What a difference two years makes. Around this time in 2014, Kendrick Lamar’s seven Grammy nominations all fell short, and he left Staples Center empty-handed. It was widely regarded a snub, but he didn’t let it deter him from his path. After the fact, he repeatedly emphasized that good kid, m.A.A.d. city was the album he wanted to make and, as such, he didn’t require any trophies to validate his work.
Flash forward to Monday night. It still wasn’t perfect for the man who just received the key to Compton. He once again fell short in the Grammy for Album of the Year, but this time he went home with the clean sweep of all four awards in the Rap category, thanks to his far-reaching, sophomore major label effort, To Pimp A Butterfly.
While his two studio albums are strikingly different from each other, they are both the manifestations of Kendrick Lamar’s creative vision, completely free from compromise and true to himself. Yes, TPAB isn’t your stereotypical hip-hop album at all, but, at this point, it’s not a stretch to say that it’s an album with more impact than GKMC.
TPAB has reached more than just hip-hop heads. From being chanted at marches to earning President Obama’s praise, it was far and away the most pervading hip-hop — and potentially of any genre — body of work from 2015. Part of that relates to the timing of its release, specifically regarding the turmoil that was — and still is — happening between law enforcement and African-Americans. And part of it is that the album tells a story that speaks to people far, far away from the city of Compton. It’s something that a single mother on welfare will relate to, as will a suburban 9-5er like myself. The takeaways are completely different, but it holds wisdom for anyone seeking it.
Another factor that stuck out Monday night is that the “socially conscious” label is no longer taboo within hip-hop, for Kendrick and other artists alike. J. Cole continues to get acclaim for 2014 Forest Hills Drive and Killer Mike is now a very visible endorser of the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination. All three have provided openly active voices when it comes to social issues and all three keep elevating the primes of their respective careers without being labeled as “conscious” and stuck in the box that once held the likes of Talib Kweli and Mos Def. And with hip-hop quickly becoming the primary genre of music in America, their voices are reaching more and more people with each passing day.
The way that Grammy voting is set up, it’s certainly a popularity contest, to a large degree. And as long as it remains that way, especially with other genres of music (R&B excepted) being primarily dominated by white people, rap albums will likely always be a long shot to win awards like Album of the Year. But seeing an artist like Kendrick Lamar, someone who’s unrelentingly true to his political, sometimes unpopular and controversial message, take home the most awards of any artist last night, gives hip-hop as a genre a huge leap of credibility within the greater landscape of music as a whole. Even bigger than that, it shows that his words are reaching the ears of the masses.
And that’s where change starts.