You can’t save something that doesn’t need saving. So where does that leave Kendrick Lamar? The gifted storyteller from Compton, the kid who writes and raps with a voice and perspective beyond his years, the rapper whose passion and power is matched only by control and dexterity. He is the prince directly in line, the ostensible savior for a rap world that needs no rescue.
For the first time since the early years of the last decade, rap is in a very good place. Freddie Gibbs leaves a trail of bodies and blunt smoke in his wake. Danny Brown bruises every beat. Shabazz Palaces splinter every sound imaginable and make it seem cool. Blu even returned to drop a great album within the last 10 months. There’s so much talent, so much variety, so much compelling music dropped daily, that there’s no space for a savior.
Neither does Lamar seem to be in the saving business. He seems only marginally interested in the “STATE OF HIP HOP.” Instead, K-Dot’s more focused on communicating his message. He wants to talk about where he came from, his generation, and the common struggle we all share. When Lamar talks about Hiii Power, he speaks about it as almost a social movement, rather than the hottest rap trend.
Accordingly, Lamar has a very odd relationship with public opinion and expectations. He seems more interested in mythological conceptions of Tupac than critics or fans. Thus far, there’s been no desire to fit into any preexisting mold. For all it’s brilliance, “Cartoon and Cereal” is about as accessible as David Foster Wallace non-fiction. And his lead single “Swimming Pool” might as well be A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Drink Again. Fun, it is not.
Kendrick is incredibly talented, driven, and committed to his message. It should make Good Kid in a M.A.A.D. City one the most interesting debuts of the young decade. But it also leaves us with a rapper who lacks the certain carefree irreverence that leads to commercial success in the rap world. He could drop an album full of “Cartoons and Cereal’s” and people would still ask him “Where is your “Pop That?”
Perhaps that’s why despite the critical acclaim and Dr. Dre co-sign, mainstream success and recognition still escapes the gifted Compton rapper. Few have gotten as big of a push, but no singles have come anywhere near the Top 40. Maybe that’s the reason behind the collaboration with Lady Gaga — regardless of how it worked for Wale.
Expectations aren’t everything, but they certainly carry weight. Nas spent a career making often-brilliant music overshadowed by the unattainable bar that Illmatic set. Blu’s entire career has either been an exercise in complete obliviousness to expectations, or a giant “fuck you” to anyone who cares about them. Watch the Throne, while by no means terrible, never really had a chance at achieving the immortality envisioned when Ye and Jigga teamed up.
Careers and stories like this create a negative effect on how we appreciate or understand what we actually experience. In sports, athletes are often criticized or belittled for failing to reach their “potential”: some ideal manifestation of the player we all envision. With art, anyone can identify with buying into the hype and later walking away disappointed. We feel like things never meet the quality of the imagined version — a version built almost entirely upon expectations.
Lamar’s debut is set for release next month. It’s one of the most highly anticipated in recent memory. For those who believed that Section 80 was generation defining (I do), there is breathless excitement and speculation about Good Kid M.A.A.D City. We want to see how his talent will manifest itself the second time around. The early indications are that Lamar won’t miss a beat. Every would-be single has been stellar, from the captivating quirkiness of “Cartoons and Cereal” to the compelling loneliness found in the party scenes of “Swimming Pools,” to the streamlined criminology of “The Art of Peer Pressure.” We expect this album to be great. We want it to be great. It has to be great.
That’s why excessive investment in an artist’s success can become problematic. We saw a perfect example a few months ago with the release of Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange. As Jonah Bromwich pointed out, everyone wanted that album to be great. Pitchfork gave it a 9.5 with a review attached that barely mentioned the actual music. Frank is a really cool human being. His songwriting is honest, earnest, and always interesting. He wrote a beautiful, brave tumblr post describing his falling in love with a man. Nostalgia Ultra bought him a lot of good will with fans and writers. Unfortunately, none of that actually makes Channel Orange a great album.
It’s something to keep in mind with Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. What does the album have to sound like for it to be deemed less than stellar? Certainly if he came out and drowned the entire album in fuzz, Blu-style, we’d kill him for it. But this isn’t really about the extreme. I don’t anticipate a complete flop from Kendrick, nor am I concerned about Kendrick’s ability to drop a classic. Some will way that Lamar is far too talented not to succeed, but that’s precisely my point. We don’t believe that Kendrick can fail. We’ve invested in him and his album being a success.
So in October, I’m guessing that everyone reading this will buy the album or at least feverishly download it the moment it leaks. If it’s anywhere as good as it should be, we’ll listen to it endlessly. We’ll ride for its genius, appreciate the honesty and the ingenuity. We’ll be quoting Kendrick lyrics on Twitter and rap along in our cars. We’ll probably enjoy the hell out of the album and (maybe) continue to tout Kendrick as the artist of a generation. But I hope it’s a reflection of how good Good Kid M.a.a.d City is, not of how good we want it to be. We can’t crown Lamar the voice of the generation, he has to snatch it for himself. For now, all we can do is wait.