Kendrick Lamar Is Not Who Kanye West Could Have Been

We shouldn’t want and definitely don’t need Kanye to be Kendrick. We just need Kanye to be a better Kanye.

Kendrick Lamar; Kanye West
Kendrick Lamar; Kanye West Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images;  Victor Boyko/Getty Images for Vogue

It’s Wednesday, two days removed from the Grammy Awards. Yet much of America—black America, specifically—is still recovering from the hangover induced by Kendrick Lamar’s sublime performance Monday night. His explosive mashup of “The Blacker the Berry,” “Alright” and a yet-to-be-titled new track referencing Trayvon Martin was equal parts brilliant, bold, ebullient, boiling and unapologetically black. In fact, this brilliance, this boldness, this ebullience and this boiling is inextricably linked to King Kendrick’s brand of unapologetic blackness.

From the title and chorus of To Pimp a Butterfly’s lead single (“I Love Myself”) to the soul-stirring refrains of “Alright”—a track that Slate’s Aisha Harris even suggested could be the new black national anthem—his blackness bona fides are littered throughout his music. And he doesn’t just express a love for blackness and black people. On the brash and powerful “The Blacker the Berry,” he turns this love into a taunt, inverting qualities often considered negative into positives and daring the listener to disagree:

I’m black as the moon, heritage of a small village
Pardon my residence
Came from the bottom of mankind
My hair is nappy, my d–k is big, my nose is round and wide
You hate me, don’t you?
You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture
You’re f–kin’ evil
I want you to recognize that I’m a proud monkey

It being Wednesday also means that we’re dead in the middle of another week of Kanye going Peak Kanye. I have not checked Twitter since I began writing this, so I do not know if Kanye has gone on another tweet rant today. But I would not be surprised if he did and if, during the rant, he announced his plans to produce and direct a biopic about Ray J.

Or if he officially changed his name to semicolon. And not the word “semicolon” but an actual semicolon. Or if he revealed that his $53 million debt is due to porn memberships. Or if he dropped another link to another version of The Life of Pablo. Or if he changed the name of The Life of Pablo to Gluten-Free Lettuce Wrap or Waiting for a Megabus in Albany. Or if he vowed to never tweet again, deleted his Twitter and actually meant it.

His recent behavior on Twitter—maddening and maniacal; scattered and just barely sane; frustrating and littered with occasional specks of feckless lucidity—synopsizes his pattern of perplexing behavior over the last half-decade. His music, once the soundtrack for post-bougie black life, has become progressively esoteric and inaccessible. His obsession with fashion and mainstream validation vacillates from merely annoying to downright destructive. He has been messy, unapologetically narcissistic, occasionally mean, consistently misogynistic and, now, kin of the Kardashians.

Also, related, he is not Kendrick Lamar. Nor would he ever have been. Or needed to be.

This distinction seems unnecessary. After all, Kanye West is Kanye West, and Kendrick Lamar is Kendrick Lamar. They are both rappers. Both black. And both have names that start with “K.” However, they are not the same person. But Kanye’s recent behavior and musical output have made many compare his current status with Kendrick’s. Monday night, Daily Show host Trevor Noah tweeted a thought that seems to encapsulate this juxtaposition:

Admittedly, this is a natural (and clever) approximation of their respective trajectories—creatively, culturally and even racially. Kanye’s first three LPs spoke to and spoke for black people the same way To Pimp a Butterfly does now. While their sensibilities are decidedly different—Kanye has always vacillated between quasi-bougie and über-bougie, while Kendrick has always been the hood-adjacent nerd with a knack for storytelling; Nas in Compton, basically—the love for black people and blackness was equally palpable. And it’s not difficult to imagine a 2016 in which Kanye evolved to a place where he’s inciting the same type of racial pride, passion and fury that Kendrick currently does. A place where his mom’s death didn’t spiral him into the waiting arms of Kim, the Famous Negro Destroyer.