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Kendrick Lamar Is Hip-Hop’s King—But for How Long?

With his new album, the Compton-based rapper has become the biggest artist in all of music. Just how long can he keep that up?

Photo: Kyle Gustafson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Last week, Kendrick Lamar dropped his highly anticipated third album, DAMN., netting him the highest first-week sales of any record in 2017. He also headlined Coachella and released the Don Cheadle–assisted video for “DNA,” one of the new LP’s strongest cuts.

All of this was met with nearly unanimous acclaim. Time recently called Lamar “the most important rapper in America.” After Coachella, the Los Angeles Times crowned him a “king.” And Hot 97 radio personality Peter Rosenberg flatly declared, “Kendrick is the best rapper who has ever lived.”

Yes, four years after “Control,” in which Lamar said he’d be gunning for hip-hop’s number one spot, we are living in times of Peak Kendrick Lamar. But pop culture moves fast — hip-hop, even faster — and with attention spans shorter than ever, one wonders if DAMN. truly cements Lamar as the greatest rapper of all time, or if he’s just the greatest of all time until the next greatest of all time comes trickling down the Twitter feed.

“Rap is pretty much like high school — you have four, maybe five years to really make a name for yourself, and after that, in comes a new class,” says Phonte Coleman, the rapper/singer known for his work with the groups Foreign Exchange and (formerly) Little Brother. “But what’s dope about Kendrick is that he’s kind of an accidental superstar. He just really did him, and he had the great fortune of it resonating with a lot of people. There’s a humanity that comes across, and people just want to see him win. Will he remain the king of hip-hop for the next 10 years? Probably not. I mean, who does?”

To hear Coleman tell it, Lamar has built a dedicated fan base through high-quality music and a relentless work ethic (including mixtapes, EPs, and independent albums, he’s released eight projects since 2009). Most important, though, Lamar has never sacrificed his integrity for a quick hit — that, Coleman argues, will guarantee Lamar an audience long after the spotlight moves on to someone else. Still, as an avowed fan — the two even toured together, briefly, in 2010 — Coleman thinks it’s too early to talk about DAMN. as if it’s a classic; the album just came out, and only time will tell if it holds up. If it does, the record’s implicit quality may be to thank.

“On DAMN., he took that bop of good kid, m.A.A.d city and the obtuse thoughtfulness of To Pimp a Butterfly and married them together,” says Noah Callahan-Bever, editor in chief and chief content officer at Complex Media. “He speaks about the human condition in a way that is both perhaps equally as abstract and wrought as To Pimp a Butterfly, without eschewing the bump and hop that made good kid, m.A.A.d city so hip-hop. It gives the records an incredible amount of replay value. Certainly, with DAMN., I think it’s fair to have the conversation about does this make Kendrick the most relevant and exciting, sophisticated, important hip-hop artist right now? There’s no question.”

And yet for all the acclaim, for all the fanfare, it it hard not to consider Lamar’s work in the grand tradition of hip-hop — a fundamentally social genre of music, where to be even mentioned among greats like the Notorious B.I.G., Tupac, Jay-Z, Nas, or even, say, Snoop Dogg, one must deliver great albums but also get people moving their feet. As Rakim once rapped, M.C. means move the crowd; in that sense, Lamar lags far behind his peers, if not many of the artists he’s often compared to.

“If I’m DJing, and it’s a night where there’s not a lot of room for intelligent hip-hop, ‘Alright’ is kind of the only song that will cut through — and ‘M.A.A.D. City,’ that’s a big turn-up if you’re losing the crowd,” says DJ Moma, a New York nightlife veteran who acknowledges that there are maybe only five or six Kendrick Lamar songs that he can work into a DJ set on any given night. “So, I felt like the first single, ‘Humble,’ was more of an effort to become part of that conversation. It’s a very dumbed-down beat, very simple, it’s at that trap tempo. When I heard it, I was like, oh shit, he wants this song to live in the club.

Moma has been playing “Humble” at recent gigs, but the reaction thus far has been hit or miss. “If you’re in a room full of influencers and cool kids, it goes off,” he says. “But if you’re in a room full of Friday and Saturday night laymen, it will be kind of flat.” Even still, Moma won’t concede that Lamar need make the clubs go crazy; perhaps instead he should celebrated for winning in spite of that.

“In 2000, you had Dead Prez ‘Hip-Hop’ and Outkast’s ‘Bombs Over Baghdad,’ but until ‘Alright’ in 2015, that was literally the last time people were turning up to meaningful hip-hop with a message — 15 years!,” says Moma. “People who are 23, 24 now, their old-school hip-hop greats are guys like Lil Wayne. So the concept of partying to any kind of hip-hop that is saying something in the club, that’s asking you to think critically — that’s like an anathema to those people. They rather just hear a Migos or Future medley. Kendrick’s fighting an uphill battle. I feel for the guy.”

But maybe asking whether Lamar has enough club songs — or radio songs, for that matter — is a moot point. After all, younger listeners barely know what radio is, and for them, a night out at a club can’t compete with a night in staring at the phone. They may not hit the club, but they do hit Coachella. So, the traditional benchmarks for greatness, the sort of nebulous goalposts an artist must reach, are not the same as they once were, for every truly great artist is merely a reflection of the time period in which they exist. Nowadays, people don’t want to move so much as they want be moved. People want to dance, sure — but, more important, they want to feel. These aren’t metrics measured by Billboard charts, nor do they adhere to any sort of preconceived music industry narrative.

“It’s unprecedented. I don’t think there’s ever been a more popular rapper who has as few crossover songs,” says Andrew Nosnitsky, a music critic and owner of Park Blvd record shop in Oakland. “But with social media and these ravenous cults who dedicate their entire lives to one artist, for the foreseeable future, Kendrick has more creative freedom than maybe any rapper in history, and anything he would put out would not lose his audience, because so much of his brand is, well, this is challenging. And people are willing to challenge themselves with it, which is dope.”

To Nosnitsky, the fact that Lamar has so few songs aimed at pleasing large audiences — and still, in fact, does reach large audiences — speaks to just how popular, how transgressive, he actually is. Not since the late 1980s and early 1990s has such a complex and challenging hip-hop artist so captured the collective attention of the masses, perhaps now even more so than then.

“A lot of what he’s doing now is not that far removed from what the Roots were doing 10 or 15 years ago, from what Freestyle Fellowship was doing in the ’90s,” Nosnitsky says. “But there’s just more of a means to market it. Which is healthy, I think. It’s a huge cultural transition. Technology has a lot to do with it, also the politics of the day — there’s a lot more space for an artist like Kendrick to be huge.”

Huge or not though, rap is ultracompetitive; just as quickly, one can go from top 10 to not mentioned at all. For his part, Callahan-Bever thinks Lamar has already earned his spot in hip-hop’s hall of fame but admits winds of change may lie ahead — the excitement around Chance the Rapper, for example, suggests another potential changing of the guard (depending, of course, on what Chance does next). And then there are still many other popular hip-hop artists — Drake, J. Cole, and Kanye West, to name a few—all formidable kings in their own right. Just how long and how far Lamar can stay out ahead of them will ultimately depend on little more than the man himself.

“A year, two years, four years, you know, it really depends on how much deeper Kendrick Lamar can dig,” says Callahan-Bever. “In any kind of art like this, where you’re articulating this confluence of your own internal struggles and the struggles of people in the world, the longer you are famous and removed from the world, the more challenging that becomes. It’s hard to articulate the struggle of the everyman when you forget what it was like to live check to check. You can go through the motions and speak to it, but it never has that same immediacy and urgency that it has when you are closest to it.”

In the end, the biggest factor in how long Lamar remains hip-hop’s king is whether or not he — or anyone else, for that matter — actually cares about such things. At a time of extreme political unrest, when America is more divided, more lost, more godless than ever, maybe being the king of anything, let alone hip-hop, is a rather fruitless, empty pursuit. Let critics and fans worry about hip-hop’s king — so long as Kendrick Lamar keeps making art that remains true to who he really is, he might not continue wearing the crown, but he will always remain rap royalty.

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Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.

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