Adam Theisen: It’s Kanye vs. Kendrick in rap’s latest heavyweight championship

By Adam Theisen, Daily Music Columnist
Published February 18, 2015

Seven and a half years ago, Kanye West erased 50 Cent’s name off the A-List, beating him in a head-to-head sales competition and sending 50 into a spiraling fall towards cultural irrelevance. It might seem a little hard to imagine now, but in 2007, 50 Cent was a dominant force in rap. He was about to release the follow up to The Massacre, one of the biggest-selling hip-hop records of all time, and while Kanye’s previous Late Registration was also an enormous hit, it has still sold over 2 million fewer units than The Massacre. That’s why, when both West’s Graduation and 50’s Curtis were both set to come out on the same day in September 2007, it was entirely conceivable that 50 Cent would debut at number one.

But that’s not how it went. Graduation sold over 300,000 more copies than Curtis in their first week of sales, and the maximalist, hit-filled and critically acclaimed album would go on to further cement Kanye’s status as a top-tier artist and prove that rap music didn’t have to conform to gangsta-rap conventions to be commercially successful.

Kanye West has made a career off proving himself to be better than people expect him to be. When people thought he was just a producer, he released The College Dropout and Late Registration in back-to-back years, beginning his career as a solo artist with two beloved all-time classics. With Graduation, he went toe-to-toe with a huge star and came out victorious. After that, even though people were initially taken aback by his experimental use of auto-tune and sparse electronic production, 808s and Heartbreak went on to become hugely influential on hip hop and pop music. Then, West became a national pariah when he interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the 2009 VMAs, but after a time of seclusion he returned with his best and most ambitious work yet, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Since MBDTF, he’s only rapped circles around Jay Z on the pair’s collaborative Watch the Throne and created the deconstructive, abrasive punk-rap masterpiece Yeezus.

But this year, Kanye has possibly met his match in a young, intellectual artist from Compton. A rapper, yes, but one who prefers to be referred to as a writer. After building a solid following through his promising mixtapes, Kendrick Lamar blew the hip-hop world wide open with 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, an instant-classic monster of a record that garnered universal praise and comparisons to rap benchmarks like Nas’s immortal Illmatic. Lamar has yet to release a follow-up, but he’s kept himself in the public eye with sparing releases, from 2013’s controversy-igniting call-out “Control” to last year’s anthem of love “i.” Kendrick’s fearless talent and ambition have positioned him as Kanye’s number-one challenger for the title of “Best Rapper Alive.”

And don’t think the two aren’t aware of the competition. Lamar neglected to include Kanye on his shortlist of hip hop’s greats in “Control,” and Kanye — an artist who’s made a track with practically every A-List star, from Katy Perry to 2 Chainz — has yet to work with Lamar. Yes, Lamar opened for Kanye on The Yeezus Tour, but by most accounts, the two barely interacted. As a New York Times mid-tour profile of Lamar notes, “a mentor-mentee relationship wasn’t what was expected or desired, and it certainly was not what was happening.” And somehow, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Kendrick surprise-released his new single, “The Blacker the Berry,” the day after Kanye gave a great new performance of his own new song, “Only One,” at the Grammys. I’m sure there’s loads of respect between the pair, but I don’t see Kanye ever inviting Kendrick over for dinner with Kim and Nori.

A genre as centered on the individual as hip hop lends itself perfectly to these kinds of rivalries. 2Pac vs. Biggie. Jay Z vs. Nas. Kanye vs. 50 Cent. Whether there’s actually animosity between artists or not, hip-hop fans love to pit their favorites against each other, both within specific songs (who had the better verse on “Fuckin’ Problems,” Drake or Kendrick?) or within larger narratives (East Coast vs. West Coast). Rap’s roots are steeped in its artists making names for themselves through boasts about their own prowess and disses of their opponents. Though straight-up call-outs in songs are more rare than they were 15 or 20 years ago, practically every rapper today will mention wanting to be “the best in the game” multiple times in their songs. Kendrick proclaimed himself King of both the west and east coasts on his “Control” verse, and though that doesn’t cover West’s native Chicago, I think Kendrick will be angling for true national domination with his next release.

So with new albums looming from both artists, who’s going to win? It’s very tempting to say Kendrick. Rap is, after all, a young man’s game. We’ve seen Jay Z lose his fastball, Eminem struggle to stay relevant and many other popular artists from the last decade (50, Snoop Dogg, Nelly) fade into commercial obscurity. While I don’t think Kanye is suddenly just going to disappear, it’s difficult to see where exactly he can go now. His new work with Paul McCartney has been mellower, seemingly more pop-oriented than his Yeezus material, a potential sign that he’s settling into artistic comfort (although his recent performances have still been barrier-breaking must-watch events). With a new family and his fashion line likely taking up more and more of his time, it’s possible that he could gracefully cede the spotlight to someone else. But at the same time, this is Kanye West we’re talking about — West is a man who has never once doubted his own abilities, and he has yet to deliver a record that didn’t completely change the rap landscape.

All of the pressure to exceed the bar that’s been set, then, is on Kendrick Lamar. Though his talent is undeniable, one classic album doesn’t yet prove that he can be the future of hip hop. Where exactly he’s going with his new material is uncertain, as the previews of his album we’ve seen so far are wildly divergent. Several months ago, he released “i,” a soulful, Isley-sampling statement of love and togetherness. On the final week of “The Colbert Report,” Kendrick served as Colbert’s last musical guest, debuting a new song that sounded like beat poetry and focused more on explicit socio-political themes, with a refrain of “We don’t die, we multiply” appearing to refer specifically to recent police brutality against Black people in the United States.

Now, with “The Blacker the Berry,” Kendrick has stunningly fired a poison-tipped arrow into his own heart. The song is frustrated and prideful, with undercurrents of self-hate. Though Lamar may be pointing the finger in the wrong direction, “The Blacker the Berry” carries the kind of bold controversial message that any other A-Lister would run far, far away from. (Well, except, perhaps, Kanye West.) It seems almost unfair to compare it to West’s “Only One.” Both come from extremely personal places, but “Only One” is auto-tuned singing is soft and lovely, and “The Blacker the Berry” ’s verses are unfiltered, venomous, righteous anger. They further augment the potential divide between the two artists.

It’s tough to get a read on exactly where West and Lamar are both trending. By virtue of his working with McCartney, it’s easy to imagine a much more radio-friendly upcoming record from Kanye, one that will position Kendrick Lamar as the “realer” champion of the people, and therefore the better rapper. However, even though Kendrick has given us some of the most serious, most poetic hip hop of the last few years, songs like “i” and his old breakout hit “Swimming Pools” show that he’s also not afraid to take his message to the top of the charts. To earn the title of “Best MC Alive” in 2015, West and Lamar will both have to perform a balancing act between popular relevance and powerful content.

We’ll have to wait a little while longer to find out which MC will exit 2015 as the victor, but one thing is for certain: Kendrick’s potential is limitless, and his hunger is palpable. Kanye will have to pull out another world-beating record if he wants to stay on top.

Theisen is refusing to acknowledge Drake as a potential contender in this battle. Direct your outrage to ajtheis@umich.edu.