Kendrick Lamar is having a monstrous week following the release of his latest studio album DAMN. The 14-track offering serves as the Compton rapper’s third No. 1 on the Billboard 200 (following 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly and last year’s Untitled, Unmastered compilation) and has the biggest week of any album in 2017, earning 603,000 equivalent album units.
The project’s lead single “HUMBLE.” has logged 65 million streams this week alone (to note, Adele‘s “Hello” got 61.5 million in its best week) and just claimed the top spot of the Billboard Hot 100 chart. He also dominated in the desert as a Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival headliner this year, and will be embarking on his own DAMN. tour this summer.
Still, do all these wins make Kendrick Lamar the “Greatest of All Time” in hip-hop? At 29 years young and with three major label albums in his catalog (plus an arsenal of street projects like Section.80, The Kendrick Lamar EP, Overly Dedicated and several others under the moniker K-Dot), the so-called “savior of rap” has become one of the most-debated-on, especially in the age of the Internet.
Below, Billboard tapped editors from various outlets like VIBE, XXL, Noisey, Genius and BET to weigh in on what characterizes a “G.O.A.T.”, if DAMN. is an instant classic and where Lamar’s legacy stands.
What qualifies a rapper being considered a rap G.O.A.T.?
There are different strokes for different folks when it comes to what makes a rap G.O.A.T. But some common indicators include: cultural impact, sales, ability to lyrically compete and the presence of both technical and mainstream skill. If this criteria is applied to Kendrick Lamar — especially with his contemporaries in mind — the Compton rap representative is a beast among men; having proven his penchant to check off all the boxes on the board. His magnum opus good kid, m.A.A.d city revitalized hip-hop storytelling. While being heralded for his wordsmith abilities, he was also able to nab the highest-charting debut for a rap song since Eminem. And none of his fellow rap stars would dare see Candyman by mentioning his name. —Iyana Robertson, Music Editor, BET
There’s three ways to look at this. I personally believe an artist achieves G.O.A.T. status if they:
1) Release a trifecta of classic albums — or at least have 50 great songs
2) Stand as a premier artist in the genre for at least five years (and maintain some sort of relevance after that)
3) Have a discernible impact both within the genre and in pop culture as a whole
That said, the term G.O.A.T. is thrown around so loosely these days, what it’s really about to most people is whoever was their favorite artist whenever they were most interested in music. In other words, it’s whatever was hot when they were in high school/college. In the majority of G.O.A.T. debates that I’ve had with people, artistic merit played a role but it was not the deciding factor. The deciding factor was almost always the era the person grew up in — it’s how they contextualize the concept of hip-hop greatness.—Insanul Ahmed, Senior Editor, Genius
Time, quality and consistency. That’s what makes an artist eligible for G.O.A.T. consideration in hip-hop, at least. Many years of high-level work on an consistent basis. There are many that can be mentioned in that rare air of the Top 5 Dead or Alive convo, but to be G.O.A.T. is another level altogether. You’ve had to have had some battles where you have come out on top (Nas), break sales records (Eminem), headline major world tours (Jay Z), and lyrically take people on a journey with your talent (Tupac/Biggie). Throw in a few widely recognized classic albums as well for a marker.—Datwon Thomas, Editor-in-Chief, VIBE
I don’t believe in that G.O.A.T. stuff. I don’t like labeling just one person the greatest at anything so I would say Kendrick is one of the G.O.A.T.s but no one has the title all by themselves, for me. Why does there have to be just one? I’m not sure if that’s the case. But what qualifies a rapper to be a G.O.A.T.? Lyricism plays a major role.
The conversation about how great the album is and Kendrick is, should exist but labeling someone the greatest of all time usually happens when a rapper drops a classic album so that’s a bit of a cycle. Hip-hop has called several rappers the greatest of all time so it’s hard to pick just one and you really don’t have to. —Vanessa Satten, Editor-in-Chief, XXL
Is DAMN. an instant classic?
I love the album. Been listening to it non-stop. It is a classic album that will reign along with the other classic hip-hop albums released over the the course of hip-hop history. Also DAMN. stands out so much now because we don’t get stuff this good very often, especially lately. When you are dealing with rappers dropping one trendy track and that being a big accomplishment, what Kendrick just released is a hell of a big deal. It’s amazing to see the growth he has had as an artist and the passion he has for his art.—Vanessa Satten, Editor-in-Chief, XXL
I certainly agree that the album is an instant classic. I’ve yet to hear anyone give it a straight up negative review which is seemingly impossible in this day and age (though I’m sure the inevitable Kendrick backlash is coming #becausethecontent). I’m 20-odd listens deep and I like every song on the album. Good kid, m.A.A.d. city and To Pimp a Butterfly were both classics—and I like DAMN. better than both of those.—Insanul Ahmed, Senior Editor, Genius
I wouldn’t call DAMN. an instant classic like his previous two studio albums — even though he’s yet again raised the bar for lyrical excellence. I will say he is the most important artist for our time right now; the way he uses his projects to paint full movies of his mind frame and current times in culture. DAMN. will end up as a borderline classic for the skeptics and a certified classic by his longtime fans… like me.—Datwon Thomas, Editor-in-Chief, VIBE
Is Kendrick Lamar the best rapper alive? Yes. He is. And I’m not just saying this because the website I work for has called him the “best rapper alive” in two separate headlines in the last year. What it comes from is how inspiring this man is, and watching him grow in his career to finally come into his own as an artist. DAMN. is his greatest achievement because it’s just so specifically Kendrick, meaning that he has never understood himself more as an artist than right now.
Something that’s frustrated me from the perspective of a Kendrick fan is, weirdly, just how difficult his music can be to physically listen to. That’s not a discredit to the art itself — and there’s an argument to be made about how the challenging complexity of a record like To Pimp a Butterfly is exactly why it’s such a great album (think about it this way: when is the last time you read Infinite Jest?)
But what DAMN. provides is something that’s much more listenable, and to be frank, something that you can actually put on at the party. Because it sounds awesome! This record feels like a victory lap — his flows are so effortless, and the sequencing of the album is nearly perfect. —Eric Sundermann, Editor-in-Chief, Noisey
?The “instant classic” title is quite the dilution of DAMN., as it microwaves the clearly slow-cooked aggression, soul, self-awareness and sheer Blackness of Kendrick’s latest masterpiece. The proverbial “sweet spot” between his West Coast roots and his affinity for resurrecting the sounds of Black music’s cerebral, painful, triumphant past, DAMN. is K. Dot’s most valiant attempt to slyly medicate the masses while making his message easier to swallow. Drink up, kids. —Iyana Robertson, Music Editor, BET
Is Kendrick Lamar the G.O.A.T.?
Kendrick will need to continue on the current path he’s on to gain the G.O.A.T. title. Just making the music that he continually produces with mind-bending flows, character-defending, mirror-holding introspection that exposes our flaws and flair as humans. It’s tough to topple the likes of Jay Z, Nas, Biggie, Tupac, Eminem, etc. from the top 5 throne, but the way Kendrick is excelling each time out, his rock-throwing aim for the crown gets sharper and sharper.—Datwon Thomas, Editor-in-Chief, VIBE
He feels a bit young to be the G.O.A.T. but maybe that doesn’t matter — I don’t know. I just feel like we shouldn’t give anyone the pressure that they have to be the greatest of all time, or think that there is just one person who is. Sometimes that can be a part of personal taste also, as a fan. Kendrick is definitely one of the G.O.A.T.s and that should be enough, in my opinion. —Vanessa Satten, Editor-in-Chief, XXL
As far as calling Kendrick the G.O.A.T., he certainly clears the threshold I set above. good kid, m.A.A.d city, To Pimp a Butterfly, and DAMN. give him a trifecta of classics that I’d compare to other G.O.A.T.s like Eminem’s Slim Shady LP, Marshall Mathers LP, The Eminem Show or 2Pac’s Me Against The World, All Eyez On Me, The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, or Ice Cube’s Straight Outta Compton, Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, and Death Certificate. Throw in Lamar’s Section.80 — a cult classic that continues to grow in stature — plus all his best guest spots, B-sides, and early gems, and that’s about 50 great songs. Not to mention, Kendrick has consistently been one of the best bar-for-bar rappers.
His impact in rap through that period isn’t really up for debate, but now he’s starting to make real waves in pop culture, too — with things like the “Humble” video, his legendary Grammy performances, and his Coachella headline slot. Those intangibles mean a lot, because when people who don’t pay attention to rap but pay attention to you, it shows just how powerful your art is. Plus, being a G.O.A.T. requires you to also be an ambassador for the genre — you ought to be able to play their music for someone as an example of the musical heights hip-hop can reach.
I’m honestly not mad at anyone — especially if they were born in the ’90s or 2000s — who calls Kendrick the G.O.A.T. He is certainly worthy of the title. But like I said, whether or not someone will is usually decided by what year they were born. But I was born in ’86, and even I’m starting to wonder where to put Kendrick on my G.O.A.T. list.—Insanul Ahmed, Senior Editor, Genius
Beyond the music itself, part of becoming the G.O.A.T. discussion is understanding your place in the world, and why your fans love you and your music. With DAMN., Kendrick shows self-awareness, which breeds confidence and perspective of how to become the greatest of all time. Typically, I find these discussions about “who will become G.O.A.T.” a bit meaningless and myopic from the perspective of the music industry, but Kendrick is so f–king good that it’s important to recognize when someone is actually reaching this accomplishment. —Eric Sundermann, Editor-in-Chief, Noisey