Nice Guys Finish First…But Not By Playing Nice
Kendrick Lamar and Big K.R.I.T.
After the late 2000s breakthrough of Blu, Thurz, Fashawn and Torae, it is these two men that truly opened me up to what I considered the youthful unknown in Hip-Hop. In 2010, I was very much the anti-new-rapper’s fan, convinced that labels (large and small) and A&R’s always knew where to find real talent first, and anybody promoting themselves was amateur night. Inboxes inundated with music, the Bandcamps, Soundclouds and endless stream of ZShares turned me off of music made by people younger than myself. When forced upon me, the music couldn’t seem to teach me much of anything insightful about life, and their dogged persistence to catch wreck in exchange for “good looks, fam” clashed with my constitution.
In 2010, when I truly embraced the work of K.R.I.T. and Kendrick, I realized how wrong I had been about their whole class. These two MCs (one of whom is also a dope producer) were not simply making Jay Z/Nas karaoke, or fakin’ the funk with fictitious criminology on records. Instead, Krizzle combined UGK’s Slab music sound and subject matter with a Goodie M.O.B. introspection and Devin The Dude humility. Meanwhile, Kendrick was the first rapper from Compton that wasn’t seemingly forced into the N.W.A./C.M.W. archetype. Instead, the quirky MC seemed to play the role of a guy accepted by Bloods and Crips, but more interested in Sherane’s altogethers, cartoons and books (and cereal…), perhaps akin to John Singleton’s Tre Styles character in Boyz N the Hood.
This past week, Kendrick broke character. A seemingly get-along-with-everybody artist who’s befriended and collaborated with everybody from Nitty Scott, MC to Gunplay, crowned himself the King Of New York—from 2,788 miles away. If that wasn’t enough, he name-checked a litany of peers (including Big K.R.I.T.), and reminded them all that Rap is a competitive sport.
So, what does it all mean?
Personally, I feel that Kendrick is waking Hip-Hop from a golden slumber. While great albums have come out since 2011 (Killer Mike’s R.A.P., Big Boi’s Sir Lucious Left Foot, The Roots’ undun, to name just a few), if it’s not part of the pretty little hype machine, it’s here and it’s seemingly gone—sadly, even true of K.Dot’s own breakthrough, Section.80, and his team’s #controlsystem and Habits & Contradictions.
Interestingly enough, Kendrick appears to be one of the least-arrogant seeming rappers out there. Approachable. Polite. Humble. These are the traits we expect from Common, not the MC who some might consider the 2013 version of Ice Cube (“Alive on Arrival” Cube anyway). Last year, when K.Dot waited in the wings on “ILLuminate,” while Ab-Soul took a challenger’s shot at the father-era Jay Z, I imagined Lamar cringing. Of Black Hippy, he’s the polished one, who almost never seems to step out of place, even when he was in his early twenties.
All that seemingly changed, however, when Kendrick took off the gloves and went MMA on the entire MC nation on his verse on Big Sean’s “Control (HOF)” (“The Verse”—sidebar: does anyone even think about this as Big Sean’s record anymore?). Kendrick called a homerun, and then hit it. He danced in the end zone while the Safety was injured on the play. He slam-dunked the ball with the game already won—all in hopes of filling the seats and getting us talking.
By the time this publishes, good kid, m.A.A.d city likely will have crossed the Nielsen 1,000,000 mark. This is the first rapper from Compton to grab a platinum plaque since Game. In 2006. On The Doctor’s Advocate. But, despite the lack of major sales breakthroughs over the last few years, Compton’s legacy is very much in tact. DJ Quik is currently mixing Stalley mixtapes, MC Eiht is destroying features on will-be-platinum albums and at work on an album with DJ Premier, and Dr. Dre is maintaining Rap’s Howard Hughes status. Moreover, the city has Problem and Y.G. waiting in the wings, and plenty other artists representing the many facets of the city oft-associated with Ghetto Darwinism, whether told in the form of J.B. trying to jack Eazy’s Alpine speakers in “Boyz-n-The-Hood,” or Keisha being exploited by police.
However, while Compton can transcend from Raiders hats and Loc’s to button-ups and v-necks, what’s happening in New York right now?
Like the argument in the “Lean Back” era regarding Big Apple MCs using out-of-market production to make hits, the culture is in question for its confusion. Seemingly, many artists, whether Pro Era or A$AP Mob, are liberally pulling from influences from the mid-1990s—across many regions. Be it Smif-N-Wessun or be it Cash Money, those touchstones remain active, making music and telling stories with a lived-in authenticity. That’s not to discredit any modern-day artists, but why watch a remake if the original still stands?
I think Kendrick Lamar saw a void in originality, craftsmanship and quality (in the five boroughs and everywhere else in Hip-Hop) and took a page from the Rap icons without needing an 808 or a flat-brimmed snap-back. Big Sean’s “Control (HOF)” was KRS-One’s “I’m Still #1” challenge at Grandmaster Melle Mel. KRS knew that Melle Mel remains one of (if not the) most important MC in the culture. However, KRS wanted Melle to come with him. LL Cool J wanted Kool Moe Dee to come with him, who wanted Busy Bee to come with him.
K.Dot, who has credited Nas as a leading influence, respects New York’s talent (and the true talent of other cities—note the Em and 3000 name checks). He wouldn’t work with A$AP Rocky, 50 Cent, Consequence, Smoke DZA, Roc Marciano, Papoose, and others if he didn’t. He just wants a game. A real game like the legendary scrimmage between the 1992 USA Basketball Dream Team where friendships fall away once you step on the court, players put on their game faces and competition is anything BUT a game.
Moreover, perhaps Kendrick—the nice guy—is what it takes to decry “the nice-guy era.” How many of you can name all the collaborations listed above? Quite a few came and went. Rappers ask other rappers for verses like signatures in a yearbook. Everybody’s cool, and it’s pounds and hugs until it’s not.
Ever hear the stories of Wu-Tang Clan entering a venue in 1993? Do you know how many people Kool Keith (not so) subliminally dissed on Critical Beatdown and The Four Horsemen? Know how many nice-guy rappers (see: Redman) were involved in those notorious Jack The Rapper convention fights?
Hip-Hop doesn’t need any more violence, but it needs some inside-pitches. Kendrick Lamar hit every MC, large and small, with chin-music this week. It’s a belt, and it’s up for grabs. Take it. Why get mad, just get the belt.
The funniest part is, Kendrick doesn’t even need to explain himself. Besides Jay Z, 50 Cent and Nas, name a platinum New York City MC? Harder, name one who achieved it with their first album on a major label. Name another artist who took an album released digitally-only that topped year-end lists to the teenagers through thirty-somethings.
What we have here, courtesy of K.Dot, is “Rooftop, like we bringin’ ’88 back.” This is a call to arms, and a moment that Hip-Hop has been missing for a decade. And I have a feeling that even if he loses, K.Dot won.
What do you think is happening with this lyrical warfare? Great for the sport of MC’ing? Over sensationalized? Tell us at @Ambrosia4Heads.