I apologize for my extended absence from HungryHippopotamus. But it doesn’t mean I wasn’t working! Feel free to look at goodkidhippocity.tumblr.com for a compilation of my freelance work over this time
What is going on? This time last year, Kendrick Lamar was the odds on favorite to be the new king of rap. After his major label debut made him a Grammy nominee and a pop star, K. Dot doubled down and called out all his peers on the infamous “Control” verse. He had positioned himself as the rare rapper who could hold down the charts and the streets organically. This year he was supposed to drop his sophomore album and battle it out with Drake for the crown. But it’s close to New Years, and all we have to show is a controversial lead single, a few pop grabs, and a general decline from TDE. What happened?
When Kendrick finally dropped his feverishly anticipated lead single i, it wasn’t the triumphant return he had hoped. Fueled by an obvious Isley Brothers sample, it alternates between corny and catchy with Kendrick shouting out self affirmations of “I love myself.” i was bemoaned for being an industry sellout, a capitulation to the people that voted for Macklemore. It was also praised for being a radical statement of self love for young black men in a year where they were being gunned down all around the country. The truth is a little of both. Major label rappers need pop crossovers to sustain their success and if you have to make that pop grab there are worse sources than old school soul. It is a catchy song and after a couple of listens I was grooving to it (plus my mom loved it right away so there’s that). But that doesn’t excuse its saccharine tone; plenty of rappers made radio hits that sound much less poppy than this. This feels like it’s meant to be slotted in between Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande and sure enough I’ve heard it played much more often on Hot 97 than on the hip hop station Power 106. For an artist who cultivated such a deep fan base for his work, he made his return single for everyone else, and that’s what feels weird.
I don’t mind i though, because it’s some of the best Kendrick of 2014. The song is carefully considered; every verse uses a different flow, the production is constantly changing, and there’s a dope Thundercat bass breakdown at the end. All we’ve had this year from Kendrick are uninspired guest verses. After spending all of last year demolishing every guest spot he was on, lately it’s just been a series of awkward pop verses. It displays a frightening lack of brand awareness. And the worst part is that none of them are doing well! He was even on the lead single for the hottest producer in the game with Lil Wayne and Future and it bricked. This spiral reached its nadir last week with the new Jay Rock song “Pay For It.”
The problem with most of Kendrick’s verses this year is that they’ve all been hollow. Technically precise with nothing much to say. It’s as if he’s just going through the motions. But “Pay For It,” a new song for TDE labelmate Jay Rock and a big commercial opportunity, is a new low. Already bearing a kitschy chorus, Kendrick rambles about being king, throws in some obtuse biblical allusions, and calls it day. It may be his first garbage verse. There’s nothing even remotely impressive about it. It’s one thing to throw half-assed verses for random pop singers, it’s another to deliver the same effort to your rapping comrade.
Kendrick is trapped by the prison that “Control” has built. Ever since that verse, his features have been marked by a constipated anger. His voice has been contorted into a throaty yell that seems to aim for the Linkin Park crowd. His lyrical rebellion that was so exciting on “Control” has waned into petulant tantrums. But there’s still hope. Perhaps all of these phoned in verses are the result of saving all of the good stuff for his album, which might be released before the end of the year. He’s scheduled for an appearance on Saturday Night Live next week and he’ll probably debut a new song, maybe this “King Kunta” we’ve been hearing about. And he’s still put in great work this year with Flying Lotus, appearing on “Never Catch Me” which is one of the best songs of the year (and one of the best videos, please please PLEASE watch it above). Kendrick Lamar has already proved his talent so he doesn’t need to appease anybody, but this is not how you follow up a title year. The expectations for his album are higher than ever. Hopefully he can live up to them.