With that being said, although Kung-Fu Kenny deserves all of the accolades and superlatives being piled onto him like a spoiled kid’s presents at Christmas, there’s a dark side to being so well-beloved and magnified.
Simply put, the more perfect you’re perceived to be, the more any flaw at all stands out. Think about a near-flawless diamond with the tiniest chip reducing its value, or how a pothole in a smooth stretch of fresh asphalt feels like driving over a landmine — that’s what I’m talking about here.
In the case of our boy Kendrick, for all of his technical wizardry, he’s had one bad habit he just can’t seem to kick. By the way, yes, I do recognize that this is nit-picky in the extreme, but that’s just how the game is played. It’s only because Kendrick is so damn good at rapping that this tendency sticks out like a hitchhiker’s sore thumb.
The thing that Kendrick does that chips away at his near-flawless delivery is this: Every once in a while, he’ll attempt to use a multi-syllabic rhyme scheme, but forget to make it make sense. Now, I have absolutely no qualms about free association, stream-of-consciousness rhymes, where each line may not necessarily follow the same line of thought. I’m talking about lines where the actual meaning gets lost in translation due to forcing a needlessly complex rhyme or filler word into the equation just because it sounds nice.
“Cold Summer,” 2017
Here’s one example from just yesterday. On the recently-released DJ Kay Slay collaboration with Mac Miller and Kevin Gates, “Cold Summer,” Kendrick says:
“F*ckin’ up the premises, I been a dick
Ain’t beneficial, I’m ’bout to issue your nemesis”
Which sounds really cool, sure. However, a nemesis isn’t really a thing you can issue. You wouldn’t say “I’m about to issue your downfall,” would you? Again, it’s a really interesting idea, but something about it just sounds… off.
The thing is, throwing in a filler word here or there has long been standard practice in rap, but when Kendrick does it, it feels especially awkward, mainly because it feels like he shouldn’t have to, but also because every so often it tilts his already stilted flow into something that very nearly resembles being off-beat — the cardinal sin of rap.
It’s a thing that actually has come up with him pretty often over the course of his nearly ten year career (we’re counting mixtapes here), and every time it does, it annoys the hell out of me. It feels like Kendrick’s one imperfection pops up at all different points in his otherwise unblemished career. In fact, it’s one of the most consistent things he does across all eras.
“Alien Girl,” 2010
In Kendrick’s early days, he was far more prone to jam in a filler or two when smacking into a wall lyrically, forcing rhymes like this line from “Alien Girl” on Overly Dedicated:
“Cause I’m addicted, and you the drug
Cold turkey? No sir
You gotta be an Odyssey from heaven and above
You definitely know, probably I gotta give it up”
That “Odyssey” in there just sounds weird, right? It rhymes near-perfectly with the “probably” in the next line, but what exactly does it mean? After all, the Odyssey was an epic poem, not a person. An odyssey can be a journey, but K-Dot never bothers to explain where he’s going if he’s on a journey from heaven. If this girl is perfect, it would seem more like he was going to heaven, but that isn’t the case. Also, although it’s not a complicated rhyme, we all agree his line from another OD track on “H.O.C”: “They jump in a sauna because I killed their self-esteem” pun was just a little bit corny, right?
“F*ck Your Ethnicity,” 2011
Another example of a bizarre use of a complex rhyme that, when broken down, mangles Kendrick’s (probably) intended meaning comes from Section.80, the breakout tape that first saw his popularity increase accelerate to lightning speeds. While tracks like “Hiii-Power” showed what the hungry, young rapper from Compton was capable of when he focused, let’s just say that most folks either skimmed or outright skipped lines like this one from “F*ck Your Ethnicity,” that album’s fiery intro track:
“I’m tired of y’all, cause everybody lied to y’all
Do you believe it? Recognize them false achievements
It’s treason and I’m Tylenol, I knock out when you knock it off”
It’s that last line that throws everything off here. What’s “treason” here: Is it the false achievements, or is it recognizing the false achievements? This particular question never gets answered before Kendrick immediately compares himself to Tylenol, a common pain medication, then closes “I knock out when you knock it off,” which doesn’t really make any sense either.
Tylenol doesn’t “knock out” itself, which is how this line reads, leaving the final “it” unaddressed as well. Whatever is being knocked off, maybe Kendrick is going to take a nap, i.e. “knock out,” or “knock out” someone else. This isn’t even the most egregious example from Section.80; “Rigamortus” is another stunning display of dizzying breath control that reads like word salad when printed out. But I’ll leave you to parse that one over on Genius.
“The Blacker The Berry,” 2015
More recently, Kendrick’s predilection for odd word choice crept into some of his stronger offerings as well. “B*tch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” and “MAAD City” from Good Kid, MAAD City both contain some oddities, but a line that always threw me was in “The Blacker The Berry” from To Pimp A Butterfly:
“You vandalize my perception but can’t take style from me
And this is more than confession
I mean I might press the button just so you know my discretion”
I’m concerned. The button enters the equation without explanation, and by the end of the track, never actually receives one. So while we’re not sure what button is being pressed, we do know why, and that’s the part that makes this line inscrutable. “Discretion” is wariness or caution, but the context cues immediately surrounding it imply recklessness. I highly doubt K-Dot would threaten to push this button just to prove how cautious he is.
Another synonym for a slightly different meaning of “discretion” would be “option” or “choice” or “freedom to decide what should be done in a given situation.” We can assume that the given situation is America’s reluctance to address its malignant attitudes about race, particularly how the system treats African Americans, but what is Kendrick’s choice or option that he would be revealing by pressing this unexplained button?
“Untitled 01,” 2016
One of the To Pimp A Butterfly throwaways that made it onto Untitled Unmastered the eight-song, follow-up EP — “Untitled 01,” specifically — contains an oddball gem of its own. In the midst of describing an apocalyptic meltdown of society, Kendrick chooses yet another ten-dollar word that doesn’t quite fit:
“I swore I seen it vividly
A moniker of war from heaven that play the symphony”
A moniker, to the best of my knowledge, is not a musical instrument, nor a weapon that would be used in any kind of warfare. A moniker is a name. I racked my brain for an alternative word that maybe sounded like “moniker,” but more readily fit one of those criteria, but I couldn’t think of one. A name can’t play symphonies or be used to attack someone, at least not during the sort of serious conflict implied by the term “war.” Sticks and stones, etc.
These are just a few examples, and to be quite frank, they’re certainly not enough to tip the scale against the bulk of Kendrick’s ultra-dense, wordplay-laden storytelling and complex lyrical imagery. Kendrick is still as close to technically perfect as any rapper could ever be, but dare I say it’s still nice to be able to notice the dirt on a diamond.
Instead of being an untouchable rap deity, he’s just as fallible and prone to dropping a malaprop as the rest of us. It makes him more relatable, and no matter how many lyrical miracles a rapper can perform in 16 bars, relatability is the real hip-hop secret to success. So, maybe he’s allowed this one tiny flaw to show up in his work on purpose, just to keep himself humble? Now that, my friends, is the epitome of rap kung-fu. If you’re looking for the other end of the spectrum, unadulterated Kendrick praise, check out our ranking of his top 15 best songs.