Kanye vs. Kendrick and They O.E.N.O.

Harlem-based rapper Sciryl, a friend of mine, has a saying. If you’re a Black artist, you can get away with being two of these three: talented, successful, cocky. You can’t be all three. I’ve gone into the lab and tested. It holds true a frightening amount of the time.

A few screenshots and memes have been going around lately (but especially since the Grammys) with two related jokes: either that Kendrick Lamar is actually doing what Kanye West thinks he’s doing, or that Kendrick is what Kanye would be “without Kardashians”. Let’s put this racist, misogynistic idea to bed right now.

I can’t start without saying that I think Kanye’s politics are a huge mess. This is a guy who just said that “white publications” should no longer write about Black music less than 48 hours after begging for financial support from hedge-funders. He has said deeply misogynistic things in his music and his Twitter. This is not a defense of Kanye. It is a defense of rap as an art, and of Black artists who should be free of ridiculous burdens that miss their Caucasian counterparts.

Imagine it’s 1998 or ’99. The charts are owned by a ton of rap. No Limit and Cash Money are huge. Riding tanks around and grunting a lot is cool. Out of nowhere, some kid from Chicago with an underbite shows up not talking about coke and birds. It’s more like spoken word. Plus he’s really puttin’ it down. If Kanye West had emerged in those years (instead of about five years later), he would have been the most conscious dude on the planet compared to what was happening at the time.

“Also, in terms of K-dot and Kanye, comparing a 38-year-old Kanye with a 28-year-old Kendrick is ridiculous,” Sciryl said to me. “Kendrick is as far into his career as Kanye was when he dropped Graduation, and people were in LOVE with Kanye!”

Instead, he releases his fashion shows and difficult albums now. For some reason, that means he and Kendrick have to be in some sort of blood feud. The problem is that neither of them have ever thrown a lyrical shot at each other. The fight is all on the consumer side, and that’s where we have an issue.

Two Black artists should be able to occupy the same general cultural space without being compared to each other. When Gerard Butler puts out a movie, nobody wonders what’s so fundamentally wrong with Hugh Jackman that he didn’t get the role. But suddenly, one of these rappers has to go. Kendrick is successful and talented, but so far he’s remained pretty humble publicly. The one who checks all three on the Sciryl Theorem is going under the bus.

These memes, harmless though they might seem, also enforce a dangerous idea: that the artistic man and his pure creative mind is especially vulnerable to a woman, whether she be shallow, gold-digging, or angling for her own fame. Kanye couldn’t possibly make these decisions on his own. Sure he flew multiple collaborators out to Hawaii to record and spends tens of thousands of dollars on creation and marketing, but that isn’t because he thought that would make his album good or important. It’s because he was under the spell of a devil-woman. It was Jeanine. It was Yoko.

This also speaks to something else. I’ve written an article or two about the extremely difficult time hip-hop and Black art have being taken seriously on their own terms. Just like Black people have the pressure of always “representing their community”, Black artists similarly seem to have the fate of their art form tied to their wrists. If Kanye is drowning and we have to choose him or the art? Better to let him go.

I say this to show that this isn’t just random internet complainers grinding an axe. These are people who hold rap dear, who might even hold Kanye and his potential dear, and who feel somewhere in the ballpark of angry, betrayed, and afraid. They might feel Kanye is selling their art out, asking for $53 million to make a fool of himself and their culture. They might feel like they have a connection with an artist, and that artist is turning his back on the people who helped build his legacy.

Torpedoing Kanye won’t make him go away. Kendrick’s run right now is monumental, but artificially deifying him as a way of punishing Kanye won’t solve it either. We can #savage Kanye and have #nochill on our meme generators. But Kanye will roll on, until he doesn’t, and the questions people are really trying to ask about who controls rap — not lyrically, but financially — will still be here. The questions about who the culture represents will still be here. The questions about how a Black artist can and should be judged will still be here. And no one will know any better than before how much a dollar cost.

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