It’s time to revisit that old question: Who is running rap? In a genre that thrives on competition, on subtle slights and internal gossip, the question of primacy matters more than it does in any other genre. Even in an atomized rap landscape like the one we have today — where rap isn’t even really one genre but a constellation of loosely connected subgenres — there’s still this seductive idea that only one person can be the conquerer, the center around which rap revolves. And right now, it’s Drake. It’s been Drake. You could make an argument that Drake has been holding the center ever since about 2011 — which would make his run on top the longest in the genre’s history. But even if Drake is a dominant figure, he has competition. And no competition is fiercer than Kendrick Lamar. In the wake of Kendrick Lamar’s new war declaration “The Heart Part 4,” it’s worth asking where these two stand in relation to each other, whether Drake’s spot is safe.
The last time I wrote about this question, there were three people circling that top spot, all in an intricate dance with one another: Drake, Kendrick, and Kanye West. That is no longer the case. Kanye West, through extracurricular antics as much as through music, has nosedived out of the top three, maybe out of the top 10 altogether. He is no longer in the conversation. Future and J. Cole are both massive stars, though their visions of the genre are too personal and particular to really grab anything away from Drake. Chance The Rapper forced his way into contention at some point last year, but he’s still a distant existential threat to Drake. Right now, the only person Drake really has to worry about is Kendrick Lamar, and Kendrick seems bent on making Drake sweat.
“My fans can’t wait to see me son your punk ass and crush your whole little shit.” That’s what Kendrick says on “The Heart Part 4″ just as the beat switches. All the songs in “The Heart” series — a thing that Kendrick has been doing sporadically ever since 2010 — are exhibitions of pure rapping. Up until that beat switches, Kendrick is in a sort of head-blown poetic frame of mind. But when that track switches, the mood suddenly changes, and Kendrick goes into vengeful, bloodthirsty mode. It’s the most direct that Kendrick has been about his competition ever since he threw firebombs all over Big Sean’s “Control (HOF)” a few years ago. That time, he named names. This time, he doesn’t. He leaves it up to us to figure it out. There’s apparently some evidence that he’s going after Big Sean on that one, but does anyone consider Big Sean a threat to Kendrick Lamar? Does Big Sean even think that? It seems pretty clear that he’s talking about Drake. And even if he’s not, we want him to be.
Drake and Kendrick have thrown little subliminal barbs at each other here and there ever since that “Control” verse. Before that, they seemed like allies. Kendrick got a track to himself on Drake’s Take Care and opened for Drake on tour that fall. They appeared together on Kendrick’s “Poetic Justice” and A$AP Rocky’s “Fuckin’ Problems.” But since that verse, it’s been a years-long cold war. In a recent radio interview, Kendrick’s label boss Top Dawg said that Kendrick wrote the song on 3/21 — three days after Drake released More Life. And great as More Life is — and it really is great — it’s easy to hear how a laser-precise pure rapper like Kendrick might hear an album like that and go into blind-rage mode.
More Life is only barely a rap album. It’s something else. It’s a collection of globally inclined summer party music, a distillation of all these different strains of black popular music that are bubbling across the globe. Rap, especially Atlanta trap, is a big part of that More Life equation, but it’s not the whole of it. And Drake picks up just as much from grime, from dancehall, from afrobeats, from slick R&B, and from various different strains of house music. The guest rappers on More Life — even Giggs — tend to outrap Drake, and nobody holds that against him. You could argue that Drake’s actual rapping ability has never been central to his appeal. On More Life, it’s even further off to the side than usual.
Kendrick doesn’t play that. Kendrick, like Drake, tends to unite a few different strains of music into one personal aesthetic. But all of Kendrick’s styles are focused very much on a specific place: ’90s West Coast G-funk, the gurgling space-funk of the Low End Theory crew, and especially the post-Project Blowed strain of Californian rappity-rap. All of these are deeply rooted California sounds, and all of them locate Kendrick in a continuum. They also all value wild, original voices, whereas Drake’s sounds tend to simply value sounds and vibes. The way that Drake and Kendrick Lamar view music these days, then, isn’t just different. It’s, on some fundamental level, opposed.
Drake isn’t the point of “The Heart Part 4.” Kendrick throws a few lines at him (or, in any case, at an unnamed adversary) and then moves on. The song is about a few different things. By the time the song ends, Kendrick is describing a world gone deeply wrong: “The whole world gone mad / Bodies is adding up, market about to crash / Niggas is fake rich, bitches is fake bad / Blacks that act white, whites doing the dab / Donald Trump is a chump / Know how we feel, punk? Tell ‘em that God coming.” He’s lashing out in every direction, his tone increasingly frenzied and furious. As the beat keeps switching up — and it switches up constantly — the song gains its own sense of berserk momentum, refusing to fall into any sort of sustained groove. It’s an intense listening experience.
But to me, the most exciting thing about “The Heart Part 4″ is that Kendrick is rapping again. Listening to To Pimp A Butterfly today, it’s not quite the radical departure that I heard when it first came out two years ago. But it’s still an ambitious, astrally inclined album, one that essentially pushed Kendrick outside rap’s mainstream. The Kendrick of To Pimp A Butterfly wasn’t worried about other rappers — not really, anyway. He was more worried about society at large, about the state of his own soul. That made for one of the defining artistic statements of this decade so far. But in the time that he’s been playing the background, only surfacing for the occasional guest appearance on a Travis Scott or Danny Brown or a Tribe Called Quest song, I’ve wondered what might happen if Kendrick locked back into rap, if he really tried to unseat Drake as the man at the center of the rap universe. We could be hearing that right now.
“The Heart Part 4″ isn’t the only Kendrick track to emerge in the past week. He also appeared alongside Rae Sremmurd and Gucci Mane on Mike Will Made-It’s airy, gorgeous “Perfect Pint.” Given that none of the other rappers on the song ever mention him, I have to imagine that Kendrick’s verse was a late addition, one that he might’ve recorded after the song was already thought to be done. On that song, Kendrick’s as close to autopilot as he ever gets, and he sounds great on it, just darting in and out of that glorious cloud of a beat. It’s a thrill just to hear him show up, to talk some slick shit on a definitively Southern banger, engaging with things that are happening in rap right now without throwing himself headlong into them. He can still do that. That weapon is still in his arsenal. And maybe Drake should be more worried about that than about anything else.
At the end of “The Heart Part 4,” Kendrick issues an ultimatum: “Y’all got until April the 7 to get y’all shit together.” With that move, he effectively recasts his (great) new song as a truly effective piece of album promo. We knew nothing concrete about anything Kendrick had coming out, and now 4/7 looms huge for anyone who cares about rap. (We don’t know that there’s an album on the horizon, but it sure feels that way.) Kendrick put “The Heart Part 4″ out into the world mere days after Drake released More Life, essentially grabbing Drake’s whole narrative away from him. And in the process, he raised the question of what a Kendrick Lamar album will even sound like in 2017. I could easily imagine Kendrick pushing his style even further into the ether than it was on To Pimp A Butterfly. After all, the world is more fucked up now than it was two years ago. But I could just as easily imagine Kendrick deciding that rap was his for the taking, that he’s ready to start acting like a rap star again. Either way, I can’t wait to see what happens.
1. Freddie Gibbs – “Alexys”
God bless Freddie Gibbs, a rapper so hardnosed and so fundamentally skilled that he can rap on ethereal, chiming, pretty music and still sound like the hardest motherfucker in his hemisphere. We already heard what happened when he did a whole album with Madlib. Now I want a whole album with Kaytranada.
2. T.I. – “Do My Thing”
T.I. never sounds happier than when he gets a beat that bounces like it was still 2004. You could tell me that this is a long-buried track from the Urban Legend sessions, and I would believe you.
3. The Cool Kids – “TV Dinner”
I don’t remember starving for a Cool Kids reunion, but I’m happy that it’s happening anyway. Turns out, I’d forgotten how Mikey Rocks slithers over these sparse, hard Chuck Inglish slaps.
4. DJ Holiday – “Wassup Wid It” (Feat. 2 Chainz)
2 Chainz is on such a roll right now that he can just gift a song this slick to a mixtape DJ. It’s nothing to him. Inspiring.
5. Wiki – “Icarus”
More than his music with Ratking, solo Wiki has found a way to make tracks stagger the way he does in the videos.