“Mr. 1-5,” Kendrick Lamar tweeted last week, laying claim to a new title. He isn’t just appealing the label of greatest rapper alive. He’s coming for your entire Top Five.
To balance out the rare appearance of twitter fingers however, Kendrick’s seven-character proclamation was just an aftershock to two sonic tremors jolting the viral Richter scale, while many of us were getting comfortable flailing limbs to the flutes of Future’s ‘Mask Off’ or the sprawling production of Drake’s More Life.
During our turn up, Kendrick was plotting his return. Absent since the release of 2016’s untitled unmastered, and the Grammy-winning To Pimp A Butterfly, he announced his arrival by dropping two unsuspectingly aggressive tracks to kick-start the roll-out of a much-anticipated fourth album.
But there was something urgent in the Compton rapper’s voice on the fourth instalment of his “The Heart” song series and in equal measure on the Mike Will Made It-produced “Humble.” As if he needed to drop now, in the same overwhelming musical quarter as some of the biggest names in rap, who all managed to fit incredible albums into the first few months of the year.
Rappers like Rick Ross, Future and Big Sean, with Drake still occupying the number one spot on the Billboard charts. Because that’s something someone confident enough to claim the title of “greatest rapper alive” does. It respects our short attention spans in our digital space and allows enough time to thoroughly compare. As that’s what Kendrick wants us to do.
“Y’all got ’til April the 7th to get y’all shit together,” Cornrow Kenny ends off the hard-hitting ‘The Heart Part 4’, stirring expectation for album four’s release date. Between both loose recordings, fans are far less cognizant of what to expect from the record’s production this LP around – especially following the jazz-laden, funk-doused instrumentation on his past two projects. Producer, Syk Sense has already publicly claimed that music created for the album is “some of the hardest shit I’ve heard” and “not the jazzy tape you would think.” While a jarring transition, it makes sense as K.Dot has already set that trend, slightly shifting the sonic landscape of rap at the time with TPAB. In doing so, (and since then,) he’s earned respect from the Recording Academy, the streets, the mainstream radio (with features for Taylor Swift and Maroon 5) and his peers. This time around though, Kendrick seems far less concerned with broadening the sonic extension of rap as he is bringing the culture back to its original motif – being the best out.
“My spot is solidified if you ask me/ My name is identified as “That King”/ I’ll let y’all worry about a list, I’m on some other shit/ A difference between accomplishments and astonishments,” he states ferociously on March’s former release. “I am the greatest rapper alive/ So damn great, motherfucker, “I’ve died/ What you hearing now is a paranormal vibe.” While fans who’ve yet to hear his forthcoming album can debate the claim until Friday at midnight and beyond, the gag remains that Kendrick’s ownership is less about a revisionist title and more about keeping the mentality alive despite the continued commercialization of culture.
Many have claimed the GOAT status. It’s embedded into the braggadocio of hip-hop culture and the competitive nature of the sport of rap. Most notably Lil Wayne, instead of waiting for elder acknowledgement, took flak for his audacity on track seven of his 2005 classic album Tha Carter II as a young and hungry artist stepping out of line. It wasn’t until three years later when Jay Z passed the torch over bars on Weezy’s album follow-up cut, ‘Mr. Carter’ did the music massive openly accredit the accuracy of his claim. In an interview with DJ Drama on Shade 45 last year, Lil Wayne laid down the importance of the demanded power in rap’s current landscape. “[Other rappers] settle for what works,” he stated. “And it’s working. It works for them. That’s why you don’t hear me knocking them, you don’t hear me hating. I’m just a part of a different culture, a different wave of music. That wave was Jay Z, Nas, Biggie, at that time it was all about being the best. Nowadays they’re not trying to be the best rapper, or the best at anything. They’re just trying be them and to do what other people say is okay.”
Now, it’s Kendrick’s time. In 2013, the Compton rapper slaughtered Big Sean’s now infamous ‘Control’ verse, which further solidified his legend as a top tier emcee, while the project’s that followed cemented him as one of the most innovative artists, period. But as of now, it seems as though K.Dot’s concern lies within the future of rap as he slides through the open crevice to lead the way. Through aggressive lyricism and competitive jabs, the distracted narrative surrounding both tracks is that Kendrick is using them to start war with level-eyed peers, taking ghostwriting shots at Drake and flipping Big Sean’s adlibs on ‘Humble.’ But it’s clear Kendrick isn’t set out to play the short game with petty grievances. We already know he can name names if need be. By pointing out flaws as an untouchable rap presence, he’s challenging artists to reestablish the nostalgic competitiveness that made hip-hop so impactful – and in a time like now when the world needs rappers to take no inch of their platform for granted, it’s a different kind of revolution.
With a foundation designed to question, critique and elevate, the only thing Kendrick has to prove on his forthcoming album is the bar he’s set for himself. “I done vandalized the industry full circuit,” he recently spit. Which is why he’s already won.