Max Bell may have written positive words about a Drake album once.
There are a number of early articles/blog posts/pieces of writing I’d like deleted, wiped from existence. Some of those pieces could’ve benefited from more time spent behind the keyboard, some might’ve needed more editing from whoever was kind enough to let me write for them, and others should’ve never seen the light of day. I might look back on this post the same way. That’s how it goes.
You can say similar things about two leaks that have been circulating the net in the last week or so—Kendrick Lamar’s first mixtape, Y.H.N.I.C., and Kanye West’s demo tape, labeled The Prerequisite. The former finds a 16 year-old Kendrick, then K-Dot, rhyming over a number of big tracks from ’04/’05 (roughly)—Wayne’s “Go DJ,” Snoop’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” and Game’s “How We Do.”
His rhymes aren’t great or particularly political, socially conscious, or emotive—he’s really come a long way—and the young Kendrick heavily borrows his delivery from those MCs whose songs he raps over. At best, there are a few well-articulated, Compton-bred bars of gangland braggadocio. At worst, there are cringe-worthy lines of the same ilk (“Before I play Nelly and get my Desert Eagle on/Aim at your belly ’til you throw up your own shit/Thinkin’ you the shit, face in the toilet” – “Go DJ”). All negatives aside, that Kendrick level of energy and assuredness, that exuberance and enthusiasm we’re given on his most recent offerings, shines through more often than not .
There hasn’t been much discussion/writing regarding this tape, but hopefully those who’ve been listening, evaluating, and analyzing, publicly or not, have been doing so while keeping in mind that this is exactly how most first mixtapes from a 16-year old should sound, or at least how it used to. Kendrick emulates his influences, posturing and posing in hopes of filling the shoes of those rapper he grew up watching/listening to (“The reason I write this way, Pac and Big be ghostwriting my songs” – “What the Deal”) and those who were popular at the time (Snoop, Game, Wayne, etc.). Hell, I wanted to be most, if not all, of those guys at 16.
One of my hopes is that the resurfacing of this tape will inspire a shift, a move away from every blog searching for the next ‘youngest MC’, people who haven’t had time to come into their own yet. Most of us wouldn’t hear about Kendrick until Section.80, as even O.verly D.edicated wasn’t the Kendrick we know now. In other words, while Bada$$, Astro, and rappers of the same underage variety aren’t ‘bad’ on the whole, just as Kendrick wasn’t, most are fairly derivative. They aren’t ready for all the hype and, more importantly, for the pressure of producing anything of lasting quality/merit. Not every rapper is capable of Illmatic (and Nas had more help from Large Pro than people would like to remember) or “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” (see here) in their teens.
With the Kanye demo—ostensibly dated around 2001—things are a little different. Here we have early versions of tracks like “All Falls Down” and “Jesus Walks” (College Dropout), “Hey Mama” (Late Registration), and “Homecoming” (Graduation) amongst other lesser known and best left unreleased cuts from a then 24 year-old Kanye (or close to) who’d been producing and rapping for years (all the way back to ’96). A Kanye probably overdue for a record deal.
Given Kanye’s age and time in the game at the time of supposed composition, many of the songs lack the youthful missteps and immaturity of the Kendrick tape. However, the demo isn’t pure gold. There are cuts, like “Wow,” which features a lesser version of the brag/swag-rap he’s sharpened over the years, that are best left on the demo. And of those that eventually made it on to albums years later, it’s clear that Kanye(or someone at Roc-A-Fella) felt they needed to be rerecorded, reworked, and reevaluated.
Whether it was waiting until the drums hit as hard as he wanted, until his delivery became more confident (it’s almost there on the demo), or the theme/message of the song best matched the album and/or point in his career (some of these tracks really do anticipate his stardom), they came out when they did for a reason—”Homecoming” didn’t come out for six years. And there’s really no telling whether those tracks from this tape yet to resurface on an album might still be revisited (really hoping someone goes in over “Heartbeat”).
Just as it’s inspiring for me to find out your favorite writer’s didn’t come out to wide critical acclaim (I love and loathe you, Phillip Roth), these tapes should be a comfort to up and coming rappers. They are proof that some of the best rappers (Kanye gets a pass for this post) weren’t always capable of an album’s worth of hits, if any at all.
Ultimately, both tapes serve as early drafts, a documentation of the come-up and the coming into being. They don’t exist for purposes critical scrutiny, but rather as artifacts of a time and place and a gestating artist. They’re a reminder that even the best rarely start out as the best.
ZIP: The Prerequisite Demo Tape (Left-click)
ZIP: Y.H.N.I.C. Mixtape (Left-click)