2017 Artist of the Year
Kendrick Lamar is, officially, rap royalty after the release of DAMN. The album is the best hip hop album of 2017 and is the best album of Kendrick's short by illustrious career, effectively positioning him as a generational great and rap legend. In a year that was full of exceptional talent - from Perfume Genius to Björk to SZA to Lorde - what made Kendrick Lamar stand out as my pick for artist of the year?
Simple: you just have to look at DAMN. When Kendrick released To Pimp A Butterfly back in 2015, he upset every content of contemporary rap music, probing Black male identity in a way that hadn't been done before, particularly through loose arrangements inspired by jazz improvisation. He even gained the respect of then-President Barack Obama. But To Pimp A Butterfly was also a diamond in the rough. Sometimes the songs meandered too much and lost their footing, even as they were captivating.
DAMN. came along and brought together this radio impulses from earlier albums with the kind of conceptual brilliance that marked To Pimp A Butterfly. The entire album is both an origin story for Kendrick and a way to position himself as a prophet in the political darkness that has marked 2017. But he also manages not to get so bogged down in politics or representation. The music itself becomes a space of embodiment when he declares himself the king of Compton and, by association, Black people everywhere. Many Black people might not identify with Kendrick's unique origin story but there's something compelling about how he tells the story that matters above all else.
Too many of the songs on DAMN. are hits, which is why multiples are popping up on year end lists across an array of publications. "DNA." is perhaps the most referenced (and his biggest) hit because he goes ham, delivering some of his most acerbic raps to date when he says, "Watchin' all the snakes, curvin' all the fakes / Phone never on, I don't conversate / I don't compromise, I just penetrate." On "HUMBLE.", he smartly launched his album with a visual tour de force of split screens and cuts that create a new visual language.
But my favorite track on DAMN. is "FEAR." The track, I think, represents where he came from in To Pimp A Butterfly with his radio friendly. He backwards raps before delving into three periods of time in his life in which he uses different flows as he gets older, stacking on the lyrical complexity. The result is a godly indictment of what it means to be a Black man in America in 2017. Though he is one of the best selling artists of 2017, songs like these show he's still a person at heart, struggling with what it means to be famous.
More than anything else, inspired by Don Cheadle, Kendrick Lamar created the King Fu Kenny persona, which he has used throughout the year to great effect. As King Fu Kenny, he highlights how dexterous his flow really is, almost chameleonic. This is what sets him apart from most other rappers today, maybe André 3000 or Vince Staples excluded. On the few guest verses he does in 2017, he uses that dexterity well. In Future's "Mask Off" remix, for instance, his laser sharp delivery serves as contrast to the hallucinogenic quality of the original. With Rapsody's "Power" he breaks down into Jamaican Patois, sounding unlike anything else he's done before.
Kendrick Lamar is about as good as it gets in hip hop. He has achieved more in a few albums than most achieve in their entire careers. The big question, I think, is what's next? How do you top this? How do find a way not to get too cocky? Is it even possible? Though with DAMN. he is an outsized personality, he never really leaves Compton behind. It is, for him, the place where he was made or, on DAMN., the place where he could have been unmade with a single bullet. Death is always at the heart of his music but he distills every bit of passion into his music to avoid what should have been his fate.