased from their memories and few have a clue why Big Daddy Kane is one of the greatest emcees of all time.
It’s certainly a different climate today.
But that’s where Kendrick Lamar differs from the rest. The 24-year-old’s mind is well beyond his years. His rhymes aren’t selfishly scripted into his brain. He has the hunger to be the best but is also much more than “just a rapper.” If Tupac were alive today, he’d be proud of what the Compton emcee has accomplished in his short stay in hip-hop. And it may sound like blasphemy, but Kendrick could be the closest thing to Tupac Shakur meets Ice Cube that we’ve ever seen in terms of being a socially conscious street poet who can weave a narrative just as well as he can destroy a battle emcee – and neither were as lyrically inclined (in a battle rapper sort of way) as Kendrick. Think of him as a hybrid emcee whose parts include N.W.A.‘s street reporter mentality, Tupac’s passion and Nas‘ poetic. Like Tupac, he can go from a cautionary tale of hopeless women working the corner on “Keisha’s Song” to the sh*t talking “The Spiteful Chant” without breaking stride. He’ll wax poetic about how the vice of sex and alcohol can ease the most difficult situation. He’ll spill his guts with the vigor of the most powerful spoken word poet on “The Heart Pt. 2″ and you’ll never once question his passion on either subject. His references of Huey Newton, Malcolm X, Bobby Seale, Marcus Garvey, Serengeti and Illuminati on the J. Cole produced “Hiiipower” would make Chuck D and Immortal Technique nod in appreciation. This is what you get with Kendrick Lamar.
He’s conscious, but not too conscious to the point where he hovers to far over the heads of the streets. Without trying, he can creates music we can all relate to. He wags his finger at haters who spend more time downing other people rather than helping themselves on “Cut You Off (To Grow Closer)” and can just kick a rhyme about the opposite sex on “She Needs Me (Rmx).” And if you need evidence thatKendrick can just crush a track, look no further than what he demonstrated on over Kanye West‘s “Monster.”
He comes from the the streets of Compton so his desire to do better and make it is believable. He’s never been in a gang and that’s a sign of independence. His raspy tone reflects life whose oxygen has been littered with trails of gun smoke. He’s unlike any of his peers but all of his peers can relate to something about him.
He’s your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper. And anyone that claims that Kendrick Lamar sits high on their list, likely have a number of different reasons as to why he sits there. Some may identify with his Cali roots while others enjoy his awareness of the social climate. If you think of all the great rappers in the history of the culture, nearly all had something to say. None were rhyming arbitrarily to be posted on anyone’s blog. Kendrick Lamar didn’t need a cosign, it was just too hard to deny his talent.
Without a single big name behind him, he paved his way with his Top Dawg Entertainment family behind him. And now look at him. He’s in the studio with Dr. Dre, has people like J. Cole saying that they want to put together a collaborative project with him and his Section.80 album is arguably the best project this year.
For this writer, his rhymes were the jumper cables that kick started my engine that has been locked in cruise control for the past few years. There are several rappers that I can personally remember who brought me “back” to hip-hop when the music turned me away. Kendrick Lamar has become one of those esteemed emcees who I’ll reflect on and remember what exactly was going on when I heard his music and what it did for me.
This is why he’s the best emcee of the digital era and could top many top 10 lists before its all said and done.
But I’m just a critic, who the hell am I?