10/01/2013 11:06 am ET Updated Dec 01, 2013

In Hip-Hop, Kendrick Lamar Is King

I let it marinate for about 48 hours. I didn't want to know why Kendrick Lamar's name was trending on Yahoo several weeks ago. Initially, I thought hip-hop's new-age liberator had gotten in the kind of ill-fated trouble that seems to haunt so many who step into the ravage burrow we have decorously titled showbiz. Indeed, the 26-year-old from Compton had gotten himself into a wade of hot water, but for entirely different reasons. It was for his panic/love/hate/joy/sorrow/complexity-inducing guest verse on Big Sean's unreleased track "Control." I ingested the ad nauseum-esque hoopla surrounding Kendrick's verse before I finally decided to dive in. Over a mantra-syncopated beat by legendary producer No I.D., Kendrick bats two-hole on the track, and created one of the most buzz worthy verses that have incorporated the conversation regarding the competition sentiment of hip-hop in years.

It was a polarizing verse; some MC's were impressed, Lupe Fiasco was not. Some of the MCs mentioned understood exactly the outlook Kendrick Lamar was conveying with his name dropping, while others totally overlooked his ethos and caught feelings. Honestly, there was nothing earth-shattering about K. Dot's contribution. It was business as usual; intricate wordplay, creative wit and subtle messages corresponded through a metamorphic tone that hints at a split personality on wax. Classic Kendrick Lamar. Through all of the murderous rage directed at his contemporaries, Kendrick actually conveyed love and respect. However, it was Kendrick's attempt to move away from the cozy fraternity most of today's MC's occupy that created a desired conversation piece. For me, that conversation resides in Kendrick Lamar being the most important voice in hip-hop.

Just as we see million dollar athletes give each other daps and hugs at center court before every game, and work out together in the offseason after battling each other for a championship, the competitiveness that made hip-hop a beautiful sport has all but dissolved. MC's are no longer interested in stepping into the proverbial arena for a battle of the illest. They'd much rather chill together in the skybox, plot out future collaborations and sip Ace of Spades. Everybody loves everybody. Kendrick has love for most too, but not enough to let his contemporaries take his crown; and that crown sits snugly atop his cubic-faded dome. Much props to Big Sean for recognizing the crowned head. The Detroit-MC knew exactly what he was doing when he released the cut to radio, as it couldn't be included on his forthcoming album due to a sample clearance issue. Big Sean heard his name on the track and took it in stride, as he anticipated it was high time for hip-hop's king to address his governing body.

There's an abundance of talent that currently populates hip-hop. Along with the heavy hitters challenged during his "Control" verse and several who remained nameless -- including incomparable MCs Lil Wayne and the aforementioned Lupe Fiasco--the game seems to be in safe hands as we zoom through the 21st Century. Arguably reigning as hip-hop's biggest star, Drake has been making his rounds promoting his latest album, Nothing Was The Same. Of course, Drake has been asked about the infamous "Control" verse. In short, his response has been dismissive, and he has seemed to take Kendrick's calling out his name as a personal shot. It looks like there will be no more collaborations following "Buried Alive" and "Poetic Justice." Oh well. No daps and hugs at center court. Let's just play the game, homie. I guess Kendrick's competitiveness is rubbing off, even if it's rubbing some the wrong way.

Hip-hop is in a transition. Although the presence of wackness is an omnipresent theme, substance shines among the genre's brightest stars. Drake, Kendrick, J. Cole, Wale, Big Krit, Jay Electronica and several others clearly sit at the head of the table. After all, Jay-Z and Kanye are focused on creating a Mick Jagger/Keith Richards complex for hip-hop, as they are out to prove that the art form that started in the courtyard of the Sedgwick Projects in the Bronx can have rock and roll zeal -- even for those MC's looking straight down the barrel of retirement age. Ten years ago, I laughed at the thought of a 40-year-old rapper performing for a venue filled with teenagers and 20-somethings. Not only is the nearly 45-year-old Shawn Carter selling out stadiums, he continues to be a trend setter for younger generations. Jay is no longer interested in chasing the ghosts of soul-sampled beats. Instead, he'll be touring off of "Magna Carta" material until his AARP card arrives in the mail. Hip-hop is the new rock and roll, Kanye says. And it's hard to disagree with him. Although the genre has evolved, it's still essentially a young man's game. Much respect to Buddy Holly, but Elvis Presley was running things. Today, it's Drake who is running things in the marketplace. But Kendrick reigns supreme in the culture.

good kid, m.A.A.d city belongs in the iconic realm of 'Ready to Die/Illmatic/Reasonable Doubt.' It's that once-in-a-lifetime album enabled with the power to change the course of hip-hop, and in some instances, someone's life. As a fellow millennial who is only getting older, Kendrick's truths resided alongside my truths. Two songs from 'good kid' that really stand out for me are "Black Boy Fly" and "I'm Dying of Thirst." These songs illustrate the complex realities that face young African-American men today. Feelings of rage, faith, spirituality, fear, jealousy, lust, confusion and necessity tug at our souls on a consistent basis. For many millennials, music has been a constant outlet to lament these emotions, and Kendrick portrays this beautifully. Every time I listen to the evocative "I'm Dying for Thirst," I think about the genocide taking place in Chicago; the murder and gang activity in Kendrick's hometown of Compton; the murders climbing at an escalated rate in my hometown of Baltimore. There seems to be a total disregard for black life; specifically, a disregard for young black males.

On "Black Boy Fly," Kendrick puts his insecurities and jealousy on display for the world to dissect. Listening to his narratives of longing to equal and ultimately exceed the success of his contemporaries and those who came before him ring refreshingly true for anyone who has been in the same quandary. Kendrick Lamar shows that young black men are intricate beings who inhabit all of the triumphs and faults of anyone else.

We the younger generation extol the wisdom of that great leader and educator . . . A ship lost at sea for many days suddenly sighted a friendly vessel. From the mast of the unfortunate vessel was seen a signal; 'Water, Water; we die of thirst!' The answer from the friendly vessel came back: 'Cast down you bucket where you are.' The captain of the distressed vessel, at last heeding the injunction, cast down his bucket, and it came up full of fresh sparkling water from the mouth of the Amazon river.
-Ralph Ellison, circa 1952

Kendrick's art epitomizes the struggles of everyday life for young black men. Ralph Ellison detailed this struggle more than 60 years ago. The Notorious B.I.G. detailed this struggle nearly 20 years ago. Kendrick Lamar is well aware of the continuing struggle, and is looking to push forward and evolve; just as Ellison's invisible man looked in the mirror and realized he could be Barack Obama. President Obama realizes that his address at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue doesn't make him immune from the struggle. The president recognizes the extremely thin line between himself and Trayvon Martin. Oscar Grant. Jordan Davis. Jonathan Ferrell. Any of the young men dying on the South and West sides of Chicago at an alarming clip. Kendrick Lamar.

Drake is dope. Cole is sick. Wale's flow is ridiculous. Lupe is a genius. Electro's wordplay and Krit's thoughtfulness stand heads and shoulders above many. Right now, Kendrick is king. His innovation runs deep, and I hope it runs deep enough to avoid the shallowness of an industry that too often neglects freshness and comfortably embraces the modus operandi. Yep, he's on top of the world; I hope he doesn't get too gassed up and decides to leap. Alas, I forgot. Black Boys can fly.

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