The 2016 BET Hip Hop Awards were held this past week and aside from the always excellent pre recorded cyphers, the biggest highlight was to see an emphasis put on lyricism. The substantive Chicagoan Chance The Rapper took home best new hip hop artist, J Cole took home the Impact Track trophy for “Love Yourz” and to no one’s surprise, Kendrick Lamar won for Best Lyricist. Kendrick has shown a unique talent throughout the years of combining storytelling, wordplay and catchy, meaty hooks to his songs making him an incredibly well rounded wordsmith. We’re going to take a look at four different verses throughout the years that show off that diversity and takes a look at what makes K.Dot so good.
“Now I done grew up ’round some people livin’ their life in bottles
Granddaddy had the golden flask, backstroke every day in Chicago
Some people like the way it feels, some people wanna kill their sorrows
Some people wanna fit in with the popular, that was my problem” – Swimming Pools
One skill that has long separated the good lyricists from the greats is the ability to submerge the listener in a world that the artist has recreated. Even when he takes his fans on metaphorical voyages, his tone is always quite clear. Throughout “Swimming Pools” Kendrick takes you across his teenage booze filled years and manages to not glamorize or necessarily alcohol use. The theme of the song is remarkably compelling as a realistic plea to curb alcohol abuse, moderation. So often the idea of partying in hip hop is put on a pedestal but Lamar manages to weave an intricate narrative involving drinking and growing up insecure.
Who tryna jump and get it? You’re better off tryna skydive
Out the exit window of five G5’s with five grand
With your granddad as the pilot, he drunk as fuck, tryna land” –Control
A couple of summers ago the internet lost its collective mind on one fine evening when Big Sean released “Control”. Unfortunately for Big Sean, it didn’t have anything to do with his verse (or Jay Electronica’s). Kendrick came on with a feature and sent the rap game into a tizzy. Perhaps sensing that the hip hop waters had grown too tranquil, Kendrick made huge waves with his verse calling out all of his contemporaries to meet him at the top of the world play summit. He effortlessly weaves in some thinly veiled insults, pop culture references and rappers names as a call to arms for fellow MCs to raise their collective games. After the song, many outlets and fans alike were putting this on par with some of the great callouts in hip hop history.
No Such Thing As Halfway Hooks
Bentleys won’t get you high, no, no, no
Bars won’t get you high, no, no, no
Levitate, levitate, levitate, levitate” – untitled 07 2014-2016
A part of lyrics analysis that often gets overlooked are the choruses and hooks. Hip hop is unique in that some of it is aimed to make people dance and others to make people think and the best figure out a way to do both. A way that Kendrick keeps his hooks fresh is by having a reoccurring through line and switching up the preceding words. On “untitled 07”, the rhythmically enchanting “levitate” is spoken over and over again leaving your ears and mind in almost trance like state by the end of the song. Kendrick finds a way throughout his catalog to not only come up with catchy hooks that keep your head boppin’ but also incorporate a cleverness to the words in the hook.
Making sure my punctuation curve, every letter here’s true
Living my life in the margin and that metaphor was proof
I’m talking poetic justice, poetic justice” – Poetic Justice
My personal favorite part about Kendrick Lamar’s music is that after you listen to it, you get to check out his lyrics and see just how smart and talented he is. Nobody in hip hop right now can carry out an extended metaphor to the degree that Lamar can and on Poetic Justice, Kendrick really flexes his mental muscles in his creation of the song. He moves in and out of the hook in his verses and manages to name drop poetic devices into his lyrics, as the song serves as an ode to not only his idol Tupac, but to language itself.