Is Kendrick Lamar Still The Greatest Rapper Alive?
Update, 11/19: Last week, on 11/15, Kendrick performed "I" on Saturday Night Live. His performance was energetic and creative, had some big variations from the studio version, and the live instrumentation brought out the soulful nature of the track. Critics praised his performance, further turning the conversation around "I" in a positive direction. Watch Kendrick's performance below.
Kendrick Lamar Performs "I" on Saturday Night Live
Kendrick's "I" is, actually, quite good.
Following it's release in late September, Kendrick Lamar's new single "I" received some very negative feedback from the hip-hop community. Many of Lamar's long time fans felt that the track did not fit in to his sonic legacy very neatly, and especially compared to the universal acclaim for his major label debut "Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City," there was a general notion among rap nerds that Kendrick had dropped the ball. However, with the release of a video treatment for the song, those mutterings have quickly died off. Kendrick's video for "I" illuminates the depth and intentions of the track, delivers some top notch Lamar quality storytelling that hints at a larger narrative, and places the song in a whole new light. "I" is, actually, quite good. Catch the video below if you have not, and read on to learn more about this video and track's meaning, and the role "I" plays in the crafting of Kendrick Lamar's legacy.
Music Video for Kendrick Lamar's "I"
Is Kendrick Lamar falling off?
Well, no. Before I convince you of the merits of Kendrick's newest work, and that he is not falling off in the slightest (spoilers), indulging my rap nerd nature for a moment and looking back at K.dot's career will illustrate why the track is so important to his larger legacy.
As a long time hip-hop nerd and blog reading addict, I noticed that as early as 2009's "The Kendrick Lamar EP," hard core underground rap fans knew this kid was something special. 2010s "Overly Dedicated" cemented Kendrick's status as an up and comer to watch, and proved the Compton MC had a lot to say and the skills to say it. As a whole, his early mix-tape style work was exciting and fresh on a fizzling West Coast scene. Never the less, the same hard core underground fans who worshiped Kendrick's ability to rock a mic worried that something would be lost when he put out his first album, that K.dot would fall off before he really got started, and fall victim to the pressures that turn many promising mix-tape artists in to mediocre album rappers.
2011's "Section.80" proved these doubts foolish in a big way. Lamar's first full length independent album elevated everything that those hardcore underground rap fans had loved about him from the start. In "Section.80" Kendrick gives us a narrative at once complex and relateable; a portrait of the struggles around him in a decaying post "Ronald Regan Era" Compton. The album presents itself as a well crafted book more than anything else, with each track an intimate look at a character or issue important to Kendrick and his time and place in the world.
And even as "Section.80" proved beyond question that Lamar was a formidable artist and force to be reckoned with, hip-hop heads started worrying afresh. Kendrick and his "Top Dawg Entertainment" crew were receiving the recognition they deserved in late 2011 and early 2012, with Kendrick on the cover of XXL's Freshmen List and his posse gaining an important fan and co-sign from West Coast OG Dr. Dre. But core fans fretted that Lamar's Major Label debut would be without the charm and authenticity of his independent efforts, and feared their Golden Boy would sell out even as he gave very little evidence of ever coming close to doing so.
Of course, the rest is history: "Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City" dropped in late 2012 to near universal acclaim, cementing Kendrick's status as an elite MC among the greatest of his generation and changing the landscape of hip-hop in his wake. I won't go in to depth about that album's many merits, as it has been so widely praised already, but will note an important trend throughout Kendrick's career leading up to "Good Kid," which has predictably followed him in to stardom. Even as he has continually delivered quality material, Kendrick's fans have always worried that his next project will disappoint. "Is Kendrick falling off?" has been asked more often than the better, truer question, which I think is just as applicable to every stage of K.dot's rise: Is Kendrick Lamar, some how, some way, getting even better?
"HiiiPower," a standout track from Lamar's pre "Good Kid" debut, the independently released "Section.80"
"I Love Myself!" Is Not Pop.
When Kendrick released the single "I," the track came out of nowhere. We knew Kendrick was working on big things but had no idea when we might hear them. "I" was under a huge amount of pressure to deliver: as the first official single since 2012's modern classic "Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City," audiences expected a lot.
There were a few points specifically that critics took issue with. First, the track didn't sound much like Kendrick Lamar sonicaly. Yes the beat was interesting and somewhat organic, but Kendrick's voice was distorted through the track, and the mix itself didn't sound much like TDE's usual well crafted track. Second, the track's "I Love Myself!" chorus was seen as simplistic and "poppy," like, god forbid, Kendrick had sold out or gone mainstream. Finally, and this wasn't brought up specifically by critics but rather underlies most everyone's critique, the track didn't sound anything like "Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City." Lamar had an award winning formula and sound on "GKMC," and there was fear in his fan's eyes that Kendrick had abandoned the things that had made his earlier work so impactful.
Kendrick's sound is constantly evolving. Does this early cut sound like GKMC?
To be blunt, the first and third line of critiscism surprise me, as they are so obviously problematic when considering Kendrick's career. Of course "I" doesn't sound like old Kendrick Lamar: new Kendrick NEVER sounds like old Kendrick. While there have been sonic themes throughout his work, there is enough about this track to make it instantly recognizeable as a Lamar cut: he has often played with voice modulation (see his verse in A$AP's "F****** Problems," or the masterful "M.A.A.D. City" from GKMC) and has often rapped over unique mixes that make track's sound different than you'd expect (see the almost bassless "Rigormotous" from "Section.80"). And of course "I" doesn't sound like "GKMC:" Kendrick has said repeatedly that his home run of a mainstream debut would always stand on it's own and that as a concept he would be moving past "Good Kid" in the future. No, "I" does not sound like GKMC or old Kendrick, but it isn't so alien either, and the fact that it is different shouldn't be seen as a negative to anyone who has followed Kendrick's constantly evolving style.
The second point though takes a bit more work to dismiss. "I" admittedly may sound "poppy" on a first listen, but if we have learned anything from songs like "Backseat Freestyle," it is that Kendrick's singles ALWAYS deserve a rewind. And the idea that a "poppy sound" automatically dismisses any message that "I" may hold is ridiculous. Even before we got a chance to hear "I" Kendrick released cover art for the track which made it explicitly clear that the cut had meaning. The cover art in question is simple but unavoidably provocative: two sets of cracked and rugged hands, one belonging to a man draped in red and another to a man draped in blue, are coming together while forming heart shapes. Whether or not you call this track "poppy," it is clear it is not empty.
And a closer listen brings the "poppy" designation in to question as well. The repeating chorus of "I Love Myself" IS unabashedly positive, but that does not make it poppy per say. That hip-hop heads hear a happy chorus and immediately question whether or not the track it is attached to is even hip-hop at all says more about the state of the genre and art form then it does about Kendrick's credentials. Yes "I Love Myself!" is happy, but it emits positivity in an authentic and genuine way true to Kendrick's penchant for delivering work close to his heart. "I" is not "pop" or even "poppy" unless being happy makes a song Pop by default.
"I" is Classic Kendrick Lamar, and Here is Why
On a lyrical level, there is a lot more to Kendrick's new track then first meets the eye (no pun intended). Starting at that chorus that has annoyed so many: the exuberant "I Love Myself!" is followed by some important contextual lines. Kendrick states: "The world is a ghetto, with guns and picket signs" (I love myself!) "But it can do what it want whenever it wants, I don't mind" (I love myself!) "He said I gotta get up, life is more than suicide" (I love myself!) "One day at a time, sun gon' shine." The positivity of the chorus is explicit, and important. The fact that Kendrick takes pride in who he is, and loves himself so unabashedly despite the trials in the world around him and the struggles which threaten to consume him as an individual and his community as a whole, is fairly revolutionary. I have to think pretty far back to find another hip-hop track so unashamedly positive, and the juxtaposition of the bleak world Kendrick describes with his affirmation of self makes that positivity mean something unique and important.
As for the track's video: there is so much here that is great, it is almost a fool's errand to pick apart the positives. First, the absolute happyness of "I" is impossible to construe as corny or empty when you see the authenticity on Kendrick's face throughout the cut. He is so genuine and devoted to the the track, and his positivity is clearly, visceraly real. The imagery of the world Kendrick describes is perfectly displayed as well, with some of the unsavory things Kendrick raps about on full display throughout the video. Alcohol, violence, poverty, and depression flash by as Kendrick raps poetic about the things he sees.
Most impressive about the video representation of "I," and most important to the track's meaning, is the deep and nuanced portrait painted of the people who inhabit Kendrick's world. We see drinking, but the person holding a bagged can has a real face covered in real humanity, painted with pain and depth. A man is shown through a window on the verge of taking his own life, but is far from cartoonish or stereotypical, instead displaying raw emotion as the camera pans over his plight. Kendrick himself displays some acting chops as he reacts to an arrest he witnesses while travelling his city, showing an introspective and mournful expression.
Kendrick Talks About Who "I" is For
The people in Kendrick's "I" are real and deep and varied, but they aren't hopeless. As he dances through the dark night world, displaying some rare and unique moves, Kendrick gathers a crowd behind him, as characters in the video leave their pains behind for a moment and join Kendrick in a parade of positivity. His love for himself serves as a beacon of good to all who need a pinch of happyness in his dark world; Kendrick becomes a role model as he displays a genuine love for the world and who he is, despite depression and struggle. In a recent interview, Kendrick said that "I" was for people in penetentaries and fans he had seen with self abuse problems, and this intention is clear and inspiring throughout the track's video. "I" is exactly what Kendrick wants it to be: an anthem of self acceptance for those living in crushing circumstances, who can at times find it impossible to echo Kendrick's ubiquitous "I Love Myself," but whom Kendrick hopes will aspire to the slogan anyhow.
Prediction: Kendrick Lamar's New Album Will Not Dissapoint
While a close look proves "I" is interesting and important and well crafted as a stand alone piece, it's quality alone isn't all that should get Kendrick fans excited about his new album. There is a depth of self reflection in the last section of "I" that hints at some larger themes likely to be present in Kendrick's upcoming release. My bet? Kendrick's untitled forthcoming work will dive into the human pysche a lot more explicitly and deeply than GKMC, and will make a deeper and more poignant commentary about the circumstances Kendrick battled as a teenager. His upcoming album will be a more complex and adult release, more interested in people and psychology than GKMC's obsessive focus on narration. Over all, there is enough originality and quality in "I" to answer definitively that Kendrick has not fallen off, will release another quality album, and has a lot more stories to tell and a lot more to say.
If you are a Kendrick Lamar fan and are still worried about the direction "I" points in for Kendrick's new project, think back to the first time you heard "Swimming Pools" or "Backseat Freestyle." On first listen, both seem to be a sharp and devolved step away from Section.80's brilliance, but both proved to be interesting and well crafted tracks on further listens, and in the context of "Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City." When "Swimming Pools" came out, Lamar fans cried foul, claiming he had sold out. Of course, GKMC defied these worries, as Kendrick has consistently done every time someone has claimed Kendrick has "fallen off." Lamar's legacy is being crafted with every move he makes on his meteoric rise to elite status, but overall we have seen enough of Kendrick already to know that his work will stand the test of time, and his legacy will be one of poetics and expression. Lamar consistently produces innovative and quality projects, and I predict his upcoming album will not disappoint.