TAKE #21: Who’s the Better Lyricist: Lupe or Kendrick?

I’ve been thinking a bit about this. Not because I necessarily want to – mostly because every other thing I see relating to hip hop recently is about this lol. After a couple of nights of sitting in my bed and contemplating (read: spending my time thinking because I can’t sleep), I’ve settled on my opinion being that Lupe is the better lyricist and Kendrick is the better rapper.

I think I actually saw this take in a Reddit comment a couple days ago, but I don’t remember which one, so I can’t link it. But I thought it was the right way to go; it acknowledges both, while recognizing the differences (and similarities) between Lupe and Kendrick. Let’s start off with how I’m defining lyricist and rapper.

So we have lyricist first. Here’s what Google says:

I think I’d add that a lyricist FOR ME is someone who emphasizes (at every musical moment) the chance to create thought through lyrics. A lyricist is a person (again FOR ME) who has a passion for provocation – provocation of different opinions, provocation of ideas, and provocation of conversation.

Now let’s dig into who a rapper is. Google says:

The important part of this for me is the performance aspect. The style aspect. The art of creating an experience that others are a part of or get to witness. And from Google’s definition, it’s very much centered on auditory and tangible experiences, rather than just on the words themselves.

And these definitions don’t mean that a person can’t be both a rapper and a lyricist. It’s just when we’re talking about who’s the best at what, it’s helpful to make it clear what those things mean for us collectively and individually.

So let’s start with why I think Lupe is the better lyricist. Something that I think everyone can acknowledge about Lupe is that words are his weapon. Double and triple meanings are commonplace in his lyrics. Songs about social death and the drawbacks to being rich & having notoriety are told through conversations around the lack of pizza delivery services and the perspectives of value meals and hamburgers. And things like that are built into what makes Lupe, Lupe. I mean, a running gag with the way people experience Lupe’s music is centered on how many different webs he’s able to weave with the things he says, so much so that his music is often deemed inaccessible because it feels like you need to have a PhD in something to understand what’s going on a la the premise of “Dumb it Down” from The Cool (2007). It’s because of that that I don’t think that I’d consider Lupe’s modus operandi one that centers on relatability/accessibility all the time. Of course, Lupe is an amazing storyteller and has made plenty of songs like “Kick, Push” and “He Say She Say” from Food & Liquor (2006) and “Prisoner 1 & 2” from Tetsuo & Youth (2015) that dig into stories that span many a personal narrative. But like I mention at the beginning, Lupe is a provocateur (if we remove the illegality lol). Even the things he chooses to talk about during his Instagram lives and the conversations he chooses to engage in on Twitter are based in eliciting reactions that elicit conversations. There are ways that Lupe uses words that I just don’t see from Kendrick.

Kendrick’s M.O. isn’t completely different, but there’s something about him that feels more tangible, which leads me to my feeling that he’s the better rapper. Where Lupe’s lyrics meander, Kendrick’s tend to feel a little more explicit (but Kendrick does love a metaphor). If we go back up to that definition of what a rapper is, the performance aspect of it is an essential part. There’s necessarily a worldliness that a great rapper has that Kendrick has shown through the majority of his career. I think a lot of the appeal – or at least the appeal of Kendrick to me – is that it feels like he’s sitting and having a conversation with us on every project. I imagine that fireside chat at the beginning of “Fuck Your Ethnicity” on Section.80 (2011) is where we all meet up to listen to Kendrick’s projects for the first time. The skits, changes in pitch vocalization, and pace of flow on his albums add to that feeling of being brought into his world, as we’re surrounded by characters that expand outside of just Kendrick. And then the music videos just add on to that! That’s not to say that Kendrick doesn’t have the capacity to serve us double and triple meanings in his lyrics and move us mentally and spiritually with his storytelling with the same gumption as Lupe. It’s just that when it comes to the world that Kendrick builds with his albums and music, it feels like it expands way past depending primarily on words like Lupe’s worldbuilding tends to feel. I’m not gonna go to Lupe for music videos like “Alright” or “HUMBLE.” or performances like Kendrick’s from the 2016 Grammys (I mean really in general, if I had to choose, I’d go see Kendrick over Lupe). That’s just not his steez. But I know that with a Kendrick album rollout, there’s gonna be a new hairstyle, a new flow/vocalization, new visual techniques, and new performance styles.

I think an important part of this conversation for me is the need to not devalue the work and title of “rapper.” I think there’s an assumption that lyricism is S tier, while rapping and the performance of rap is D or F. Which is completely wrong. The problem with that is that it removes the agency of artists to decide what their tools of the trade are going to be by saying one tool is better than the other, and it ignores that an artist can be both. Neither Kendrick nor Lupe is solely a rapper or a lyricist. They both take pieces of both into account in their craft.

So yes, Lupe (to MEEEEE) is the better lyricist because words = Lupe. If Lupe doesn’t do anything else on a project, he’s going to say something that you’re going to think about 5 years later because you’re gonna realize that there are 3 other meanings outside of the one you picked up on. When Lupe is done with making music for public consumption, he’ll be remembered because of that, not because of a performance he gives or a music video he has. And those are the places where Kendrick will shine. Of course we’ll be talking about Kendrick’s words and his stories, but it wasn’t what Kendrick was saying during his Grammys performance in 2016 that caused 2 of my 4 professors at the time to play the performance in class to spark a discussion. It was the visuals that were provided; it was Kendrick shackled to his mic stand, the “Compton” stamped in the middle of the projected Africa he stood in front of, and the motherland-inspired dance sequence we get towards the beginning.

SUCH a good performance.

Anyway, both of them are great, and Kendrick needs to come out of hiding.


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