By: Peter Kolb – Opinions Editor
Kendrick dropped another song two weeks ago: “The Heart Part 4.” Dropped out of nowhere, mostly. It’s his most recent new material since the 2015 half—album half—leftover compilation “untitled unmastered.”
I don’t know what to expect from new Kendrick anymore. I really don’t. I don’t know if it’ll be a banger. If it’ll be a call to social justice. If it’ll be a personal story of his Compton roots, I really don’t know. The only thing I know to expect from new Kendrick in 2017 is that it will be — without a doubt — good.
As Kendrick’s voice wandered into “The Heart Part 4” I wondered: is Kendrick Lamar perfect? Can this man do any wrong? For real. I’m not even a Kendrick “stan,” he wouldn’t even break my top 5 favorite rappers. But goodness gracious, absolutely no one can touch this man.
So there’s the question. Is Kendrick Lamar perfect? Not: “is he the best rapper right now?” He is. Stop arguing. And more importantly: please, God, stop comparing him to J. Cole.
I’ll attempt to answer that question through a structured analysis and comparison of Kendrick versus other greats, using six qualities I’ve come up with that go into a “perfect” rapper.
Warning, this is all subjective. These rankings aren’t factual or final, I’m just trying to find out if Kendrick is mortal or not so relax. For each quality, I’ll compare Kendrick to the rapper that I believe would receive a perfect 10 in the respective category. It’ll make sense, I’ll stop explaining.
In my opinion, voice is the most underrated asset a rapper has. How much does their voice pull you in, make you want to listen to what they have to say?
On a scale of 1—10, I see Young Thug receiving the perfect score. His voice is charmingly unique and astonishingly flexible without drawing attention away from the music itself (compared to someone like Chance, who’s frequently annoying voice would probably get like an 8 on this scale).
Kendrick, more of the same… and more. Kendrick’s voice is unique, similar to Andre’s. It’s unusually high while still maintaining an aggressive and intimidating tone. However, what Kendrick does better than anyone else — better than Andre — is playing with his voice on a consistent basis. Kendrick on “King Kunta” sounds entirely different than Kendrick on “Institutionalized.”
He bends contorts and morphs it into different characters, often times within the same song. His one minute long feature on Eminem’s “Love Game” uses six different versions of Kendrick throughout the verse. That’s more than Nicki Minaj on “Monster.” However, Kendrick has never barked like a dog on a track and turned it to a banger. Kendrick gets a 9.
2. Flow and Lyricism
These two really should be separate. But, for the sake of word conservation, I’ll smush ‘em. MF DOOM gets the 10 on this scale. DOOM’s wordplay is simply out of this world. His rhyme schemes are sporadic while catchy. Comforting while stimulating. DOOM’s lyricism and flow takes the listener for a ride while still managing to paint vivid and at times humorous images.
Kendrick is not on the level of DOOM. However, he’s up there. Similarly to his voice, Kendrick makes sure to keep listeners on their toes by introducing multiple flow switches in almost every verse he spits. Seriously, I am unable to find a song in his discography where K Dot sticks with the same flow.
It’s equally hard to find throway bars in any of Kendrick’s songs. Especially in his most recent work, each lyric is there for a reason. However, he just doesn’t have the wordplay of some rappers. When he does, (see “King Kunta’s” line: ‘but most of ya’ll sharin bars like you got the bottom bunk in a two—man cell) it’s dope; but nonetheless few and far between.
Kendrick gets a respectable 8.
How much fun is he to watch? How charismatic is his personality? Vince Staples is the gold standard. Vince’s Twitter bounces between rants about the NBA to hilariously roasting users in his “nerdy-but-cool” aesthetic he’s worked so hard to cultivate through his career. He’s also lead the fight for “more representation of dinosaurs in hip-hop”.
Kendrick, very similar. Kendrick makes all the right enemies and all the right friends. He’s humble, kind, and caring through interviews to songs. Kendrick manages to be simultaneously brash while funny while charismatic (see “Backstreet Freestyle’s” chorus).
As far as public antics go, though, Kendrick is pretty low—key. Not as outspoken and fun to watch as Vince or someone like Kanye. He goes to NBA games sometimes. Oh, one time he crashed a random wedding and walked around the dance floor just dabbing everywhere. Which, by the way, his dancing is about as funny and infectious as Chance or Gambino which really salvages his ranking here.
Crash more weddings, Kendrick. Till then, you get another 8.
4. Story Telling
Lot of old—time GOATS you could choose for the perfect 10 for this one. Nas, Slick Rick, DMX, Tribe. But for me, I think of Biggie when I think of storytelling in hip—hop. Biggie told stories that flowed so naturally you felt you were right there with him.
Kendrick is just as good. He needs to do it more, but he’s just as good at storytelling. Kendrick tells parables. “The Art of Peer Pressure,” “How Much a Dollar Cost,” “Keisha’s Song,” “Sing About Me.” Phoo…
Kendrick gets an 10 for storytelling.
Rappers need to evolve with every piece of work they put out. If not, they can quickly fall into deep obscurity. Ask Fetty Wap.
Kanye is the 10. “Graduation” is a different genre of music than “808’s & Heartbreaks”. “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”, different genre than Yeezus. Like ‘em or not, Kanye reinvents himself with each album he puts out.
I think the most impressive thing about Kendrick’s evolution as an artist is how much it makes sense. Kendrick cultivated his name and reputation before dropping the two of the most important rap albums of the 21st century: “good kid, m.A.A.d city” and “To Pimp a Butterfly”.
Kendrick knew in order for his message to get the audience it deserved, he needed to wait. It’s one of those things that makes you scratch your head and think huh I wonder if Kendrick Lamar ever forgets his laundry is in the dryer. I wonder if he ever sends a text to a girl with a much too ambitious emoji and freaks out about it for the rest of the day. Or is he just sort of perfect… everywhere. Like his discography is.
See once rappers are thrust into the mainstream spotlight, as Kendrick was after “good kid”, they encounter a serious dilemma. How do you transition into this spotlight while still remaining true to who you are and what you want to say. “To Pimp a Butterfly” is how. TPAB is Kendrick’s most important album. It speaks on race relations without being preachy or naive in a time when America when needed it most.
Each album carries a different sound. TPAB’s heavy jazz influence contrasts the strong west coast vibes from “good kid”. Kendrick makes sure to never let his sound go stale while still maintaining a strong, distinctive voice. I don’t know where he’s going from here, with his next album. Producer Syk Sense recently said it’s “like L.A meets Memphis.” Which, yep, sure um sign me up.
However, Kanye darn-near reinvented his whole aesthetic, personal life, wardrobe around the albums he was creating. That’s Pokemon level of evolution. Kendrick is just going through the evolution of an artist. Which I guess is cool, just not Pokemon cool. He can have a 9.
Rap is important. It has been the forefront of several large, significant movements across the globe. In my opinion, the “perfect” rapper has to contribute to this in some way. Perfect example would be Tupac Shakur. Pac, like Kendrick, alternated and mixed personal experiences with socially focused calls towards justice. Pac will forever go down as one of the most important figures in hip—hop, if not American culture as a whole.
But — is it getting old to hear? — Kendrick is better. Kendrick picks up where Pac left off and brings it to the era of Twitter memes and Fox and Friends hosts that are stuck in the 19th century. He tackles issues of social justice with such a mature, multi—faceted perspective. I really hope everyone reading this gives To Pimp a Butterfly a genuine, close listen.
He’s not accusatory, he’s constructive. It’s focused on identifying and understanding problems in America before trying to solve them. Listen to “Blacker the Berry”.
When Kendrick puts out a song, when he performs at an award show, when he releases a music video, it’s never for him. It’s for people, it’s for progress. This is what makes Kendrick an instant legend.
He’s saving the culture while getting money off Taylor Swift features. Kendrick gets an 12 for importance.
Kendrick’s final score: 56/60. Unfortunately, through my official, rigorous evaluation method, it has been proved Kendrick is indeed imperfect. Fortunately, I got a good excuse to listen to a bunch of Kendrick and gush about what a god he is.
Also, in the time since I wrote this he dropped his new track “HUMBLE.”. Which, again, I don’t know. It’s just not fair what he’s doing.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.