Better Than Your Favorite 90’s Rapper
In the current climate of hip-hop, Kendrick Lamar shouldn’t be this successful.
Kendrick Lamar’s success has lauded him a contemporary great and after the release of his fourth studio album DAMN., he’s now rubbing elbows with the icons of the 90’s. Fans, critics, and scholars alike are even flirting with the possibility Lamar has surpassed his predecessors.
This particular idea has garnered heavy opposition for understandable reasons. But when we take a step back and objectively examine hip-hop’s timeline and impact, the argument for Lamar being legitimately the best MC ever becomes more convincing.
But before we go any further, I want to establish that when I talk about “90’s rappers”, it’s for MC’s who either experienced the height of their career in the 90’s (Ice Cube for example) or the majority of their catalog exists in the nineties. So that means Eminem and DMX are out despite their careers starting in 98–99. Nas and Jay-Z will be exceptions despite the peak of their careers and majority of releases happening in the 2000’s. They were both highly relevant throughout the 90’s for several years and are still releasing current music.
Shall we begin?
THE GOLDEN AGE FACADE
The 90’s era is always regarded as the golden era and it makes sense. That’s where most of the classics exist and enough time has past where only the good stuff has survived. This gives the illusion that only top-tier records came out in the 90’s. But let’s not forget, three of the top selling hip-hop records in the that era were Will Smith’s Big Willie Style, Vanilla Ice’s To The Extreme, and MC Hammer’s Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt’em. Say whatever you want about those albums now (I actually dig both Hammer and Smith’s records) but you can’t say hip-hop purists weren’t calling those albums “wack” or at the least not real hip-hop when they dropped. The nineties had their fair share of commercial heavy product and lackluster projects.
Another problem is that the same folks who dub the 90's the
golden era are the first ones to argue that you can’t call an album released today a classic unless “enough time has passed”. Taking the logic of that rule into account and sticking to it, then you can’t call the 90’s the golden era for the same reason — not enough time has passed. Just look at the timeline of hip-hop.
It was 1979 when the Sugar Hill Gang released “Rapper’s Delight” and its mainstream success would be the first break that the culture would achieve in reaching an audience beyond its primary roots in New York and the urban communities. Then, slowly, over the course of the 80’s it would to slip into the mainstream with more accessible records like Run DMC’s Raising Hell. Then add controversial releases by the likes of Public Enemy and N.W.A. that gained strong support through word-of-mouth.
Hip-hop was still in its infancy and was taking baby steps to become a more respected genre. At this point, it was barely a decade old.
Then the 90’s hit and along with it came the culture’s first big leap of creativity. You had albums like Death Certificate and Illmatic that continued to enhance social and poetic concepts. You had The Chronic and Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) that molded audacious sonic aesthetics and albums like Aquemini demonstrated the versatility the genre was capable of. You get the point and if anything this information adds more to the argument that the 90’s is the golden era.
But again: Not enough time has passed.
From 1989–1999, Hip-hop was going through its first true period of growing pains. Prior to that, it was more or less in its fetal state and still developing its DNA before being birthed. If hip-hop is a person, it’s in its mid-to-late twenties. It’s incredibly young and when you look at what’s going on with the culture today, it actually seems quite fitting for what someone in their twenties might be going through. Confusion, harsh duality between conscious and reckless, and a lot of experimenting.
When you break things down, the 90’s only has one decade to compete against which is 2000–2009. That decade gets unfairly glossed over as weak and overly-commercialized but do a quick Google search of the top albums during that decade and you get results fit enough to challenge the 90’s.
GOAT BY THE NUMBERS
Biggie released Ready To Die and Life After Death in a span of 3-years. By the time Eminem released The Slim Shady LP in 1999, Christopher Wallace was already being placed as the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) or put in the top five of all time greats. Five years apparently was more than enough time for hip-hop purists to justify that credit. Now place Kendrick Lamar in that same paradigm: 3 albums in 5-years that all achieved universal acclaim and commercial success. In the mix of those releases he also put out a b-sides record that achieved similar praise.
And this doesn’t even incorporate his independent catalog of Section.80 and Overly Dedicated, which also received universal acclaim. Yet, for whatever reason, Lamar gets put on hold when someone even hints at placing in the top 5 or a GOAT competitor. Why?
The same conversations were circling around 2 Pac whose pre-death career covered five-years like Kendrick’s. From 2Pacalypse Now in ’91 to All Eyez On Me in ’96. By the end of the 90’s even Nas was placed in that conversation of greats despite his post-Illmatic releases being rather underwhelming with fans and critics. There’s being a bit subjective to an era then there’s being shamelessly biased.
Now, I’m not saying the 90’s are overrated, after all I was introduced to hip-hop after stealing my sister’s copy No Way Out in sixth grade. That was back in ’98 and so everything I listened to was purely 90’s hip-hop and I loved every moment of it. The point I’m making is that the same individual who didn’t hesitate to call Biggie a GOAT in ’99 is the same one in 2017 saying Kendrick isn’t qualified to be in that same conversation.
GOAT KID, MAAD STANDARDS
So this brings us to Kendrick Lamar. After the release of DAMN. the GOAT talk started to trickle into living rooms, barber shops, and radio shows. The first response from the detractors revolves around the concept of time which seems to only matter when their childhood icons are threatened. Kendrick doesn’t need any more time than your favorite 90’s rapper to be called one of the greats. Pound-for-pound when you put the accolades up next to one another, Kendrick is above his predecessors: respect from the streets, record sales, and critical acclaim.
The second argument people throw against Kendrick is he never would’ve competed with the talent in the 90’s but what logic is backing that claim?
Putting aside Vanilla Ice, Will Smith, and MC Hammer, the 90’s wasn’t all that pop or commercialized. In fact, the three aforementioned MC’s were the minority when it came to what was popular and selling well in the nineties. You had Biggie and 2 Pac of course, Naughty By Nature, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Ice Cube, Wu-Tang Clan, Missy Elliot, The Fugees, Jay-Z, Big Pun, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Warren G, Cypress Hill, Lauryn Hill the list goes on and on and on.
These were the artists that got radio play, music videos on MTV, and sold records. Many of which went platinum and gold so it’s easy to see why a lot of people consider it the golden era. It was the raw, conscious, and bold artists that essentially controlled the market but to say Kendrick “wouldn’t be able to compete” comes off incredibly senseless. If anything, Lamar would fit right in with the 90’s and would have an easier means to succeed. The odds were actually in his favor.
Compare that to the current market which leans heavily on commercialized and watered down rap, how many 90’s MC’s would’ve truly found success in this era? How many would’ve been able to achieve what Kendrick has accomplished? How many could put out three universally acclaimed albums in 5-years, each going platinum* with the third charting every one of its songs on the Billboard Hot 100, and keep it raw and conscious all the way through?
Ken from DeadEndHipHop put it best when he said it’s okay for us to acknowledge and celebrate his greatness — we don’t need to wait.
And we don’t need to wait to allow the same accord to other post-90’s artists and particularly the time periods themselves. Can we honestly expect that the 90’s will forever herald the top-tier talent as we move into the 2020’s and onward?
If North Korea doesn’t blow us up in the next few years, I would hope to see hip-hop evolve into something bolder and more creative in the next thirty to fifty years. The goal should always be to build off of the foundation of the pioneers, take the culture to a new level, and repeat. It’s a crab mentality to overly protect an era out of insecurity that it may become obsolete.
One thing I want to make clear is that I’m not trying to say time isn’t important. Obviously, something that holds up 40–50 years down the line is validated more than something that holds up for only a year or two. It’s cherry picking the standards to place your playlist above others for no other reason than egocentric nostalgia. All this does is hold the culture back.
Kendrick and many others like him are the dawn of a new age in hip-hop — a brighter future ready to shine over the culture’s landscape. The 90’s will never lose their place in the story of hip-hop but I think it’s time to let go and move forward.
*Streaming don’t count! Yes it does, at least when it’s obvious e.g. when DAMN. was streamed more than 340-million times in its first week. Plus, it’s not like record labels weren’t juking the RIAA system to help their artists go platinum back in the 90's.