Trolls Be Damned: Kendrick Lamar Deserves to Be Silly
The rapper has gotten Twitter heat for his goofy streak on two new features. He’s more than earned the right to joke around.
With a new album cooking for a late 2021 push, rap savant Kendrick Lamar is primed to enter a particularly noisy—if stale—mainstream hip-hop arena.
Since the Compton-bred rapper announced that his next body of work will be the final act in his run with record label TDE, he’s been featured on two tracks alongside Baby Keem. These two aren’t just linked by blood (Baby Keem is Lamar’s cousin), but also through their multipurpose media boutique pgLang, which they founded last year with former TDE president Dave Free. It’s always news when one of hip-hop’s most virtuosic and enigmatic artists closes a chapter on one era to start another.
It’s unclear just how Lamar’s role might shift over the next few years, as he evolves from rap’s moral conscience to media mastermind. If these new musical collabs—“family ties” and “range brothers,” both on Baby Keem’s new album The Melodic Blue—are any indication, one of the genre’s most intense rhymers is loosening up. Kendrick Lamar is freeing his inner goofball.
There has to be a reason why Kendrick Lamar said “brother” like that on “family ties.” How could this be the same “conscious” rapper who, in his own words, can spit about “money, clothes, hoes, god, and history all in the same sentence,” now sounding like a cross between a boat shoe, a Banana Republican, and a coked-up Hulk Hogan promo? Comedic audacity and timing combined to create a truly cartoonish moment on an otherwise intense verse, in which Dot references two different archangels, commands a certain embattled Chi Town producer-turned-rapper to “burn that hard drive,” and once again stakes claims to rap's throne. While Dot does have a little “eat your vitamins, say your prayers'' rap in his bag, the switch-up from his usual high nasal smattering of entendres to the attention-grabbing, camera-winking humor of pro wrasslin’ speech is undoubtedly calculated. It’s a rap scheme that allows an artist who’s known for clear-eyed, serious raps to let loose a bit, and also share a message: “New flows comin, be patient, brother.”
“Range brothers,” on the other hand, seems like Lamar’s rare attempt at meme-play. Every day since its leak, the Twitterverse has opened at dawn with at least one or two tweets of Kendrick’s ridiculous “top of the morning” chant, alongside a GIF’d loop of the artist performing a childlike stationary march, elbows flaring out at his sides. Building out the spine for the third section of “range brothers,” the chorus feels like a wink to fans who know that Dot likes to get silly on collaborations—his verses on fellow TDE-brother Schoolboy Q’s “Collard Greens,” A$AP Rocky’s “F**kin Problems,” or even Rich the Kid’s “New Freezer” are all prime examples—before using the album format to put together a cohesive message. The new album will likely feature all of the religious, political, and Black sonic flourishes we’ve grown accustomed to, perhaps even using a new persona a la untitled unmastered’s Cornrow Kenny; but until then, it feels like high time for Lamar to be a goof. He’s earned it.
As much as the Grammys, a bleak Pulitzer-Prize winning story arc, and his relatively few public appearances might present the artist as profound and somewhat unknowable, Kendrick Lamar has always been a little silly. Prior to his last hit, DAMN., it seemed as if the 34-year-old superstar only made fun verses when he went in on a track with other rappers. Up until that point his silliness—which is most often articulated through his rapid, snapping vocal inflections—might have been a touch over-intellectualized. There are moments where his vocal dynamism serves a larger message, like on his hit record “Swimming Pools (Drank).” There, his nostril-clenching vocalizations allowed him to convey an internal struggle with addiction in the third person: “Okay, now open ya mind up and listen to me Kendrick. I am ya conscious, if you do not hear me then you will be history, Kendrick.” Or on his latest album, DAMN., the moment in “PRIDE” where the repetition of “I care” in his penchant squeal cuts through the droning melodies like an empathetic figure within a culture of apathy. But other times, like on “range brothers,” it’s clear he’s just kind of fucking with us.
Dot’s place in the game is set in stone—but one might wonder, if he were a silly artist, the type of rapper who spent his career cracking jokes before rapping about systemic racism, if fans would still consider him one of the greatest of all time. Lamar had to establish himself as a serious rapper in order to attain that status. To be the greatest, you can’t be fun.
You have to be rapping about something. It’s one of the fundamental arguments against Drake’s campaign for the greatest. He’ll probably go down as one of the most prolific artists to ever walk the earth, a status that he’s undoubtedly earned, but he hasn’t really said much of actual impact. And as much as Drake might let audiences in on his persona and relationships, the idea of genuine realism baked into his music is a pipe dream. He’s found his lane and decided to stay in it. The crucial distinction here is that Dot’s lane is socially concerned with an occasional aesthetic of levity, while Drake doesn’t try to say too much about the major issues of the world or how he’s grown as a person at all.
And that balance does matter. At times, I do wish for a world where an artist who is committed to just having fun on wax could be deemed the best. It might happen for a white rapper like Eminem, who’s been thrust into GOAT conversations for giving voice to the white incel, wilding out in music videos, and making beaucoup cash for Dr. Dre. But for Black artists, that designation takes a level of intent, craft, and mythmaking that asks them to be something a bit unnatural. To be more than just a human being.
What brings us to Dot and what brings us to Drake are very similar impulses that can unleash very different emotions. Kendrick is a literary darling who, since his popularity brewed in the mid-2010s, has brought listeners into his world with arresting, cinematic retellings of street narratives that burst with perspective and insight. His foray into foolishness will always be seen as a fleeting dalliance with what it might mean to be a true blue popstar. Meanwhile, Drake has reached the pinnacle of stardom. But at the risk of ceding any ground to younger rappers in terms of streams and cultural influence, Drake is sticking to what works: a literal embodiment of the “nice guy” to fuckboi pipeline. Even as Drake desires to be one of the greatest beyond just the numbers, the formula that works so well for him might also be stifling any sense of artistic growth.
Rap has always featured a sense of silliness. It’s a genre built on urban legend and street myth, on playing the dozens and shit talkin’ on the playground with a bunch of the homies. It’s fair to question if rap has grown too unserious, too nihilistic for comfort. If hip-hop as mainstream’s most accepted form of linguistic and cultural currency has grown to care far less about the capitalist social design that made the genre’s formation so urgent, so indelible.
Hip-hop has reached an uncomfortable level of critical mass—the profits generated have never been higher, and it’s one of America’s most successful exports. But rap’s osmosis into the mainstream has signaled a chemical imbalance. Rap’s critical vein has been minimized in popular media, which highlights figures like Kendrick Lamar as tokenized representatives of rap’s political messaging. Regardless of how he might approach a mic once he’s ready to spit, listeners come to Lamar’s art projecting a ton of baggage onto it. But in these moments in “range brothers” and “family ties,” the burdens of those myths and projections are unfastened from his shoulders. The rapper deemed genius does away with the pretensions, steps up the senselessness just a touch, and goes fucking stupid. And what results is pretty amazing, brother.