Rappers of the Decade: Kendrick Lamar — No Country for Good Kids

Rappers of the Decade returns with Abe Beame performing a tall order: Compiling a playlist of Kendrick's best tracks.
By    March 4, 2019

Art by Iñaki Espejo-Saavedra

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Abe Beame jumping off the roof is just him playing it safe.

You inevitably remember last year’s viral video from Alabama’s Hangout Fest. A young woman named Delaney was called on stage with Kendrick Lamar to rap “M.A.A.D. City,” the semi-eponymous song from Kendrick’s 2012 paradigm-shifting classic debut. It was the final night of the festival and Lamar was headlining. In the video, you can see young Delaney confidently and enthusiastically rapping along, repeatedly dropping the “N” word in the hook. Kendrick rightfully cut off the music and dressed the young white woman down for her cultural insensitivity. The exchange touched off a flare up on social media, the kind that occurs in America on the internet seemingly every day between two sides in a constant state of screaming past each other.

Less than six months before the events of this evening, deep red Alabama held a special election for then Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ vacated Senate seat. The contest was between a bland and innocuous liberal named Doug Jones and the Republican, Roy Moore, a Trump-backed psychopath who was accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct a month before the election — connected to his “alleged” penchant for dating teenagers when he was in his 30s. He lost to Jones by less than two percentage points.

In these dark, dystopian times, it’s easy to understand why we need an artist like Kendrick Lamar. He’s empathic and kind. He’s socially conscious and scandal free. He married his high school sweetheart and his first major single was about the evils of binge drinking. He cares deeply about his community and those he represents, while still selling out Staples Center and being one of the few critically bulletproof Grammy darlings. He produced and curated the Oscar-nominated soundtrack for a Marvel movie, which happens to be the ninth highest grossing movie of all time. His music has been recommended by Obama. When you ask any random bespectacled person on the street who the best rapper in the world is, they will inevitably, reflexively respond “Kendrick Lamar.” He’s also won a fucking Pulitzer Prize. He’s one of the few rappers — really human beings — in public American life we can feel good about without making excuses or apologies.

Even if you discount all the above qualities, he’s also a brilliant artist who has made some of the best music of any genre this decade. He’s one of the greatest rappers of all time. But the altercation in Alabama speaks volumes to why I find the inconceivable level of fame Kendrick Lamar has achieved so confusing. If you go through the comment thread on the Twitter post at the heading of this piece, you’ll see a collection of memes, sardonic screen grabs of celebrities making particular facial expression that can be applied lazily to any argument, acronyms describing base physical response and J. Cole quotes. What you won’t find much of is nuanced debate or conversation surrounding the complicated particulars of this exchange. It’s signifying and side-taking without much consideration for the very dense source material.

In other words, it’s largely the way we communicate with each other now. “Likes” and “Dislikes.”

From the beginning, Kendrick was a backpacking scholar of the rap game who didn’t have to Blood In to be down. Based on this scouting report, you could project he’d have his subset of die hard next gen Rawkus kids, he’d fucking own every college campus in America; he’d go on mid-sized venue tours every two years when he’d release an album and be in heavy rotation on Lyricist Lounge-type Spotify channels. It was the type of career that was common in the 90s. Hell, it was Common in the 90s. Young Kendrick was an exciting artist, one I would’ve nominated on this list of generational rappers regardless. But I expected him to be a name I’d have to passionately argue for rather than qualify, which isn’t what happened. So what changed?

I believe Kendrick, through no fault of his own, is the benefactor of a new day in internet-era hip-hop. He has been appropriated as a representative for the unimpeachable, aspirational, intelligent, dignified, strangely bloodless liberal “woke” identity politics and culture of our time. I’m interrogating the mythic deified symbolism of Kendrick, what he means to us as religious or casual Hip-Hop fans, how he’s been elevated by people who like the idea of his (at times inaccessible) music more than its actual substance. With how he is regarded and discussed, you would think Kendrick Lamar is a Voltron-like Frankenstein of woke Twitter hashtags who has somehow gained sentience. 

I love Kendrick because I listen to him — because he’s great — and I appreciate most of his music. But at times I wonder if his entire fan base is listening — whether they love his music or just agree with his assumed politics. If they like what he has come to represent so they have bought stock in the idea of him. I think a certain hip-hop-adjacent subset needed Kendrick, so badly that if he didn’t exist they would have had to create him. And maybe they did.

Good Kid M.A.A.D. City is K-Dot’s unequivocal masterpiece. Kendrick takes the dreamy, brainy, autobiographical, ghetto spiritual aspects of Golden Era classics like Ready to Die and yes, Illmatic and applies a rockist, post-modern structure. When it dropped, album rap was still reeling from the G-Unit model of market-tested, big swing commercial song collections that happened to come under the umbrella of an album name. Streaming only exacerbated this sense of thin cohesion, a rap song as little more than bait on hook fishing for infinitesimal Pandora royalties. Kendrick shifted the culture with a start-to-finish album that reclaimed the form. After Good Kid, everyone wanted to make a formal introduction and tell a story. Kendrick’s album is Ulysses with a Cube and Pooh punch up directed by John Singleton, a Compton Odyssey. In other words, it’s catnip for literary, lyricist-oriented, conservative rap nerds like me.

What’s important for the sake of this argument is what Kendrick gets so perfectly here. It’s an album full of concepts, references and radio-proof mid-song beat changes, all available for those willing to deep dive, but it’s also warm and welcoming. You don’t need a Comp Lit PHD, a working knowledge of Special Field Orders, No. 15 and crucially, dozens of hours to dedicate to infinite start-to-finish relistens of this album to piece together a cohesive narrative. It’s there if you want to delve into it but there are so many moments to isolate and enjoy. Consider the aforementioned Ready to Die, another poignant, sad, and generation-defining album that in many ways introduced blockbuster cinematic structure to the Hip-Hop album. For all its interludes and sweeping vision, it still had time for jams, as does Good Kid, as does the majority of the history of great, popular rap music.

Kendrick sophomore effort was his opus, To Pimp A Butterfly. It’s an album I respect and admire in the way I occasionally look at the Statue of Liberty out the Southern facing window of the Manhattan bound Q Train, absolutely astonished that it was once giant sheets of copper. A towering accomplishment of imagination and human ingenuity that I can’t say I love or even really care about. From its free jazz score to its multiple interweaving narratives and collection of characters dropped in disorientingly, left like shards of glass for its audience to scotch tape together with multiple listens, it’s a deeply ambitious effort that doesn’t always work.

The album is not without its merits. In fact, it’s full of merit in its great musicianship by an elite collection of jazz artists and Kendrick’s genius level song concepts and world building. But it’s just not even remotely fun to listen to and there aren’t many moments worth revisiting. I took a few creative writing classes in college and you would occasionally run into these grade school Pynchons, not untalented but taking structure as the means to is own end without considering the theory and purpose behind rippling the pond. I get a lot of that technique-for-techniques-sake when I listen to Pimp. Kendrick poured Baldwin, Ellison, late Coltrane and of course ‘Pac into a virgin punch bowl and this is what it tastes like.

There are several interludes on this accompanying mixtape lifted from To Pimp a Butterfly I inserted, not because I like them, but as a troll. To me they are instructive as to what Kendrick fell prey to on this album when it missed the mark. The overacting in his character work, the overlong songs, the almost laughably misguided not-dumb-but-bad thought experiments like “These Walls.” The problem was in scope. The guy was trying to stitch together 400 years of forced servitude, degradation, history and artistic genius alternately suffered and created by black people into a single album and simply fouled it off to deep left. It’s too much.

The album is a New Years Resolution diet that makes it a week, it’s clicking “interested” on the event post for a protest you know you’ll never attend; it’s the dog eared copy of a Howard Zinn doorstop you’ve picked up and put down a million times. It’s aspirational and great in theory, but not as much in practice if you’re at the gym or heading to work or you’re making dinner. I’m not going to say POPULAR rap isn’t supposed to be anything but it’s never required this much effort. And it sold millions of copies.

By no means am I suggesting Good Kid wasn’t a monster album and Kendrick wasn’t a huge star before, but this was the album that launched him into the stratosphere. It’s still probably remembered as his biggest, most important, best effort, which is sheer insanity. Like, imagine more people saw Moonlight than Infinity War, imagine Kerry James Marshall outsold Warhol, imagine Kendrick Lamar outsold Migos and The Weeknd combined in a single year, which he nearly did in 2017. All of these things are right and make sense in a certain context in consideration of quality but they have no bearing on how the world, popular opinion and pleasure operate. Kendrick is the black swan.

DAMN. is an intentionally and almost aggravatingly premeditated countermeasure to all the critiques I laid out. Like any dutiful online nerd, it seemed as if Kendrick scoured the To Pimp a Butterfly Reddit threads, stirred the pot with alias Twitter accounts, and told all the Timbo, North Face, flat-brimmer trolls he can ride any flow he pleases, specifically the one they were clamoring for. And of course he’s right. The mixtape highs of the album are exhilarating. It’s rapped with a carefree intensity, not as beholden to narrative or thematic cohesion as his previous proper studio albums. But without the Kendrick brand behind it I presume it would’ve been a fart in the wind. “DNA.” and “HUMBLE.” are truly great songs but they’re of a boot stomping, back-of-The-Tunnel ilk we haven’t seen hit that hard since M.O.P. was relevant. They hit because his pedigree was behind them and he earned indie cred and they’re teaching him in Ivy League seminars and it was radical for him to get all impressionistically, performatively Adidas and fat link chain and aggro.

“Loyalty” is the Rihanna-featured second single off of DAMN. It is decidedly not impressionistically or performatively Adidas or fat link chain or aggro. It is clearly Kendrick’s big mainstream pop bid for the album. The type of song he’s sprinkled on his albums since he invited Colin Munroe and Ashtrobot to sing hooks on Section.80. The production is neutered G funk. Kendrick brings his exerable loverman bedside spit, which is what I imagine it would sound like if Wanya Morris tried to rap in ‘94.

At one point the beat drops out and Kendrick raps acapella for too long for no reason. Rihanna is the best thing about the song but gets little to do. The hook is Kendrick nasally braying the word “loyalty” over and over again in an ascending cadence that I’ll gently describe as not catchy. Repetition is an increasingly potent weapon in a rapper’s arsenal but this isn’t the maddening hypnotic incantation of a “Versace,” it’s whiny and non-committal and underwritten and completely forgettable. It’s the absence of a hook.

We forgive Kendrick for these continued sins against pop music because we love him, because songs like “DAMN” and “DNA” make these bricks worth it, and frankly there are worse sins. But I’d just like to point out “Loyalty” is a song on an album that won the Pulitzer Prize. It peaked at 14 on the Billboard Hot 100. It has gone platinum twice. It won an NAACP Image Award. It won the Grammy for Best Rap/Sung Performance.

So this is why in spite of his immense talent, I find Kendrick’s superstardom baffling. There’s this breathless way Kendrick is discussed and praised, the self evident nature of how his greatness is presumed and professed, his role as a straw man for the “Good” exemplar of modern rap superstardom in the age of Woke Twitter.  It all coheres with this classic, Western/Anglo definition of what we want rap genius to look and sound like — that Kendrick gets to be the avatar for and I find kind of icky. Have we gotten to a place in our culture, in our discourse, where we’re even allowed to acknowledge “Loyalty” is an awful song without diminishing Kendrick as a great artist and person? Do we just have to cape for every deuce he drops because it fits our narrative? Am I in danger of being canceled or dragged or piled on or whatever the fuck for even saying any of this out loud?

And yet. I remember working the Upper East Side the day of the Women’s March in early 2017, the day after half of America celebrated its darkest modern triumph. I remember the protests in Ferguson that spread across the country. I can still see the very tangible fear, the anxiety, the sadness on the faces of marginalized people who have lost self determination in a country that refuses to acknowledge their very real pain. And when I think of those images on the streets and on television and my computer screen, it’s seemingly exclusively scored to Kendrick’s “Alright.” It’s the best song on the album I just spent a great deal of your time thrashing and it’s also Kendrick’s best song. The anthem of a smart, sensitive person of color who is aware of his very dire circumstances, who struggles for his soul in the face of a stark reality that drives him to any number of easy hedonistic escapes, but he resists them all and finds salvation by clinging to solidarity with his fellow humans, he chooses hope.

That song defined that moment for me and many others, and may very well end up defining this late era of liberal despair, to hope against hope with annihilation just ahead. The central message of the song, its main assertion and its optimism, is also a lie. A sad, beautiful lie. But when people who believe in dignity for all people; when curious, compassionate people who find themselves increasingly in the minority of a red continental sea of voices misdirecting their anger and fear, embracing hatred and the divide needed a rallying cry, they found it in Kendrick’s song, in Kendrick’s message. Their shining hero on a hill, a last bastion of thoughtful, tolerant, humanist civilization with a heart big enough to unite us all.

So why shouldn’t he be where he is? Ultimately how can anyone find fault with celebrating intelligence, passion and artistry? Fuck it. Vegans gotta eat too, right?

ROD: Kendrick Lamar- No Country for Good Kids


    1. U? (Interlude) (To Pimp A Butterfly 2015)
    2. Cartoons & Cereal (ft. Gunplay) (2012)
    3. Poe Man’s Dreams (Section.80 2011)
    4. Funkmaster Flex Who Shot Ya Freestyle (2012)
    5. The Art of Peer Pressure (Good Kid M.A.A.D. City 2012)
    6. untitled 07 2014-2016 (untitled unmastered 2016)
    7. XXX (DAMN. 2017)
    8. Wow Freestyle (ft. Jay Rock) (Redemption 2018)
    9. These Walls (Interlude) (To Pimp a Butterfly 2015)
    10. Pray for Me (ft. The Weeknd) (Black Panther Soundtrack 2018)
    11. The Spiteful Chant (ft. Schoolboy Q) (Section.80 2011)
    12. New Freezer (ft. Rich The Kid) (The World is Yours 2018)
    13. Funkmaster Flex Keep It Thoro Freestyle (2013)
    14. M.A.A.D. City (Good Kid M.A.A.D. City 2012)
    15. Nosetalgia (Dopeman) (ft. Pusha T) (Remix) (The DAMN. Chronic 2018)
    16. DNA. (DAMN. 2017)
    17. For Free? (Interlude) (To Pimp a Butterfly 2015)
    18. Backseat Freestyle (Good Kid M.A.A.D. City 2012)
    19. A.D.H.D. (Section.80 2011)
    20. GOD. (DAMN. 2017)
    21. ILLuminate (ft. Ab-Soul) (Control System 2012)
    22. Alright (To Pimp a Butterfly 2015)

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