I. Heavy Is the Head
“Our history told of kings that smiled and kings that conquered. He was the latter.” —Rachel E. Carter
Lust for life. Fans of modern rap will see these three words together and relate them to the opening record on Drake’s So Far Gone. The young Canadian rapper chose the perfect title to open a mixtape deeply rooted in desire, an emotion engraved in the DNA of all his music.
So Far Gone introduced a man with the ambition of a conqueror infatuated by worldly pleasures. Money, cars, clothes, and hoes, is how the single “Success” depicts the desires driving Drake. Across the acclaimed mixtape yearning courses through the melodic introspection and candid lyricism like blood coursing through veins. Lying underneath the bold bravado and honest anxiety is a Simba who dreamed of being crowned; someone who saw rap as the vacant real estate to build his own kingdom. Drake had a vision for his career, for his future, and only as the king could his lust for life be quenched.
“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” —William Shakespeare
One major theme throughout Kendrick Lamar’s debut EP after changing his name from K. Dot is the desire to be heard. On “I Am (Interlude),” he admits his focus on winning the hearts of listeners before thoughts of becoming a GRAMMY winner. “Wanna Be Heard” continues that thought, aware that frustrations of being misunderstood can only be combated with transparency. He isn’t above falling victim to his vanity, dark days are brightened by chugging bottles of Patron and pursuing empty pleasures. Still, the overarching theme throughout the Kendrick Lamar EP is one of a rapper reaching to be heard by anyone willing to listen.
Kendrick’s early conception of success can be found on “Determined,” the closing record on Kendrick Lamar EP. “Having the world’s best to call me the best / Pull up at the GRAMMY Awards as best dressed,” he raps on the first and second verses, placing recognition over material prosperity. The lyrics capture his early efforts toward being someone recognized for greatness, who believed in the rewards only the great are granted. Soaked into the very fabric of his music is the calm patience of a man who dreamed of being better than good enough, who saw rap as the promised land to nurture his potential, and who one day would inherit a crown chosen by his kingdom.
II. The Tale of Two Kingdoms
“That perfect bliss and sole felicity, the sweet fruition of an earthly crown.” —Christopher Marlowe
In 2018, Drake and Kendrick are two kings who are ruling kingdoms underneath Kool Herc’s sun. Over the last five years, both have reached otherworldly levels of success, both commercially and critically. They’ve won GRAMMYs, topped the charts, and impacted culture. The two are often discussed and debated against one another, with the crux of their rivalry questioning who is better. There can only be one best, a singular honor, but crowns are bestowed upon more than one head. Throughout history, no two kings have been alike, and contrasting Kendrick and Drake is to see the coexistence of a very specific yin and yang.
Drake takes pride in his flourishing success. His music is filled with citing accomplishments and accolades the way I imagine Alexander The Great boasted after taking down the Persian Empire. The life he lives is one of luxury, triumph, and opulence. His views of success haven’t changed, he’s still chasing after enchanting women from the church of Bilquis and stacking dead men on green paper to the ceiling. His lust for life hasn’t been diluted by all he’s acquired, rather he’s only encouraged to obtain more. He has displayed all the paranoia Caesar lacked, wary that a new adversary will bring upon his Ides of March. I’ve written about his journey from boy to beast, but it’s worth noting that Drake doesn’t simply fear being beheaded. He fears losing all that he’s earned; being stripped of all the success he desired.
Half of hip-hop Twitter believes Drake sounds lazy on the newly-released “Diplomatic Immunity,” but I hear a relaxed godfather stuffed with pasta and power, watching the charts and his chessboard. He’s no longer worried about knives in his back, he has survived all their assaults and can take a second to admire the empire that has yet to be toppled. He’s safe—there’s no angst in his voice or anxiety in his lines―unphased by opinions not matching the statistics. Most men will only talk this relaxed behind bulletproof glass, and these bars sound like they were written within a fortress of solitude. A fortress of success.
Drake’s kingdom is dedicated to thriving, to champion the prospering growth born from the bottom in which he started. Kendrick is the opposite; his music shows a king who refuses to lose himself in worldly pleasures. He is the king of damnation, wary of his soul and all the souls who follow. Even when he writes of death, Drake is more worried about being missed than his soul being doomed.
NPR’s hip-hop wordsmith Rodney Carmichael penned an excellent article last year looking at the prophetic struggle of Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. He compares Kendrick to prophets in the Bible, troubled men with world-saving aspirations like Elijah, Noah, and Jeremiah.
“They did not bring hope and redemption. They preached apocalyptic visions, full of fire and brimstone, meant to turn the people away from ungodliness. They did not come to praise or worship, but to destroy and rebuild,” Rodney wrote of the old prophets, perfectly capturing what Kendrick’s kingdom inserts into hip-hop’s zeitgeist. He is the sinner who will sin again. The king who sings the importance of self-love while unafraid to confess his own struggles with suicidal thoughts. A good kid who told us of a mad city, and then of a damned world. There’s no facade of paradise; despite all the success he still focused more on the fear of God’s wrath than losing himself in God’s blessings or Lucy’s temptations.
Kendrick isn’t taking his foot off the gas, he still raps as if he has something to prove, the hunger vibrates from every bar. The burden of struggle and suffering is carried into the heart of every album because the money, cars, and girls aren’t enough. He doesn’t need the recognition any longer, he has it. What’s left are the fruits of his labor, and as he rapped on “Momma”: “The way I’m rewarded, well, that’s God’s decision.”
III. Buried Alive
What becomes of a man once he has gained the world? Once he has everything he wanted? He becomes a king.
What shapes a king’s kingdom? Desire.
The desires of Drake and Kendrick and their kingdoms will shape a generation of music listeners currently watching them reign. The contrast has been in the making for years; you can look back seven years ago and see the makings of their kingships.
The first time Kendrick met Drake was in Toronto, where Aubrey built his empire. Kendrick was still new, expected to be the next ruler of L.A. but with much to prove.
“Meeting a person that’s the same age as you, and that moment of him pulling up in a Maybach and 40 pulling up with no doors. At that moment, you want that. You go back to this mindstate where materialistic things is something that you want in your life,” Kendrick told XXL in 2011 after the blogosphere was set ablaze by his verse on Drake’s Take Care.
“Buried Alive Interlude” contains the words of a young man who saw what was possible, who glared into a world of bright lights, Maybachs, friendships with Rihanna―who saw that money, power, and pussy were the suffocating rewards fame offers. Kendrick heeded the advice Drake passed down about belonging to the people—one king giving game to another—but Kendrick ultimately rejected being buried in their hedonism. Drake sought to be buried. Kendrick decided to rise above.
The two artists are opposite ends of a rare coin: The boy who dreamed of being king and the boy who rose to royalty. The king of prosperity and the king of damnation. Drake is the magazine you flip through showing a utopia of beautiful images, Kendrick is rereading the Old Testament and feeling the weight of being lost in the world. Drake preaching more life on Earth is a direct contrast to Kendrick making an album largely rooted in cursed existence. The two allow us the bliss of living in the moment and the fear of what comes after. Their two crowns and kingdoms are shaped by the way they approach success. The duality of their perspectives gives us two worlds to explore, to truly appreciate how different two castles can be.
Long live the kings.
By Yoh, aka Diplomatic Yohmmunity, aka @Yoh31