To be a fan of Kendrick Lamar is to catch a glimpse of destiny fulfilled.
Artists make a break for stardom all the time, but few reach that level that we deem “iconic,” which means there’s more at play here than a work ethic in overdrive. Plenty of artists spend years upon years developing their craft, yet will never hold a candle to the influence or potency of TDE's shining jewel.
Throughout his career, we’ve seen multiple incarnations of Kendrick’s artistry, from K. Dot to King Kendrick, and at no point—going all the way back to his Training Day mixtape—did he not have the juice. Even at the most underdeveloped and Wayne-mimicking period of his career, hindsight reveals there was always something special about Kendrick, the world just wasn’t aware of it yet.
With Kenny’s forthcoming, fourth studio album reportedly dropping in just over a week (April 7), the most anticipated, post-More Life release of 2017 has sparked plenty of discussion about expectations and the album's sonic direction. While it may seem like the expectations for Kendrick's latest body of work have never been higher, I've come to the conclusion that no matter direction Kendrick takes on this album, it’s going to be a celebrated success.
Allow me to explain...
Right out of the gates, Kendrick’s official debut, Section.80, flexed an already fully-formed conceptual ability and top-tier lyrical quality. Beginning with “Fuck Your Ethnicity” and ending with “HiiiPower,” Kendrick delivered his unique perspective and luminous vision from start to finish.
With good Kid, m.A.A.d. city, Kendrick displayed his utter dominance of traditional hip-hop, tackling modernized takes on classic West Coast sounds (“m.A.A.d. City”, “Compton”) while still showing off his conceptual brilliance (“Money Trees,” “Sing About Me/I’m Dying of Thirst”) and throwing his hat into the realm of legitimate crossover potential (“Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe,” “Swimming Pools (Drank),” “Poetic Justice”).
Then, in a twist that would have M. Night Shyamalan shitting his pants, Kendrick followed up his declaration of rap dominance with a jazz- and funk-tinged, Afrocentric, half-spoken-word freak-fest on To Pimp a Butterfly. Kendrick managed to simultaneously push the boundaries of hip-hop in ways that made the Native Tongues collective seem timid (“Wesley’s Theory,” “Complexion”) and still assert his top-tier lyrical abilities (“For Free? (Interlude),” “Alright,” “The Blacker The Berry”).
Despite the perception that our fleeting attention span as listeners means artists are only as great as their next work, Kendrick’s legacy has already been cemented based solely on his first three full-lengths.
Feel free to debate the merits of what the minimal requirements are to judge an artist's legacy, but Section.80 did solid numbers for a non-mainstream emcee [not counting those that caught on early with O(verly) D(edicated)] and is still often referenced in conversation whenever acclaimed West Coast projects are discussed, good Kid, m.A.A.d. city garnered heavy comparisons to Illmatic—widely regarded as the greatest hip-hop album of all time—and To Pimp a Butterfly is currently sitting in the Harvard Library archives.
Even given the limited information we’ve received from Kendrick and TDE about his upcoming LP—and no matter what names are found on the track list—from this point forward, he's playing with house money.
If he returns to more straightforward rap and continues his lyrical dominance—a very real possibility considering the tone of "IV," as well as producer Syk Sense’s recent comments—he'll be hailed as a bona fide rap savior. If, on the other hand, he keeps things experimental, he'll be praised for his courage and genre-blending abilities. If he once again pulls off a mixture of both—seemingly the most likely outcome given his trajectory so far—well, you get the idea.
The pressure to follow-up a GRAMMY-award winning album like TPAB would be a heavy burden for most recording artists, but the truth is Kendrick’s place among hip-hop’s elite is already solidified, giving him the ultimate pass to do whatever the fuck he wants on this album.
Photo Credit: TDE