Storytelling Rappers, Cool and Hot (Participation)

THOUGHTS?  What does this tell us about the game?  Who is missing

Storytelling Rappers, Cool and Hot


In one corner is Kendrick Lamar, from Compton, Calif., one of the most daring and sometimes vexing rappers of the day and one who is inverting the gang-rap legacy of his hometown while working under the auspices of one of its founding fathers, Dr. Dre.

In the other corner is Meek Mill, from Philadelphia, a bully of a rapper who, while not as innovative as, say, Drake, has been the most exciting young conventional hip-hop star of the last couple of years since he signed with Maybach Music Group, the label with Rick Ross at the helm.

Superficially they are at opposite poles: Mr. Lamar is an anointed-by-acclamation savior and a reluctant hit maker while Meek Mill is an excitable star with a firm grasp on what makes people move. But each has a strong new major-label debut album and something in common: they’re storytelling purists. Mr. Lamar’s “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” (TDE/Aftermath/Interscope) and Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares” (Maybach Music Group/Warner Brothers) are two very different accomplishments but accomplishments all the same. They albums also effectively demonstrate how two artists who value the same fundamentals can choose wildly different paths to express them.

Mr. Lamar’s is the bolder route. His is a totally unhurried album, easily the most ambitious in hip-hop this year, maybe the most ambitious in any mainstream-focused genre. His songs unfold at the speed of life as it’s often lived — slow, meandering, often unremarkable. Every time some action threatens to accelerate the pace of Mr. Lamar’s album, in comes a voice-mail message from his mother killing the buzz.

That’s part of this album’s narrative strategy, which includes, on top of Mr. Lamar’s tremendous verses, prayers and conversations and different voices and recollections and interludes, all in service of one overarching story: Mr. Lamar’s tale of ducking Compton’s rougher corners to find himself artistically.

The album “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” recalls the intricacy of early albums by De La Soul, but without the humor. It has the blushing charm of the Pharcyde and the grounded funk of early Outkast, as well as songs that carry an evident sonic torch for his city’s gangster-rap past. Mr. Lamar has also probably listened to some Freestyle Fellowship, the Los Angeles underground heroes who counterbalanced that gangster rap in the early ’90s with inventive wordplay. He’s halfway toward bending words in the same manner as they did and likely for the same reason: to escape.

Take this segment from “good kid, m.A.A.d. city,” which comes after Mr. Lamar teases a possibly dark past:

Would you say my intelligence now is great relief

And it’s safe to say that our next generation maybe could sleep

With dreams of being a lawyer or doctor

Instead of a boy with a chopper

That hold the cul-de-sac hostage

Kill them all if they gossip

The songs on this album are, almost without fail, dense and quiet, highlighting the changes over the past two decades in hip-hop’s scale and gloss by rejecting them outright. (A notable exception is the springy “Backseat Freestyle,” a robust accomplishment in any era.)

It’s on course to sell more than 200,000 copies in its first week, an outlandish number for an artist with no significant radio presence but not for one with a committed online fan base. In this he’s like an indie-rock breakthrough act of the mid-’90s, tapping in to a reserve of commercial, anticentrist sentiment and proving that the market is flexible enough to accommodate dissent.

In the abstract, Meek Mill — a Rick Ross protégé, preserver of big-money triumphalism — is exactly the sort of artist Mr. Lamar is pushing back against. When he raps, Meek Mill sounds as if he’s calling home-run highlights on “SportsCenter.” His flow is all jabs, nothing smooth about it. His songs sound about 50 percent louder than anything else on the radio.

This is the other side of Mr. Ross’s maximalism. Had he come out on his own, Meek Mill would just be shouting, but under Mr. Ross’s umbrella he’s exulting, a logical response to the single-minded commitment to success his boss employs.

But of all Mr. Ross’s underlings, Meek Mill is the cleverest and the one most capable of breaking the template the big man has mapped out. On his earliest mixtapes Meek Mill was more of an obvious technician than he is now, and his recent “Dreamchasers” series of mixtapes have in places been sober complements to hits like “House Party” and “Ima Boss.”

What Meek Mill wants to do is tell stories, unfashionable though that may be. On “Dreams and Nightmares” he tries to have it both ways, sneaking moments of heartbreak into otherwise straightforward boast sessions. But he also has a surprising number of stand-alone short-story songs. “Who You’re Around” is a scathing indictment of a friend turned adversary — “I woulda rolled for you, even in the same hearse/Same cemetery, bury me in the same dirt/We had a plan but I guess it ain’t work” — and “Tony Story Pt. 2” continues a tale of underworld mistrust begun on his “Dreamchasers” mixtape. On “Traumatized” he lashes out against the man who killed his father: “I was only a toddler, you left me traumatized/You made me man of the house and it was grinding time.”

Early critical response likened “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” to “Illmatic,” the debut album by the revered Queens rapper Nas, but the comparison holds truer for “Dreams and Nightmares.” While “Illmatic,” like Mr. Lamar’s album, was primarily a document of observation rather than participation, it didn’t reject the tastes of the day and wasn’t a coherent narrative concept album. It aimed for success, much as Meek Mill’s does.

Mr. Lamar’s “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” is as much of a slog as any great album in recent memory and probably the chewiest major-label hip-hop album in more than a decade. It necessitates ways of listening that went out with the Clinton presidency or with the advent of the seven-inch single. There are almost no obvious entry points, nothing bite-size to latch onto.

“Dreams and Nightmares,” by contrast, is highly legible; even its more daring songs are straightforward. But just because Meek Mill doesn’t play with cadence or voice or melody like Mr. Lamar doesn’t mean that he’s not thoughtful. His story songs are intricate, external to Mr. Lamar’s internal. He also builds tension in a way that Mr. Lamar, with his perma-cool and level presence, struggles to replicate. Mr. Lamar eases into the beat when he’s not gingerly dancing around it; he is never dominating. That’s why he remains largely a cipher.

What Meek Mill also has that Mr. Lamar lacks is hits — “Amen,” a loose and jubilant Drake collaboration, and “Young & Gettin’ It,” a fake-Drake song featuring Kirko Bangz that’s saccharine and dim. Meek Mill seems to be distancing himself from it by using Auto-Tune, as if he knows the song is beneath him.

Mr. Lamar has a semi-hit, “Swimming Pools (Drank),” about the perils of alcohol and the strain it places on the dispossessed, a song as sinuously catchy as can be. But there is no mistaking it for a compromise. He’s a speaker at a podium hoping people will lend him their ears, while Meek Mill is in the crowd, grabbing them by the neck and demanding that they pay attention, then rewarding it.


17 thoughts on “Storytelling Rappers, Cool and Hot (Participation)

  1. While reading this article, I was listening to “good kid, m.A.A.d city.” I felt the author described the album perfectly. I have yet to listen to Meek Mill’s album and I haven’t gotten as attached to him as I have to Kendrick Lamar, but I heard he’s a good artist none the less. I like how the author chose opposite artists to compare: the cool and the wild. The author mentions that Kendrick doesn’t have a hit single like Meek Mill does. This shows that in order to be heard in this industry, you literally have to be yelling and shouting. Whether you have something meaningful to say or not, if you put yourself in a spotlight and command people to listen, chances are, they will. Though people are paying attention to Kendrick Lamar, he still doesn’t have a hit out of the abundance of songs he’s put out. The people missing are the conscience women who are out of the spotlight. We have men clowns, women clowns and men story tellers, but no women storytellers who are exposed to the mainstream. It’s hard enough for a man like Kendrick Lamar to be heard, but being a female emcee, especially if they’re of color, is like an unwanted step child.

    • I agree with what you are saying, that yes, to be heard in the industry you need to be aggressive and loud. My question is, is this the right way to be heard? Isn’t this way of getting noticed just another conformity of the industry? I do not necessarily agree with this author. He clearly shows appreciation for both artists, but you can tell he stands with Meek, feeling he is a stronger and more established artist in the game. I feel his views are biased towards what mainstream wants. I have never taken much interest in Meek simply because to me, he represents another Rick Ross/Drake prototype. He doesn’t stand out to me. Kendrick, on the other hand, is more soft spoken. He’s different to me. He’s thoughtful. I feel like he has a new sound with his production, kind of how Kanye did with 808s and Heartbreaks, but Kendrick’s more soulful and r&b than Kanye. I think he has a lot more potential than Meek does, simply because he doesn’t totally fit the mold of what mainstream hip hop is. I think that in hip hop, its not always a good thing to be the most popular album out, because that usually implies you’re a sell out or just another artist that the industry has bent and twisted into their own liking.

    • I can agree with this I really like what Kendrick is doing and I think it is odd that we do not have many female rappers to begin with so it would be even more difficult to have a concsioius female because I feel alot of the people who listen to rap music are male. The thing with music is people want someone to relate to and I just feel like males cannot relate to women as well. I would like it more if males gave more women a chance I just do not know if that will happen anytime soon.

      • I agree and disagree with some of your points Reggie. I think that there are very many women that listen to rap and many women want to be MC’s, it’s just that we are underrepresented in the mainstream, therefore by default we follow the male rappers. Another reason women may be timid to step up is because the playing field is not equal for men and women from the forced stereotypes that have placed on us.

        This also made me think that since you mentioned mostly males listen to rap, how many men would want to listen to music that makes them take responsibility for their actions of misogyny, sexploitation of women, disrespect, etc. Take for instance, Angel Haze, she is revolutionary and an activist and she speaks out to people in a unique way almost to the point that some may turn her off because it challenges them on a different level.

        I doubt you yourself felt comfortable hearing lyrics that tell the story of her rape and torment. Yet I know many males feel just fine listening to songs like “bitches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks.”

    • I agree with you in the sense that Kendrick Lamar has not had a hit song like Meek Mill has. You can see how the industry chooses what goes mainstream and what doesn’t. But with the song Amen, Meek Mill isn’t ‘screaming’ or ‘yelling’, same with the first song on his album Dreams and Nightmares (half the song he’s calm, but starts to raise his voice as the beat builds). However, taking both artists in consideration to the industry, we can clearly see why Meek Mill is mainstream; he has violence in his songs and has a loud voice. That’s why Kendrick hasn’t hit the radio until lately; Kendrick is calm and raps about what has happened in the past compared to the present.

  2. I really enjoyed working with my pogil groups, it really helped that I got a chance to talk out the questions in case I did not understand what was going on and having those extra voices to lend their opinions.

  3. Before I even opened my browser I was listening to Good Kid M.A.A.D City and as I was reading, Dreams and Nightmares came on (they are the only two albums on my Miro playlist). As I was reading this, I was trying to compare the two albums with the two descriptions given by the author. For Kendrick, I feel that the author very clearly does describe this album and it’s qualities and intent well. However, While he may seem to side with Meek’s album, as Lareesa said, I feel that he undermines the meaning in Meek’s album and may side with him mainly for musical preference. As stated throughout Good Kid M.A.A.D City, without any intervention, you are doomed to become a product of your environment. When friends hangout, they find certain activities fun or lame, and shapes perception. Meek’s does have meaningful stories throughout, but it also can be looked at as using hip-hop in it’s true form to celebrate emotion, and many party like songs can be looked at as his celebratory expression of elation at making it to the top. I do believe both albums are a representation of culture and are each their own unique perception of story telling. As far as Meek having more hits, that presents value of him based on certain individuals reasons and interests in types of music consumption, not the majority. As well, Kendrick has featured in many songs with these “mainstream” artists such as Kanye West, B.o.B, Tyga, and even Meek himself in songs like A1 Everything, where Kendrick clearly displays his capability of rowdy vicious rapping. I think what Kendrick is doing is right and necessary, and I also enjoy Meek for providing music for my other moods and respect his individuality in “storytelling”. It may be fair to say one of these artists is more successful, but not that one is better than the other.

  4. Both have a different style and approach when it comes to their rap songs but both represent a new face of hip-hop separate from what most people have come to know it. Kendrick delivers his lyrics in a softer way and Meek is more grandiose and louder and definitely grabs more attention. Meek is probably getting more media attention these days because he is going by the the tried and true way of how to make a hip-hop album stand out. I do like Kendrick’s style more than Meek’s. I think he is more introspective and writes better lyrics. His album “good kid, m.A.A.d. City” is a great ode to the city he grew up in and gives you a peek of his childhood however Meek has more confidence in delivering his rhymes.

  5. I absolutely love Kendrick and Meek and have been fans of both for a while. I also can agree with certain points in this article. Though they are both opposing in styles, they are both story tellers. and good ones at that. Looking at Meek Mill’s collection of mixtapes and his current album, he is notorious for having both “party” and songs with more substance present on his collections. Looking at Meek’s story telling style, he is very direct in his lyrics. Tony Story Part 1 and 2 sound like you’re reading it from a book. There aren’t too many metaphors or similies in those songs which isn’t a bad thing. It’s nice to have a clear vivid image of what is going on. Almost like a movie playing in your head. As far as his “loud” rapping style, I just feel like that is how he is. Even back to his earlier “Flamers” mixtapes from 2008, before he was major, he still had that rapping style. Some may say its obnoxious, but its what sets him apart from the rest. Not in order to sell more records, but because thats his own individual style.

    Now, Kendrick has a completely different story telling style. though some elements are direct, he embodies the use of metaphors and similies throughout his story telling elements leaving the message and interpretation up to the listener. Probably the most direct story telling track that stands out to me off of GKMC is The Art of Peer Pressure. That also is one of my favorite songs in general on the album because of its vivid nature. I can see he and his friends riding around, hitting up houses to steal valuables from. One of his more metaphorical song, “Rigamortis” is a song about Kendrick metaphorically slaying all of the other rappers in the game. This of course would not be understandable unless all lyrics are evaluated. The first line of verse one reads “And this is rigamortis, it is gorgeous when you die” in Kendrick’s reference to it being “beautfiul when he sees other rappers essentially fall to the greatness of him.” Basically, the song is filled with many metaphors and references to other rappers and songs that allow him to craft the song in a way others before him have not.

    Although Dreams and Nightmares has a diverse collection of songs, (Perhaps the “dream” songs referring to the party songs such as Young and Gettin it, and the “nightmare” songs refer to songs such as Tony Story pt 2.) they are somewhat cohesive,they contrast to GKMC where the entire cd is pretty much gapless, providing for one long narrative.

    • I agree with you completely and I also love the song The Art of Peer Pressure as well. Kendrick does provide a song in which you can imagine you are sitting in the car with him and his friends. But with Meek Mill and the dream and nightmare part, if you listen to the first song in his album, you can see where he speaking in terms of a dream (first half of the song) and when the nightmare begins (second half when the beat builds up).

    • I agree! They both have different ways of telling their story. And i also feel like Kendrick Lamar should be played more if at all on the radio because a lot of people can relate to what he is saying, me included.

  6. After reading this, both artists are succesful in their own ways. There are different artists out there that have different styles yet are still succesful and people will like their music. It tells us that people will respect any product that sounds good and has a good appeal to it. It goes to show that storytelling within an album is now respected by a lot of fans and fans will like that concept within an album. Kendrick has been respected for awhile and having his new album out just increased his popularity that much more. Meek Mill is also respected in terms of his music and how he can provide different array of club bangers and songs we can have fun to. So in the end, both artists have the respect of fans now because of the work they put out and how their different artistry and stories can relate to a lot of people.

  7. Kendrick Lamar and Meek Mill are two artists that I listen to on a daily basis. Both artists are unique and are similar in different ways just like the article points out. The fact that Meek Mill has more radio play than Kendrick tells us exactly what the industry wants. Meek has a style of yelling while Kendrick has a more of a smooth one. Meek also talks about violence, but not in the sense of consistently killing people and whatsoever. When Meek talks about violence, it’s mainly things that occurred in his life, which is why he yells a lot in his songs. Both albums are great and have similar messages about how you can tell a story with a different tone of voice. In Meek’s album, his first song starts out slow but then slowly builds up to a banger. The first half of the song consists of the things that aspiring artists wish they had, seeing of acquiring these things as a “dream”. The second half starts his “nightmare”; it talks about after he had made it and how there are people out there that still doubt him, which is why the first song is called “Dreams and Nightmares”; it tells two different stories. Going back to Kendrick, in his song “The Art of Peer Pressure” (which is my favorite song on the entire album), it speaks of a time when Kendrick and his friends escaped from the police after breaking into a house and stealing valuable items. The reason why it is called “The Art of Peer Pressure” because he describes a time he was with his friends, how they got ‘fucked’ up and committed crimes. If you haven’t listened to this song, you should. But, this song won’t go mainstream because it doesn’t consist of what the industry wants. This tells us that the industry still looks for violence and materialistic things in lyrics, nothing more and nothing less.

    • I agree with you completely especially when you talk about Meek Mill’s style. A lot of times people when referring to Hip Hop say that all rappers talk about is killing but instead of focusing on this he talks about the struggles that he has had to endure in his life, Kendrick Lamar does this as well. They are very good at painting a picture of how events transpire, and it seems that they actually rap about lives that they live and they don’t pretend. This is definitely heard when Kendrick in “art of peer pressure” talks about how he didn’t have intentions of being a gang banger unless it was instances with peer pressure.

  8. Kendrick Lamar and Meek Mill, though different in their tactics to capturing the audiences attention, are the same in the sense they are storytellers. It is true, in a sense, Kendrick is more humble when he speaks in his rhymes compared to Meek Mill who does demand attention. But they are both advocates of a life of struggles in the both of their recent albums that have dropped a month and some change ago. In that time, I would have to make the argument that now Kendrick seems to be more of the forefront of Hip Hop compared to Meek Mill. That is not to say that Meek Mill is not successful, but it has been to my understanding that Kendrick Lamar has been given the limelight now that he was been passed the torch from Game as the West Coast King, more than Meek Mill has. That is not say that Meek Mill is not at the forefront, if anything he is right next to Kendrick and J. Cole who is soon to be expected to drop his new album in a couple of months. Those two, J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar, are considered to be some of the vanguards of rap and are rumored to make a big mark in the game. But Meek Mill, is up there with them. He too possesses the lyrical ability to be one of the artist who raise the bar for future rappers who are trying to make it in the rap game. A lot of people are left out this conversation, but a group in particular who is considered one of the best labels is Young Money. If Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole with Meek Mill signed under Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group as well as the poet Wale, are more than likely going to on the forefront of rap music, where does that leave rappers under the Young Money label? Is Lil’ wayne going to be able to survive after losing, to me, credit after The Dedication 4? What can Drake add to the table that he hasn’t done before, especially, in my opinion, to selling out? Just hooks? Will Young Money be able to sustain? Are we going to see Top Dawg Entertainment artist like ScHoolBoy Q and Ab-Soul rise into the limelight now that Kendrick is in the picture? These are just some thoughts that I am looking forward to see what the outcomes will be. If J. Cole and Kendrick, along with Meek Mill and Wale and maybe other potentially upcoming artist like Casey Veggies and XV who rap about real life situations were to change the norm of not so much the Waka Flocka/2Chainz/Young Money music, into real hip-hop music that challenges social norms.

  9. This was a very interesting read- the tone and artistry of Meek Mill and Kendrick serve different purposes, yet I find the closer both become to the mainstream affiliates, the more their statues of truth and story telling become discredited. Maybe I’m just a hater of mainstream music, but when I associate Kendrick with substantial rappers and then hear him on a whack track promoting destructive themes, I get irritated.

    I know that he is only human and that his artistry is allowed to experiment with different ideas, but I’m just fed up with Rick Ross heavily panting talking about moving weight like it’s a highly sought after position. Instead, Ross should first off change his name to not represent a high time drug dealer and then make music that instills education and other routes of success other than rapping because not everyone in the low income neighborhoods wants to be a rapper but most people do want to escape and change their fate.

  10. Big fan of Kendrick’s GKMC album, and Meek Mill’s Dreams and Nightmares I have yet to give a full listen to, but I look at Meek as a party rapper. I’m not going to be alone bumping his music because he’s always shouting and his songs truly are louder than ANY other song out there, smh. However, out at the bar or out with some friends, throw “House Party” on and I’m actin a fool.

    This article really does get it right about the comparisons/differences between these two artists. They are saying the same thing, they are talking about the same struggles, but they are conveying their message differently. Kendrick wants you to connect with him, feel his struggle, and understand him outside of a rapper (songs like “Swimming Pools” are a good example of this). Meek wants you to ball out with him, party with him and recognize that he came from nothin and now has everything.

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