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 may be, 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.
All of these credentials are certainly impressive. The biggest reason why I’ve personally placed Kendrick on my Top 5 however, and why I strongly feel that you should consider his candidacy, is how important his music is amidst the backdrop of a non-post racial society. It’s one thing to make an uplifting song or two, but Kendrick Lamar has now carefully crafted 3 fantastic albums thematically rooted in a strong pro-Black, pro-community stance. He does not shy away from being a voice of positivity and hope for those mired in tough, urban environments. He embraces the role and thus far has delivered again and again. Tracks like “Fuck Your Ethnicity” from Section .80 and “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” from To Pimp A Butterfly directly tackle race issues, with the former calling for racial unity while the latter promotes the beauty in all shades of Blackness. Given rising racial tensions in a country where young black males are are jailed at higher rates for like crimes than their counterparts and killed by cops (though often unarmed) in what’s ultimately ruled a justifiable homicide, Kendrick’s efforts in tackling these issues are welcomed, applauded, and necessary. His music can foster both self-reflection and discourse. He’s not only a great artist, he’s an important one. To me, that matters in the all time debate.
Religion is a prevalent theme across both good kid, m.A.A.d city and To Pimp A Butterfly. Kendrick’s dad’s counsel at the end of “Real”, when he tells his son that killing others doesn’t make one a man before proclaiming “real is God! Ni**a!” stands out as one of the more powerful moments on good kid, m.A.A.d city. It speaks to Kendrick’s willingness to incorporate religious undertones in his music.
Listening to Kendrick struggle with the temptress that is “Lucy” throughout his latest release, but most notably on “For Sale?” is nothing short of amazing. “Lucy” is in fact a personification of Lucifer, as throughout the song “Lucy” is persistent in her offers of fame and fortune to Kendrick provided he signs a contract. Alluding to said persistence, Kendrick raps, “Lucy don’t slack a minute, Lucy work harder. Lucy gon’ call you even when Lucy know you love your Father.” Lucifer knows you love your Father, i.e. The Lord, and because of that she’ll tempt you more. Brilliant. On top of preaching pro-Black narratives and promoting community among all peoples, Kendrick often warns his listeners against the perils of drugs, alcohol, gang violence, and even Satan, or a lack of Faith if you will.
It’s not that he doesn’t appreciate the finer things in life, as evidenced by his verse on label-mate Schoolboy Q’s “Collard Greens“, he just refuses to fall into the pitfalls of celebrity and fortune. He prides himself in staying grounded and conveys these themes in his music for his audience to not just enjoy, but to learn from as well. In a day and age where “money, hoes, and clothes” content has hit an all-time high as far as radio play and mainstream popularity, Kendrick stands as the leader of a new age Conscious Hip Hop movement. He’s not alone. J. Cole and Macklemore make similarly mindful music. With To Pimp A Butterfly however, Kendrick has further separated himself from the pack. He’s the face of this movement and that’s to the movement’s benefit, as well the consumers’.
I’ll concede that anything can happen, nobody can predict the future. That said however, Kendrick appears intent on continuing to provide message driven music. To some degree on his albums, but more so on the mixtape and feature front, Kendrick has proven that he can adapt to different musical styles and content. For example, his “turn-up” track from good kid, m.A.A.d city, “Swimming Pools” landed at #1 on the charts and went platinum. There’s no reason to think he won’t pull that off again. That Kendrick knew this going into recording his second album and delivered To Pimp A Butterfly suggests that he’ll continue delivering what we love: strong, positive, concept albums powered by phenomenal production, great writing and fantastic lyricism. Classics.
And that brings us to our Top 5. We’ll keep it to single emcees as opposed to duos or groups, for simplicity’s sake. Adding groups to this exercises introduces Run DMC, N.W.A., Public Enemy, Bone Thugs & Harmony, Outkast, The Wu-Tang Clan and countless others that would complicate matters a ton, though I implore you to check our Rap Madness feature from a few years ago to illustrate how fun and maddeningly difficult ranking Rap’s all-timers can be. Lastly, we’ll go with “overall” Top 5 to encapsulate an emcee’s full set of skills and weaknesses. In other words, my Top 5 lyricists list would be different than my Top 5 most impactul list. Redman for example is among my Top 5 lyricists, but not most impactful. So we’re going with overall credentials as opposed to a specialized set of skills or accomplishments. Lastly, the only reason Dr. Dre doesn’t make theses lists is because he’s groundbreaking as a producer (greatest ever by far in my book), but not so much as an emcee. He’s no slouch on the mic, but from a lyrics standpoint his albums are collaborative efforts and thus he doesn’t quite fit into these emcee based lists.
That said my Top 5, in no particular order: Tupac, Jay-Z, Biggie, Nas, and Kendrick Lamar.
Tupac, though not the lyricist that the other four are, is second only to Eminem in records sold (despite an early death) and was the central figure in the East Coast vs. West Coast feud that forever altered Hip Hop’s landscape. He gets even more points for the pro-Black, pro-community, self-empowerment, and revolutionary overtones in much of his music. Sound familiar? Despite a fall-off on overall quality of rhymes and albums during the latter stages of Jay-Z’s career (thus far), as we previously mentioned he’s arguably made four classics. He has more hits than I can even remember and at his peak he was a Top 10 (at worst) lyricist as well. He’s also a 59 time Grammy nominee, netting 21 victories. That’s gotta count for something, no?
Though Biggie’s career was cut tragically short after just his second album, he has no shortage of hit records. He’s perhaps the most universally beloved figure in Rap history and both of his albums were classics. In fact, given that Life After Death is a double disc, it’s almost like he has 3 classic records. And I’ve yet to meet even a mild Hip Hop fan that can’t rap along to Biggie’s rhymes. Everybody knows Biggie lyrics! It’s great to observe and that gives him an edge over several others in my book.
Nas arguably makes this list on Illmatic alone. It was the album that drove the likes of Biggie and Jay-Z to excellence and taking nothing away from DJ Premier and Q-Tip’s legendary production on that album, it was Nas’ lyricism and story-telling that drove it. He set the bar so high for himself that several of his very good follow-up albums were received negatively at the time because they didn’t live up to Illmatic. Truth be told however, save for a few missteps along the way, most of them were pretty damn good. He may not have a sure-fire second classic, but Life Is Good, Stillmatic, God’s Son, and It Was Written are all fantastic listens, with Stillmatic coming damn close to classic status.
Rounding out my Top 5, Kendrick Lamar. He’s already in. It’s hard leaving out the likes of Ice Cube, Eminem, Rakim, and KRS-One but again you have to draw the line somewhere. Kendrick is a gifted artist and a phenomenal emcee. Reading his lyrics on screen truly reveals the depth of his writing skills. Listening to all three of his albums throughout, from beginning to end, exhibits how thoroughly and cinematically he conceptualizes his records. He’s not interested in delivering a collection of singles and album fillers. He’s got something to say and he’s making movies with Rap music to share it with us. Vocally he masterfully utilizes different inflections, pronunciations, and cadences, often layering his voice in different ways for emphasis or to bring a particular vibe to a track. He’s two classics in and also has a third very strong album under his belt, along with a verse that shook Hip Hop. Most importantly, his music is often positive and uplifting.
That said, anything can happen. Kendrick may fall off and some other emcees may dazzle. The Top 5 can certainly change. Today however, Kendrick Lamar is already one of the five greatest emcees Hip Hop has ever known. To deny his genius just because he’s a young cat would be like telling me you wouldn’t consider 1989 Michael Jordan an all-timer because he was only 26 at the time. Tomfoolery. Kendrick’s in the Top 5 because he deserves to be. Why can’t he one day be the G.O.A.T.?