Kendrick Lamar reaps the benefits of being a fearless rapper

August 13, 2013

Kendrick Lamar, the Compton-based rapper, has set the hip-hop world ablaze with his latest battle rhyme.

Kendrick Lamar continues to leave his mark on hip-hop history.

The Compton born rapper set Twitter ablaze Monday night  after hip-hop heads around the web caught wind of his battle rhyme for the ages on “Control,” a seven minute song also featuring Big Sean and Jay Electronica.  Did a west coast rapper really call himself King of New York?   Did a rap rookie really put himself on the same scale as Jay-Z and Nas? And did he really call his hip-hop peers out by name and vow to annihilate their careers?

Spitting out some of the most braggadocious lines in recent rap history, Lamar (crowned by MTV as the “Hottest MC in the Game” in 2012) is now said to have the best verse of 2013.

Many have reduced Lamar’s verse to a diss track that has compelled countless rappers to respond via Twitter. But others, myself included, are intrigued by how awe-inspiring Lamar seems to be to rap veterans, his contemporaries and hip-hop heads. This verse is a mere extension of him constantly pushing the envelope and operating outside the box.

From the second that Lamar’s verse begins, the poetry kicks in. It’s that celestial, “from two planets away” voice that has become his signature sound. The vocabulary is simple but the ideas are complex. Every line is overpacked, forcing the listener to take them apart piece by piece in order to understand the metaphors. “Miscellaneous minds are never explaining their minds/ Devilish grin for my alias aliens to respond/ Peddlin’ sin, thinking’ maybe when you get old you realize/ I’m not gonna fold or demise.”

Lamar is an unapologetic lyricist who masterfully weaves words and images together in the art of hip-hop story-telling. His language is often explicit and vulgar, loaded with N-words and the like, but he is a griot of this generation. When Lamar opens his mouth, he  brings the reality of the grimy, gritty streets of America into the mainstream with him.

When he says “I’m Makaveli’s offspring, I’m the king of New York / King of the Coast, one hand, I juggle them both,” he’s not simply dethroning Jay-Z or Nas. He’s evoking rap history through the memory of hip-hop legends Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G.

Lamar, unlike many of his rap peers, understands that his competition is not only his contemporaries but also the greats that preceded him. He’s “trying to raise the bar high” in order to call hip-hop back to its more organic self, reminding other artists that it was “black hoodie rap” that put many of the legends on the map and not the rampant materialism found on radio stations today. Joining a chorus of people who blamed New York rappers for Lamar’s lyrical audacity, rapper Joe Budden asked via Twitter, “Where’s old NY?”

Some may say that Lamar went too far. He definitely went to the edge of rap social etiquette: “I heard the barbershops be in great debates all the time / Bout who’s the best MC – Kendrick, Jigga and Nas.” But it goes without question that he’s taking  his craft to new lyrical heights and he is pushing his contemporaries to do the same.

At a time when so much of rap music is about profit generating, Lamar is that “breath of fresh air” that Lupe Fiasco was once described as. There’s no artistic risk he seems unwilling to take. He’s not married to conformity. He’s not invested in rap solely for commercial success. If one word explains why he stands out from the pack, it’s “fearless.” Kendrick Lamar is reaping the benefits of courage.

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Mark Berman · August 13, 2013