Last summer, while reviewing Drake’s Club Paradise tour, I half-joked that Meek Mill could be the savior of commercial rap. A half-joke because commercial rap isn’t actually in need of saving, and talks of an anointed one coming to save a genre not in need of saving are tremendously overwrought and unnecessary. However, it still doesn’t take away from Meek Mill’s strong combination of technical prowess, musical affiliations, street appeal, and relative commercial success.
Well, fast-forward to now and Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city is about to break platinum status. The album and its constant stream of singles has planted itself directly into collective pop and critical consciousness, and the cries of savior haven’t stopped ringing. Sometimes you want to get away from that. Sometimes the conversation surrounding an artist starts to cloud the actual work. Internet columns on whether Kendrick is this generation’s whomever, whether he and his Top Dawg crew are this generation’s whatever, wear thin. It’s nice to see and hear it for yourself sometimes.
A few thousand funneled into the Armory last Thursday—filling the general admission floor from stage to soundboard—almost all there to see Kendrick, the night’s true headliner. But his undercard is worth the same level of fandom and scrutiny and praise that Kendrick is himself. Jay Rock, Ab-Soul and Schoolboy Q (who performed in that order), along with Kendrick, make up the Black Hippy collective, all of whom are signed to Top Dawg Entertainment/Interscope. They share studio time, write together, tour together, trade guest verses on each of their albums, and are currently hip-hop’s face of success—the genre’s newest high-water mark. Thursday night was an embodiment of that. Jay Rock and Ab-Soul were both given solid 20-minute sets to work through cuts of their TDE releases. Schoolboy followed, stretching his 20 minutes into what felt more like 30-plus, running through his biggest songs off of last year’s insanely good Habits & Contradictions. While good kid, m.A.A.d city’s still ridiculously young legacy has become sacrosanct, Habits & Contradictions makes a claim as one of last year’s best rap releases, hell, maybe even better than good kid.
Standing in the crowd when Kendrick appeared onstage felt a bit surreal. The place went nuts. He made the jump from hip-hop head favorite and critical darling to massive rap figure in the span of a little less than a year. This would have been a show to a half-sold room at the Upstate Concert Hall if it was following the release of his 2011 debut Section.80. But, instead, I’m here in the middle of the Armory, listening to at least one person around me yell, “I fucking love this song” or “This is the best song ever” before every song. He kept his set filled with mostly good kid tracks, straying for the encore, closer and phenomenal “Cartoons & Cereal,” a quizzical and great remix of Jeezy’s “R.I.P.,” plus a few others. Jay Rock came out for his fantastic verse of “Money Trees,” and the crowd went crazy for the Hit-Boy-produced “Backseat Freestyle,” a track that’s somehow masquerading as an Important Song but is really just an unserious throwaway with a great beat.
The word that kept bubbling up was “consistent.” From Section.80 to good kid, and his guest verses in between, Kendrick has been consistent. The artists and producers he considers family, TDE as a whole: consistent. Thursday night’s show, top-to-bottom: consistent. The accolades are valid and the surrounding conversation is worth having, if not also a necessary evil, but sometimes it’s nice to see the entire package live, in a room with a few thousand other unabashed fans.