Monday, July 31, 2017

A Supersaturation of Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick Lamar will be remembered as one the finest rappers of this decade. Since his breakthrough album in 2012, good kid, m.A.A.d city, seemingly everything he's touched has been golden. Good thing, too, because he has touched a lot of music since then.

In 2015, Lamar released the hugely anticipated follow-up third1 album, To Pimp a Butterfly, which many (myself, not included) believe to be his opus. One year later, he released untitled unmastered, a collection of tracks that were great despite being, well, untitled and unmastered. As it were, the album was met with an appreciative surprise from the collective music world. One more year after that, Lamar was back with another album, DAMN, his third in three years. Personally, I thought it was his best since gkmc, but some reviewers have been less forgiving, claiming he may not be as fresh as he used to be. On top of all the full-lengths, he's been featured on numerous tracks.

As I write this, I am playing Vince Staples' excellent Big Fish Theory, on which Lamar has a featured guest spot. And this is far from his first feature of the year. Earlier today, I heard a Future remix with him as well. In fact, it is more surprising when a major hip-hop album does not feature Lamar in some way. I'm probably being hyperbolic here, but the amount of times he has been a featured artist is almost shocking. Just looking over the Wikipedia list for his guest appearances is enough to remind me of a half-dozen albums I had already forgotten he was on. He transcends other genres too, not just hip-hop. He was in songs with The Lonely Island, Imagine Dragons, Taylor Swift, and Maroon 5, not to mention the copious rap tracks. All of this prominence reminds me of another artist of the last decade: Lil Wayne.

In 2008, Lil Wayne released his last truly great album, Tha Carter III, after a consistently solid ten years. The new album was monumentally successful: it sold a ton AND it was really good. He put out three albums in the next 18 months, none of which attained the same quality as III. Over that same period his already-prolific guest features list increased by the dozens2. Waves of mediocre songs peppered in with some good ones, and before too long, Wayne was tired and overplayed. Let me reiterate: Lil Wayne was at the top of hip-hop in the late 2000s (with good reason), and within three years he was basically done. He has continued to put out records and singles, but his best years were inarguably behind him.

Of course, Wayne had some personal issues that hastened his decline, issues Kendrick has not had to deal with (read: prison), so I don’t think Lamar should expect the same floor. And I get it, unlike other genres of music, the high points in a rapper's career are relatively short-lived. For the most part, older rappers can't compete with or move out of the way for younger up-and-comers. But Lil Wayne's career was something else, with some of the highest highs and lowest lows3. Both Lil Wayne and Kendrick Lamar are immensely talented, and both have had some fantastic albums and dozens (hundreds?) of guest appearances. I would like for the similarities to end there.

Don't get me wrong: I am not at the point of saying Lamar is already making bad verses, or that I don't still like hearing his tracks4. All I am saying is that there is slowly rising cause for concern. Maybe my complaints are petty, but he's just not surprising to me anymore. We are at serious risk of Kendrick Lamar over-saturation. He is one of the most versatile rappers working today, but that does not mean I need to hear him in every other major rap release. Instead, I would rather absorb his existing music for the time being without being hit with something else.

1 Yes, third album. His first album, Section.80, went virtually undiscovered until gkmc blew up and retroactively elevated it. Same goes for his solid mixtapes.
2 Again, look at a Wikipedia list to see what I'm talking about. You'll be amazed.
3 For the record, I would love a Lil Wayne renaissance with one, final, stupendous album.
4 I'm serious here: I could name half a dozen tracks where his feature is the best part in the song. When I put on an album for the first time, and I see he's on it, I look forward to his track, eager to see how he sounds.