Here’s the thing: Kendrick Lamar is better than Drake. In the critical world at least, I would say that’s (almost) universally agreed upon. Even that played out washed up hack list from Billboard with Kendrick as a G.O.A.T. contender proved one important thing; in mainstream music criticism even, and not in the hip-hop head or internet or rapper or hipster worlds, Kendrick Lamar’s music has so much appeal that there isn’t really anything left to debate.
Kendrick Lamar has ALWAYS Balanced Critical and Commercial Success
Perhaps Kendrick Lamar hasn’t earned that spot over names like say, 2PAC; and after TPAB, it’s safe to say Kendrick doesn’t relish his placement over such West Coast legends in the least. But all of that aside, or including; Kendrick Lamar makes great art, possibly the best in mainstream hip-hop, and everyone agrees he is special, or at least anyone who is anyone in this odd world of online rap punditry. Plus, if you ask any of my ilk or heroes, like, look, Kendrick Lamar makes better music than Drake. The bigger story, and the more important one, is that my opinion doesn’t even matter on K.dot anymore. And for once, hip-hop has the Grammy’s to thank.
With a three album streak like Section.80 –> GKMC –> TPAB, Dot is competing with himself. No one is in Kendrick’s level in my opinion, but no one is in Kendrick’s lane, according to established wisdom; he has made his own sound and dominated it, and made his own art to be proud of. But the thing about winning a Grammy is that none of that matters, either. We all know that Kendrick Lamar is good. Now the world does, too.
Kendrick’s 2016 Grammy performance was all art, and all politics.
I started this rant at a place of conflict, where much of hip-hop starts: Kendrick Lamar is BIGGER than Drake. But quickly found myself defending qualifications; Kendrick Lamar is “better” than Drake too, in my mind. What that Grammy Awards show did is prove, definitively, and to the world and hip-hop all at once, is that Kendrick Lamar is huge not just as an artist and respected voice, but as a commercially viable and mainstream accepted cultural institution. And for the past and future and history of this music, that is VERY important.
I won’t get into that played out hip-hop rant against Rap Awards and the Grammy’s specifically, but it’s important to recognize something else from this music’s history: in the mainstream at least, the “best” rarely wins. As Cole will remind you, “ain’t no best,” but that doesn’t mean there aren’t objective quality standards too. Kendrick can tell you this story better than I can; when Macklemore beat Dot all over the map in that GKMC debate at the 2013 Grammy’s, hip-hop let out a collective groan. Not because there is anything wrong with Macklemore per se, but because Kendrick EARNED that award, and deserved it, at least according to just about any hip-hop head you’d ask. That he didn’t win then is important; that he DID win this time around is even more so.
This year, perhaps for the first time in history and certainly for the first time in a long time, the “best” won. I will ride hard for TPAB any day of the week; that doesn’t mean that other albums didn’t inspire me or weren’t works of art last year, but if you are looking at factors like cultural impact and community importance, setting aside sheer musicality and BARS FOR DAYS, Kendrick earned that award. It’s just that this time the Grammy’s agreed.
When hip-hop’s “best” rapper can kill a feature on pop music’s biggest platform, that’s important.
This may not change everything, but it does represent an important qualitative and normative shift in hip-hop music. When a rapper like Kendrick Lamar probably released the best album last year, and a played out institution like the Grammy’s RECOGNIZES that, that’s very important. We can’t go back in time and give Nas or Pac an award for the times THEY should have won a Grammy. We can hope that in the future, K.Dot’s most recent award is still huge; even if it never happens again, the Album of the Year won Album of the Year this time around.
Kendrick Lamar is bigger than Drake; you could never argue that on numbers alone, or on pop appeal, or on club bangers, or on sung-rap-emotive-sensative-thuggery influenced hooks. But now, thanks to the Grammy’s, you don’t have to. Dot has been hip-hop’s Golden Boy for years; now, thanks to the Grammy’s and for the first time in a long time, one of the largest mainstream platforms in music agrees. Quality matters. Art matters. You don’t need to sell records like Drake does to change the world; Kendrick has already proven that while remaining commercially competitive and culturally relevant and artistically revolutionary and community shaping and life saving and all of the other things that make him one of the best known names in rap, even if he doesn’t always sit on top of the charts.
I haven’t been able to say this too many times in my life and mean it, but yo. The Grammy’s got this one right. When Art and Quality and Truth and Feeling and Power and Politics and History and Futurism and all of the other things that make To Pimp a Butterfly a classic come together at the right moment, they can beat the Drake’s and other commercially dominant pop-rap masters of the world. That’s important, and I think it will change things for the better in this hip-hop “game.”
Time will tell, but the writing is on the wall; Kendrick won, Kendrick SHOULD have won, and that’s huge. It has huge implications: just look at how much buzz Kendrick can create by uploading eight tracks to Spotify. That kind of fame doesn’t happen by accident. Kendrick worked for it, and earned his recognition Thanks, Grammy’s. Keep it up and give Gibbs or Yeezy or Chance the Rapper a Grammy next year and that’d be dope.