The most important rapper of the moment hails from Compton, California. Twenty-five years ago, that title belonged to Ice Cube, a firebrand who managed to not only pen the majority of N.W.A’s politically acute vitriol but also waged a one-man, bicoastal war against the rap establishment and the socioeconomic world in front of him. Since then, the title of most important rapper has transitioned coasts from Tupac to Jay-Z for a moment and even Kanye West. Drake doesn't hold that position, nor has he ever.
Importance has hardly anything to do with commercial appeal; it's measured in songs that make people think, or cause shifts in their daily conversations. Twenty-five years later, Kendrick Lamar currently holds the title of rap's most important voice. Like Cube, he seems hell-bent on proving his greatness every time out. Unlike Cube, there may not be a full-blown family-friendly image to cultivate after Lamar’s star as a rapper wanes.
Years ago, Lamar could barely pack out Warehouse Live's cozy studio room. These were early disciples who had picked up his work on Internet rap blogs and the Overly Dedicated EP. His ascent as a precocious storyteller who could will his voice into a hurling ball of rage and technical proficiency didn’t truly begin until 2011. A year later came his lauded major-label debut album good kid, M.A.A.D. city, a classic that told of a day in the life of a teen from Compton with sex, death and general ambition on his brain. From there the stages only grew and his ambitions widened. One venue wasn’t enough. He and Top Dawg Entertainment had to stake a claim in everything.
That December, he managed to sell out both Warehouse and House of Blues in the same night and emerged as a deity. The spaces only grew, and his profile only increased — festival gigs, headlining slots and more. When Coca-Cola stormed through Houston for its series of Final Four festivals last year, it was Lamar who played Discovery Green and made it look closer to Coachella. These days, it’s hard to contend that he isn’t rap’s most popular young voice or that he isn’t the most critically acclaimed artist going. He turned into a jazzman overcome with the trappings of fame and death on his sophomore effort, 2015's To Pimp a Butterfly. His latest album, DAMN., is a contention of man versus spirit, living up to family praise while still adjusting to the unshaky roads of the future. It’s already being hailed as the year’s best single body of work.
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The greatness of Lamar is that he weaves and wobbles in the effects of human decision-making. If he’s pushing forward knee-deep in his own hubris, you get moments of battle-rap chaos like the final 16 bars of “DNA.” If he’s weighing down the weight of consequences, of his own involvement in the world then you get stop-and-ponder moments such as “ELEMENT.,” where he flat-out carries fear in his chest. “Ain’t nobody praying for me” is a chief talking point of DAMN., where the conversation isn’t about his own salvation but rather all of ours. Rooted in the growing mythology he's cultivated for half a decade now, Lamar's skill as a storyteller has become his main talking point. The good kid from Compton is a role model now. To convert that energy into a live show, there’s plays on the talking points of artists before him.
West proudly once owned the title of being the most exciting live performer in rap, with gaudy set designs and songs that traveled through a murky emotional waters. The abruptly closed-off Saint Pablo tour of last year attempted to make large records of excess feel like dragged-out moments of catharsis. It begged for mosh pits; only those felt contrived and forced due to the stage design. None of the music truly matched up. Drake’s live performance is a tick of what Jay-Z has been doing for more than a decade — big hits with a little call-and-response in between; pacing and spacing. Kendrick’s stage game, though, has only increased with his profile, from a singular DJ-and-microphone setup to giant LED boards and characters. He’s improved with every step.
In Lamar’s world, the next step in dealing with his increasing gravity is the reaction to it. He’s made more people fraught with reactions after his every movement since 2013’s “Control,” in which he took the entire rap industry to task by name. He's still figuring out ways to keep people on their toes, only this time with the quality of his releases. Rap is in a Kendrick Lamar world, one where it is he, not Drake, who has sold the most records in 2017. And it may be his world for a very long period of time.
Kendrick Lamar and special guests Travis Scott and D.R.A.M. perform Saturday, July 15 at Toyota Center, 1510 Polk. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.