If there’s one thing that A$AP isn’t, it’s old money. His debut studio LP, 2013’s Long.Live.A$AP, was defined by its overwhelming willingness to outsource. It featured countless rappers from all over the Northern America, was produced by innumerable names deriving from similarly diverse backgrounds, and received additional assists from such outside-the-box choices as M.I.A., Skrillex, and Florence and The Machine’s Florence Welch. The plethora of cooks in the kitchen helped make the disc a raging success, but also robbed it of any singular identity. Not only did it render any attempts at coastal distinction superfluous, its ceaselessly eclectic tracklist essentially argued that A$AP Rocky was a pop star first, and a rapper second.
Lamar also can’t contain his fondness for Mr. Shakur, even blocking out the last 6 minutes of his 2015 effort To Pimp a Butterfly to resurrect the Death Row Records signee for a plainspoken conversation about race, violence, and wealth disparity. This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Butterfly’s incessant inclusion of West Coast legends, Wesley’s Theory containing a phone call from Dr. Dre, while Snoop Dogg makes a brief cameo on Institutionalized. While the presence of the icons listed above shows a healthy reverence to the past, it’s worth noting that only one of them actually raps on the MC’s new record, and even he’s shown the door with the greatest of haste. It’s not without reason; their voices would be entirely ill-suited to the album, largely because Lamar is simply nothing like them. In terms of worldview, imagination, flow, production, and cultural impact, Kendrick derives from the very same mold as Nas, their debut studio albums (Good Kid M.A.A.D City and Illmatic, respectively) still actively compared to each other on a regular basis.
family friends, a metaphorical Uncle Sam, and even his grandmother. Intellect and grandeur are perhaps his most defining features, both of his studio albums playing like novellas or one-man stage plays (Good Kid even sports the subtitle A Short Film By Kendrick Lamar). While many rappers, West Coast especially, model their epic pseudo-lives after Tony Montana, Kendrick and Nas are on their James Joyce. If you require proof, look no further than Matt Daniels’ brilliant distillation of Hip Hop’s vocabulary, wherein he measures the number of unique words utilized within a long list of rappers’ first 35,000 lyrics. Nas falls just a hair short of the collective wording featured in Shakespeare's Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Macbeth, As You Like It, Winter's Tale, and Troilus and Cressida. Give Lamar a couple more albums, and he’ll be right there. He’s already named his sophomore effort after To Kill a Mockingbird, for Christ’s sake...
As stated in the documentary Time is Illmatic, Jones’ father was a jazz musician, and the inspiration for the beat behind Life’s a Bitch. In fact, jazz music is a defining feature behind much of 90’s East Coast Hip Hop, from RZA morphing billowy sounds into The Wu-Tang Clan’s banging, clanging backdrops, to A Tribe Called Quest’s revolutionary sampling styles. This would all stand as an aside if it weren’t for Butterfly’s omnipresent utilization of the genre, undoubtably the jazziest mainstream rap record of the entirety of the 2000’s. Producer Terrence Martin’s free-flowing background on For Free (Interlude)? would almost be enough to earn that distinction all by itself, but it’s paired with Flying Lotus’ madcap production, as well as an assist from the legendary George Clinton. Everywhere you turn a live horn is blaring, or a tactical drum is rolling; Lamar himself might idolize Tupac Shakur, but his music sure as hell doesn’t.
In case you are concerned by this point, I am aware that it is the year 2015, and have access to both clean water and the internet. Yes, The Coast War is over, but that doesn’t render the act of declaring your allegiance completely obsolete. Earlier this year, Joey Bada$$ cited Mobb Deep, Biggie, and Wu-Tang within the first 10 minutes of his album, B4.DA.$$, while Heems went as far as to claim “I’m so New York, I still don’t bump 2Pac.” Territorial lines, though largely faded, still exist in the rap game, which is why it’s so jarring to have our most commercial up-and-comers liberally pillage the stylings of their assumed rivals. Rhyme-smiths should be free to say what they want to say, and conceive their sounds in a way that feels natural to them. There’s just no avoiding the fact that the two most prominent young genre figures of the last several years want next to nothing of their home turf. And maybe both are better for it; I just can’t believe we all haven’t noticed.