Throughout baseball stadiums all around the country, fans and players are paying their respect to New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. Jeter retires at the end of the season, and will be remembered as one of the greatest Yankee baseball players of all time. But while there’s plenty of hand-shaking and commemorating Jeter’s accomplished career, somewhere there’s a player who’s not looking so fondly on Jeter’s departure: Jeter’s replacement. The unnamed shortstop who’s got to fill Jeter’s space on the field, in the locker room, and in the hearts of Yankee fans faces a unique, and almost impossible challenge. There is a saying in sports: “You never want to be that guy that follows the guy.”
For artists, this philosophy is equally applicable—specifically in hip-hop, where following up a critically acclaimed concept album has proven to be a challenge too big even for some of the culture’s most innovative minds. The self-proclaimed “King of New York” Kendrick Lamar launched himself into the mainstream hip-hop eye in 2012 with the release of his acclaimed major-label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city. His genius shined bright, showcasing a mastery of lyricism and storytelling, and adding an essential piece that most underground artists struggle to master: hook writing. Last year evolved into a victory lap for the MC. And as he released artwork for his new single—entitled “i”—this past week, fans began to salivate at the thought of a new album.
While anticipation builds for the next project from the Compton rapper, it’s important to contextualize what the MC is attempting to accomplish. Recent hip-hop history is littered with artists who’ve used concept albums to create a narrative arc connecting the ideas in their songs. But these projects have consistently proven difficult to follow.
A short look back over the past 15 years of hip-hop includes concept albums from OutKast, Lupe Fiasco and Lauryn Hill. Hill and OutKast have never properly followed up Grammy-winning smashes The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. Regardless of the rationale and reasons that exist for neither of these brilliant acts to not release more albums, the fact remains that there hasn’t really been a body of work to fill the void fans have felt since these projects outside of Kanye West’s.
Lupe Fiasco released Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool in 2007 to generally positive reviews from fans and critics; the New York Times proclaimed it hip-hop’s album of the year. For his follow-up, Fiasco released Lasers, his first number one album on Billboard. Although the album received mixed reviews from fans and critics, its level of impact was marginal in comparison to his previous efforts. His very public disagreements with his label added to the record’s perception.
One of Kendrick Lamar’s contemporaries acknowledges that despite good kid, m.A.A.d city and his world-shaking verse on “Control,” the West Coast MC’s biggest challenge isn’t competition, but the pursuit of consistency. “Are you listening to it now? At this point?,” Drake asked about “Control” during a Myspace CRWN interview. “I can’t wait to see what he does, because now it’s time to show and prove consistency. It’s been, like, one album. Consistency is to make more than one album.”
One major factor stands between Lamar and the consistency Drake spoke about: expectations.
Lamar released his last album with hefty endorsements from West Coast legends, which in itself presents high expectations. However, now the MC finds himself in a conversation for the crown of hip-hop, and on a national stage. This doesn’t preclude Lamar from achieving success with his upcoming release. But perhaps fans should adjust expectations for this next album, as it’d be nigh impossible to duplicate the emotional relevance that good kid, m.A.A.d. city packed.
Too often fans expect to get the same feeling they felt with an artist’s previous work. If fans expect to get the same goose bumps they felt when listening to his last release, they should prepare to be disappointed. This isn’t to downplay Lamar’s ability, but instead to adjust the outlook for his sophomore album and allow Lamar to grow as an artist. Lamar breathes rare air with hip-hop game’s elite in a short span of time, and will, for the first time, release a project with all eyes on him. We all lose if we lose sight of the fact the best and brightest must evolve.