I’ve been listening to Kendrick Lamar for almost three years now… and I still don’t get it. His rise from Cali underground rap gem to guest star in a SNL Lonely Island music video continues to astonish and impress me. Who gets away with turning a song that denounces the ills of alcohol into a club anthem?! It’s absurd to the point of being hilarious. However, after a few hours of listening through my Kendrick discography, I think I’ve finally stumbled on a few answers. Below are three reasons why Kendrick has managed to create and maintain such widespread appeal, and fundamentally changed some of the rules of hip-hop:
1. Emotional Vulnerability
Kendrick is one of the few rappers who exposes his character in a way that is both authentic and disarming. His most recent album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, probably best exemplifies his ability to express his desires, fears, and frustrations with his upbringing and where his music has brought him. It’s a very wide emotional spectrum that captures everything from desperation in “m.A.A.d city” to the self doubt that plagues “Sing About Me.” Yes, there are other rappers who are also known for being emotionally vulnerable (i.e. Drake and J. Cole). However, Drake’s music emotionally wavers between the diametric opposites of either love that has been won or lost. Not much else. The emotions that Kendrick delivers through his music are couched in a wide variety of experiences that he uses vivid storytelling to describe. His song “H.O.C.” from Overly Dedicated describes reasons why he avoids smoking weed, while “Cut You Off” describes three situations with people whose negative energy distracts him from achieving his potential. It’s all artfully done, without being preachy, and it resonates with a much larger group of people.
2. His Voice Is An Instrument
This kid’s flow is so ridiculous, it’s almost disrespectful. Sometimes I think I’m hearing Bone Thugs triplets, Curren$y’s nonchalant delivery, or Q-Tip’s high pitch voice, and yet Kendrick still sounds like no one else in hip-hop. As if that isn’t enough, he often makes the decision to sing hooks or bridges in ways that are odd, yet infectious. The first time I heard “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” I was puzzled by the nasally space-age sounding hook. However, it works so well with both the intent and the delivery of a song that describes the desire to be detached from the noise of other people’s opinions and agendas. I cited “m.A.A.d city” earlier for its lyrics, but another reason why I think it’s amazing is because of the anxiety and desperation in Kendrick’s voice. He sounds fraught with fear, and the delivery of his warnings reveals a cautionary tale of avoiding colors and behaviors that could guarantee your demise. In the age of popular ad libs that announce a rapper’s familiar flow (TRUE), it’s refreshing to hear someone who will literally flip the script on every song with a unique flow and delivery.
3. Avoids The Pitfalls Of Labels
Many rappers who could be described as “socially conscious” like Kendrick, don’t break into the mainstream from a crippling fear of compromising or tainting the brand that they’ve created for themselves. Kendrick’s ascension has occurred because he’s consistently grounded himself simply in being a good kid from Compton who can run laps around a beat. That’s it. Despite the “HiiiPowers” and the “Vanity Slaves,” Kendrick refuses to confine himself to these types of songs. His braggadocio ebbs and flows as he moves from feature to feature, yet he remains authentic, and there are fewer “psssh yeah ok, son” moments with Kendrick than you’ll find with a rapper like Drake (see guilty pleasure: “Stay Scheming”). As a result, you’ll find Kendrick’s discography sprinkled with collaborations with Jeezy, Talib, Smoke DZA, Ace Hood, and a variety of other rappers who occupy every niche in hip-hop from coke rap to inspirational anthems.
At the end of the day, regardless of his legacy, Kendrick has sent ripples through hip-hop by redefining the formula for what it takes to “make it.” He’s a rare example of how potent lyricism and authenticity can still change the tide of hip-hop, even in a market that has been dominated by machismo and inflated characters. Here’s hoping that it continues…ya bish.