We’re at that point where we might have to unanimously acknowledge that Kendrick Lamar is the best rapper alive. Feel free to a dissenting opinion. But when I talk to people who obsess over rap with the intensity of John or Steve Nash, the conversation returns to Black Hippy. Between Schoolboy and Kendrick, the label has controlled the underground conversation over the last six months.
Make no mistake about it, these guys are still underground. Despite the Dr. Dre co-sign and money that I suspect Interscope is secretly funneling into their promotion, you can’t hear these guys on the radio. Not even in Los Angeles, where you would expect them to play with the regularity of “Rack City.” Of course, they probably won’t stay underground for much longer. If you build a big enough groundswell, Clear Channel is eventually forced to kowtow.
But in the interim, these two are making the most experimental hardcore music extant. This is a sub-genre that’s always yielded my favorite type of music. See also: Tang, Wu — who were nothing if not an experimental reaction to the boxes that A&Rs tried to place the “Come Do Me” era of RZA and GZA. Don’t underestimate how long guys like Jay Rock and K. Dot have watched the malfunctions of the mainstream. Jay Rock had the holding deal at Warner. And a source told me two years ago that Kendrick helped ghost-write Blueprint III. Whether that’s true or just ridiculous rumor, these are guys who have had next for a long-time, but right now, their catalog has finally matched the massive potential.
Two days ago, Kendrick dropped “Cartoons and Cereal” the sort of song that would have seemed inconceivable three years ago. For one thing, it’s a collaboration between him and Gunplay, the coked-out, Swastika-brandishing goon who Rick Ross has seemingly abandoned in order to buy Wale lotus flowers. Southern and West Coast rap have always been copacetic, but the boundaries between regions are slowly relaxing.
Meanewhile, Kendrick and Don Logan aren’t as dissimilar as one might think. Despite his Flocka-like force, Gunplay is a deceptively complex writer and rapper. He hasn’t seen “the back of his lids in 72 hours.” Meanwhile, Kendrick seems like he’s receiving visions of his six year old self transmitted from a satellite perched in outer space. “Cartoons and Cereal” is his “Looking for Alien Love.” Hopefully, it augurs his imminent ATLIens.
Whether you ascribe the rise of Odd Future as cause or symptom of the weirdness abounding in contemporary rap (probably a bit of both), there’s no mistake for everyone from Danny Brown to Yelawolf (see his new tape) to the Tumblr waffle brigade, eccentric is as viable a lane as thugged-out, and increasingly those two distinctions are colliding. Killer Mike and El-P are about to drop a gem. And even Freddie Gibbs, arguably the hardest out, is working on a full-length with Madlib, the closest thing contemporary hip hop has to a Sun Ra.
But no one’s going further than Kendrick, who ties biological observations about the food chain to getting robbed for the one around your neck. He brings in Scrooge McDuck, Darkwing Duck, and Saturday morning cartoons without lapsing into the nostalgia-drenched “Remember the Good Ol’ Days” traps. The violence lurks and someone’s finger is on the trigger. But the primary carnage is linguistic, the words and patterns float as though they’ve been relieved of the superfluous need for gravity.
Kendrick’s been rapping the best the West has seen since Myka 9 in his “7th Seal” prime. Yes, I would say he has passed vintage Kurupt. He’s managed to absorb 2Pac’s ability to project pain and tell stories that kids in the burbs and on the block can identify with. His collabo with BJ the Chicago Kid speaks to what the Hippies stressed when I interviewed them for Spin (pick up the new issue). They’re trying to make people think, cry, and bob their heads. These are old ideas that had been briefly abandoned, even if they’re among the most basic of all human emotions. If you want to make everyone care, you have to figure out a way to make the out there seem obvious.