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Sunday, July 12, 2015

Hip Hop Flip Flop: How Kendrick Lamar and A$AP Rocky Switched Coasts

        Nearly two years ago, Big Sean dropped a song entitled Control, a three-verse banger that set the internet ablaze literally over-night for reasons that had nothing to do with the track’s credited author. The MC’s bars are nice and all, but it was Kendrick Lamar’s explosive lyrics and fire-breathing cadence that brought the crowd. Not only did the up-and-comer name-check a bundle of 12 well-known rappers whom he sought to lord over, the Compton product referred to himself as, “the king of New York,” perhaps the single greatest form of hip-hop blasphemy a West Coast native could commit. The drawing of regional lines has always been integral to the rap game’s identity, from KRS-One declaring the Bronx’s supremacy over the other NYC borrows on The Bridge is Over, on down to the famously tragic spat between Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. There’s virtually no chance that Lamar didn’t know he was picking at a scab when he lyrically laid the East Coast crown upon his head, his words provoking responses from innumerable rhyme-smiths who all had an opinion on the matter, proving that, even in the year 2013, people still cared about the birthplace of a rap song. Regional styles are still being waved like flags, but while fans of the genre’s 90’s heyday still associate G-Funk with the City of Angels, and Boom Bap with the Big Apple, the coasts are switching sides right beneath them. Kendrick might as well be the king of New York; the city’s would-be champion, A$AP Rocky, is too busy kicking it on the golden coast.

        Even in the early 80’s, a time when nearly all hip hop came straight from The City that Never Sleeps, your zip code was important. After all, New York isn’t exactly what one would describe as ‘small,’ and the multitude of attitudes contained within its vast city limits could never congeal into one singular identity. Less than a decade into the genre’s existence, songs were already being written about one providence’s superiority over another. The aforementioned The Bridge is Over represents only a single chapter in a squabble between KRS-One and The Juice Crew over the true birthplace of hip hop, the MC’s representing The Bronx and Queensbridge, respectively. While these pioneers were engaging in close-quarter turf wars, a slew of artists from the Pacific Time Zone were on the come-up, the Los Angeles rap scene finally taking over the spotlight with the 1988 release of N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton. The likes of Snoop Dogg and Tupac were quick to follow, and all of a sudden, California had wrestled control of the genre away from its place of origin. The last thing a think-piece about Kendrick Lamar and A$AP Rocky needs is a full-force digression into the ins-and-outs of mid-90’s hip hop, but any discussion of the difference between the two coasts would be wise to include the history listed above; West Coast is essentially New Money, having risen to the top on the wings of vastly different approach, while the East’s Old Money paradigm invites a sense of resentment at having been first to the table, only to find their meal being eaten right in front of them.

        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.

        At.Long.Last.A$AP is much more cohesive, but the drug-addled wooziness that embodies the disc is lightyears removed from hard-hitting sound that defines the East Coast. The Pacific Ocean sparkle isn’t limited to the sonics; it boils over into the album’s guest spots, references, and cadence. While artists like Future, Kanye West, and the returning M.I.A. stand outside of the argument due to their global positioning, the first non-A$AP bars are delivered by Schoolboy Q, about as West Coast an MC as you’re likely to find. His naughty, nasally flow calls to mind a young Eazy-E, the Compton-born ‘Godfather of Gangsta Rap,’ while UGK’s late album feature plays as yet-another reference to California’s Pimp C. Bare in mind, Rocky is the figure-head of the New York-based rap collective A$AP Mob, yet none of his cronies show up on the entire hour-plus LP. If you think this a mistake, or that he simply lost every number in his phone for half a year, I’ve got some ocean-side property in Montana to sell you at an impossibly low price!

        A$AP Rocky’s birth name is Rakim Mayers, his mother titling him after legendary Long Island MC Rakim, an artist cut from an unthinkably different cloth. While the elder-statesman employes a silky smooth pace and intonation, Rocky’s flow is full of peaks and valleys, is if he recorded while going over an endless string of speed bumps. He seems eager to shed this association at every waking moment, preferring Snoop Dogg’s ‘G’s Up, Hoes Down,’ manifesto to wordy, lovelorn cuts like Rakim’s What’s On Your Mind. The song L$D even calls specific attention to this juxtaposition, the rapper admitting “I wanna tell you that I love you, but I ain’t into making love songs.” It’s clear that Mr. Mayers would much rather be associated with 2Pac, as evidenced by his citations of both Fuck the World and Hit ‘Em Up, the latter being a song that directly and belligerently attacks both The Notorious B.I.G. and the East Coast as a whole. As recently as a decade ago, this would have played as hip-hop sacrilege of the most dubious sort.

        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.

        Nasir Jones is something of an outsider, his linguistically deft flow often describing violence and corruption from an outsider’s prospective. Mr. Lamar takes this thesis one step further, narrating from a myriad of different perspectives including 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.

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