Kendrick Lamar knew something the rest of us didn’t when he released “The Heart Part 4” in March. “My spot is solidified if you ask me,” he raps, with unshakeable confidence behind his words. The loosie didn’t mark the first time the Compton lyricist—who hasn’t even reached his 30th birthday—has called himself the greatest rapper alive, or inserted himself into the pantheon of hip-hop icons like André 3000 and Eminem. But the sentiment becomes even more credible with the release of Damn, his brilliant and bumping fourth studio album that cements Kendrick as one of rap’s GOATs.
This isn’t a case of hyper-reactive millennial conclusion leaping. There are still many think pieces to be written, lyrics to be deconstructed, hot takes to be shelled out, and theories to be debated. But it’s immediately apparent that Kendrick has blessed hip-hop with another high-quality release by going beyond rehashing past masterpieces. Where To Pimp A Butterfly and Untitled Unmastered are avant-garde, steeped in the black music of yesteryear (particularly jazz and blues), Damn finds Kendrick rapping his ass off to today’s trunk-rattling trap 808s (for instance, “Element”). There are songs here with true smash potential, even more so than past albums. Mike Will Made-It’s platinum touch already helped “Humble” become Kendrick’s highest-charting solo song, debuting at No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot 100—he also laced the explosive “DNA.” “Loyalty,” with Rihanna, has even more pop promise, while “Love” similarly helps establish Kendrick as more than just a God MC. Just like the greats before him, Kendrick is a hitmaker in his own right.
Still, Kendrick’s bars are 24 karat. He torches the American flag alongside U2(!) on the contemplative “XXX” and delves into past anxieties via the autobiographical (and formally exacting) epic “Fear.” On the mind-fuck of an outro, “Duckworth,” K-Dot spins a narrative that details how a two-decades-old run-in between his father and TDE CEO Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith almost derailed his career long before it began. And “Feel” finds him insisting upon his living legend status: “I feel like debated on who the greatest can stop it/I am legend, I feel like all of y'all is peasants.” He's wrestling with big ideas about sin and chance and how to live, while also making some of the best, most streamlined music of his career.
The sentiment may feel premature, but Kendrick’s catalog stacks up favorably against other hall-of-fame rappers’ primes. He followed the impressive Section.80 with the undisputed classic Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, an Illmatic for his generation. His verse on 2013’s “Control” is a truly culture-shifting moment that positioned the Compton rapper as lyrical rap’s alpha dog in the years that have followed. The overwhelmingly dope and challenging To Pimp a Butterfly may go down as one of the most unapologetically black-and-proud albums ever; it’s got six Grammys to boast. And Damn only fortifies that already sturdy discography.
Where were other rap greats at similar points, six years and four studio albums in? After scorching-hot starts, both Nas and Eminem dropped their first duds by album four with Nastradamus and Encore, respectively. 2Pac’s full career exists in this
He's wrestling with big ideas about sin and chance and how to live, while also making some of the best, most streamlined music of his career.
timescale, while the Notorious B.I.G.’s musical legacy is abbreviated by a couple of years. Jay Z was nearing his first fake retirement six years after his debut, but already had two classics under his belt (Reasonable Doubt and The Blueprint). Lil Wayne hadn’t yet morphed into a rap goblin when he dropped Tha Carter, while T.I. had crowned himself King of the South (and backed it up) by his own six-year mark (T.I. vs. T.I.P.). Kanye West pushed music toward the future with each of his first four full-length projects; Drake did the same, albeit being labeled a waverider in the process.
You could eternally argue about whether Kendrick Lamar’s recordings exceed those of the preceding (and unmentioned) greats—take that to Twitter—but it’s certainly defensible to say that they’re in the same league. Sure, K-Dot could fall off in the future, like many dope rappers before him. But that typically happens to those unwilling or unable to reinvent themselves, a talent Kendrick has proven on each of his LPs, Damn included. Plus his lyrical sword shows no signs of dulling.
As hip-hop approaches its half-century mark, the criteria for GOAT status becomes increasingly complex—the artform’s evolving sounds, parameters, and even distribution vehicles make it difficult to compare icons across eras. If nothing else though, Damn is more evidence proving that Kendrick Lamar is one of the most important voices of this generation—something we’ve known for quite some time now.