It's a dark, dark world....
After the great music industry collapse of 2015, the world has gone to shit. The infrastructure of our society has crumbled. There is no government, no stock market, no United Nations, no Chipotle and worst of all, no rap blogs. People are left to fend for themselves, raiding grocery stores and houses for food. Even worse, Rae Sremmurd have taken over, coding their music with subliminal messaging to turn the youth into brainwashed zombies. After a long fight, they have claimed victory and the world is now divided into 20 distinct No Flex Zones. Even worse than a lack of food or freedom, though, music is hard to come by. Broken Beats headphones litter the street. All we get to hear now is "No Type" and "Up Like Trump" played repeatedly through an intercom system as we shuffle into coal mines and factories. People are left to fight over CDs and tapes as though they were cans of beans and First Aid kits. It's a dark, dark, world with no glimmer of light, no shining beacon for the people to rally around. The outlook is bleak.
And it's all because Kendrick's sophomore album sucked....
Okay, so maybe a Rae Sremmurd/Hunger Games/Blade Runner situation is the least likely scenario for a post apocalyptic world (we all know Makonnen would be our benevolent dictator). However, in last week's podcast we did a little thought experiment and it's stayed on my mind for days - what if Kendrick Lamar's upcoming album ends up sucking? WHAT IF?!?!?!
Even though we've been devouring Kendrick's trail of bread crumbs like Rick Ross with the munchies, right now we aren't sure where those bread crumbs lead. Is that untitled Colbert song on the album? Judging by this, is "i" even on there? For an album with no tracklist, no art, and no planned date, Kendrick's album is already getting some high praise. As the great prophet preached, "Hol'Up." I don't blame anyone for getting excited, but still, despite very little information, when everyone seems already so locked in on the idea this album will be awesome, I can't help but imagine a world where this album sucks. Now, I pray to the Based God that it won't, and I've even offered up a few human sacrifices to ensure its success, but now that I've opened Pandora's box, let's explore what a worst case scenario looks like.
First and foremost, I think we need to lay out what it would mean to have this album "suck," or at least be a disappointment. Obviously, sales are a part of it; anything less than say, 300 thousand (a little less than Cole's first week) would be underwhelming, right? Still, more than numbers, streams, or Billboard charts, what's important here is the music itself. Kendrick has been pegged the "savior" of hip-hop. If you ask 90% of rap fans, "Who is the best emcee is right now?," they'll say Kendrick; the other 10% are Cole and Eminem stans. Good Kid M.A.A.D City is a highly conceptual, cohesive, thoughtful album that both knocks and makes you think. Though only a couple of years have passed, it's as relevant now as it was two years ago, maybe more so. According to the big boss Nathan, that's what makes it a classic. I would be immensely and profoundly disappointed if Kendrick's next album was "i" followed by 14 DJ Mustard/Mike WiLL beats. No amount of "Pussy and Patron" could fill the void of an album with no themes, no skits and heaven forbid, no "Backseat Freestyle"s. Essentially, just an album of singles. To me, that's the only way this album could disappoint. Even Jordan had off days, so maybe it won't be as good as GKMC, but the effort, the thought, the attempt at depth needs to be there.
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So, what happens if we eagerly rush to listen the second the album drops, and the greatness we're hoping for just isn't there?
Obviously, Kendrick would be the most affected. I can see it now. Memes. Good god the memes. Memes as far as the eye can see. Twitter would be more active than ever, or perhaps more silent; 140 characters can't express the shock and horror that would follow a World Cup-sized flop. A few years down the line, snarky ass bloggers like myself would call a flop "pulling a Kendrick." He would definitely become the butt of many a joke, but it really wouldn't be funny. Now, part of me wants to imagine that he would bounce back from this, after all he's Kendrick Lamar, and I'm sure his career would continue, but I don't know if it would be the same; could you trust him like you do now? Could you believe in him again? Kendrick is really in a tough spot here. He has so much support and has really united the community, so the expectations are so high. He has managed to unite an opinionated, argumentative community like no other emcee in my time on Earth. Guys like Jay and Kanye were popular, but for every five fans there was one to three haters. Does Kendrick really have "haters"? He would if this new album sucked. This incredible support and exaltation is great when everything's going well, but it also means a flop would be that much more damaging. Hip-hop heads aren't quick to forgive and to see Kendrick mail it in would be catastrophic. Because of the pedestal we have put him on, his fall would be that much harder and that much farther. The fall would cripple him, if it didn't kill him. The reputation of Good Kid m.A.A.d City would undoubtedly (and perhaps unfairly) be hurt and any future Kendrick release would get more shade than a rainforest. Kendrick wouldn't necessarily be out, but he'd definitely be down. Would he throw in the towel?
You know who else would be affected? Every rapper and every album released after. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Similar to trying to date someone after you were cheated on, hip-hop heads around the world simply wouldn't trust another emcee like they did Kendrick for a long, long while. Whenever a promising, young emcee came out, or, hell, maybe even an established emcee (J. Cole comes to mind), before we proclaimed them the savior or the GOAT, we would remember that Kendrick album. We would remember the slow, excruciating squelching of our collective hopes, dreams, and love of all things great and small; the sound of our hearts breaking would rattle the tectonic plates. We would think back on all of this, the crushing blow, and think twice before deeming that new guy the greatest. Sorry Chance, if this album sucks it's tough sledding for you and no amount of Acid Raps will change that.
On the one hand, that may not be such a bad thing - everything these days is a classic seven hours after it comes out (2014Forest Hills Drive) - but on the other, it would be horrible; hip-hop doesn't need any more cynicism. I will defend hip-hop to the death against those who claim it's "dead" or "trash." Kendrick is proof it isn't, but if there is no Kendrick, what happens? It would hurt me, but it would hurt hip-hop and it's legitimacy so much more. Truthfully, we as a community need this album to be great a lot more than Kendrick does.
Like naked Twister at a family reunion, the "what if" game is dangerous and uncomfortable. This particular "what if" is even more dangerous because there is simply no way to tell the effects of this album, good or bad, until it actually drops and we have enough time to digest it. Right now, all of this is obviously pure conjecture. Still, it brings up something very, very real - the pressure on Kendrick Lamar to deliver. It might sound melodramatic, but in many ways the weight of the hip-hop world really is on his shoulders. Drake is going to be Drake, and Kanye will be Kanye - I'm sure Jay needs a new phone soon so album is sure to follow - but Kendrick has been given the task of leading the hip-hop renaissance. When we look to everything right about hip-hop, we look to Kendrick. He is the first emcee I can remember who everyone rallied around, he was the first objectionably "great" emcee of my generation; that's a ton of pressure. I wish he could have a bad album and that'd be fine, they can't all be classics, but truthfully I'm not sure it's possible. Kendrick is in uncharted waters here and as exciting as it is, it's equally horrifying and I'm just a fan. What's going through his mind? You and I can have off days at work and nobody will bat an eye, but what do you do when the eye of the world is watching you?
For better or for worse, we'll find out soon enough...
[Lucas Garrison is a writer for DJBooth.net. His favorite album is “College Dropout,” but you can also tweet him your favorite Migos songs at @LucasDJBooth.]