How Kendrick Lamar & J. Cole Rebooted Conscious Rap

Is “conscious” hip-hop finally outselling “careless?”

Last month, Kendrick Lamar pushed up the release of his “surprise” album, To Pimp A Butterfly from its original March 23rd album release date. Fans knew something was coming, as he teased two singles “I” and “Blacker The Berry” in September ‘14 and February ‘15 respectively. But with the surprise album being somewhat en vogue at the moment, Kendrick waited until March 10th, 2105 to announce the album’s release date, then pushed it out ahead of schedule five days later, due to unforeseen, unexplained circumstances. Letting the cat out of the bag a few days earlier than expected will unfortunately affect his first week sales, as physical CDs were not available in stores during the first few days, but he is still pumped out 363,000 within the first week, currently sitting around 485,000. More impressively, To Pimp a Butterfly has broken the Spotify album streaming record, boasting 9.6 million times streamed in the first day of release. If those streams were album sales, he’d be RIAA certified diamond.

What is most interesting about this is the brand of rap that Kendrick is delivering on To Pimp a Butterfly, which is a far cry from the violent, materialistic, bling-infused, cookie-cutter stuff we’ve been bombarded with over the past two decades. Kendrick’s gone completely against the grain here, with an important, politically minded, musically rich album that does little to pander to proven formulas. One might even suggest that because it breaks the mold so unabashedly, the only way it would have worked was to surprise release it as a whole, rather than through the traditional bullet-point marketing plans that most album releases are resigned to. To Pimp a Butterfly is treated more as one piece of art, rather than 16 individually marketable pieces of product.

The first single from the album, “I,” teased at the tail end of last year, found Kendrick rapping over an uptempo, almost Outkast-esque, homegrown track, chanting “I love myself!” He says so not with the conviction of a jewelry encrusted swag rapper that is impressed with his own existence, but instead one that is simply proud of who he is.

The album is a heavy musical think-piece that poses a lot of tough questions that Kendrick is unafraid to ask. His sonic palette is rich, as he defies convention over a hodgepodge of musical influences that channel a history of Black music from Sly Stone, George Clinton, John Coltrane, Dr. Dre and countless others, rather than just farming out production to the current, disposable hot-producers-of-the-moment.

In a rare case, the most poignant, unfiltered hip-hop release of the new year is also one of the top selling. Change is in the air, but it didn’t start with just Kendrick.

The highest selling rap/hip-hop album of 2014 was J. Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive. Much like Beyoncé did one year earlier and Drake and Kendrick did recently, Cole dropped a surprise end-of-the-year album on his fans. But unlike Bey’s instantaneous release, Cole gave his audience a three-week warning, announcing the album on November 16th, and releasing it on December 9th. With virtually no promotion, no budget, no airplay and no nightclub rotation, Cole’s release had the biggest first week sales of that year, with over 371,000 copies recorded by Soundscan. Last week it was certified platinum, making Cole one of only four artists of 2014 to release a million plus selling albums, alongside Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, and Jason Aldean.

Second to Cole in the hip-hop/rap category in 2014 was Nicki Minaj, who announced her album, The Pinkprint, with several months lead in time. Promotion for the album included an MTV special, a multiple costume performance at the MTV VMAs, a monster commercial hit single and accompanying big budget video with “Anaconda,” strategic product placement tie-ins with Beats by Dre, Moscato, Victoria’s Secret, Air Jordan, and MateFit. She opened with 244,000 copies scanned and currently is certified Gold with around 553,000 sold.

J. Cole didn’t have a heavy marketing plan, but he did show up to Ferguson, MO in August. Clearly impassioned, he told Complex “I didn’t come out here to do no interviews. We didn’t come down here to talk to no press. We came down here to feel it, because this is history, and we want to be a part of this just like everyone else here wants to be a part of it.”

“Critics want to mention that they miss when hip hop was rappin’ /
Motherfucker if you did, then Killer Mike’d be platinum”
— Kendrick Lamar “Hood Politics,” 2015

Among the 2014 year end lists, the most critically acclaimed album of the entire year, across all genres, was Killer Mike and El-P’s Run The Jewels 2. This sonically experimental, loudly outspoken gem was recognized as the best album of the year by each Pitchfork, Stereogum, Complex, and others, while making the top 10 albums of the year by each Rolling Stone, Consequence Of Sound, The Daily Beast, and Billboard. Funny thing is, there was not even any real Billboard chart action on Run The Jewels 2, as it was given away for free download.

Around the release of Run The Jewels 2, Killer Mike was also very vocal about Ferguson and the death of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson, appearing on CNN to speak his mind. Mike, whose father was a cop, addresses police brutality directly on “Early,” one of many topical tracks from Run The Jewels 2. As fate would have it, the duo would perform in Missouri the night the verdict was released, just 15 miles away from blazing buildings and a fiery sentiment burning within the community.

But it took a long time for the new generation of rap fans to seek out something else other than the self-afflicting, misogynistic style of music that has been marketed to comsumers for so many years. In 2006, Nas declared Hip-Hop Is Dead with the title of his eighth album, the cover which featured him dropping a black rose into a shallow grave. This realization came a decade after the murders of 2Pac and Biggie, two rappers who ultimately were responsible for shaping the modern sound. They were both products of rap’s golden era, but were also among the first to abandon the law of the land. The “rules” of rap were slowly broken, as the idea of “keeping it real” was suddenly synonymous with “keeping it real broke” and “mad rappers” were looked at as washed up and out of touch. After Pac and Big, the new attitude of rap music was less about art, more about business and getting rich by any means necessary. Over the period of the last two decades, ignorance became cool and there was only room for the biggest, braggadocious, alpha male rappers, some who would bully their way in whether the talent was there or not. The old sound was lost and many shared the feeling that hip-hop as they once knew it was indeed dead.

However the successes of Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole and Run The Jewels undeniably mark the beginnings of another turning point for hip-hop music. A closer look at last year shows the beginnings of the shift between “conscious” and “careless” rap albums among the year’s best sellers. So while Rick Ross and Young Jeezy held the third and sixth highest week openings of 2014, Kendrick’s buddy Schoolboy Q took fourth, while Christian rapper Lecrae had the ninth best selling rap release of the year.

And since the new year has started, new albums from politically minded rappers with no radio support, Joey Bada$$ and Lupe Fiasco, have had better opening weeks than Kid Ink or Rae Sremmurd, the latter pair who have more radio/club play, but also more disposable content. Bada$$ in particular sits over 120,000, which is usually unheard for an artist with no airplay. Even the best-selling rap release of the year thus far, Drake’s surprise album If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late— which is certified gold—is coming from a guy that is clearly in touch with his feelings, despite his occasional tough talk. Times are indeed changing.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. While forgettable, one-hit wonder songs like O.T. Genasis “CoCo” and O.G. Maco “U Guessed It” are still huge, we would be remiss to believe that those kinds of records are suddenly going to disappear. Songs like those will still catch on and we’ll enjoy them when under the influence of alcohol, but forgetting about them years later. But we can look forward to an era that is more in tune with the late 80s and early 90s, where all different types of rap artists are getting equal shine. Part of this is due to the fact that unlike previous years, hip-hop is no longer controlled completely by magazines, radio or television stations that only go after the low-hanging fruit for the quick buck. Fan run blogs and social media also have a huge hand in defining what’s popular and each of these artists are products of them.

But Kendrick, Cole, and Killer Mike are better described as “aware” rather than “conscious” rappers. But it just might be that more grounded and realistically attainable mindset that is resonating better with this generation. As Kendrick notes several times on To Pimp a Butterfly, speaking to a spectral 2Pac:

“I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence / Sometimes I did the same / Abusing my power, full of resentment.”

As your pastor probably likes to remind you, Jesus Christ hung out with the sinners. Kendrick and his peers don’t claim to be infallible. They can still make songs about the imperfect things that most humans do—i.e. getting drunk or having premarital sex—yet also take the time to address the real issues happening in their respective backyards.

Hip-hop is alive.

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