Who is “I”? Is this Kendrick Lamar, Compton’s human sacrifice or a ritual appeasement to the 4th Quarter financial Pharaohs? The angel on angel dust or the author of mantras for merry reindeers snapping selfies in the forthcoming Pixar brandchise: Xmas Eve in Bompton?
Maybe it’s our fault. The Captain Save-A-Hoe complex is deeply ingrained in hip-hop culture. Every era yields a few false messiahs and rap game vestal virgins to be devoured by the industry volcano faster than you can say “Peanut Butter Honey Brown Eyes.” Whether ready or not, someone has to be hip-hop’s Harold Miner. You get your hopes up. You wind up muttering epithets about how they fell off. It’s the only genre that could produce a classic song about how much hip-hop sucked during one of its most classic years.
Nas bricked a dozen contrived radio singles until getting old enough to realize that radio hits were never why we liked him in the first place. Within a New York minute, Talib Kweli went from head-wraps to fedoras and still couldn’t supplant Mims from Hot 97. Lupe got Lasered. Jay Electronica was last seen riding a sacred yak to an Illuminati conference in Nepal. One second, Wale wove complex narratives about self-esteem, racism, and artistic integrity. The next, Lady Gaga had him shopping for Jimmy Choo’s.
Kendrick is supposed to be different (An admission itself that smacks of #notallrappers.) He recognized Gaga’s vibe killing and replaced her with Sonnymoon. He dreamed up “Cartoons and Cereal,” a radical nightmare that dissolved lingering real rap dogma. Gunplay staggered around drugged, sleepless, and searching for concussions to inflict. Kendrick double-timed over television static and trap drums, reminiscing on fruit loops, Darkwing Duck, and welfare checks acquired at the end of the county line.
“Control” flashed the message to conservative heads cryogenically freezing in a giant Jansport. Was there something sloppy and self-righteous about it? Maybe. But it was cool to see someone articulate what should have been obvious: not all rappers are supposed to sound the same, artists should compete to top each other, and certain aesthetics and ideologies are incompatible. It might not have been “Hit Em Up,” but 2Pac would’ve flashed the “W” in solidarity.
It meant nothing without good kid, m.A.A.d city; the major label debut that reminded a generation that crossover success and creative compromise aren’t mutually exclusive. Mostly eschewing big name cameos and producers, his declaration of artistic independence went so far as to exclude Black Hippy (save for Jay Rock) and even Dr. Dre—who placed zero beats on an album that he executive-produced. In the Death Valley thirst generation, Kendrick played it cool—intensely aware of his strengths and weaknesses, allies and enemies.
“Swimming Pools” was the most subversive single since “Hey Ya.” If Andre 3000 turned personal sadness about marital woes into party music, Kendrick distilled a frat-drinking anthem from familial alcoholism and peer pressure. The brilliance isn’t just conceptual, it seeps in through specific details and imagery: the loud voices in the dark room, the Uncle Scrooge corkscrew into the pool of liquor, the Domino’s Pizza * craved by Kendrick’s dad that exists in the same rap Narnia with Bobby Shmurda’s hat.
When rebellion’s been commoditized to Kent St. sweatshirts at #1 vinyl retailer Urban Outfitters, there are few ways left to shock. Odd Future shouted fire in a cat hoodie factory. Kendrick wrote the anti-“Gin and Juice” under the imprimatur of the man who brought the original gang of Tanqueray to the Eastside of the LBC.
When Kanye tabbed him to open up the Yeezus tour, it felt like a tacit acknowledgment of what everyone already knew: they were the last two in major label rap willing to make whatever the fuck they wanted to make, regardless of contemporary whim. Radio and labels would either follow or not. Yeezus remains the most uncompromised rap record since Neil Young was sued for not rapping like Neil Young. Walt Disney’s would-be bastard son wanted to terrify white basic housefraus who only knew him as “Kim’s hubby”—and if there’s anything left that can be considered real hip-hop, it’s frightening people wearing Lululemon to Zumba class.
That’s why “i” depresses me. It’s genetically modified for the basics starting their Pandora station with “Robin Thicke.” The last song they Shazamed was “Rude.” They’ll walk into dive bar karaoke and immediately order, “Don’t Stop Believing” at 9:30 p.m. “i” is kid-tested mother-approved for hick weddings in rural towns, where the only other rap songs spun are “Bust a Move” and “Crazy” (which the DJ will tell you is a rap song).
Let’s be clear: there’s nothing better than a great song that appeals to everyone, especially when it spares you from the avalanche of Bar Mitzvah music mediocrity. But “i” feels incongruous to everything we understood about Kendrick Lamar. He followed up “Control” with a song that makes “Hey Ya” look like “Hard in Da Paint.”
The problem isn’t softness; it’s the saccharine tone. It’s the too clean mix and the too messy structure. It’s the weird nasal spray baby voice, the self-love platitudes and 12-step submission. Artists are more interesting when they don’t have the answers. And the good kid teetering on the brink of judgment day wrote a jingle for the final montage when the reindeers finally get out of Compton and sled back to the North Pole in time for Christmas Day brunch.
Lamar’s sound previously leaned against a woozy future-soul fusion of Organized Noize, Nosaj Thing, and classic gangsta rap, but this feels like someone stitched the cadavers of “Happy,” Avicii’s “Wake Up,” The Black Eyed Peas, and “Blurred Lines.” The Isley Brothers are interpolated, but this isn’t “Between the Sheets,” it’s the Velveeta riff that you probably remember from a Ron Burgundy and Veronica Corningstone montage. By contrast, even the most obvious sample on the last album felt inspired and integral to the work.
As one staffer said, this is made to sell Chevy Malibu’s to Millennials. You wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Cee-Lo wrote it or that there’s an alternate version floating around from B.o.B. From a business perspective, it’s brilliant. By the time this post is published, it’ll have clocked 3 million streams on the TDE Soundcloud alone. It is positive and bubbly, and sells the American dream by way of Stuart Smalley.
When the record industry and American snuff capitalism are in permanent entropy, “selling out” is an antiquated construct. You get money wherever you can. So if Kendrick wants to make an entire album of happy-go-lucky Day-O shit, I’ll understand. He’s earned enough goodwill. But there’s no reason to go this route. He played at the Grammy’s and became Taylor Swift’s favorite without having to make cloying derivatives of “Not Afraid.” He already made it. This is the time to take risks and experiment with new sounds. The Thundercat bass-slap breakdown at the end is cool, but it’s an afterthought. You expect K. Dot to keep pushing sounds and ideas forward, not recline over looped old soul. He has the rest of his life to be corny.
The subtext of “i” might be most damning. For the last decade, we’ve watched every young major label rapper forcibly contort themselves into the most awkward pop positions possible. The only one who can comfortably pull it off is Drake because he’s innately 100 percent corn-fed child actor ham. But not every great artist is wired to be the biggest. If you can’t fit the R&B-driven urban radio format than you might as well not be on a major label. And if you’re not on a major, most of the media and radio ignores you. Kendrick was the only one to break out without having to make a “Work Out.”
In the meantime, we wait on albums from almost every rapper worth waiting on. Where is that Gunplay album or that Boosie album or that Vince Staples album. We gas up a single or two and it goes nowhere. Or if it does go somewhere, the version of the artist that succeeds is rarely the one you originally voted for. The rap major label system doesn’t allow for a Ryan Adams or a Flaming Lips, artists allowed to quietly make quality albums year in and year out, indifferent to the outside world.
2014 is nearly over and you can almost count the number major label rap albums on a single hand. Of course, all the hip-hop print magazines are shutting down their print operation. There’s little new to cover and the stars you’d want to put on a cover are increasingly in their 30s and even 40s (and often too bougie to do anything less than Esquire or GQ). The biggest new star last year was Macklemore. The biggest new star this year is Iggy Azalea. Next year, it’ll probably be G-Eazy. You can see the pattern and it’s blindingly translucent.
So you can’t fault the compulsion for to want to make something that could fill stadiums. But what made Kendrick stand out is the personal music written in the corner. He is the sly observer in the shadows, not the life of the party thumping his chest. After causing the Internet to combust, he claimed that this isn’t necessarily his first single…”it’s a statement.” Maybe that’s true. But for the first time in his career, it’s unclear who’s saying it.
* I’m aware that it’s probably Domino’s the game, but I prefer to think of it as the pizza. This is why Rap Genius does not need to exist.