Kendrick Lamar isn’t ordinary.
He functions against the popular standards, rebukes his growing celebrity, wages war against industry logic, and yet has mastered the art of keeping us captivated. Kendrick hasn’t dropped a full-length project in two years, that’s a lifetime on the internet. “i,” his only solo record released this year, didn’t explode on the charts, only placing 39th on Billboard. Album sales, charts, magazine covers, Grammy nominations and social media notoriety are all ways we gauge an artist's relevance and status in the game in 2014. We are drawn to the headlines and the block-buster moments, they’re what we remember, everything from flops to fights are mentally bookmarked. J.Cole’s reign will be a valuable memory, Iggy’s triumphs will leave many doubled over in despair, and Bobby Shmurda’s rise and fall is forever cemented in the history of 2014. The revolving door just doesn’t stop, mixtape after mixtape, album after album, artists will feed us music until we are plump and bloated. So why talk about Kendrick? He isn’t particularly social with fans, he failed to drop his album, and there are hundreds of other artists worth talking about. True. Except the small moves he made foreshadowed a domination that Pinky and the Brain couldn’t plot. We got glimpses of the hatching of a cocoon this year. The Good Kid from the Madd City has evolved into his next stage of artistry.
It’s common to call Kendrick king, but this year I’d consider him more renegade than royalty. On YG’s "Really Be" and Ab Soul’s "Kendrick's Interlude" he toppled the productin with ardor and aggression like a raging, inconsolable juggernaut. It wasn’t just rap features, Tame Impala’s "Backwards" and Imagine Dragon’s "Radioactive" were riddled with bullets from his machine gun flow. Throughout the year he appeared like the grim reaper with his rapid, vehement style as the scythe that tore to shred Tech N9ne‘s "Fragile," Jeezy’s "Holy Ghost," and Jay Rock’s "Pay For It." Anticipation for Kendrick’s album was at its highest after the release of Flying Lotus’ "Never Catch Me," his verse almost felt three-dimensional, an energy that is rarely seen, but thrilling to witness. Our guardian angel Pimp C truly blessed the underground when these two decided to create magic. If we combined all Kendrick’s features into an EP, it would be louder than a deaf OG Maco, with unrivaled, burning passion that could challenge the top of your yearly list. It feels like Kendrick mocked the mainstream, he avoided being near anything that hung from the top of Billboard charts, while silently teasing the blog viewers and underground heads. Fading in and out the spotlight, never taking advantage of raised anticipation, allowing his TDE cohorts to shine, and then finally dropping “i” in September.
Familiar is easy to sell, but change is rarely embraced with the same instant gratification. That’s why we see so many one trick zombies, married to the success of a sound, blinded by the riches of repetitive regurgitation. I spent my first listen of “i” lost in confliction. This was supposed to be the grand return of King Kendrick but it wasn’t what I expected from one of hip-hop’s most elite. Great message, an unrivaled, intricate flow, but the production felt foreign, peculiar, unlike anything I’ve ever heard Kendrick on. My Twitter timeline shared in my confliction, I saw more confusion than praise, it was like when Yeezus leaked and the anticipation quickly turned into disbelief. When I finally saw the music video, it truly started to grow on me. The expectation was gone, I began to appreciate the heavily Isley Brothers sampled jam. When the SNL footage hit YouTube, I almost couldn’t believe how engrossing watching him perform was. He seemed possessed, completely lost in the groove with an aura of raw energy emitting from his every pore. This is how “i” is supposed to be witnessed, something this spiritual couldn’t be captured into an MP3. This is why we talk about Kendrick Lamar, he’s becoming a songwriter with undeniable prowess, and an artist that is mastering his medium and discovering his message.
When we look back at Kendrick’s career, we will remember 2014 for being the year he allowed his artistic growth to speak volumes while he stayed silent. Every release feels calculated, spoon-feeding listeners the familiar features, and then slowly shedding the skin that they once knew. Even in interviews, he’s giving very little insight on what inspired this enlightened transformation. He’s also completely unpredictable. When I heard about his last minute live performance on the Colbert Report, I was expecting to see another “i” in its most electrifying element. What was displayed on that stage was three minutes of further proof that Kendrick’s metamorphosis is beautiful artistic brilliance. Name an artist taking these risks? Name a hip-hop artist providing this level of virtuosity? Kendrick isn’t conforming to adapt to his surroundings, he’s making the music that will make his surroundings adapt to him. Every time he breaks his golden silence he’s leaving us something worth discussing. I can’t name any artist in my generation with his popularity, and fearlessly pushing the limits before following up such a critically acclaimed debut album. Hate it or love it, this is the beginning of something historic in hip-hop. We can label Kendrick’s 2014 just the rising action, to prepare us for the climax that is coming. (Pause. Pause. Pause.)
“Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion” – Jack Kerouac
[By Yoh, AKA the good kid in a mad internet, AKA @Yoh31]