[Welcome to the 2015 edition of the Best of the Booth Awards, DJBooth's annual selection of the best music of the year. For a more detailed explanation and a full list of all the categories and winners, click here.]
I wrote an article when To Pimp A Butterfly was first released, it was a piece inspired by a gut reaction, an unshakeable feeling that it wouldn’t be received like Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. I knew that people would hate it. Kendrick dared to be different than the artist he was three years prior, he dared to challenge listeners with a soundscape that wasn’t rooted in the familiar. I witnessed every possible opinion on the album in the nine months since it entered our lives, I watched as it became the center of hip-hop, discussed and dissected by journalists and fans. The year is ending and Kendrick is being honored and praised by every publication far and wide, topping almost every year end list, we even recently acknowledged the impressive body of work as the best album of the year. Maybe my gut was wrong, that daring to be different is what awarded him the admiration and accolades. While the influence of multiple genres outside of hip-hop strongly affected the album’s sound, what can’t be denied is that Kendrick really proved himself as an artist and emcee. From the subjects to his style, every time he rapped this year has been a memorable moment, which is why we are crowning King Kendrick the best emcee of 2015.
From front to back, TPAB is an album with purpose, its mission isn’t to dazzle listeners with jaw leaning punchlines or a barrage of bars that are so impressive Big L comes back to life just to tip his hat. Kendrick is capable of being that artist, revisit “Rigamortus” if you need a reminder of the kind of lyrical miracle monster he can be. That skill set wasn’t necessary for this album. What makes TPAB so compelling is how Kendrick is able to immerse listeners in his psyche, he takes us into the very depths of his thoughts with imagery that brings everything to life. “U” is still one of the most bone chilling records that I’ve heard all year, every word punctures the heart, Kendrick puts us in that hotel directly across from him, you feel every word as if you are watching the actions play out. It’s the tone of a man on the verge of insanity that leaves you in a state of awe. After plunging into the depths of depression, on the very next song on the album he is able to find solace in hope, the belief he discovers is channeled into “Alright,” the triumphant that doesn’t signify today’s victory but in a distance future. That hope is the reason why his lyrics have been sung during protests, he captured the very essence of hope and it touches everyone who hears it.
Dichotomy is the blood that pumps into TPAB’s heart. The same way Kendrick explores depression and elation, the album fluctuates from multiple perspectives. For example, “i” is a confession of self-love while the controversial “Blacker The Berry” is a pure, emotionally driven look into self-hatred. Kendrick is constantly examining both sides of the coin. “For Free?” and “For Sell” is a really interesting concept. Another example is how Jesus and Lucifer (as Lucy) both appear on the album, one offering Kendrick anything he could imagine, while the other is a homeless man asking for change. The characters that play in the background add a level of complexity to an album that is rather straightforward and simple. The poem that is recited throughout is a small detail that creates a link to the songs, as a writer it’s impressive how everything comes together in the end. Interviewing Tupac was a shocking moment that holds your attention on the first listen, even for those that have heard the audio clip before, hearing the conversation between Pac and Kendrick was unlike anything I experienced all year. The superb storytelling and execution put Kendrick into a class of his own.
It was how Kendrick carried himself after the album is what showed that his artistry isn’t confined to the conventional idea of album creation. One way that he was able to keep us talking is how he expanded the music into his music videos and television performances. When he went on SNL last November, he didn’t just perform the “i” that you could buy on iTunes. He introduced a new intro, interludes, and an added verse that was delivered with such passion and reverie you had to watch it more than once. It wasn’t until the album’s release that you realized the verse that was included at the end was from “Momma.” During the B.E.T awards, he performed “Alright” and once again diverted from the original, adding a new, lively verse that gave the song new life. It was later discovered that the verse came from Kendrick’s “Deep Water,” his feature on Dr. Dre’s Compton. He not only added snippets from unreleased songs, there’s been two instances where Kendrick completely delivers new music for special occasions. The “Alright” music video is incredible but the moment that truly stirred the internet is an “Untitled” unreleased freestyle that Kendrick gives while sitting in the driver's seat of a police car, the frenzy he created is nothing compared to the unreleased song that was premiered on Stephen Colbert’s Colbert Report. An entire song that features Thundercat, Bilal, Anna Wise and Terrace Martin was performed, a song that Kendrick wrote just a day prior to the show, it doesn’t exist in recorded form. Kendrick understands creating moments, he isn’t married to the final mix, he seeks to deliver a memorable experience, even after all the recording is done.
While most of the year showcased his ability as a writer and performer, Kendrick wasn’t above stepping back and reminding listeners that he is capable of mercilessly beheading beats. Dr. Dre’s Compton has three new verses from Kendrick, one being “Deep Water,” a true onslaught that was an immediate standout. His flow is like water combined with a style that’s like a defensive line blitzing a quarterback – swift, powerful, intimidating, such a small man that raps like a juggernaut. Jay Rock’s album was another chance for Kendrick to step away from the conceptual zone and just flex his muscle as a rapper. He doesn’t have a full verse on “Easy Bake” but hearing him and Rock going back in forth is one of the many highlights of 90059. Of course, Black Hippy's “Vice City” was one of the biggest moments that happened in the later part of the year. One, the flow that the group introduced is insane, everyone executes, but there's something about Kendrick saying, “I can’t stand myself” as a catchy hook is mind blowing. This is the part that’s meant to be recited and yet he admits his self-loathing like it’s no different than turning up. He is far from ordinary, without effort every time he’s behind the mic he continues to prove why he’s the people’s favorite. For anyone doubting Kendrick, his latest “Black Friday” will relieve you of any fear that he has lost it. What he does to J. Cole’s “Tale Of 2 Citiez” is microphone murder, if you listen closely you can hear the hearse pulling up to the studio to remove the corpse. Everything from the bars to flow switches is enough to leave a fan mesmerized by such a skilled emcee.
From January to December, we have been blessed with good albums and superb raps. I still believe Lupe’s 9 minute “Mural” is without equal, he transcended into a completely different realm of rapping. Mac Miller's album is proof that he can spit, from start to finish it's impossible not to be impressed by his growth. He didn’t rap all year but when he did, Chance The Rapper danced circles around the competition. With that said, Kendrick is in a different world. When he raps, it’s like listening to a master at work. The verses just get better, there’s no ceiling, no peak, the growth is astounding. It’s still early to be adding Kendrick into the greatest of all time conversations but if he continues on this path, it’s certain that we will be singing about him for years to come.
It's official, Kendrick Lamar is the Best Emcee of 2015. We've also added some of our other top picks of the year, feel free to add your own selections and vote up or down. Let's see what you got.