There’s a question people keep asking about Damn: What's it mean for hip-hop that Kendrick Lamar outsold Drake, with 600,000 units to More Life’s 505,000? Could it signal a sea change for the genre? Is rap moving away from Auto-Tune melodies? Have we witnessed the birth and simultaneous death of the playlist format? Is non-religious rap doomed? Must rap have an explicit politics to attract young people? The answer is, no.
Setting aside the mitigating factors that likely caused the sales disparity—the extra time Kendrick had, the availability of physical copies of Damn, Drake’s unorthodox, prolonged rollout—this moment isn’t a passing of the guard. Maybe the loss gets under Drake’s skin enough that he uses Kendrick’s name in a song, but this isn’t Kanye outselling 50 Cent in ‘07. This isn’t a referendum on bars, the triumph of reactionary hip-hop conservatism.
What it is, though, is testament of Kendrick’s dedicated fanbase and a rare occasion to watch the positive intersection of quality and popularity. I’m hard-pressed to recall a time when art of this quality reached this many people. Lemonade?
But still, it rarely works this way, especially when you consider mediums outside of music. This is like Moonlight doing Marvel numbers. An impossibility.
Damn’s chart success tells us what we already know—that black music is the most vital music being made. Black music wrestles America down to the ground while also creating space to imagine a better future than the one we appear to be chasing, fatally.
The clamor for Kendrick’s chart dominance to mean something beyond that, especially with regards to Drake and hip-hop, has more to do with the macho, competitive nature of rap than it does the content of either Damn or More Life. Neither project—fleeting moments aside—could accurately be described as attempts to assert yourself as the best rapper in game, in the traditional sense. Kendrick’s prowess is in service of exacting self-analysis and conceptual storytelling. Kendrick calls himself the greatest on the final track of Damn, and he’s not wrong, but the assertion is offhand, and part of a larger point about chance, karma, and God’s plan. More Life is course correction with gusto; Drake samples sounds and styles gleefully, like a person at a party showing off all the cool people they know by means of endless introductions. But ultimately he arrives at the conclusion that he needs rest. It’s a postcard from vacation.
On the one hand, it’s maddening that so many of us insist on comparing Kendrick and Drake, as if there can be only one, as if the one disc knocks the other out of existence. (You can listen to multiple albums in the course of a day.) True, they ask for it in that when one asserts that he’s the greatest, which then asks the listener to weigh the validity of the statement. Because Kendrick and Drake have the most legitimate claims to that title right now, the comparison persists. But it’s a sports-type impulse, and I hate sports.
I do enjoy criticism, though, and love analyzing the minutiae of a project to determine which thing is best, which is most successful in its aims, which stirs me most. In that sense, I’m happy to debate whether More Life is better than Damn. (It’s not.) I’m happy to argue over whether Damn is Kendrick’s best album. (It is.) And I’m happy to speak about the 2017 album that cratered me hardest, that feels like the definitive work in an ever-surprising career. (That would be Hndrxx.)
All the other conversations are diverting noise. Invigorating to listen to and often hard to ignore for the entertaining hyperbole and inventive, high-wire rhetoric. But noise nevertheless. Sometimes, it can drive even more people to the album, as it may have done for Damn. Still, it’s not the main course. That would be the music.