Kendrick Lamar Declares War On Hip-Hop’s Top 5 MCs
One week ago Kendrick Lamar made a rare and bold statement about his upcoming album while providing some significant news. “As I produce my final TDE album, I feel joy to have been a part of such a cultural imprint after 17 years. The Struggles. The Success. And most importantly, the Brotherhood. May the Most High continue to use Top Dawg as a vessel for candid creators. As I continue to pursue my life’s calling,” The 34-year-old Compton, California superstar wrote.
The timing of the statement caused many to speculate that Kendrick Lamar may be soon to announce his follow-up to 2017’s DAMN. That was the deep-dive topic of the latest episode of Ambrosia For Heads’ What’s The Headline podcast, which also included a detailed timeline of TDE’s rise to become the best record label of the 2010s (embedded below as video and audio):
This week, Kendrick did give fans new music and his first verse of 2021—and first new song since before the pandemic. The moment came as a feature, care of Baby Keem’s “family ties” video single. Keem, who is also Kendrick Lamar’s cousin, has musical history with at least three-fourths of Black Hippy. The Carson, California native appeared on 2018’s Black Panther Soundtrack, which Kendrick and Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffin executive produced and curated. As a producer and songwriter, he also worked on Jay Rock’s Redemption and ScHoolboy Q‘s CrasH Talk. In late 2019, Dave Free, a longtime TDE executive, producer, and DJ, had reportedly left the company to launch his own ventures and manage Baby Keem. Then, in March 2020, Kenny, Dave, and Keem each posted pgLang logos on socials. Reports later revealed that Dave Free and Kendrick Lamar had co-founded the mysterious creative agency. Dave, who had known K-Dot since high school, was the one responsible for first playing the artist’s music for Top Dawg during the mid-2000s. That event led to a deal and Hip-Hop history.
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Nearly a year and a half later, Baby Keem is becoming pgLang’s breakout star. His music is distributed through Sony Records. Keem is among the guests Kanye West has included during his iterations of Donda. The rapper’s “ORANGE SODA” is certified platinum. For this weekend’s newest drop, a single titled “family ties,” the artwork shows a young Keem (now 20) and a young Kendrick in a group photo, possibly of family. All other faces are obscured by a line across the eyes—the same as 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city cover. This marks the first collaboration the two cousins formally released to the public.
Beyond its artwork, “family ties” features a high-powered verse from Kendrick which likely explains the curious timing to his August statement. The Dave Free-directed video carries over the tradition of stylized visuals that he helped bring to TDE. After a series of bars from Keem that feature a unique and inventive flow, Lamar appears at 2:20. The beat changes as Kung Fu Kenny announces that he’s “smokin’ on your top 5 tonight.” He demands that spot. Then, as his verse begins, Lamar touts pgLang at the rip, as he teases his bars: “I am the omega, pgLang, Rollie gang, SIE / Don’t you address me unless it’s with four letters / I thought you’d known better / I been duckin’ the pandemic, I been, social gimmicks / I been duckin’ the overnight activists, yeah / I’m not a trending topic, I’m a— / Hold on, y’all ni**as playin’ with me, man / I am the omega, pgLang, Rollie gang, SIE / Don’t you address me unless it’s with four letters / B*tch, I thought you’d known better / I been duckin’ the pandemic, I been duckin’ the social gimmicks / I been duckin’ the overnight activists, yeah / I’m not a trending topic, I’m a prophet.” In the video, Kendrick keeps his face masked as he dances (and possibly raps) fervently to the beat. The four letters are presumed to be “G.O.A.T.” (or DAMN) Kendrick waves off fake activism along the way.
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In one of his very few appearances in the last two years, Kendrick experiments as always. He ends a series of cadences with a Hulk Hogan-inspired “brother,” including some southern twang to boot. Returning to jewelry/time-piece imagery, Lamar raps, “The big shot, wrist on cryotherapy / Soon as I press that button / Ni**a better get right like the ambulance comin’ / Us two on a light, Keem been through nothin’ / Dave Free got at least one B in the oven.” He shouts out his pgLang cohorts, while brandishing a flag in the music video. He suggests Dave may have a child on the way (or at least that Baby Keem is cooking up something), while—later in the song—possibly revealing that he became a father while on break: “Two phones, but I only bring one in this b*tch / One daughter, but they all my sons in this b*tch.”
Kendrick teases more music while declaring war on Hip-Hop’s greatest MCs, with a “Control”-like confidence, eight Augusts later. While on “Control,” Kendrick took aim at peers like Drake, J. Cole, Wiz Khalifa, Big Sean and Big K.R.I.T., he likened himself to greats like JAY-Z, Eminem, Nas and Andre 3000 (presumably all part of his top 5). On “family ties,” it appears Kendrick believes he has vaulted past them and assumed the pole position. In addition to his allusion to being the G.O.A.T., he repeats that he’s “Smokin’ on top fives.” He also likens himself to Hip-Hop’s savior, as he raps: “Go figure, never caught cases, brother / Face it, brother, gracious brother / New flows comin’, be patient, brother / Show my ass and take y’all to class / I can multitask like Megan, brother / 2021, I ain’t takin’ no prisoner / Last year, y’all f*cked up all the listener / Who went platinum? I call that a visitor / Who the f*ck backin’ ’em? All been falsified / The facts mean this a vaccine, and the game need me to survive / The Elohim, the rebirth / Before you get to the Father, you gotta holla at me first, b*tch.”
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In a season where album talk his been going to Kanye West (who keeps working on Donda in real-time) and Drake’s Certified Lover Boy expected very, very soon, Kendrick throws big competitive jabs: “Smokin’ on top fives / Mother-f*ck that album, f*ck that single / Burn that hard drive (Burn that sh*t) / Ain’t nobody safe / When I come up killin’ everybody that’s outside (Who you with?) / Yeah, Kanye changed his life / But me, I’m still an old school Gemini (lil’ b*tch) / Let me jump in this b*tch.” Referencing singles and hard drives seem as though Lamar is going at peers still in roll-out, and he’s jumping into the ring—word to his Hulkster cadences. There are also a plethora of references to Scripture too, where Kendrick seemingly suggests that he answers to God and archangels (Metratron and Gabriel) only, and that his heritage is the 70 Disciples gathered by Moses to feast with God. Given Kendrick’s use of “Elohim,” this seems to be a likely theme.
The credits to the video say “starring Oklama,” the same word Kendrick used for the website in conjunction with last week’s announcement. However, after the credits, a closing sequence shows Kendrick driving a stretch SUV limo. He lowers his bandana to spit and buck shots at the camera. It may be another nod to Tupac Shakur (who famously spit at lenses) and/or it can be a visual metaphor for the content of the lyricism. That same sequence was reversed on Baby Keem’s IG page, creating some new symbolism to Kendrick Lamar driving his movement as Keem lives up to his lyrics: “I’m f*ckin’ the world, I unzip my pants.” Kendrick Lamar and his team are no stranger to playing with direction and meaning. Look no further than DAMN.
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According to Rap Genius, “family ties” marks Baby Keem’s first single for upcoming album, The Melodic Blue.
#BonusBeat: Baby Keem and Kendrick Lamar’s “family ties” currently appears on the official AFH playlist: