Kendrick Lamar is showing exemplary range as hip-hop's go-to collaborator.
Had natural selection run its course any different, Kendrick Lamar would have grown up three streets over, with different friends, caregivers, mentors, and on some level, a different understanding of what it takes to be an active participant in his own destiny.
In hindsight, there’s no causal ladder that begins to describe Kendrick’s journey to this point, let alone the art of knowing where others stand under similar circumstances. It’s that very causal ladder that gives us all strength, and for Kendrick Lamar, the rare ability to tap into the mind of other creative types with a hive-like reflex.
Kendrick is arguably the most adept rapper of his generation, and yet we've come to discover more room for praise. In light of his recent guest verses and performances, it should be noted that he is also, as unfair as it may seem, the most adaptive "feature artist" in the game. The humbling lessons of past experiences only begin to describe the fluid nature he demonstrates in these collaborative exchanges. Memories of his mentorship under Dr. Dre have obviously paid some dividends within the unresolved transfer of time.
I’ve amassed together a series of examples in which expertly navigates, integrates and even facilitates a number of cameo roles. Within that logic also lies an assumption that Kendrick has no desire to control anything that passes before his nose. Three specially selected records underscore his impact as a contributor on so many levels: either as the main curator to a soundtrack or more simply, the glue that holds a particular song in place. I implore you to put off your critique until you've considered the many plot points in this editorial.
The first guest appearance that comes to mind is on Travis Scott’s "Goosebumps," off Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight. What makes Kendrick’s contribution to "Goosebumps" particularly interesting is the way he justifies his presence. In layman's terms, Kendrick defers to the underlying theme expressed (unconsciously) by Travis Scott.
"I wanna green light, I wanna be like, I wanna press my..
Mama, dear, spare your feelings."
Travis Scott was smart to offer his guest carte blanche on "Goosebumps," which Kendrick then parlayed into something I like to refer to as "smooth effectiveness," for lack of a better term. Rather than risk boring us to death by crowding the song with autobiographical information, Kendrick adapts to Travis Scott’s feigned ignorance, but not before putting his inflection over every open syllable. The Compton rapper could have easily fallen victim to a disjointed love song narrated by yes, a feller with romantic impulses far different from his own. Kendrick's adaptive nature allowed him to find cohesion with Travis when it seemed all seemed unlikely on paper.
The next two examples of Kendrick Lamar and his forwarded intuition demonstrated a willingness to enter a baton-relay situation, especially his guest role on Lil Wayne’s "Mona Lisa" off Tha Carter V. Weezy starts the proceedings with a concise storytelling arc, leaving Kendrick little choice but to resume what's been started with a semblance of order. Kendrick, ever-so ambitious, could hardly say no to the challenge.
"Mona Lisa" is yet another occasion where the guest is given a free ride, which they, in turn, interpret with a certain level of rigidity. Weezy begins his narrative of a Rich the Kid-esque robbery, set up by a deceitful love interest, with a graphically understated spillover of free-flowing emotion.
Apparently, Lil Wayne wrote himself into a stupor without any outlying plan for its execution. He had no idea how the "project" would be packaged, or with whom. Inevitably Kendrick Lamar was the name that popped into Lil Wayne's mind as he visualized the penultimate phase of its completion, but deep down there was never an expectation that anyone let alone Kendrick could realistically fill the void. Worst case scenario, Wayne would have to finish what he rightfully started. This was back in 2014 when he was double-fisting projects, one belonging to the storied Carter collection, the other largely forgotten as of today.
But to his surprise, Kendrick delivered the final cut complete with a fitting endnote, inevitably arriving upon the emotional gravitas insinuated by Wayne throughout his story. Kendrick’s suicidal endnote to "Mona Lisa" survived the final series of minor edits. It would be another four years before the rest of the World became obliged to listen, the irony being, the song only took three days to complete.
The final Exhibit C if you will, is Kendrick’s most recent collaboration with Anderson .Paak, an artist that shares his multidisciplinary record of employment, and also an association with Dr. Dre. "Tints," released today as a prelude to Anderson's upcoming Oxnard project, may very be the broader musical effort which has eluded him so far. Anderson implicitly remains under Dr. Dre’s wing until he chooses not to be, whereas Kendrick has since departed from the nest, but appears to have one thing common with his musical peer: an unwavering ability to retain first-hand knowledge, from Dre of all sources.
Kendrick, like Anderson .Paak has crossed the threshold into adulthood as a 30+-year-old, yet unlike other artists with lesser accomplishments, they’ve both choose a monklike pose over self-idolatry. Their teacher Dr. Dre only answers to a few men or women on a legendary scale, great modern songwriters like Quincy Jones and Junie Morrison.
Dre wields his reputation like an enforceable rule towards those who seek his approval. Even his fans tirelessly await "millennium" project that'll never be heard outside his studio estate. Many of his washpan projects were discarded sometimes over a minor imperfection as minute as a dent in the panel.
Invariably, pupils like Kendrick understand that perfection is ultimately a subjective experience. The causal ladder that brought Kendrick Lamar to Dr. Dre's doorstep in the first place is also what helped him to a medley performance on Anderson .Paak's new single "Tints," and is likely to open many doors for years to come.