Creating a worthy follow up to a classic album is one of the greatest challenges in rap. It’s the challenge Kendrick Lamar is facing as he readies the follow up to his now classic 2012 major label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d. city. We recently caught up with Kendrick and his TDE brethren for our latest cover story where we explored everything that’s been up with Kendrick since dropping good kid and what’s next for him. When talking to Kendrick and company, one name that kept coming up was Nas.
As well it should, if anyone knows about the pressures of putting on a great encore it’s Nasty Nas. Nas burst out the gate by dropping arguably the greatest rap album of all time in 1994, Illmatic, but then still managed to put out a strong sophomore set with It Was Written (an album that some people, including ScHoolboy Q, consider superior to Illmatic). So we reached out to the Queensbridge legend to get his perspective on whether or not it’s fair to compare good kid to Illmatic, why rappers don’t need to necessarily make radio records anymore, and what advice he’d give to Kendrick...
Interview by Insanul Ahmed (@Incilin)
While I was working on this story about Kendrick Lamar and the challenge of an artist following up a classic album, your name came up a lot because it’s something you have experience with. So, first off, how do you follow up a classic album?
Yeah, I daresay it’s the same thing. After my first record, Illmatic, people were waiting. Their anticipation for my first album was huge, but the anticipation for my second album, It Was Written, was way crazier. It was so crazy that I had to take it seriously. They called it the sophomore jinx back then. So many artists never got past their first album.
It’s something I thought about with Kendrick because his first album was received so well and already in his career, outside of his album, he shook up the rap game. So he’s just set up for his second offering. The [anticipation] is through the roof. It’s such a great place to be for someone who’s a writer, especially in a business today where it’s about singles and records that just go off in the club. It’s more artists coming out just slinging singles than banging albums. He’s an album guy. Those guys, it’s a different league. It’s an exciting moment for us.
Right. When I was talking to Kendrick, he was saying that before good kid came out, he felt a lot of pressure on him. He was kind of unsure of himself. Have you ever had moments like that? Times where you doubt yourself?
Oh, for sure. Because you had Jay Z coming. You had Ghostface’s first album. You had Raekwon. You had Mobb Deep. These guys had cornered the rap game off. And also Biggie, and many others. So the competition was severe for me to put out the next record.
I was talking to Punch, who’s the President of TDE, and he said something really interesting. He said Kendrick is “shadowboxing” because it’s one thing to compete with other rappers, but really he’s at the point where he’s competing with himself. I feel like you have a similar situation because you’ve made so many great records, but it’s like how can you do it again?
Yeah. But I think he got it. I know he got it. There’s no way he can mess it up because the love he has from the game is so large that he can almost mumble on the record and it’s going to be in rhythm and it’s going to be next level. So he’s in a great place because, again, there’re so many single artists that the album artist just holds up as a whole different kind of value. And he’s that kind of guy. So whatever he does, in my opinion, will be appreciated but at the same time he knows he has to bring it. It’s about challenges, right? Life’s about challenges. In this game it’s about challenges.
There’re so many single artists that the album artist just holds up as a whole different kind of value. And Kendrick is that kind of guy. So whatever he does, in my opinion, will be appreciated but at the same time he knows he has to bring it.
Right, we talked about this before when we interviewed you for The Making of It Was Written. I remember you saying that you wanted to be number one. You were saying it couldn’t just be street people bumping your songs and that “I need mayor Giuliani dancing to my songs.” You wanted those big radio records because Biggie had came out and was getting radio play.
Well, we broke open those doors so that you don’t have those same pressures any more. Back then, it was the beginning of them playing street records on the radio all day. So back then you needed something that had more radio appeal more than you do today. Today, a good clean radio record is going to take you there, but it’s not as important as it was back then.
We were opening that door so we had to figure out if y’all wanted it to sound a little smoother or what y’all wanted to see. Y’all wanted us to challenge ourselves and see if we could do the same spins as Toni Braxton, same spins as Janet Jackson, same spins as whoever was on the top of pop charts. We challenged them too because everybody was trying to hold rap back. We were fighting against the whole system. We broke those doors down. The Internet made the world smaller, so it’s easier now for people to hear your music. You don’t necessarily need a radio record.
When I was talking to the TDE guys they were kind of making this comparison between Illmatic and good kid. Do you think that’s a fair comparison?
No, it’s not a fair comparison to me because Illmatic represented a different time and a different expression for different reasons. The times inspired the sound of that—the climate of the music business, the rap game, the industry, the year, and life in itself. It’s not fair to Kendrick’s album either because his album is a brand new expression that represents these times, the sound represents what’s happening now, he’s changing things today.
You can compare them because you can compare me and Kendrick in a lot of ways. But at the same time you have to respect his journey. His journey is his own fresh journey and to compare it with me or anybody else is not fair to him. You gotta respect his music for him. It’s cool to compare it but at the end of the day, allow him to have his own lane.
Right. Because everyone’s got to do it for themselves.
No one else can be Kendrick but Kendrick. This is what I been trying to pump to people when people like compare me to Rakim. You can’t compare me to Rakim. There can never be another Rakim. But you can’t compare no one to me either. There’s only one me. Everybody, we’re inspired by each other but we come into our own and we have our own things to put out.
No one else can be Kendrick but Kendrick. This is what I been trying to pump to people when people like compare me to Rakim. You can’t compare me to Rakim. There can never be another Rakim. But you can’t compare no one to me either.
You talk about expression. Here’s something Kendrick told me that I wanted to see if you could relate to: “When I’m in the studio I’m looking for creativity I haven’t matched yet, a feeling I haven’t felt. It’s a high. When you look at people like Jay Z, Nas, Dr. Dre, these people are established, but they love music and they love that high.” Can you relate to that?
Most definitely. There’s not many like him. He’s a breath of fresh air. His shit is genius. This dude’s a rhyming animal. I feel like he’s going to be one of the most important writers of our time as we watch him go forward. Without a question, you can already see that. It’s definitely a high that I always get from the music. The business is the business, but there’s nothing like that high when you’re recording.
What advice would you give to Kendrick about following up a classic?
It’s super important, but don’t let that get in the way of creating. Don’t. It’s like, “Yo, you know you’re like one of the most important guys out here in the world, now go make an album,” That’s a lot of pressure to have, but so what? Just say to yourself, “So what? Yeah, I’m that dude. I got music to make.”
You’ll never be bigger than hip-hop. I wanna be big but I’ll never be bigger than hip-hop. If I become bigger than hip-hop, then I’m Madonna, I’m a diva. I know plenty divas in this shit, new artists and old. Rap Divas. But none of us is bigger than hip-hop and none of us will ever be.