In 2011, I was basically over rap, and over all of the new age rappers, the Gucci Manes and Waka Flockas; I was heavily into country music and re-exploring the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan when an old friend showed be Rigamortis by Kendrick Lamar.
“Don’t ask for your favourite rapper, he dead,” Kendrick said. At first I thought he was an arrogant, new age prick. That was, until he flowed and I found myself swaying along to the trumpets. Kendrick killed that track – I hadn’t heard someone flow that hard in years. He had everything my old stuck-in-my-ways arse needed to get back into rap. I borrowed my team mate’s CD and listened to the rest of the album, Section 80.
The next year, Kendrick returned with an even better album, Good Kid M.A.A.D. City. The album spawned two Grammy nominations, and although he didn’t win, the album generated a series of massive hits and mainstream international fame. Then of course, came last year’s groundbreaking To Pimp a Butterfly, which not only won five Grammy Awards, but has been hailed as one of the most important records of all time. Thematically, it has acted as a springboard for countless discussions about society, culture and race relations, inspired rallies and protest chants, led schoolroom poetry and discussions and much, much more. Musically, it’s been lauded as genre-expanding and brilliant, welcoming jazz into the mainstream hip-hop at level unlike anything we’ve seen in years.
Just a couple weeks ago, Lamar surprised us all with an incredible eight-track release, untitled unmastered. This is where our argument begins. Indeed, Kendrick Lamar appears to be the only living rapper whose immense success is based on his music, and his music alone.
First, compare this release to the biggest rap release before it, obviously Kanye West‘s The Life Of Pablo. The minimalism of Lamar’s release was almost as surprising as the drop itself. West’s Twitter tirades, the endless re-hashing of track lists, changing of release dates, teasing numerous versions of songs, switching up featured guests and so on, the launch itself – not only taking place in Madison Square Garden, but live-streamed in cinemas across the world, was ridiculous. Yet it didn’t feel that overbearing, really – considering so many artists having taken to extreme methods to promote albums (Rihanna‘s multi-year-long tease, Drake and Nicky Minaj‘s immediately meme-ready music videos, Jay-Z‘s Samsung deals, and Young Thug‘s funeral procession through Texas this weekend are just a handful of countless examples.)
Music marketing and promotion has shifted massively in recent years, most notably in pop and hip-hop. We’ve become accustomed to the overblown, the cryptic, and the downright crazy. It often seems that but the music is being shoved down our throats to push artists and releases. Love it or hate it, that’s how it is. As Talib Kweli said when we spoke to him last year, “…the industry doesn’t respond to talent, they respond to marketing and promotion and being able to create a brand and a buzz.”
This shift is understandable, to an extent. It’s extremely difficult to make people pay attention to an artist without a grabby Instagram account, or a controversial Twitter tirade, a Hotline Bling-level smash, or generally really outlandish antics. It’s a shift which has drawn endless criticism for placing image, interaction and attention-demanding events above the music itself. Yet it is a necessary evil for many.
But then Kendrick Lamar dropped untitled unmastered with nothing more than a couple tweets. That was it.
The album didn’t come with any promotion or advertising. Top Dawg CEO Anthony Tiffith announced that TDE would be releasing something, but nobody expected it to be an eight-track K.Dot album. Kendrick doesn’t really have an overly active presence on social media, there’s no video clips, the album doesn’t even have a real name or track listing, and the cover itself is just plain green with a tiny bit of text in the corner.
untitled unmastered. https://t.co/YlAszcK4e4
— Kendrick Lamar (@kendricklamar) March 4, 2016
Despite no hype (save for a slightly early Spotify leak which sent music journalists and fans alike into brief meltdown) or publicity, the album still managed to debut at the top spot on the Billboard charts, his second album in under a year to do so. Despite being pretty much the anti-TLOP, it sold 178,000 units in its first week and has been hailed by many as one of the best hip-hop releases since To Pimp A Butterfly.
This is an incredible feat in 2016. It speaks to Kendrick’s immense talents, and acts as a beacon of hope, proving that fans are more than slaves to social media and catchy promotional campaigns. Kendrick Lamar has got to be one of the only rappers who can rely on naught but his talent to do the talking and boost his sales.
In the past year, we have seen more and more rappers partaking in publicity stunts, most notably social media beefs. Tupac and Biggie started one of the most infamous rap beefs of all time, and it has long been theorised that both legends were killed as a result of these beefs. What was most interesting about this beef was that it, shock horror, did not take place in the media. Instead, the beef came out on the streets, and of course, in music. Tupac released the everlasting diss track Hit ‘em Up and Biggie released Who Shot Ya. The same happened with Jay-Z and Nas – Hove released Takeover and Nas responded with Ether (fortunately, in their case, nobody died). The basic result of these public beefs was still a focus on the music, with record sales increasing at the same time as – but not specifically, strictly intending to – alienate their opponent.
The history of hip-hop beefs travels far deeper than the music; it was territorial and often gang-related, a reminder that gangsta rap was actually born out of a life of gang involvement, and the real violence which occurred on the streets.
These days, beefs exist almost entirely to incite tabloid journalism and nothing more. we see Kanye and Wiz Kalifa beefing on Twitter over an ex-girlfriend. We see Azalea Banks beefing with, well, everyone, to the point where she has become more famous for her Twitter output than any music she’s ever released. Her deleting her twitter account made more noise than her new song did.
Now don’t get me wrong – I appreciate that social media is a very important tool is creating exposure. There would have been no Odd Future or A$AP Mob without Tumblr, no Nicki Minaj or Drake without MySpace, no Chief Keef or The Weeknd without Youtube.
Sure, there were rumours of a Kendrick/Drake beef last year, but it was no more than brief fodder, and it certainly didn’t skew or lead any marketing campaigns (For the record, “A rapper with a ghost writer, what the fuck happened?“ is a perfectly valid question that was more than likely aimed at a number of Lamar’s contemporaries, not just Drake).
Sure, some people criticised Kendrick for featuring on Taylor Swift‘s extraordinarily over-hyped Bad Blood (this is another example of an antithesis to untitled, by the way – not only did the video actually premiere AT the Grammy Awards, but the video, including its multi-million dollar production and star-studded cast, was more publicised than some entire albums).
But the point is that these incidents don’t push his career further than his actual music does. Without much social media presence, without controversial lyrics, without beefs, without memes, Kendrick Lamar is a mainstream star with the respect and reverence often reserved for those who thrive in the underground. As Hov famously pointed out in Moment of Clarity, “If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be, lyrically Talib Kweli.”
What we’re saying is that he’s a really really talented guy, AND a really really successful guy. It’s very rare than a hip-hop artist achieves commercial success, mainstream popularity and real respect among critics and peers.
Perhaps this is the most crucial notion: the fact that he’s not only commercially successful, and not only revered and hailed as a GOAT among his peers: he is both. That is extremely uncommon, and extremely important.
He is one of the last artists alive whose recognition is based almost entirely on his actual music. In turn, he gives the rap industry a kind of credibility and hope that has been seemingly lost among so many others, for whom music often seems to be the lowest priority.
Social media is a powerful and extremely useful tool for releasing music, interacting with fans, and building an audience. There’s no issue with artists who are discovered on a social platform; the problem arises when their social media output, their videos, their gifs and so on replace the music as the reason they are popular, or at the very least, talked about.
It’s amazing and inspiring that Kendrick does not succumb to these vices and devices, that his talent is so strong that he has established himself as one of the most important, talented, influential, popular, commercially successful artists in the world, and he hasn’t needed to toot his own horn – and that’s an unbelievably rare feat. His music has become an anthem for the people, and indeed, if he were busy starting Twitter beefs, launching drink brands and becoming a human meme, his influence and respect might not be where it’s at right now.
He provides hope for the future of mainstream hip-hop, the future of hip-hop fans, and the circus that is the hip-hop industry, and music in general. Indeed, his own success is proof that we gon’ be alright.
Kendrick Lamar performs tonight in Melbourne, and on Wednesday in Sydney.
Co-written with Lauren Ziegler