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Kendrick Lamar Is Aiming At Nothing And Everything

What it means now when a rapper calls himself the greatest

The argument that purists will make about NBA basketball is that it isn’t as thrilling anymore because the players hang out with each other. They take vacations together in the off-season, go out to dinner after games. This is somewhat revisionist, of course, brought on by the fact that we can now witness an archive of someone’s semi-private movements on the internet. The complaint is that the optics of it all damage the illusion of fierce and vicious competition. If I don’t have to see a person embracing someone whom I believe to be their enemy, I can remain convinced that they do not wish their enemies well.

The problem with the desire to imagine all things as war is that it is an altar sometimes prayed to by people who haven’t experienced actual war, projecting this desire on athletes or artists, many of whom also have never experienced actual war. It is a flattening of the human condition. Additionally, attaching an enemy-friend binary to the idea of competition as a flavoring tool can work on the surface in sport, but it takes on a more difficult tone and expectation when that template is laid over artists, specifically musicians, and more specifically rap musicians. Rap music walks a thin line as a genre, requiring a balance of both competition and collaboration to survive.

On Thursday night, Kendrick Lamar released the video for his new single, “Humble.” It was his second new release in the month of March, coming only about two weeks after releasing “The Heart Part 4,” a song in which he declared himself the greatest rapper alive with a ferocity that made it believable, even though he’d been largely absent for over a year. “Humble,” like the song that preceded it, is an act of separation through the performance of aggression, most notably in the chorus, with Kendrick chanting, “Be humble / Sit down” over his own layered backing vocals.

Lyrically, though, there isn’t as much to suggest that the song is a veiled message to any particular artist. The song is boastful and brilliant, but direct only in the sentiment repeated in the title and chorus — and even then, not direct enough to leave the internet with much beyond speculation, of which there has been plenty. In the days since its release, arms have waved in the direction of several possible targets, most notably Big Sean, who rolled out the red carpet to allow a legacy-building guest verse from Kendrick on his 2013 song “Control.”

It is far too early to say, but it seems likely that we will, at some point in the future, look back and define the Kendrick Lamar legacy in two parts: the part before his “Control” verse, and the part after. In retrospect, reduced to its absolute base message, Kendrick’s verse isn’t as lyrically dazzling as some of his other verses, and it's perhaps not even the best technical verse on the song. What it is, though, is a thesis — a statement of intent for a career going forward, delivered by someone who finally understood how the theater of statements works. Without naming names, the verse would simply have been another verse. What Kendrick found on "Control" was the power in naming your targets in a calculated fashion. He faced his direct peers, not legends. He set the stakes for his peers before they had a chance to set them for themselves.

The song, a supposed single for Sean’s album Hall of Fame, was not on the tracklist when the album arrived later that summer, with little explanation provided. More recently, Sean has said first that the song had a "negativity" that didn’t match the rest of the album, and then asserted that Kendrick didn’t wash him on the track. (Which, it can be argued, is an accurate statement if one believes that a deeply memorable verse doesn’t necessarily invalidate a very good verse before it.)

There is fear, and then there is sitting in the interior of fear. There's watching lightning dance in the sky from a distance far enough to shudder at the thought of what it might do to your body upon hitting it; then there's seeing that same lightning strike into the opening of a wet tree and watching the bark explode from the tree’s edges as the inside of it is split open, and then having an intimate knowledge of what type of damage the right strike can do to anything stationary. Kendrick Lamar, after his “Control” verse, incites the second type of fear. There is no need for imagining what he might be capable of, and what he is willing to do to see those capabilities to their end, and who he might be willing to sacrifice. It is all a bit overblown, as things in the internet age tend to be. The schoolyard is crowded with the teeming masses, throwing their fists in the air at a very possibly nonexistent fight. But Kendrick seems to know what his “Control” verse afforded him: the ability to be vague when directing shots at the collective. Once you’ve gone specific, you can pull the lens back even further and throw a handful of stones, waiting for a person who's hit to shout something back in your direction.

This approach can come off as a little selfish. Most of Kendrick’s direct peers have not shown much interest in poking him back over the past four years, and few critics seem willing to question whether Kendrick's status as The New Untouchable helps or hurts his ability to grow as an MC. But it's also possible to consider his post-"Control" approach as an act of creative selflessness. Here is where the friend-enemy binary does work, whether in sports, in art, in music: Sharpen your enemies to sharpen yourself. The victory over a distracted or hobbled opponent is a victory that can be discarded or second-guessed. When Kendrick, at the end of “The Heart Part 4,” borrows from Kingdom Come–era Jay Z and declares, “Y’all got until April 7th to get your shit together,” it is both a threat and a public service. It is sitting across the table from those you might wish to kill and telling them that they’ve got food on their face. Clean yourselves up before the funeral.

Kendrick no longer has to dis anyone, as long as the question can hang in the air above any song he releases. In this way, he’s a pacesetter. This, too, is generous. Whether he’s the best rapper alive doesn’t necessarily matter to me, as long as he remains fearless enough to try to prove it every time out and demand that people keep up with him.

Too many people who don’t listen to enough rap think that rap is dying, and some people who have listened closely to it for years also think it’s dying. They cite the same (sometimes ahistorical) things as the old basketball purists: There’s no competition, so the genre has gotten lazy, allowing anything to fly. They cite younger rappers, specifically from the South, as torchbearers who will leave the genre to die.

This is shortsighted, sure, but it is also simply nostalgia, longing for the way competition might have looked in the ’90s and early ’00s: long, drawn-out rap battles between two MCs until one tapped out. The problem is that when those types of beefs arrive now, they tend to be less about the songs themselves, and more about aesthetics. These things are also fine, but it occurs to me that if the sustained boxing match aspect of rap disses goes out of the window, what remains is the work of a single pacemaker, pushing all of their peers to get back in the gym, to be ready when and if their time comes.

I don’t think every rapper has gotten better since 2013. Yet it's interesting to consider the "Control" verse's effect on Big Sean, because he is the rapper who has, perhaps, most sharply improved in recent years. In 2017, he could potentially be a formidable opponent for Kendrick, something that seemed unfathomable before “Control” came out. This isn’t to say that Big Sean is the second-best rapper alive, but while so many of us were rubbing our hands together, waiting for a seemingly inevitable collision between Drake and Kendrick, Big Sean was taking leaps of his own. J. Cole released a project, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, which included his best rapping. Even Drake’s tone, at least in recent years, has become more defensive and aggressive in spots.

It isn’t so much Kendrick but the knowledge of the bar being set and reset that pushes us to this point, where the anticipation of a verbal clash between Kendrick Lamar and Big Sean is no longer something to joke about, because Big Sean hasn’t stopped working since people insisted on him being washed on his own track.

I will take good rap music over exciting narratives any day, but Kendrick's greatest strength is that he has been able to offer both. I often think about what drives the market to want to see competition in rap. I imagine it as a combination of various things, one of them being an instinct that can also be observed in discussions around Kanye West: The idea that black genius is so rare that there are only a few spots available, and they’re all worth consistently fighting for, and also always at risk of being taken away from us and given to someone else. Some of this is imagined, some of it is conditioning, and some of it is surely real. And the parts of it that are real are surely accelerated for rappers who, in some cases, grew up either being denied things or having things taken from them and the people they love. When looked at through that lens, there is a real currency in being seen as the greatest alive, even if it is a fleeting title.

Kendrick is, maybe unintentionally, building a narrative that will make almost any fight unfair. This is the logical result of fandom and the internet coming together in a way that shortens nuance. It is also a result of Kendrick’s overwhelming technical skill as an MC. Yes, there is fear, but there is also just good business sense. The tussle of Jay Z and Nas, for example, proved beneficial for both sides, particularly in the pre–social media era. Not only were they (at least almost) eye to eye as far as career accomplishments, but there was also a large perceived distance between them and everyone else. Kendrick is eye to eye with many, career-wise. But the growing perception is that there is no one he is eye to eye with both career-wise and skill-wise. If this era sees Kendrick challenging everyone but feeling challenged by no one, where does this era end, and what comes next?

It is also likely true that many of those who might otherwise challenge Kendrick also see themselves as better, but are uninterested in the idea of the modern battle. The attention and stamina just isn’t as present for the fan base as it once was. Winners and losers are declared in an evening, or an hour. Speed of response is valued over ferocity of response. It is easy to look back and praise Nas’s “Ether” now, without acknowledging that if Nas and Jay Z’s beef were to play out in 2017, the three-month response window for “Ether” wouldn’t be acceptable, rendering it an afterthought.

Kendrick, it seems, is of the long game. He’s going to keep lighting up the sky with warning after warning until someone steps up to the challenge. Sometimes it isn’t about enemies as much as it is about motivation. And we are witnessing Kendrick at the intersection of several things: inspired, focused, and also bored. He seems eager for someone to ascend to the level where he believes himself to be. But competition in rap, and perhaps everywhere, is largely rooted in defensive mechanisms. Artists puff themselves up to appear bulletproof enough to not be touched. And this is the issue with having unwavering confidence when facing the interior of fear — the intimate knowing of the damage lightning can do to a tree. Everyone imagines themselves as the lightning, and no one imagines themselves as the tree.