I don’t listen to new music with the rest of you, and by the “rest of you,” I mean the Internet. The Internet speeds everything up and an accelerated digestion of an album that took an artist months, (sometimes years) to make will only spawn surface-level reactions. If a musician took the time to craft a sound independent of their previous work then you as the listener should at least listen, like really listen.
Kendrick Lamar’s third studio album DAMN. will be reviewed, dissected and think-pieced from now until next year’s Grammy nominations are announced and, if tradition persists, until Kendrick is robbed once again of the prestigious Album of The Year award. The lust to crown an LP a classic, most times before anyone has pressed play, is trendy and while K.Dot has solidified himself as one of hip-hop’s premiere artists, he’s not above thoughtful criticism.
Before the release of Drake’s fourth studio album, Views, the record was heralded as what would be his shining moment. Views debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 earning 1.04 million equivalent album units in the week ending May 5, but let “the streets” tell it, Aubrey could’ve kept that.
So a few days after box-braid Kenny released DAMN. and just hours before Don Cheadle’s rapper hands in “DNA” earned him a hood nomination for “Best Supporting Actor In A Music Video,” I finally listened to the hour-long LP and found myself in the same place I always am whenever Mr. Duckworth releases new music. I was excited, intellectually enticed and needing of the time and space to listen to the new themes, Kenny’s evolution as a man, and the lyrics and production he chose to showcase it all. Listening to DAMN. I was implored to think, which in 2017 is an accomplishment in and of itself.
Just a month prior however, Drake released More Life, which according to fans and critics was what they hoped Views was going to be. The self-described playlist, which boasted features from Skepta, Giggs, 2 Chainz and a lyrically decipherable Young Thug, earned 505,000 equivalent album units its first week (a huge debut for any artist, but half of what Views sold). Unsurprisingly, Kung-Fu Kenny not only met the marker, but surpassed it moving 603,000 equivalent units in the week ending April 20.
So, with the Canadian and the kid from Compton at the top of the charts, comparisons are expected despite how different both have presented themselves to be. But a debate still looms around Kendrick and whether or not he can truly consider himself one of the greatest of all time.
Could it be his production?
Nah, that’s not it.
Is it his lyrics?
Really dude? You’re really gonna ask that?
Then what is it that holds the title from him?
Kendrick musically isn’t “fun.”
Please take note to the quotation marks as I’m fully aware fun is subjective. Fun is fun, but fun can also be meaningful and while Kendrick has created meaningful music that isn’t fun, Drake has made fun music that isn’t meaningful. Both their weaknesses are the other man’s strength.
“Fun” also shouldn’t be confused with Kendrick’s ability to make you feel real emotions as you blast “Alright,” ”DNA,” “Backseat Freestyle” or attempt for the millionth time to rap word-for-word the tongue-twisting “Rigamortis.”
Also let the record reflect that listening to Kendrick is an entirely different experience than seeing him perform live, so understand that to turn up with Mr. Duckworth at any festival may make this analysis null and void. But whether you’re in a car, a crowd, a club or cleaning your bathroom, “Hotline Bling” “Madiba Riddim” and “Blem” feels like someone just handed you the spliff and re-upped your red cup. The vibes are abundant.
So why doesn’t Kendrick create “fun” music?
Because being a black man in America — especially a dark skinned black man — isn’t fun to begin with. When you grow up poor, surrounded by poverty and violence with the risk of being initiated into the prison system by way of the po-po, your art and you as an artist are different. The way you move in this world is different, the way you see the world is different and the way the world looks at you is different. Kendrick isn’t a light-skinned foreigner with a dope beard from a land with free health care. He’s a black motherf–ker from black a– Compton, beloved.
Kenny is the same man who weaved a heartbreaking tale of 17-year-old Keisha who used her body to make ends meet, only to be stabbed to death in a backseat. This is also the same wordsmith who admitted to being stomped out in front of his mama. Both valuable lessons in the human experience as it pertains to growing up in Compton, but neither one of them can be categorized as “fun.” If his career didn’t work out, Kenny’s Plan B was going back to broke, as clearly described on “ELEMENT.” Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, TDE’s founder and the man who helped change K. Dot’s life, almost robbed and killed Kendrick’s father at a local KFC. Ain’t sh-t “fun” about that.
A debate emerged when Drake released the Mike Zombie-produced single, “Started From The Bottom.” It’s widely known Drizzy grew up in Toronto’s ‘burbs with his mother, and while Drake has come a long way many couldn’t understand his experience he touted as challenging while being raised above the poverty line. Your “bottom” and my “bottom” isn’t the same and by no means is this a story about Kendrick taking the gold medal in the “Hard Knock Life” Olympics, but Kendrick remembers eating syrup sandwiches and not having a home at nine years old. There’s a slight difference. What’s more surprising is how has such a pro-black artist been able to achieve such success without watering his black nationalism down?
Beyonce’s been in the public eye since the late 90s and the minute she created an album that spoke to the experience of African-American women, particularly southern African-American women and presented that by way of African ancestral influences, America had a conniption. Promoting the love for a man with Jackson Five nostrils was too much. Her sampling Malcolm X’s 1962 speech about the plight of the black woman was too controversial. Owning her daddy’s Alabama roots and Miss Tina’s Louisiana heritage was also too taboo. Why? Because you can be a black artist, but you can’t as a black artist use your art to acknowledge your blackness or uplift black people with your blackness. Kenny has been known to do both.
It’s a lot easier to relate to an artist who sometimes professes to be a victim of multiple things, including his own blockbuster success. America still hasn’t taken full ownership of the systemic racism that Kenny was birthed into, and alleges to not understand the anger that comes with it.
Kendrick doesn’t make music for the listener who wants to escape the realities they’re in, rather he makes records to help you cope with where you are. I don’t always want to hear about someone fighting their inner demons or learning your pahtnahs got locked up or worse. Sometimes, I want to whine up my waistline with a cute boy, get blem and pretend the rent isn’t due. Other times I want to get drunk, and drunk text another cute boy sexually inappropriate things. Drake provides that escape more than Kendrick.
I dig Aubrey. I also f**k with Kenny and, more than anything, I respect the spaces they occupy and don’t want either to forcefully attempt to do what the other has mastered.
But if we’re still debating Kenny’s greatness and can acknowledge that Drake has solidified his own place on hip-hop’s Mount Rushmore then the conversation is bigger than beats, lyrics and album sales. Just ask yourself, when’s the last time mainstream anything ever gave a black a– motherf–ker in love with his blackness his just due for his greatness?
In this conversation fun means carefree, bliss, a detour from reality and responsibility. Kenny doesn’t always give fans that like Drake willingly does and that’s okay. I promise, it’s okay. This isn’t a quantifiable argument so dissenting opinions are welcomed and expected. My mentions are always open for anyone wanting to shoot the intellectual fair one.
This article was originally published on VIBE.