University residence subjects you to a melting pot of opinions about damn near everything. Whether it’s a drunken, miraculously in-depth conversation about the state of hip-hop in the common room, blasting EDM to soundtrack dinnertime with your roommates, or hearing your neighbors blaring Taylor Swift whilst no doubt shotgunning Twisted Teas on a Thursday night, you get a feel for the different tastes of music surrounding you.
Part of the reason I chose to live with my friends — there’s essentially seven of us — is due to our shared taste in music. Indie rock, some classics, a little R&B here and there all float through our walls, ears and mouths, but for the most part, our mind is fixated on rap. So naturally, when a shared favorite of ours (re: and every other rap fan, save for Shyne and disgruntled detractors), King Kendrick Lamar, announced the first single from his forthcoming sophomore album, we got excited. GKMC is on perpetual rotation in at least one of our rooms, while the rest most likely have Section.80, O(verly)D(edicated), “Cartoons & Cereal” or any one of his countless features playing way to loudly.
Sept. 23 rolls around; by noon, our conversations have turned to include two questions.
“Have you heard the new Kendrick song?”
“What did you think?”
At that point, we all shared a nearly identical response: an initial pause as we gathered our words before hesitantly answering, “I liked it,” as if we know we shouldn’t. And why shouldn’t we? An apex artist widely hailed as one of our generation’s greats, with a debut album liberally/rightfully labeled our Illmatic, came out with new music! Why would there be even a smidgeon of apprehension?
After much discussion, a few games of foosball and the tiniest bit of actual studying, we all came to a general conclusion. It wasn’t the song we were expecting, let alone hoping for, but it was a good song. It’s catchy and well written with a solid beat — maybe a little cheesy, but then again so is Drake. And god knows not a day goes by without “Hold On, We’re Going Home” emanating from one of our rooms.
But we were still worried.
It’s not a stretch to say rap fans always look for a hero to come save the day. We’re quick to judge albums as “classics” just days after they’ve been released, ready to add young artists to the pantheon of greats, and always dependent on a “chosen-one” or “second-coming” to save the day by dropping a game-changing album. Some would say Kendrick did that in 2011 with Section.80. Most would say he cemented his hall of fame induction in 2012 with good kid, m.a.a.d. city.
So when he released “i” to less than universal acclaim, it struck fans of his hard. It was a rare sign of vulnerability in the 27-year-old’s god-like persona. Maybe Kendrick isn’t a perfect rap artist, and maybe he can deliver a sub-par statement. Or perhaps people aren’t being fair.
The first thought that flocked to the minds of my roommate and I was that it was different than GKMC. Different. Not worse, but not the same. And therein lies the problem.
If we compare everything Lamar does to that landmark album, we’re always going to feel disappointed. good kid captures specific emotions, atmospheres and a voice now viewed as Kendrick’s calling card due to the praise it received. Chances are he opts to stray from that same narrative beacon, already employed and an unlikely candidate for replication. If Kendrick is the artist we truly believe and want him to be, he won’t try to recapture that lightening in a bottle. Jay Z once said “it’s all about progression” and Lamar’s taken that to heart. “i” doesn’t sound like GKMC because their creator doesn’t want it too. And we need to accept that. Even though we love it and want more, we might not get it.
It’s a sad reality. Unless divine intervention enters the fold, and Kendrick drops an album that shakes hip-hop and music at large, K. Dot’s next project will likely leave many fans disappointed. Need I recite the writing on the wall? It Was Written has only gotten its rightful due as a classic within the last few years. No one ever seems to remember (in other words, most everyone tries to forget) In My Lifetime Vol. 1 or Tha Doggfather. And yet Lamar’s follow-up is far from guaranteed to be a downgrade. Hell, it could even be better. But if we hold it up to GKMC and dwell on why it’s not this album we adore, we’re going to miss out on the possibility of loving it for what it is: a new Kendrick Lamar album. Odds say it’ll be a damn good one.
Very few artists age gracefully in hip-hop. The day will surely come where Kendrick really does disappoint us in a major way. Nearly every artist has had a low-point in his or her career, even/especially the greats. But if and when he does fall off, let’s dislike it for legitimate reasons. Let’s judge it objectively, not because it doesn’t sound like his past success(es).
For now, though, some advice: If “i” comes on between “Money Trees” and “HiiiPower,” let it play. You might just like what you hear a bit more.