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Full Clip: February And March’s Hip Hop Reviewed By Tara Joshi
Tara Joshi , March 29th, 2017 10:14

Is there anything to be gained in comparing hip hop as done by Drake and Kendrick Lamar? Tara Joshi considers the hierarchy of pop vs purism in the genre, alongside some of the most notable releases of the past two months

“My spot is solidified if you ask me / My name is identified as ‘that king’ / I'll let y'all worry about a list, I'm on some other shit / A difference between accomplishments and astonishments."

With the release of ‘The Heart Part 4’, Kendrick Lamar lets us know that we should ready ourselves for this return, but also that he’s got nothing to prove. Taking subliminal aim at Drizzy (again), one might infer Kendrick’s disinterest in last week’s surprise playlist – is making important, political art - “accomplishments,” while Drake trades in novelties and “astonishments.”

It's a small thing, but it's likely to reignite the debate surrounding the two, with our inclination as reactionary consumers very often requiring us to posit one of them as the current king of hip hop. However, it doesn’t seem a particularly salient comparison: what they both do is extremely different – and that doesn’t detract from either of their legitimacy as artists.

Even though that ScHoolboy Q meme turned out to be fake, the sentiment of it echoes how a lot of more traditionalist hip hop fans seem to feel when considering Kendrick’s output versus a chart king like Drake. More Life is all well and good (or not, depending who you’re talking to) but it’s no doubt more of a pop compilation: what Kendrick does is straight-up hip hop.

In 2010 when ‘The Heart Part 1’ dropped, I’d wager the huge platform that Kendrick Lamar has today would have been hard to fathom. The series of tracks never merited much in the way of critical discussion in and of themselves, especially not compared to Section.80, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City or, indeed, Kendrick’s verse on ‘Control’ - but things have changed a lot for our favourite Compton boy in the past few years.

In 2017, post-To Pimp A Butterfly and all that has come after, when there’s a new Kendrick song everyone stops to pay attention. The music world is drooling when it comes to ‘The Heart Part 4’ because pretty much anything he does now is set to be some kind of moment - and that’s not unwarranted. He has made (at least) one of the most important hip hop albums of the past decade.

Drake’s More Life too has unleashed a sea of hot takes, but the nature of the discussion is completely different: with Kendrick there is an awed reverence, with Drake there’s more of a bemused one.

However, our strange desire to implement some kind of hierarchy between the two seems unnecessary: there is very much a place for pop sounds within hip hop, and vice versa. There’s a similar debate to be had regarding Nicki Minaj vs Remy Ma, perhaps - the latter is arguably making “realer” hip hop, the former something more akin to bubblegum pop. However, with Drake vs Kendrick, it’s not as though one of them is taking the platform away from the other as many would argue Nicki has done to Remy.

Drake thrives when commanding his pastiche pop production and, indeed, for all we like to paint Kendrick as some kind of unparalleled saviour of artistry, it’s not as though he hasn’t done some pretty shocking features on tracks with Maroon 5 and Taylor Swift in the past couple years. That doesn’t make a less serious a hip hop artist: it just means he knows how to play the game and recognises that hip hop is multi-faceted (though I’d posit Drake is a little more clued-in when it comes to features on pop bangers).

When Kendrick is on form, his bars blow his contemporaries out of the water - there’s a crafted sense of seething on ‘Part 4’ as he spits over lithe production about the hard work he puts into his writing (and implicitly calls out rappers with ghostwriters, such as Aubrey). It’s not as though Kendrick is infallible as a lyricist, of course: we find him rhyming “Donald Trump” with “chump”, which is funny but mainly laughable in how simplistic and benign an insult it is. But the point is that for the most part Kendrick’s strengths as a hip hop artist lie in his words.

In hip hop we love beef, we love king-making and we love artists calling on each other to raise the bar. But for all that both Kendrick and Drake are the biggest hip hop artists in the world at the time of writing, actually trying to derive something meaningful from a comparison seems arbitrary. What they are doing is so different, that while they might make subtle jibes at one another they seem unlikely to go all out Drake-Meek Mill on it. In part that might be because we know Kendrick is a significantly better rapper – but hip hop has always been about more than just the bars, and what Drake is doing with his production is great, in a totally incomparable way to Kendrick’s.

Drake - More Life (Young Money)

Aubrey’s love of distilling his favourite zeitgeist sounds has never worked so well as on More Life, his “playlist” (which, as ever, showcases an understanding of streaming culture). Channelling not only the most on point sounds in current hip hop and trap, but also factoring in dancehall influences and a satisfying showcase of the UK scene, this is easily one of Drake’s best long format works, embellished fittingly with a huge number of incredible features (Young Thug, Kanye, Skepta, Quavo, Sampha, Jorja Smith). While ‘No Long Talk’ (with Giggs) can feel a little derivative of grime - like he’s watering down its essence - it’s hard to doubt Drake’s sincere affection for the genre. Meanwhile ‘Passionfruit’ sees him take his love for island sounds and pour them into a veritable cocktail of smooth house; indeed, for all the grime and hip hop pastiches, some of the strongest moments come from his playing with dance music: ‘Get It Together’ and ‘Madiba Riddim’ are both gorgeous, relaxed and lush pop songs, while ‘Teenage Fever’ is all flustered with lusty nostalgia (of course featuring classic JLo lyrics). Perhaps the weakest moment is when he briefly returns to sincere and self-pitying Drake on ‘Lose You’ - “How they go from not wantin' me at all / to wantin' to see me lose it all?”. But for the most part there’s a positive energy. His refusal to call More Life an album means there’s not so much pressure, but rather it gives Drake an excuse to have a play and immerse himself in the sounds he loves. And, of course - perhaps without Drake even being aware of what he was doing for a change - More Life has meant more glorious memes: especially thanks to that ‘Portland’ woodwind.

Freddie Gibbs - ‘Crushed Glass’ (ESGN)

Two days before the release of this track, Freddie Gibbs announced that he had been acquitted of the rape charges he has been facing since 2016, which saw him incarcerated in Austria. ‘Crushed Glass’ is accordingly a jaded, quietly seething insight into a world that has felt helpless and relentless for the Indiana rapper: “I just beat a rape case, groupie bitch I never fucked / Trying to give me ten for some pussy that I never touched”. There’s a beautiful sense of trying to overcome frustration throughout the poignant, cinematic track – he alludes to being made to spend an extra 30 days in jail in spite of paying bail, to feeling so stressed he was barely able to eat, to the distress that his wife Erica can only come talk with him through the glass window. As well as being poetically personal, however, Gibbs ruminates on more universal troubles too – “Donald Trump gon' chain us up and turn back to slaves” is especially on the nose. The album You Only Live 2wice is out at the end of this month.

Remy Ma - ‘Shether’ (RNG)

A seven-minute-long diss track is no mean feat, and combined with the artwork it’s hard not to take Remy Ma at face value when she says, “They told you your whole career I'd come home and kill you.” Remy - a New York rapper who is part of Fat Joe’s crew Terror Squad - went to jail back in 2008, leaving the crown for biggest female MC open for Nicki Minaj (or so her fans felt). But now she’s out, and the track teems with with vitriol over the track from Nas’ infamous Jay Z diss ‘Ether’, thus aligning herself with greatness. Some of the insults are ultimately a bit empty - repeated references to Nicki’s “dumb ass” that see Remy rhyme “ass” with “ass” aren’t hugely clever, nor is insulting her love life of particular interest, and when she brings up Nicki’s brother (who has been charged with raping a child), it feels uncomfortable rather than victorious. However, when she gets to the right topics she packs a stinging punch. “To be the Queen of Rap, you can’t have a ghostwriter” she spits, and while these claims questioning Nicki’s authenticity haven’t been confirmed, it’s a big enough allegation to make people sit up and pay attention.

Nicki Minaj ft. Drake, Lil Wayne - ‘No Frauds’ (Young Money)

That it took two weeks for Nicki to respond to Remy Ma’s diss track perhaps isn’t the most reassuring sign for fans waiting on affirmation that Minaj doesn’t use a ghostwriter. But then, Nicki’s assertion on Instagram that “the greats took 3 months to respond to diss records, queens don’t move on peasant time” is fair, given that it took Nas months to come out with ‘Ether’ after Jay Z’s diss on ‘Takeover’. It’s not the most “mic drop” kind of diss track, but certainly she gets her point across: “You can’t be Pablo if your work ain’t sellin’ / What the fuck is this bitch inhalin’?”. It’s certainly more of an earworm than ‘Shether’, with swirling production and decent bars from Lil Wayne and Drake. Although the purported idea that Nicki’s work is better because it sells more is flawed, she’s not entirely wrong – this “beef” has been a way for Remy Ma to raise her profile again, but currently Nicki is very much the female MC.

Quelle Chris - Being You Is Great, I Wish I Could Be You More Often
(Mello Music Group)

New York’s offbeat, oddball rapper and producer is back with this sweet gem of a record. Being You Is Great, I Wish I Could Be You More Often offers light and airy beats swimming around heavy lyricism. Tracks tackle issues like self-esteem (‘Buddies’) and existentialism (‘Birthdaze’), but it’s not as wanky as any of that might sound. Instead, the golden, jazzy flourishes and old school vibes, complemented by some like-minded features (MNDSGN, Cavalier, Suzi Analogue), make the record a strange and scratchy pleasure to immerse into.

GoldLink - At What Cost

Lush, bright and woozy sounds have become GoldLink’s speciality since he emerged with his first mixtape back in 2014. His debut album proves no exception. On At What Cost, the DC rapper has made a breezy record that recalls Anderson .Paak’s sound - as much hip hop as dance statement (a feeling emphasised with gorgeous features from the likes of Jazmine Sullivan and KAYTRANADA). A standout is ‘Herside Story’, a really sweet little number with the refrain, “Baby, I’m down for you”, over a track by Ireland’s Hare Squead.‘Roll Call’, a track with oft-overlooked R&B royalty Mya, is also particularly euphoric. Uplifting strings, bright production and smooth as fuck bars: there’s a lot to be said for this being compulsory summer listening.

Future - Future / HNDRXX

The way an artist drops a new record has become as much of a talking point as the actual content, and Future of course made headlines with his double album drop within the space of a week – which, in fairness, made a nice change from his narrative being dominated by his relationship to Ciara. Both of these are overall solid albums, meandering between occasionally underwhelming, but sometimes outstanding – and they are both certainly a step-up into something more ambitious and impressive than, say, EVOL offered. The flutes on the excellent ‘Mask Off’ are a wonderful, elegiac juxtaposition to his bars, ‘Selfish’ is an intriguing foray into R&B as a duo with Rihanna that he just about pulls off. Future’s output is often too subject to hyperbole, but both of these record are testament to the fact that, when he’s on his game, he’s making some of the most interesting music in the game right now.

Rick Ross - Rather You Than Me

It’s sort of easy to not take Rick Ross especially seriously: his narrative of the past few years has involved getting dropped by Reebok because of lyrics that seemed to condone date rape; a surreal feud with 50 Cent (purportedly started because he didn’t like the way Fiddy looked at him at the BET Hip Hop awards back in 2008); and bizarre flirtations with Martha Stewart. But here he is, proving that he is very much able to make exquisite hip hop with smooth, 90s-style production and some very slick bars. He talks politics (“I'm happy Donald Trump became the president / because we gotta destroy before we elevate”), disses (comparing Birdman to an abusive Catholic priest on ‘Idols Become Rivals), and of course sex and partying with Leo DiCaprio (Stylistics-sampling ‘I Think She Like Me’). Though some tracks feel like filler (‘Trap Trap Trap’ doesn’t add all that much), with the album’s licks of sax, Ross’ assured flow that leaves his features feeling irrelevant, Rather You Than Me finds an artist on form.