Kendrick Lamar and Hip-Hop’s Savior Complex
We’re rooting for Kendrick Lamar. He has risen through the ranks of the indie/Internet scene to become one of the most talked about new artists in music and a favorite of fans who like their rap with some lyrical complexity and substance. But as the Oct. 22 release date of his major label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, approaches he’s been christened a “rap savior” — a title that’s been bestowed on many emcees before him with varying outcomes. It seems that every time hip-hop heads hold an artist up as the Second Coming they set themselves up for disappointment. Mass Appeal got music critic Craig J. Jenkins to weigh in on the the rap audience’s at times unrealistic expectations and the phenomenon of the “hip-hop savior.”
From Paid in Full to Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) to The College Dropout, many of the albums widely considered to be hip-hop classics have been debut albums. Landmark debut albums from Biggie, Nas, and Jay-Z went a long way in propelling the rap messiah myth, the belief in an artist whose raw talent will radically change the game and foist them into national stardom. This expectation of excellence has endured even as the machinery of the music industry has pushed it out of grasp.
Diminishing album sales have caused great trepidation on the part of record labels, and no album sees the light of day unless its singles breach the Billboard Hot 100. Rappers tide fans over with free mixtapes showcasing their lyrical abilities, but come album time, they have both labels’ thirst for sales and fans’ demand for hard-hitting lyricism to contend with. Over the past few years, rap messiah prospects have repeatedly buckled under the stress of appeasing these dueling demands.
Georgia rapper B.o.B’s spitfire bars and inventive songwriting earned him comparisons to Outkast’s Andre 3000 early in his career. After a fateful meeting and impromptu audition with T.I., B.o.B signed with Atlantic Records via T.I.’s Grand Hustle imprint. He sharpened his craft over a series of promising mixtapes, but his 2010 debut, The Adventures of Bobby Ray, sacrificed his hip-hop credibility for pop radio airplay and succeeded, and he has scarcely looked back since.
L.A. rapper Blu hooked up with Emanon producer Exile for 2007’s left-field underground classic Below the Heavens. The ensuing buzz landed Blu a spot on XXL magazine’s 2009 Freshmen list and a deal with Warner Bros. NoYork!, the defiantly uncommercial distillation of L.A.’s beat scene that was to serve as Blu’s Warner debut, would only surface when he gave away copies at 2011’s Rock the Bells tour. Blu left Warner months later.
Gifted young rappers braving the chasm between underground fame and mainstream recognition are making it either by streamlining their music to increase marketability or sticking to their guns at the risk of under-performing commercially. Either you’re a Nicki Minaj or a Big K.R.I.T., a J. Cole or a Saigon. But for every artist with a critically acclaimed flop or chart-topping weed plate, there’s a Wale, whose debut album didn’t really excel at anything, or a Papoose, whose mythological Nacirema Dream is Brooklyn’s answer to Dr. Dre’s chronically delayed Detox.
Acclimating to the demands of a major is risky business, and expecting artists to set the world on fire as soon as they’re signed is lofty, especially since their predecessors experienced the same dilemmas. It took Outkast and Mobb Deep a release or two each to reach the peak of their abilities, and although Jay & Nas’s debuts are looked upon as classics, neither earned platinum plaques until years later. Each artist succeeded by refining a unique voice before pursuing commercial aspirations, and it would do their disciples well to follow suit.
The hip-hop majors aren’t doing much artist development in 2012, so it’s on MCs to do it themselves. Kendrick Lamar and his Black Hippy crew have taken advantage of the freedom and immediacy of digital media, dropping a series of small stakes releases that have allowed them to build an audience and create a signature sound in one fell swoop. Kendrick’s Interscope debut, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, is just around the corner, and he already seems to have refined a workable aesthetic.
Whether Kendrick flops, sells out, or ushers in a new Golden Age of lyrical commercial rap is beside the point. The expectations we’ve piled onto new artists are unreasonable. All Kendrick or anyone else needs to do for the rap game is sell a few records and get a few heads nodding. Instead of clamoring for saviors, we should be giving artists space to grow and evolve to the level of a Jay or a Nas. Greatness is achieved through time and experience, and we’ll probably never see it again if we keep looking for overnight sensations.