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In praise of Kendrick Lamar, guest star

Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images. Graphic: Emi Tolibas.
Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images. Graphic: Emi Tolibas.
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On The Blueprint, the album that cemented JAY-Z’s status as the biggest rapper of his era, he boasted that he was “leading the league in at least six statistical categories right now: best flow, most consistent, realest stories, most charisma, I set the most trends… And my interviews are hotter.” He was right: It was his time. Hip-hop is obsessed with epochal, hegemonic greatness, a series of kings supplanting each other. Who wears the crown at any given moment is a matter of barstool debate on par with anything in sports fandom, but there is a generally agreed-upon sequence of rappers who owned their era. No one could quite decide on Tupac or Biggie until fate put a cap on both, after which Jay had a long reign leading up to his “retirement.” Lil Wayne then spread, Borg-like, throughout the rap consciousness, until he went to jail. Kanye unexpectedly emerged with a lurid lyrical style to match his musical ambition. Degrassi graduate Drake dutifully studied his way to the top. And then, finally, Kendrick took control with a series of wildly ambitious state-of-the-nation addresses for a country in crisis.

But how does the best rapper in the world do a guest verse? You could add this to Jay’s statistics—you can tell a lot about a rapper by how they approach these moments. Can they cede ground to the ostensible star, or do they take the opportunity to showboat? Who do they pick to work with? Do the verses seem like leftovers, or are they tailored to the track at hand? Each of these Best Rappers Alive has a different yet telling approach to guest spots. Jay always acted like the most popular guy in school, the one doing you a favor just by showing up to your party. It’s a vibe that got decreasingly cool over time, the fading big shot who kept showing up in the same old letterman’s jacket. Weezy, bless his heart, has no quality control, swinging from earth-shattering brilliance to ungainly wet farts with no real rhyme or reason. Kanye demands center stage, a favor he repays by letting guests regularly steal the show on his own albums. Drake’s guest verses form a sort of mood board, a carefully curated blend of picks that generally point in aggregate to whatever styles he plans on adopting next.

Like all of those rappers, Kendrick had been around for a while when he assumed the crown of Best Rapper Alive, so his early career is peppered with guest spots—and, indeed, full mixtapes—full of promising but sometimes dispiriting work that seems beneath his talents. Unlike all of those rappers, though, Kendrick assumed his throne with a guest verse: his standard-setting shit-starter on Big Sean’s “Control,” which instantly catapulted him to the public forefront of rap greatness. His register pitched to his filthiest growl, he went for the jugular against a nebulous rap other that he then had the audacity to name, listing out a mix of big-name rappers and well-liked underground emcees—J. Cole, Big K.R.I.T., Wale, Pusha T, Meek Mill, A$AP Rocky, Drake, Tyler The Creator, and Mac Miller—whose fans he solemnly swore to steal.

A lot of hyperbolic stuff has been written about this verse over the years. When it first came out, everyone on Twitter instantly became a rap pundit, musing over New York history like they used to bootleg Papoose tapes. But “Control” remains a remarkable act of defiance from Kendrick, at once sacrilegiously placing himself in the all-time pantheon and playing to the most deeply held notions of what “true” hip-hop is. It’s also absolutely packed full of quotables, like when he somehow equates being the king of both coasts with juggling his own balls. Or even better, when he casts off designer clothes in favor of white T-shirts and Nike Cortezes, like he’s not a Reebok spokesperson. Kendrick’s verse established his bona fides as a uniquely serious, studied, ambitious rapper, one whose virtues connected directly with a massive audience’s notions of rap greatness. And it set an incomparably high bar for what a Kendrick guest verse meant. He would turn it into an event.

Since 2015, he’s grown increasingly choosy about when to bestow those verses, even as he keeps up an impressive cadence of official releases under his own name. Those albums are, more than anything else, Kendrick’s legacy, a string of tightly written statements that are designed to progressively build upon each other. But that’s also what makes his sporadic guest verses so illuminating. They cast his talent in a new light, letting him try on new styles and reveal a little more of himself and his tastes than the hermetically sealed universes of his albums let on. After all, he’d never have let loose like he did on “Control” within the prestige context of one of his own records; only a Big Sean remix gets that much table-flipping fury. Kendrick’s guest spots are always rewind-worthy, and they’ve increasingly come to fit into three broad categories, each of which tells us something about our current Best Rapper Alive.

1. Crew and collaborators

Over the past couple years, Kendrick’s label, Top Dawg Entertainment, has—despite its extremely bad name—released a handful of low-key classics. There isn’t exactly a TDE “house style,” but rather a general mark of quality built around each artist’s persona. On top of that, as if contractually obligated, they all get a vintage Kendrick verse.

Take, for example, “Wat’s Wrong,” off Isaiah Rashad’s excellent The Sun’s Tirade, on which Kendrick skips in on some rapid-fire double-time shit, his intensity a counterpoint to the slow-simmering beauty of the track’s live instrumentation. Rashad’s Southern rap feast of an album takes a sort of genial, ambling approach to rapping, easily lapsing into singing and mumbling—all of which makes a verse like Kendrick’s stand out even more. But lyrically, it’s a clean fit with Rashad’s diaristic style.

Equally revealing is his spot on SZA’s “Doves In The Wind,” a warm stretch of rounded drums over which Kendrick coos alongside SZA about—well, it’s really just a bunch of bars about the word “pussy.” But Kendrick’s chemistry with SZA is palpable, his rapping flirting with melodies the same way her melodies flirt with rapping. (It’s nice when he calls her by her first name, too.)

You can also hop back to Jay Rock’s 2015 record “Easy Bake,” on which Jay and Kendrick toss the mic back and forth, finishing each other’s bars. This is absolutely not the type of thing other major rappers would do this breezily, and it’s fun to hear him do something so unflashy. These TDE collaborations find Kendrick pouring his talent into someone else’s broader vision, staying in his comfort zone while gelling with theirs. He hits a more conventional note when he pops up on albums by the people who helped him make his own masterpieces. Earlier this year, he offered a prayerful, low-key verse to Thundercat’s “Walk On By,” and in 2014 provided an appropriately maximalist effort to Flying Lotus’ “Never Catch Me,” both of whom worked with him on To Pimp A Butterfly and Untitled Unmastered. And just a few weeks ago, he popped up on old collaborator Rapsody’s excellent new record for the collaboration “Power,” contributing a minutes-long verse that nestles in neatly alongside her wordplay-heavy true-school lyricism.

These sorts of guest spots find Kendrick tapping into the same high-flying rhetorical braggadocio he traffics on his own albums, dialing in a compressed blast to place it in a new setting. Many of these records probably attract new ears and headlines just by having these top-billing guest spots—which is, you have to assume, part of the point. Kendrick Lamar: good rapper, better friend.

2. Cosigns and cred

It’s always fun hearing a rapper talk about their own place in the pantheon: Jay’s “If I ain’t better than Big, I’m the closest one,” or Eminem’s list and the motherfucking order it’s in (“It goes Reggie, JAY-Z, Tupac, and Biggie …”). That’s part of what made “Control” so fun: the absolute transparency of Kendrick’s feelings toward his competition, the listing of which felt like breaking an ancient rap taboo.

But his other guest verses show a much more pointed opinion about where rap’s true energies lie, implied by his showing up to be near them. Few rappers of this decade have proven more elastic, daring, and technically gifted than Danny Brown, for example, and it’s a reputation Kendrick reaffirmed by popping up to do the hook and a full verse on the brutal posse cut “Really Doe.”

Kendrick also emerges from a dissonant fog with an uncredited verse on “Yeah Right” on Vince Staples’ dense, diamond-tight Big Fish Theory, an album that makes the case for Staples as one of the most sober, witheringly astute emcees alive. The presence of Lamar as the only guest rapper on the album says a lot about Staples’ ambition—and Lamar’s respect for him.

Lamar has also contributed verses like this to records by BJ The Chicago Kid, and popped up on a handful of A$AP Rocky posse cuts. Just this week Lamar slaughtered Atlanta upstart Rich The Kid on his own track, “New Freezer.” It was a sort of sacrificial moment for Rich, no doubt, as it instantly became his best-known song.

If they have one thing in common, it’s that these cosigns go to daring emcees with tight sonic aesthetics; if they’re not Kendrick looking over his shoulder at who’s coming up, they are, at least, a respectful nod. But sometimes, they prove to be worthy challenges: His work on the remix of Future’s “Mask Off,” for example, is revealingly off-pace, with Kendrick attempting to emulate Future’s musicality and, frankly, finding himself outmatched.

On the other hand, he’s maybe a little too indulgent when it comes to doing verses for rap’s elder statesmen, which can often seem like he’s just paying fealty. It’s easy to forget Kendrick got the album-closing verse on Snoop Dogg’s 2015 snoozer Bush, as well as the album-opening verse on The Game’s The Documentary 2—both of which show him giving his all to records that didn’t quite deserve it. Let us also never forget he was the sole guest on Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP 2, which… yeah.

Kendrick has always been preternaturally gifted at evoking rap history, and his penchant for these guest spots shows why: He’s legitimately obsessed with his forebears. Wash the sour taste of that awful Em track down with this uncredited assist to “Conrad Tokyo,” off Tribe’s swan song.

3. Cash-ins

Finally, we have Kendrick’s unabashed, crossover cash-grabs. Whether he’s there for the paycheck, an attempt to reach a broader audience, or because he earnestly wants to align himself with Taylor Swift, these sorts of tracks show him stepping way outside his comfort zone, and it can often lead to some of his weirdest, most fun work. It can also be some of his most terrible. He has done some terrible shit here.

On the “fun” end of the spectrum is something like his Maroon 5 collab from last year, “Don’t Wanna Know.” Kendrick pops up for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it spot over its vaguely “tropical” beat, getting down on Instagram vanity and… Well, that’s it. He’s gone. I am a longtime Maroon 5 apologist, so take this with a grain of salt, but there is something stupid and fun and totally incongruous about this appearance, like spotting Cormac McCarthy in line to see Cars 3.

His spot on Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” remix is a similarly nebulous stretch of lyrical shit-talk, easily slotting in alongside her anthemic grievance pop. Rather than the stoic, try-hard nature of his work with elder statesmen, he limbers up on these pop tracks; here he’s almost play-acting as if he’s truly invested in Taylor’s beefs. (Then again… maybe he is?) You can also hear him giving a weird, stuttering verse on Sia’s “The Greatest,” or popping up on Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive” as the world’s most expensive snare drum, spitting rapid-fire gibberish in syncopation with the beat.

Verses like these almost let you imagine an alternate-universe version of Kendrick as a sort of professional “featured” rapper, some sort of ghastly cross between J. Cole and, say, Tyga, skilled but inane. But really, they fit right in alongside all his other work. Kendrick views himself as a transformative figure, braiding the traditions of his West Coast home with Southern rap’s long-playing pleasures, along with the most fiercely held East Coast conventions about rapper as journalist, as philosopher, as athlete. He trades bars alongside today’s underground stalwarts like Earl Sweatshirt and Vince Staples while also giving Taylor Swift the assist in a Katy Perry diss. And more than anything else, he makes decisions based on his own taste, creating insular albums of intense subjectivity while also guesting almost exclusively with people who complement or inspire that world, and who reflect his ideals about what rap music can be: progressive, worldly, witty, musically rich.

Granted, maybe it’s a little difficult to square the circle of this persona with Maroon 5. But consider these an indulgence on par with Jay’s Rothkos, Kanye’s fashion line, Drake’s endless stretch of douchey penthouses. And hey, even the Best Rapper Alive deserves a night off every once in awhile.