Updated: Aug 19, 2020
So much has been written about the career of Kendrick Lamar that it is very hard to add something new to the conversation. From his impressive discography, his unique choice of instrumentals, his reedy percussive voice to his impact on the Hip Hop landscape, Kendrick has been dissected and disseminated inside out. Kendrick is a music enthusiast's dream and as a result is always the subject of intense scrutiny whether it is for his lyricism, his artistic choices or live performances. To say he is the poster boy for contemporary Hip Hop is contentious at best and a huge exaggeration at worst, but suffice to say, Kendrick is held to a different standard to most of his peers. And yet, in the ongoing debate about the genius of Kendrick Lamar, there is something that is often not talked about in regard to the Pulitzer Prize winning MC.
So, what is a feature? It may seem obvious, but it's worth expanding on exactly what the function of a featured performance can be. In its most basic form, it is a collaboration between two or more artists to create a coherent song either explored from different speakers/voices or from the same perspective. But collaboration relies on multiple parties and as soon as you get multiple artists to work together on a song several questions arise: Who is the senior artist? What are the profiles of the artist? What genres are being explored here? When talking about features what people are often really talking about is a kind of transaction. A 'popular' artist featuring on a less popular artist's song, or vice versa, creates an interesting power dynamic - two roles emerge, the mentor/gatekeeper figure and the mentee/emerging talent figure. This can often be mutually beneficial as the more prominent artist can contribute to the development of a less experienced peer, and the lesser known artist can gain from wider accessibility. Similarly, for artists of different genres, a feature can allow them both to cross over into new consumer markets and expand their fanbase. There are of course frequent examples of collaboration without the political subtext of these exchanges where artists come together to create conceptually challenging work such as Mos Def and Talib Kweli, Jean Grae and Quelle Chris, the examples are endless.
But the meaning of 'a feature' from any artist has varying functions throughout their career and Kendrick is no different. Features garner hype, so much so that some artists do not publish their feature lists on their albums to stop collaboration quality and choices from dominating the conversation. They are fun topics of conversation. Sometimes an artist can make a name for themselves - see what "Touch the Sky" did for Lupe Fiasco. J Cole took the 'feature' to new levels in 2018 when it seemed like he appeared on everyone's album and killed verse after verse, shifting the focus of the entire Hip Hop landscape onto himself and the work of Dreamville. So, what is the rationale behind Kendrick's features? There are several examples throughout his career of collaborations clearly thought up by Top Dawg and TDE's management team, such as many of the early soundtracks he was involved with. But since TPAB, when Kendrick certified himself as an artist operating in the upper echelons of his genre, he has had the pick of the litter and is at liberty to decide who he wants to work with. A feature is not only an opportunity for Kendrick to work with the peers he admires but a chance to flex his award-winning writing and performing abilities. So, why, over the last few years, has Kendrick's feature game been so average?
There is an endless list of songs Kendrick has featured poorly on, ranging from his collabs with Maroon Five, Jasmine V and Taylor Swift, to his contributions on Anderson. Paak's "Tints" and The Weeknd's "Sidewalks". The verses and vocal performances on these songs leave a lot to be desired. Some of the bars on "Sidewalks" resemble Weezy's worst lines - 'She wanna hang with a Starboy/ the sun and moon and star, boy', 'twenty legs, arms, head (head)/ head, head and more head (head)' - as if we didn't get the joke the first time. Some of the techniques and punchlines are lazy for such a precise writer. On "Bad Blood" we have even more clunky lines, 'My TLC was quite OD, ID my facts/ Now POV of you and me, similar Iraq' - and that is without mentioning the disjointed flows he employs on his verses. In fact, many of Kendrick's guest verses come across as a bit lazy; on "Tints" he drops the well-worn, '(I need tint) so I can live with a peace of mind/ without niggas taking a piece of mine'. There are of course far worse culprits of bad guest verses from artists whose discographies are legendary. Yasiin Bey (the artist formerly known as Mos Def) is perhaps the most high profile example of such an artist, but this does not allow Kendrick off the hook. For such a revered artist why do many of Kendrick's guest verses appear lazy?
A possible answer lies in the fact that Kendrick does not need to flex. Features not only inspire moments of intense debate but a great feature can make an impression in the memory of fans for decades and that is exactly what Kendrick did back in 2013 with his verse on "Control". Now, is the verse massively over-hyped? Yes, it's not Kendrick's best appearance but his moment in the spotlight where he called out every major league artist by name has gone down in Hip Hop legend as a watershed moment. In a single verse, with few meaningful replies, Kendrick wiped out his competition and in the rubble of the silence emerged as 'untouchable'. Then there's the fact that Kendrick has produced two certified classic albums; Good Kid, m.a.a.d City and To Pimp a Butterfly. Why would you over-exert yourself on a feature when two of your first three full-length LPs are in the Hip Hop pantheon? Even Untitled Unmastered, a project of outtakes from TPAB with rough mixes and loose song structures, proved to be better than many albums that came out in 2016. Kendrick has very little to prove and perhaps the reason why the wider Hip Hop community does not jump at the chance to ridicule his weak guest appearances is because he doesn't need to impress anyone.
None of this is to say that Kendrick does not write great features. Often, Kendrick's better collaborations have come with artists he has a close affinity to - "THat Part (Black Hippy Remix)", "Doves in the Wind", "Power", "Wow Freestyle" and "Never Catch Me". He clearly knows how to write a quality guest verse, so is he choosing not to? There is, of course, no definitive answer, but it raises interesting wider questions about the role of a feature. What role does the feature play in contemporary Hip Hop? In light of 'culture vulture' accusations thrown at major artists, how does it affect the power dynamic of features? Are some people 'above' the feature? Do they hold the same power in the mind of the average fan? In an age where you don't need a feature with a major artist to enter the public sphere, does the feature have the same power as it used to? Kendrick's mixed bag of collabs provokes debate beyond himself. If one of the most prominent artists of this generation lazily pens a lot of his features then what does this mean for the practice itself?