Hip hop is the most popular genre in the country right now (when lumped together with sister genre R&B). YouTube data geek Data Is Beautiful shows hip hop and R&B becoming most popular around ’08 or ’09 by measure of record sales; Nielsen places its ascendancy at 2017, with hip hop and R&B dominating in sales, charting and Grammy nominations. Either way, by most measures, hip hop has become the genre of the nation in the 2010s — and the decade’s ruling rapper has never been clearer.
The meteoric rise of a decade-defining rapper
Even though he got his beginnings in ’04 under the moniker K-Dot, Compton-based Kendrick Lamar wasn’t on anybody’s radar until Overly Dedicated in 2010. The little-known mixtape earned Kendrick a spot in XXL’s 2011 Freshman Class, an accolade that meant a lot more back then than it does now. His first independent album Section.80, like Overly Dedicated, remained low-key outside of Los Angeles and hip-hop circles. Still, Section.80 was acclaimed for its dark and thought-provoking lyricism. While others, inspired by West Coast legends like Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, wore their Compton background like a brand of toughness, Kendrick used his experience to develop a socially aware message.
At the end of 2012, good kid, m.A.A.d. city was a hurricane in hip hop. Kendrick’s debut studio album sparked heated online arguments about the concept of an “instant” or “modern” classic. Storytelling was already Kendrick’s greatest strength, but he amped it up to the max for one of hip hop’s most cinematic albums of all time. Every music journalist made it their mission to explain what a “concept” album was and why GKMC was the greatest one of all time. By the time To Pimp A Butterfly dropped in 2015, Kendrick was one of rap’s most universally acclaimed emcees, the holy hip-hop prophet. Few albums have combined so much artistic experimentation and conscious, clever songwriting while remaining smooth and accessible. President Obama himself deemed “How Much A Dollar Cost” his favorite song of 2015.
Since then, Kendrick has been eating Grammy awards and Platinum certifications like candy. Somehow untitled unmastered., a compilation album of TPAB demos, sounds better than most records from 2016, even without any unifying theme or message. DAMN. in 2017 was a little more divisive among hip-hop superfans, but critics and the mainstream rallied behind it for album of the year. It even won a Pulitzer Prize. Masterminding the hype of Black Panther: The Album in 2018 was just icing on the cake of Kendrick’s decade of domination. He didn’t need to release another album in 2019; there was no rapper who could do anything in 2019 to make a difference to the record. If Kendrick hadn’t sealed the deal halfway through the decade with TPAB, then DAMN. put the nail in the coffin.
What makes for a “decade-defining” rapper?
My gut instinct is to say that when you think of hip hop in the 2010s, the recording artist that naturally comes to mind is the one who defines that decade. But that’s who defines your decade in hip hop. Who defines the decade? Some point at the numbers: Kendrick has numerous awards and sales accolades and chart positions, all the stuff that only kind of matters. But that has little to do with his dominance.
Not much of Kendrick’s work has shown direct influence in terms of the type of music that’s coming out. That’s something we’ll probably see in the next 10 or 20 years. But there is something to be said for the way every move Kendrick makes creates an earthquake in hip hop. Like when his aggressive throne-claiming verse on Big Sean’s “Control” sparked an enormous backlash. Or when his chorus, “We gon’ be alright,” was adopted by police brutality protesters to show solidarity in the Black community.
What really made Kendrick the king of the ’10s is simple: Prolificity, consistency and quality. In 10 years he’s had two masterpieces and four other amazing albums. His versatility has led to songs that are dense, layered works of art while remaining accessible in the mainstream (see “Swimming Pools”). And his writing is some of the most thought-provoking across all genres of music, whether it’s intricate metaphorical storytelling or gripping lines that could be broken down and analyzed for days on end. My personal favorite: “If a flower bloomed in a dark room, would you trust it?”
No real competition
The strongest defense for Kendrick as the rapper of the decade really comes in just two words: Who else?
Looking specifically at the 2010s, the competition immediately slims down. Kanye West and Lil Wayne have arguments for the 2000s, but not the 2010s. Many rappers that started to gain traction in the beginning of the decade haven’t been as consistent or maintained their relevance, like Big Sean or A$AP Rocky. So who does that leave? Who first started to pick up steam in 2010, and has had an enormous impact going into 2020?
Tyler, the Creator is one of the first to come to mind, especially in terms of influence. His work with Odd Future has already done so much for hip hop — there’s no BROCKHAMPTON without Odd Future. I don’t think his pre-Flowerboy material is near good enough for him to qualify, though.
One of the few artists who has enjoyed as much mainstream popularity over the decade as Kendrick Lamar is J. Cole. He’s also similarly celebrated by his peers. That’s where the argument for Cole ends, though. Among hip-hop fans, his fame has always been divisive — so divisive that it wouldn’t be fair to consider him.
That only leaves one real competitor. Someone who first rose to prominence this decade and stuck in the popular consciousness ever since. Whose influence on hip hop can be seen far and wide. A pop culture icon of the decade: Drake.
This is the closest call to make, and the only real threat to Kendrick’s title. Drake came up in the 2010s, he has popularity and influence that transcends Kendrick Lamar, he is easily the best-selling rapper of the decade and has numerous awards and records. But there is one thing that really holds him back.
When you stack the best Drake album — If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late or Take Care — against the worst Kendrick Lamar album — DAMN. or Black Panther: The Album — there’s a very fair argument to be made that Kendrick’s worst is better than Drake’s best. I think about what will stand the test of time. What will be a celebrated classic, and what will become a relic. I don’t know if Drake will be a relic or a celebrated classic of the 2010s. Kendrick Lamar though — he will never be a relic, and he will certainly be a celebrated classic.