A quick housekeeping note: We’re changing the name of our Week In Rap column because someone else has claimed ownership over the phrase “the week in rap” and because I feel like a total herb every time I use the phrase “hip-hop.” Here’s the story of the new name: Status Ain’t Hood was the name of a blog I wrote for the Village Voice website from 2005 to 2008. Some people liked it. It was named after a line from Destiny’s Child’s “Soldier,” which was still a pretty new song when I started writing it. Other than the name change, though, this is going to be the exact same thing as the Week In Rap column we’ve been running. Anyway! On to this week’s column.
Kendrick Lamar is probably the most exciting rapper working right now because every decision he’s making seems charged with meaning and importance. He’s an estimable commercial force making willfully anti-commercial music, and how many of those do we get anymore? He’s a politically charged artist who spends as much time talking about his own flaws as he does about the flaws in the society that created him. He’s the most skilled and feared technical rapper of his generation, and he just made an album that’s half-delivered in goofy poetry-slam cadences that went out of fashion in 1996. Even if you don’t love everything he’s doing right now, you have to contend with it if you care about rap music. I’m not in love with To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick’s new album, for reasons that mostly boil down to “I don’t like jazz.” With that said, though, I can still recognize it as an important and deeply felt work, a piece of music that tries honestly and forcefully to rewrite what the idea of rap stardom should mean in 2015. It’s an album made with depth and passion and a sense of adventure, and I love plenty of its moments even if I don’t love the whole thing. (I’m in the not-in-love-with-the-whole-thing minority, anyway.) There are plenty of recent rap albums that I like a whole lot more, but I don’t find myself thinking about those albums nearly as much. It’s an album that demands thought and energy. Practically everything Kendrick’s been doing lately demands thought and energy, and much of the music internet has spent the past month devoting thought and energy to this one guy. But so what should we do when Kendrick does something absolutely, incontrovertibly lame?
The video you see above is a Reebok commercial that Kendrick just appeared in. It’s not the first time Kendrick has showed up in a commercial, or even a Reebok commercial. And anyway, the idea that our musical heroes should float above the sea of commerce is outdated and played-out and insulting. The sellout witch hunts are over, and we’re just happy when we get to see great people making a living at making music. Kendrick should get paid. But should he get paid like this? Because that commercial is fucking terrible. It’s the worst. It’s Reebok conflating its distant #2 sneaker-wars status with actual systemic oppression. It’s Kendrick, by appearing in the thing, conflating the revolutionary stuff he raps about on TPAB with sneaker ownership. It’s a vast multibillion-dollar company sidling up to a kid on the playground and saying, “Don’t do what they tell you to do, do what I tell you to do,” and flashing its paid-for cool signifier to prove its credibility. It’s one big implication that these ugly-ass neon shoes represent any sort of change in the world. They don’t, except that they’ve roped a rare and transcendent figure into helping their parent company parrot some bullshit. It’s not easy to sell out anymore, but with this commercial, Kendrick found a way to do it.
I can’t help but compare this ad to the messianic Nike ad that LeBron made upon his return to Cleveland last year. They’re basically the same: Towering figures repurposed as pitchmen via striking imagery. The Nike ad is a whole lot more aesthetically compelling than the Reebok one, but it doesn’t mean any more. Still, Kendrick Lamar and LeBron James means different things. Even if you love LeBron James (and I do), his presence doesn’t really signify anything more than athletic excellence and home-region pride. Kendrick means more, and he knows it. He just made a whole epic album wrestling with the idea that his presence means something. “I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence,” he says over and over on To Pimp A Butterfly — the beginnings of a poem to Tupac Shakur (who, to be fair, would’ve had no problem doing that Reebok commercial but who never would’ve been offered the chance). And if the Reebok ad isn’t a case of influence misused, I don’t know what is. Kendrick Lamar didn’t make that Reebok commercial by himself. He didn’t spraypaint the word “Revolution” on the wall there. He probably didn’t write the poem he recites in it. But he lent his boundless credibility to a hackneyed corporate commercial that can’t even accommodate that credibility gracefully. If you were worried that Kendrick was making a cornball move when he released “i,” you can now rest easy because this is what a cornball Kendrick Lamar move looks like.
As luck would have it, that ad came out only a few days after the first truly great music video of Kendrick Lamar’s career. Director X’s clip for “King Kunta” is a small masterpiece, one that projects strength and swagger and kinetic motion and fun. In a lot of ways, the video is a love letter to Kendrick Lamar’s Compton hometown and its rich rap-video history. It’s fiercely local — the dances, the lowriders, the local landmarks. But Compton is maybe our most iconic rap-video locale, and the rooftop Kendrick raps on looks a whole lot like the one Snoop Doggy Dogg used in the “Who Am I (What’s My Name)” video. But it’s also an embattled locale, and an embattled culture. Kendrick’s last album, Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, was all about escaping Compton and its no-hope violence. It’s a poor black area, and any poor black area must contend with all sorts of bullshit that the rest of us can’t even hope to understand. And that rooftop? That’s the Compton Fashion Center, the swap meet that’s been made famous in about a million rap songs. Rappers have made their names selling tapes from car trunks there. It’s closed now. Word is that it’s about to become a Wal-Mart. For Kendrick to make a video this community-centric, this focused on projecting strength in an area where life is that hard, is a serious statement. When Kendrick sits on a throne in a Compton driveway, that means something. It would mean something even if Kendrick became the new Aflac duck. To Pimp A Butterfly — whatever I think of it, and whatever public moves Kendrick makes from now on — will endure. But that doesn’t mean we should shrug and accept it when someone so important does something so lame.
Chief Keef – “Faneto (Remix)” (Feat. Lil Bibby, Lil Herb, King Louie & Lil Durk)
I almost wrote this week’s entire column about this beautiful, ridiculous thing: Every single Chicago grunt-rap heavyweight jumping on Chief Keef’s weirdly mesmerizing fuck-you-up anthem, turning it into a 10-minute journey into the heart of the song. This is a deep-immersion banger, a cloud of bass and synth noises and gun threats that you can absolutely lose yourself in. The length seems self-indulgent, but it’s weirdly perfect, giving each rapper a chance to find liftoff. Bibby and Herb are fiery and gifted technicians, and Louie’s mumbly, lost-in-thought verse is all hazy menace. But this thing catches fire at the end, with a Lil Durk verse coming on like the blazing guitar solo near the end of an endless power ballad. Durk is all feral-pitbull menace, shouting about wanting to fuck Kendall Jenner and skipping SXSW like these were the most urgent things that have ever happened to him.
Young Thug – “Check”
Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter V is apparently coming out never, while Young Thug’s Tha Carter 6 is apparently coming out next week. I will never get over the audacity of this extreme act of idol-killing. And yet “Check” displays exactly why Thug is the only person remotely qualified to snatch that franchise away from its creator, if that’s really a thing we’re doing. It’s a prime example of Thug taking the gibbering insanity of Wayne’s greatest era and pushing it further out into the stratosphere, cackling and wailing and howling with absolute demented style. And there’s a reasonable case to be made that London On Da Track is the single greatest rap producer working today; just listen to the low-key glimmer on this track, the muted theremin sounds snaking up through the mix.
Tech N9ne – “On The Bible” (Feat. T.I. & Zuse)
For years, Tech N9ne has quietly been one of the country’s most popular rappers, a theatrical Midwestern fast-rap specialist who founded a regional diehard empire without any help from the rap press or mainstream. He leaves his circle so rarely that it’s fascinating to hear him checking in with a down-the-middle star or an internet-underground sensation like dancehall growler Zuse. Nobody wants to be overshadowed, so everyone brings their A-game, and we all win.
Snootie Wild – “Play Wit A Brick”
There’s no real compelling narrative to the Memphis underground star Snootie Wild. He’s just a guy who makes really good street-rap songs, cramming in frantic Migos cadences and screaming emotional Future sing-rap notes. Last year, his “Made Me” snuck up on us. This one might do the same.
Waka Flocka Flame – “What I Do” (Feat. Juvenile)
Flocka’s new mixtape Salute Me Or Shoot Me 5 is reliably guttural headslap shit, but it really finds liftoff with Flocka and Juvenile growling “I’m good at what I do,” the simplest self-affirmation imaginable, over Mike Will Made-It synth glimmers. They’re right. Generations of Southern rap stars have come up since we met first Juvenile and then Flocka, but both of them are still here. They’re good at what they do.