Before Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. arrived in April, he unleashed the pre-drop teaser “The Heart Part 4,” in which he declared, “I am the greatest rapper alive.” Three months later, he said the same thing during a radio interview with Real 92.3, answering, “I got to” when asked if he considers himself the greatest. Then he said it again in a Rolling Stone cover story last week, while discussing the touchy subject of ghostwriting in rap.
“I called myself the best rapper. I cannot call myself the best rapper if I have a ghostwriter,” he said. “If you're saying you're a different type of artist and you don't really care about the art form of being the best rapper, then so be it. Make great music. But the title, it won't be there.”
There’s no mincing words here: Kendrick believes he’s the best, period. And judging by the year he’s had so far, he may be right. Because on top of all the technical criteria that makes a rapper great — the flow, the storytelling, the energy, the influence, etc. — the VMA nominee has continued a six-year, four-album hot streak that doesn’t seem to be dimming anytime soon. So does this year really belong to him? Let’s break down seven reasons why it might.
“HUMBLE.” proved he has no reason to sit down.
“HUMBLE.” marked the beginning of the DAMN. era, and what a kick-off it was. A lean and confident single, it's also one of Kendrick's most radio-friendly to date (thanks, Mike Will!). It clearly struck a chord — “HUMBLE.” became Kendrick’s first No. 1 as a lead artist on the Hot 100, and became instantly memorable thanks to meme-friendly lines like “My left stroke just went VI-RAL!” Best of all, there are layers to it that Kendrick continues to unravel — in his Rolling Stone interview last week, he described how the song’s hook (“Bitch, be humble / Sit down”) is less of a message to his rivals and more of a personal reminder to himself.
He’s commercially dominant.
Discussions about the greatest rappers often get diluted by sales figures, but they do help prove that an artist’s music is resonating. In the case of Kendrick, DAMN. has made him one of the most commercially dominant artists of the year, in any genre. It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart and is the bestselling album of 2017 (so far). Even more impressively, it returned to the No. 1 spot just this past week, nearly four months after its release. Yes, an artist like Drake will almost certainly continue to best Kendrick on a commercial level, but the past few months have proved K. Dot’s numbers are only getting stronger.
His peers sing his praises.
Not only does Kendrick believe he’s the greatest rapper alive, but a lot of his fellow artists think he could wear that crown, too. Wale’s called him one of the top rappers of all time. Eminem’s sung his praises. So has Lil Wayne. And when asked about it recently, another one of today’s best MCs, Vince Staples, said that not only does Kendrick reign supreme, but that, “it’s not even close.” It’s one thing to earn approval from fans and critics, but when your peers start praising you as well, it means you’re doing something right.
His performances have become must-see spectacles.
After Drake’s divisive set at Coachella in 2015, some wondered if hip-hop was even capable of headlining the major festival. Kendrick proved them wrong, though, with his widely hailed performance at this year’s bash. His set was enhanced by kung fu-inspired imagery, packed with surprise guests (Travis Scott, Schoolboy Q, and Future all came through), and featured the first-ever performances of most DAMN. songs. Recently, he brought his show on the road with the North American DAMN. tour — which has earned rave reviews — and his upcoming performance at the VMAs is shaping up to be a must-see as well.
He writes his own rhymes.
As Kendrick himself said, being the greatest rapper requires that you write your own lyrics (a.k.a., no ghostwriters). The Compton native checks that box, and on top of that, the lyrics he crafts are brilliant. On DAMN., for instance, he publicly analyzes his character through his words, revealing critical pieces of his past, present, and future. The album plays as a statement, and it’s one that, vitally, Kendrick conceived himself.
He seeks out competition.
Competition is in the DNA of hip-hop, and Kendrick appears ready to rival anyone, judging by the features where his performance outshines the original artist. We’ve seen it in years past, most notably with his dominating verse on Big Sean’s “Control.” In the past year, he’s arguably done it again on Travis Scott’s “Goosebumps,” Mike Will Made-It’s “Perfect Pint,” and even Future’s “Mask Off” remix. With each of those, Kendrick’s performance makes a case for him besting the original artist, or at the very least, matching them.
His music videos are top-notch.
There’s a reason Kendrick earned eight VMA nominations this year: His DAMN. era has given us arguably the best visuals of his career. Consider the action-packed “HUMBLE.,” where he raps with his head on fire, and the intense “DNA.,” where he faces off against Don Cheadle. Then there’s the strikingly violent “ELEMENT.,” and the Rihanna-featuring “LOYALTY.” With each video, Kendrick manages to elevate the narrative of his songs, which already stand apart on their own.
Will Kendrick’s videos take home a Moon Person trophy or two (or seven or eight)? We’ll find out when the VMAs touch down in Inglewood, California, on Sunday, August 27 at 8 p.m. ET/PT.