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Raise the Bar: Unpacking Kendrick Lamar & J. Cole's "Black Friday" Singles

We explain what Jermaine and Kendrick's recent releases tell us about both artists.
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By now we've all had time to sit down with the simultaneous release of J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar's "Black Friday" records.

Featuring the MCs trading beats from their respective albums, much has been said and written about the tracks in the days since. While the debate over which rapper is better will continue regardless, that's a debate that would miss the more important point as both Lamar's take on "A Tales of 2 Citiez" and Cole's take on "Alright" come packed with intricacies that show where both artists are at this point in their career and where they're headed. 

The two tracks also speak volumes about the year that each has had. Cole's verses over "Alright" are open, free, autobiographical. He uses his experiences to explain situations, often speaking from within: "Got a middle finger for Uncle Sam / I done paid so much taxes I can fund Japan / But instead they make a young n***a fund the man." These words derive from the past 11 months, which have seen Cole open himself up to the world both in his music and outside of it, both selling out Madison Square Garden and previewing early listens of 2014 Forest Hills Drive at fan's homes. 

In contrast Kendrick's take on "A Tale of 2 Citiez" is packed to the brim with careful wordplay that itself speaks to the kind of inclusive 2015 he's experienced. Rhyming, "You see my oath is very unbreakable, my style is never mistakable / I can see y’all incapable / To be the God emcees, you know me well" and, "I'm sorry you're not relatin, this party is reservated (reservation?)" it's easy to picture Lamar alone atop the throne, allowing only those who understand the message the right to bear witness. In a year when To Pimp A Butterfly has become one of the most polarizing releases for its heavy subject matter and assertiveness, his rhymes here underscore his cocoon of influence.

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Both artists have become a perceived 'man of the people' through their efforts, but in markedly different ways. Where Cole has opened up and become more approachable in gaining that title, Lamar has had the same cultural impact by becoming more remote and leaving a trail of bread crumbs for us to follow.

This type of attitude shows through in how both approached their respective songs. Cole offers up somewhat typified, yet tightly-wound bars that do little beyond being clever couplets, "Spit different flows hit different chicks/Let my Brixton hoes feed me fish and chips/Why I do a lot of shows? I’m the shit, that’s it." While it's not all light-hearted rhyming, it speaks to Cole's view of rap as more of a recreational activity, seriousness balanced with moments of humor. Lamar, on the other hand, appears to hardly catch a breath as he touches on everything from Donald Trump's campaign to the recent exclusion of Tupac on Billboard's '10 Best Rappers' list, all while packing it into a larger narrative he's been writing since Over(ly) Dedicated.

"And I won’t mention my ten thousand hours in training / While juggling gang-banging, my balancing was tremendous / And now we look at the competition as quick submission / They tappin’ out before we even get a chance to miss ‘em / What this about, is it money or skill? / Maybe it’s both and I got large amounts of it, it’s real" 

So forget who did it better, if only for today let's just recognize how cool it is to see these two particular artists take a moment to go head-to-head, converging two of the more interesting and inspiring storylines in hip-hop today for at least one brief moment. While Cole insists there is no joint project coming, they had to know releasing these songs side-by-side would only stoke the feverish interest for such a project.

For now at least, we'll have to make due with these Black Friday deals.

[By Jake Krez, who thinks Kendrick killed it. You can follow him on Twitter. Image via Instagram.]



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