You can be a technically great emcee (or singer, or musician) and still miss the mark when it comes to making great records. Production matters. Why did Canibus never blow up? Why have Talib Kweli’s records (particularly in the last decade or so) been wildly inconsistent? Why have Rakim’s solo albums been disappointing? Because you need beats that are the qualitative equal of your lyrics in order to make the puzzle complete.
You can also be a technically great emcee and not possess that elusive “X” factor (I believe some call it soul). Great examples of excellent technical rappers that make often soulless material are Busta Rhymes (when he’s not spazzing out on Tribe records) and Eminem.
Kendrick? He’s a technically great emcee. If you call yourself a hip-hop fan and deny that fact, you need to have your fuckin’ head examined. And he’s got soul for days. Now, I guess the concept of “soul” is subjective. But K Dot never (or at least has not to date) left me feeling like he was disinterested in whatever song he was making, or that he’s sacrificing feeling for skill.
“DNA” is three minutes and six seconds of Kendrick absolutely spazzing the fuck out over a Mike Will Made It beat. Actually, it’s 2:03 of Kendrick spazzing the fuck out. Then a sound clip of Geraldo Rivera claiming that hip-hop is responsible for the degradation of the Black community finds itself in the mix, and Kendrick launches into some heretofore undiscovered lyrical gear and shoots Ninja Death Stars from his mouth for the song’s last minute and change.
The last 63 seconds of “DNA” may cause you to drop your listening device of preference and stare at it in awe. It may cause you to jump out of your seat and start punching people. It may cause you to sprint that last half mile of your three mile run. It may give you that “Black Superman” confidence boost you need to walk into a room full of White people and run shit like you know everyone in the room is making a snap judgment of you based on the color of your skin and you. Don’t. Give. One. Single. Solitary. Fuck.
You will be given life. And that’s the difference between technical proficiency and technical proficiency plus soul. Only the best can manage that. And make no mistake; no matter which generation of hip-hop you come from, Kendrick is one of the best.