I write about hip-hop for a living, so literally every day I have a conversation about Kendrick Lamar. And almost every one of those conversations eventually ends up with the same question; when does Kendrick Lamar deserve to be considered one of the all-time greats? Is he already there? If not, what would it take to get him there? And now that we've heard "i," the first single off his upcoming album, there's no better time to really lay out the GOAT debate.
The mere fact that this question comes up so consistently, even when it's only in response to a guest verse, has to go down in the pro-Kendrick column, but let's pump the brakes. Before we can really have this conversation, we need to make sure we're all speaking the same language. I'm only writing this article once, so let's do it right and take things one step at a time.
It's Not Personal
"Who's your favorite rapper?" It's a great question, but that's not the question here. Personal taste is a micro question, we're on the macro level. I know there are some unapologetic Kendrick stans out there, they need to take a break from letter writing. I know there are some unapologetic Kendrick haters too, they need to let it go.
As a native Celtics fan, I hate Kobe Byrant more than any other human being I've ever watched play basketball. Every time he does that weird fucking wolverine-bite face a small piece of my soul dies. But I also have to admit that he's one of the greatest basketball players to ever live, certainly better than Paul Pierce. Just typing those words makes me hate myself, but it's the truth, and if we're having a GOAT discussion, my primary obligation has to be to the truth.
It's not sports, it's rap, but I still expect the same level of professionalism. This is some very serious business people.
There are Levels to This Shit
Cue the Meek Mill.
I subscribe to the Bill Simmons pyramid Hall of Fame model. As Hall of Fames are currently constructed and conceived, there's only one level. So there's essentially no difference between Michael Jordan and Chris Mullin, which makes inducting the worthy Mullin a harder sell.
Similarly, if it means his plaque gets placed next to Biggie's, I'm hard-pressed to include someone like Fat Joe in the Hall-of-Fame. But in a pyramid system, when there is an elite and very limited group on top of a much larger base, sure, let's get Fat Joe in that bottom level.
When people recoil at the thought of Kendrick as an all-time great, that's largely because that means he'd then be exactly equivalent to Pac or Jay or Rakim or insert-your-pick-here. Let's all try to think of this as a Hall of Fame pyramid; does Kendrick get into the pyramid at all? That's the major question, then if so, we can slice and dice how high he's placed.
So now that we've got all that established, let's get into some of the more specific criteria. Here's what you need to gain entry into the pyramid.
If sales were the only thing that mattered we could just look at Billboard and call it a day—and Iggy Azalea would be the best rapper of 2014—but sales are still important. You might be the illest rapper to ever touch a microphone, but if that microphone's never left your mom's basement, sorry, that's just not going to cut it.
As far as K. Dot is concerned, Section80 has sold about 100K, and GKMC went Platinum, which is no small feat in the current album sales climate. That's only a drop in the bucket compared to someone like JAY-Z, but it's not a strike against Kendrick either. Eh, let's move on.
“When I went back to my old high school, all these kids looking at me like I’m the real big homie, the same way I look at Jay Z, Nas, or Dr. Dre. You would’ve thought Michael Jackson walked through that joint off the excitement that they had.” —Complex interview
Much harder to measure than the cold, hard math of sales numbers, but in many ways more important. This one's almost impossible to define, but like the definition of porn, I think we all know it when we see it.
How many people are talking about this rapper on any given day? When they drop a new song, how quickly do people rush to hear it? How many quotes from them can you throw out in conversation and be confident everyone there will get the reference? How many other rappers are consciously or unconsciously trying to sound like them? How many label execs say something like, "We're looking for the next [insert name here]"? In the age of the internet, how many memes do they have?
Like it or not, Drake's cultural impact scores are off the charts. Kendrick's, however, are much harder to pin down, and now that I think about it, it's probably because Kendrick's so profoundly unfunny. You can't meme narrative songs about peer pressure.
But beyond that, I think he's still had a real cultural impact. The commercial success of GKMC has proven that there really is a big demand for deeply lyrical, conceptual hip-hop, and Kendrick's opened the doors for a lot of more artistically minded rappers to flourish (like artists like Lupe did before him). As he put it, he really has raised the bar on what truly dope lyricism sounds like for a new generation.
And yes, the raised bar was a "Control" reference, did you get it? Interestingly, when so many people complained that his verse on "Control" wasn't even that good and that it was only being talked about because he named names, they were accidentally arguing for his cultural impact. Saying "Control" was only popular because he named names is like saying alcohol is only popular because it contains alcohol. That was the point, he did name names, and when he did, it meant something. Every other rapper in his peer group was either unwilling or afraid to call out names so openly, and the reason none of the "Control" responses really mattered was that none of the rappers who responded has the same cultural impact score as K. Dot.
Related note: Is "ya bish" the most widely quoted thing Kendrick's ever said? If so, that's not particularly impressive.
Ah, the most debatable part of the debate, and one I've had 100 times now. If you want to save us all some time I'm pretty much going to just repeat what I wrote in "Don’t Believe the Hype, Kendrick Lamar Isn’t Over-Rated," but I'll go over it again in a nutshell.
Kendrick has a weird, nasally voice that a lot of people can't stand. Fair enough. So many people proclaim his brilliance that you feel like you have to purposefully downplay his talent to even things out. I get it. Still, even with all that considered, I frankly don't see how anyone can deny that the man's an extraordinary talent. That doesn't mean he's THE GREATEST EVERYONE ELSE IS TERRIBLE AAAAHHHHH!!!!, think the pyramid structure, but I've listened to a lot of hip-hop in my life, and I'm completely confident that I'm not exaggerating when I say from a purely emcee skill level, "Sing About Me" is one of the most incredible songs I've ever heard.
The concept? The delivery? The way he inhabits three different voices and weaves together their stories into the concept? I could write a novel about that song alone, and he's got a lot more like it. He's far from flawless, but I don't know...this is art and it's subjective, but if you can listen to that and not at least respect the man's raw talent...man....are you sure you have a functioning brain and soul?
Here's where you can really start deducting points. If a rapper's career was only measured in two-album increments, DMX might just belong in that upper level of the pyramid. But X wasn't able to keep up his early level of output and quality, for obvious reasons, and that's hurt his legacy. Go ahead and hate the man, but Kanye's been one of the most relevant people in hip-hop for over a decade now. In an industry where yesterday's superstar is today's Cheerios commercial, that's fucking impressive.
OD and Section80 absolutely count when we're talking Kendrick's status, but the truth is neither album really impacted. They merely got Kendrick to the point where we could make GKMC and really make a splash. So really, he's only had one album in the public spotlight, and that's not going to give him a lot of leverage when he's sitting at that proverbial table with the big boys.
Now, like every category here, longevity, and by extension discography, isn't everything. Biggie is probably the most unassailable member of the Hip-Hop Hall of Fame and that man only put out two albums before he died. Literally only time will tell how long Kendrick is able to keep it up, but for now, he just hasn't earned many stripes.
Related thought experiment: If Kendrick tragically dies tomorrow, how does that affect how we see his legacy and status?
Ha, just kidding, there's no conclusion. Unlike sports, where's there's an actual Hall of Fame—although people still argue vehemently about real HOF placements—this Hip-Hop Hall of Fame only exists in our collective imaginations. This is going to be a constantly changing, morphing discussion. But that doesn't mean that this conversation doesn't matter. To people who really live inside hip-hop culture, these are the conversations that matter. It still means something for an album to be called a classic, it still means something for a rapper to be considered an all-time great. You can't just throw those words around unless you're ready to stand behind them.
For me, because I obviously have a compulsion that requires me to turn everything into an NBA analogy, I see Kendrick as LeBron in 2010, in his first year with the Heat. There was no denying that Bron was one of, if not the, most talented players of his generation, and a player that seemed destined to go down as an all-time great. But without a championship, there was still a question mark hovering over his resume. Now, with the Heat, all the pieces were in place. If LeBron still couldn't win a title with support like that he really didn't deserve to be mentioned in the same conversation as players like MJ. Of course, he would go on to win a title, and then another, and now those question marks have been erased.
All the pieces are in place for Kendrick. He has the attention of everyone in hip-hop and essentially unlimited resources behind him. GKMC placed him on the precipice of historical greatness, and I believe that if this next album is as good, if not better than he can't be denied a place at the all-time table. From there, it will only be a matter if how high he can climb in the hip-hop Hall of Fame pyramid, not if he can make it in.
"i" is a great start, but it's not the finish line, and this conversation is just getting started as well. Let's have at it people—if you love hip-hop, this debate does matter.