Last week, Kendrick Lamar released To Pimp A Butterfly, the highly anticipated follow-up to his 2012 Grammy nominated and certified classic major label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city. The album debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts and was universally well received by critics, fellow artists, and pretty much anyone I’ve spoken to about it. The worst things I’ve heard so far have been, to paraphrase, “it’s great, but it’s not the instant classic like good kid, m.A.A.d city was and “I think it’s good, but Kendrick didn’t go hard enough, it’s too jazzy.” That’s it. Not yet a classic to some, and a little too smooth and mellow musically to others. I loved To Pimp A Butterfly. I also loved good kid, m.A.A.d city.
Taking nothing away from any of the big albums from the last few years (Yeezus, Nothing Was The Same, My Name Is My Name, and My Krazy Life to name a few), Kendrick’s first two major label releases are the only two I would actually consider to be classic records. I’m also a big fan of his pre-Aftermath Records release, 2011’s Section .80. I typically like him on features. His presence on tracks makes them a better overall listen, and often he steals the show, most notably on his now infamous “Control” verse, which we’ll get back to in a bit.
His discography includes a sizable mixtape catalog of which I’ve heard a few tracks, but admittedly not all of them. I mention that in the interest of fairness for my next few statements. I haven’t heard all of his music, but I’ve certainly heard quite a bit. With the understanding that there may be songs with which I’m not familiar and therefore may not necessarily fall in line with I’m about to say, thus far I’ve yet to come across a Kendrick Lamar track, whether it’s his own or one he’s featured on, that has been a dud. In fact, at worst everything I’ve heard has been better than average. He’s consistently solid, often outstanding, and every once in a while, transcendent.
He’s an exceptional emcee. Not just a true artist, but one of the best of his time. In fact, as controversial as this may come across initially, he’s in my Top 5. You may think to self, “of course he’s Top 5 of this generation, up there with Drake, Nicki Minaj, and a few others.” But that’s not what I’m saying. Kendrick Lamar is already Top 5 all time. I can already hear the clamor from the Biggie, Jay-Z, and LL Cool J camps. I know Nas, ‘Pac , and Scarface enthusiasts are likely taken aback by this sentiment and there’s a 40 year old out there thinking I don’t know the first thing about Kool Moe Dee and Big Daddy Kane. But whether Andre 3000, Talib Kweli, Lil’ Wayne, or Slick Rick are your favorite emcees, can you really deny Kendrick’s brilliance?
With all due respect to all of these great emcees, how many of them have two classic albums? Discussing classic records, just like discussing Top 5s is a largely subjective, often frustrating exercise. I recognize that. Everyone’s criteria for a classic album is different. Some use the term too freely, deeming pretty much any album from the mid-90s a classic. Mobb Deep’s The Infamous for example is from this time-frame and is a great album, but not quite a classic in my book. Is it really on the same plane as Illmatic, The Chronic, and Ready To Die? Again, that’s not to dis the album or Mobb Deep. I’m a fan of the record and have nothing but the utmost respect for Prodigy and Havoc, but you have to draw the line somewhere.
Some people are such huge fans of certain artists that they deem any solid record said artist drops a classic. Jay-Z and Kanye West fans come to mind and truth be told there’s a lot of classic material among the two. Jay-Z arguably has four, with Reasonable Doubt, and Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life being my definite entries and both The Black Album and The Blueprint receiving strong consideration. The other two Blueprint or Hard Knock Life projects? Not classics. Magna Carta Holy Grail? Not a classic either. Kanye? I’ll give him College Dropout and Graduation. I take a lot of heat for saying that Graduation is Kanye’s best album, but pop it in, let it play in its entirety, then tell me how you feel about it. Yeezus and 808s and Heartbreaks though? Not classics. Jay and Ye’s collaborative record, Watch The Throne? No way.
Others focus on strictly record sales or cultural impact when considering classic records. By that logic (or lack thereof) any Eminem and/or Tupac album is deemed a classic. I’d argue that between the two artists’ vast bodies of work, there are two classics minimum, four tops. Me Against The World and The Marshall Mathers LP are the definite entries. All Eyez On Me and The Slim Shady LP are damn close on some days and actually classics on others, depending on how stringently I’m setting my criteria.
So yes, admittedly I even struggle with my own all time rankings, further emphasizing the point that this is not an exact science. Even if you’re not too strict on your own classic ranking criteria however, the list of emcees or groups with 2+ classics (or one undisputed classic along with other great albums that may be classics) isn’t too long. We’re talking Dr. Dre, Biggie, Eminem, Jay-Z, Tupac, Outkast, Run DMC, The Beastie Boys, Nas, Kanye West, and LL Cool J. And Kendrick Lamar.
Think about that. Read that list back. That’s the company that K. Dot has put himself in with To Pimp A Butterfly.
He’s amongst the all time greats. There are so many attributes that make him today’s premier emcee, and one of Hip Hop’s standout artists. For one thing, he’s very versatile. Conscious songs are one of his stronger points. Throughout his career he’s put out thought-provoking, inspiring music, with a strong pro-Black focus. A track like “Black Boy Fly” from good kid, m.A.A.d city where Kendrick raps about different avenues out of poverty, citing childhood examples from his hometown of Compton along with his own experiences, showcases his ability to put together an empowering, uplifting track that’s rooted in truth. “HiiiPoWeR” from Section .80 is a prime example of Kendrick waxing political from an intelligent, young, Black male perspective, highlighted by lyrics such as:
Who said a black man in Illuminati?
Last time I checked that was the biggest racist party
Last time I checked, we was racing with Marcus Garvey
on the freeway to Africa till I wreck my Audi
And I want everybody to view my autopsy
So you can see exactly where the government had shot me
No conspiracy, my fate is inevitable
They play musical chairs once I’m on that pedestal
Conscious Rap isn’t the only lane Kendrick can navigate however. With “Poetic Justice” he showed us he can rap for the ladies. On “Backseat Freestyle” he gets super-lyrical. For another great example of K. Dot displaying his dexterity as a lyricist along with a fantastic ability to transform his style to best fit the track he’s been asked to feature, check out “Love Game” from Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP 2. He pretty much morphs into his own version of Slim Shady and delivers an extraordinary, witty, lyrically potent performance that complements Eminem’s subject matter and delivery perfectly. On “m.A.A.d City”, he joined forces with West Coast legend MC Eight for an organic sounding 90s feel gangsta rap track. And of course, on his “Control” verse, he showed us that he can literally shake up the entire game with what ultimately amounted to a pre-preemptive battle rap. It’s worth noting that not one of the multitude of replies to his warning shots were anywhere near as impactful as his one verse. Score another win for Kendrick. On top of all that, the guy’s pretty good at freestyling too. And don’t get it twisted; we mean actual, off the top of the head, unprepared freestyles, not the scripted verses that are too often presented as a true freestyle. He’s got that covered too.
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