[Editor’s Note: The following article contains some material that may not be suitable for all ages. We at the Shield know a decent percentage of you listen to the music featured in these articles, but we figured we’d warn you, just in case.]
Since this is the first piece in this series, let’s start with the obvious question. What is rap?
According to the definition on Dictionary.com, rap is “
Since rapping is, ultimately, rhyming to some music, rappers must take their time to create something that can stand out in a big crowd. Anyone can rhyme or create a simple beat, but the simplicity of the format also provides my main criteria: lyrics, beatwork, and flow.
Lyrics seem simple at first glance. Even children can string together rhyming words, but the greats are known for their ability to find clever rhymes that further their story through good wordplay.
Beatwork is a huge part of any good rap song – sure, having good lyrics will get you somewhere, but having great beats gives your music replay value, whether it’s for head-nodding or getting hyped.
Flow defines how well artists put those rhymes into a song, line them up to the beat, and add their own twists. How rappers use their lyrics has a massive effect on how the story they’re telling is received.
These criteria are especially important in the “new era” of rap music, which I define as everything after the year 2000. That leaves us with quite the large list of rappers; by the year 2016, there have been greats and ground-breaking rappers like Jay-Z, Eminem, Kanye West, Desiigner, and many others. The new era is a prosperous time for rap music; where once it was considered to be music mostly for African-Americans and was frowned upon by most people, our current era sees much more acceptance and even praise for rap music. Of course, this is a double-edged sword, since some rappers who become popular only care about money and popularity, rather than creating the music that gave them fame.
My Candidate: Kendrick Lamar
Remember those criteria I laid out above? To me, Kendrick hits it out of the park in all of those categories and, moreover, it seems people agree with me on this. Kendrick is an all-around fantastic rapper, so honestly, this will be easy.
First, let’s look at his lyrics. Kendrick’s lyrics are generally used to spark thoughts. Let’s look at the following quote from “Swimming Pools”:
“The freedom is granted as soon as the damage of vodka arrives /
This how you capitalize, this is parental advice /
Then apparently I’m overinfluenced by what you are doin’ . . .“
Beyond the obvious reference to the dangers of alcoholism, Kendrick is specifically talking here about the way alcohol causes people to lose their inhibitions and make bad choices. The mention of “parental advice” functions as a warning: as the alcohol takes effect, it creates the opportunity for unscrupulous people to take advantage of others.
We can also see his skill when looking at lines like “Hol’ Up”:
“As a kid I killed two adults, I’m too advanced /
I lived my 20s at 2 years old, the wiser man /
Truth be told, I’m like 87.“
Kendrick grew up in Compton, constantly dealing with gang violence all around him, and he speaks of how even as a twenty-seven-year old, he has seen enough things for one life. This is also the first reference in his work to Kendrick killing others and how it takes a toll on him. The verse ends with Kendrick screaming for help to deal with what he has done and seen.
Next, let’s analyze Kendrick’s beatwork and flow. Personally, I think Kendrick has some of the best combinations of flow and beatwork: one does not outweigh the other. Some rappers, such as Future, hide behind beatwork, since most people just listen to the beat and ignore most of the lyrics. On the other hand, a song without good beats is kind of flat; it may sound good, but has no replay value. Kendrick walks this line like no other rapper can: he produces songs like “Alright,” “King Kunta,” “Backseat Freestyle,” and “m.A.A.d City,” which combine heavy and fast beats and sick flows to get you hyped. On the other hand, Kendrick can also slow his beats down, like in “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” “Poetic Justice,” “These Walls” and “Money Trees.” Most of the time, when Kendrick slows the beat down, it accompanies a more profound, thoughtful set of lyrics.
Now – in case you still have no idea who this is – I would like you to take a look at Kendrick’s record sales. Kendrick has had five albums since 2010.
His first album, Overly Dedicated, was given away for free online and peaked at #75 on Billboard’s Top Hip-Hop Albums. That kind of success, for a first album, is very impressive, especially because he was not signed to a major label at the time.
After this, Top Dog Entertainment (TDE) picked him up, and he went on to produce my personal favorite album, Section.80. Before the album even came out, Kendrick had already been included in XXL‘s 2011 Annual Freshman List with fellow upcoming rappers Cyhi the Prynce, Meek Mill, Mac Miller, Yelawolf and Big K.R.I.T. Section.80 went on to sell 5,300 digital copies in its first abbreviated week, without any television or radio coverage, and received mostly positive reviews. At one of Kendrick’s concerts in West L.A., Dr Dre, Snoop Dogg and The Game namds Kendrick the “New King of the West Coast.” Needless to say, it was a huge deal when three of the greatest rappers to come out of the West nominated Kendrick to join the greats. Kendrick then leaked a single called “Cartoon & Cereal” online, which reached number two on Complex’s Best 50 Songs of 2012.
Following this, Kendrick dropped his next big project, good kid, m.A.A.d city. The album met with critical acclaim and debuted at number two in the U.S., selling 242,100 copies in its first week. Songs like “Swimming Pools (Drank),” which I mentioned earlier, reached #17 on Billboard’s Top 100. GQ editor-in-chief Jim Nelson, when his magazine named Kendrick Lamar “Rapper of the Year,” had the following to say:
“Kendrick Lamar is one of the most talented new musicians to arrive on the scene in years. That’s the reason we chose to celebrate him, wrote an incredibly positive article declaring him the next King of Rap, and gave him our highest honor.”
Kendrick received a total of seven Grammy nominations at the 56th Annual Grammy Awards (2014), including Best New Artist, Album of the Year, and Best Rap Song, though he sadly did not win any of the awards. The following year, Kendrick won Best Rap Performance and Best Rap song for “i,’ the new single off his third album with TDE. Originally expected to be released on March 23, 2015, his new album To Pimp a Butterfly was instead released a week early. The album debuted atop the U.S. Billboard 200 chart, selling 324,000 copies in its first week, and established Spotify‘s global first-day streaming record (9.6 million). His newest album, untitled unmastered, while still too new for data, was apparently also well-liked.
The final part – and why I think Kendrick is so well-liked – is that he does not follow the standard rap stereotype of “drugs, money, and gangs.” In fact, he preaches against all of it. Kendrick openly raps against gang violence, discusses his awful experiences with it, and tells his listeners that they do not need to be in a gang to make it big. Kendrick also talks about how much he wants to give back and even gets mad at himself sometimes, thinking that he is not doing enough to save kids in neighborhoods like the one he came from. He also provides not only his own point of view, but that of others in his world. This is especially shown in songs like “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” “Tammy’s Song (Her Evils)” and “Keisha’s Song (Her Pain).” These songs show the ends these characters came to and try and discourage people from making the same choices.
Kendrick is not your everyday mainstream rapper. He cares about his work and how his work can influence the minds of his listeners. If I had to give just one reason for why I think Kendrick Lamar deserves the title of “Greatest Rapper of All Time,” it would probably be that he preaches of a struggle and how we should all try and can overcome it. I will never be in the same situation as Kendrick was, or ever deal with the problems he dealt with. Yet I have my own problems in my life, and as he proclaims how he rose out of his problems, he gives a hand to those facing their own problems, giving them hope to reach for success, no matter the situation. That is why Kendrick Lamar is the greatest rapper of all time.