As I’ve mentioned before, and as should be clear to anyone who’s listened over the past few years, hip-hop is really good right now, the result of a new generation of rappers with out-of-this-world personalities and manic aesthetics, amplified to a nearly insane degree by social media.
Two rappers in particular stand out even in this above-average vanguard: Kendrick Lamar and A$AP Rocky. Even if you haven’t heard their music (in which case, shame on you), you’re probably still familiar with their names. Even if you missed Kendrick’s Dillo Day set last year in favor of a drunken midday nap on the lakefill rocks, you’ve definitely heard of his full-length debut album, good kid m.A.A.d city, which dropped in October and soon took its rightful place at the head of many best-of-2012 lists.
A$AP’s major label debut, LONG.LIVE.A$AP, was originally supposed to join him at the end of October, but it got delayed. And then delayed again. Although tracks and singles started to leak one at a time, it took until Tuesday for the album to be officially released.
Those delays resulted in a three-month delay between LONG.LIVE.A$AP and gkmc, but there’s still a lot of interesting things to be discerned about the state of modern music by comparing them side by side.
Like any good eighth grade English paper, both these albums make their thesis statements clear at the very start. Kendrick, like any prodigious talent, shows off a little and includes an introductory paragraph (“Sherane”) prior to the actual thesis track, but “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” is when good kid m.A.A.d city really kicks into gear. Whereas Kendrick’s previous mixtape, Section.80, showed him telling stories from the perspectives of various characters affected by drugs, violence and ignorant government policies, gkmc is his story, and “Bitch” announces this clearly. “Look inside of my soul and you can find gold and maybe get rich,” Lamar raps here. From his own thoughts and personal experiences Lamar has produced one hell of a hit album. A$AP’s thesis is a little simpler. His talent lies in style, not substance. His personal reflection and navel-gazing don’t go much deeper than “I thought I’d probably die in prison,” the opening line on this opening track. But his combination of smooth flow, stellar beats and soothing background vocals creates immensely pleasurable tracks that you can lose yourself in. His new album’s title track is one of the best examples of that.
Do you know who Hit-Boy is? Of course you do. His is the mind behind this, and his star has just kept rising ever since. His machine gun beats are now ubiquitous across rap. As a result, it’s no surprise that both A$AP and Lamar recruited him to produce two of the most important tracks on their highly anticipated albums. Of course, their specific uses of his sound reflect their different approaches to making quality rap music.
A$AP quickly gained fame from a record deal signed mostly on the strength of one super stylized music video and a free mixtape characterized mostly by the dark, oozy production of Clams Casino. If one thing is apparent on Live.Love.A$AP, it’s that he’s trying to grow and develop beyond that single sound, and Hit-Boy’s “Goldie” beat is his most successful attempt at doing so.
Lamar also fucks with that sound, but as always, he’s got his own ideas about what to do with it. Although Kendrick was much better than A$AP at keeping his album from leaking ahead of time, such things are inevitable these days, and as a result we heard “Backseat Freestyle” days ahead of time. This lack of context led to shock among Kendrick fans at uncharacteristically glib (if insanely fun to quote) boasts like “Pray my dick get big as the Eiffel Tower/So I can fuck a bitch for 72 hours.” But once you hear it preceded by the dialogue at the end of “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” it becomes apparent that “Backseat Freestyle” is a flashback and its narrator is Kendrick as a young kid, rapping freestyle in his friend’s car. The values and boasts are reflective of his naïve idealism at that time (a perspective that will soon be shattered when he enters a real world of violence and addiction depicted in the album’s later tracks). Lamar has listenable flow and quotable lyrics. Those are great, but we’ve heard them before. What’s most exciting about Lamar is his ability to bring together other voices and weave them seamlessly into his grand narrative. Even Hit-Boy’s production, the be-all end-all of successful rap these days, is just another stepping stone on his journey.
These songs are how LONG.LIVE.A$AP and gkmc chose to present themselves to the world, and it’s not hard to see why. Personally, I could listen to “Swimming Pools” for 10 hours and never get tired of it.
These two singles, while not necessarily indicative of their albums’ overarching aesthetic, are inclusive showcases for the strengths and weaknesses of their respective artists. “Swimming Pools” demonstrates Lamar’s excellent flow, voice modulation and empathy for the drug-induced struggles of others. “Fuckin’ Problems,” as is immediately obvious, represents A$AP’s ability to create jams. Unlike Lamar, who doesn’t joke about his problems, A$AP’s titular problem in this song is, well, liking to fuck. Once again, in case you forgot: Lamar is that moody but undeniably talented guy you notice likes to spend hours alone, and A$AP is the outgoing goofball who answers the standard “name our biggest weakness” question on applications with “my biggest weakness is that I am just too awesome.” Those two archetypes aren’t incompatible; if you’ve met either in real life, you’ve probably seen them befriend each other. That’s why Lamar has a verse on “Fuckin’ Problems."
“Sometimes, I need to be alone,” Lamar told us on “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” and the rest of gkmc holds true to this antisocial inclination. The album is a true bildungsroman, the story of Lamar’s life and development, and only four rappers not named Kendrick Lamar appear on the album: Jay Rock, Drake, MC Eiht and Dr. Dre. Dre produced the album and his cameo on the album’s final track signifies the end of Kendrick’s journey, his arrival into the mainstream of West Coast hip-hop, which is of course forever entwined with the city of Compton. In other words, each guest verse on gkmc serves to embellish Lamar’s own narrative.
This is where A$AP and Lamar most noticeably diverge. As much as I love Lamar and gkmc, he doesn’t seem like he’d be that fun to hang out with. I just get the feeling he’d be quietly navel-gazing the entire time. A$AP is the guy you want to party with. He has so many friends that his personal posse (known as the A$AP Mob) don’t even appear on this album, it’s so stuffed with appearances from Florence Welch (!!) and Schoolboy Q. The apotheosis of that “come join in” vibe is “1Train,” which includes a verse from pretty much everyone who has rapped in the past twelve months.
So after four head-to-head bouts, who won this battle? The answer is easy: us. A$AP is in tune with very current trends in production, from Skrillex's assist on "Wild for the Night" to his standby Clams Casino sound that now finds itself on bestselling Mac Miller albums. Lamar's introspective lyrics and storytelling gifts are in the tradition of such eminent hip-hop storytellers as Nas, even though, as Pitchfork recently noted, this approach doesn't necessarily reflect popular rap. Regardless, both albums are immensely enjoyable. Thanks for the eargasms, guys.