With his upcoming studio album set to drop before the year's end, which version of Kendrick Lamar do you want to hear?
Kendrick Lamar is versatile. An examination of his three major-label studio albums, good kid, m.A.A.d City, To Pimp A Butterfly, and DAMN., reveals the vast scope of both his creativity and his technical prowess. In reality, all of the aforementioned can spawn deeper analysis, thus adding significantly to the replay value. Good kid for its postmodern approach to narrative storytelling. To Pimp A Butterfly for its examination of race and the ambiguous throughline hinting at a deeper metaphysical conflict. And the Pulitzer Prize-winning DAMN. for its dense and thought-provoking analysis of self, rendered through Kendrick’s most abstract lyricism to date.
While that heightened and challenging penmanship has elevated Kendrick Lamar into an elite, borderline mystical lyricist, it has also served to mask a simple, occasionally forgotten truth. Kendrick Lamar is exceptionally good at rapping and he is well aware of this. Whenever he allows his arrogance to seep in, the end result often makes for something truly incredible. People still talk about the impact of “Control” to this day. Free-flowing songs, unburdened by the need for thematic relevance allow Kendrick to really showcase exactly how far ahead of his peers he stands.
It’s hard to fathom, but the sight of Kendrick truly spazzing has become a relatively uncommon affair. To be fair, that helps enhance the occasions whenever they do occur -- but seeing as Eminem and Lil Wayne may very well be his only rivals when it comes to the flow, it’s a shame he doesn’t show it off more frequently.
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“If I’m getting on a track with Kendrick, I can never tell what the fuck he’s gonna do because he’s such a chameleon of styles, and he can fucking do pretty much anything, right? And he’s so proficient at it. He’s so good at it that you don’t know what you’re going to get. That to me is like a top-tier lyricist because it’s like you can get your ass kicked any day. Certain rappers get on a certain song and it just depends."
- Eminem, speaking on Crooks Corner
It can’t be denied that each of his albums has prioritized conceptual linearity, and have been all the stronger for it. By creating distinct worlds, sometimes populated by a variety of different characters with distinctive worldviews, Kendrick is able to tap into different facets of his artistry. Sometimes, he manipulates his cadence to become another, leaving only the faintest shade ofKendrick Lamar the emcee. Other times, he enacts the musical equivalent of “reading the room,” opting to deliver whatever vocal style the beat invites. In many cases, as on DAMN’s genuinely emotional “LOVE,” Kendrick prioritizes creating a cohesive song over engaging in lyrical bloodsport. He understands the significance of each individual chapter in a novel; some require a frantic pace while others are slow-burners. It’s the separation between Drive and John Wick, two excellent films that succeed on entirely different merits -- the former provokes deeper analysis on a visual and sonic level, while the latter is simply awe-inspiring to behold on an athletic level.
“A virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.” -- The Pulitzer Board on DAMN.
Were Kendrick to line up an album composed entirely of high-intensity lyrical songs in the realm of “DNA,” “Deep Water,” “Control,” “The Heart Pt. 4,” or “Humble,” some might find themselves disappointed over the absence of a deeper meaning. After all, it’s the reason that Kendrick Lamar is the only lyricist to boast a Pulitzer Prize, a prestigious honor in literary circles who seldom turn eyes to hip-hop. Songs like “PRIDE” or “U” may lack the unleashed intensity rap purists desire from Kendrick, but the role they play in the pacing of their respective albums is invaluable. To turn his back on that particular brand of songwriting is a gamble. Especially when you consider the public scrutiny a socially conscious hip-hop celebrity tends to receive when perceived dismissive of current worldly events; ask J. Cole how those apples taste. On the other hand, however, low-stakes lyrical acrobatics may be the perfect remedy to the cynical and generally depressing news cycle that tends to permeate on a daily basis. As an added bonus, it never hurts to have a fire or two lit under the collective ass of the rap game at large.
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With Kendrick Lamar as adept at weaving complex, detailed tapestries as he is at straight-up murdering instrumentals, it’s easy to understand why so many grant him the esteemed title of Best Rapper Alive. But seldom does he bring both worlds together on an equal basis. With talk of a new album set to arrive by the year’s end, which style of Kendrick would you prefer to see -- the unrestrained and cocky “Control” Kendrick, or his literary and sophisticated alter-ego “Pulitzer Kenny?”