In addition to giving us Jews a place to eat on Christmas, the Chinese also provided the 14th century BCE-established philosophy, yin and yang. We’re all familiar with the intertwined, swirling black and white design—one of the few designs that rivaled drawing the iconic “S” as kids (‘90s babies know what I’m talking about). The simple design reflects the philosophy’s simple, true beauty: opposing energies are necessary for balance. The countering forces maintain control, allowing us to appreciate two sides to one story. Hip Hop subscribes to this principle.
To me, two Hip Hop time periods best clarify this: the Golden Age and today.
The ‘90s were an interesting Hip Hop juncture. Rap was this malleable ball of clay that was being molded by legendary emcees, like Big Pun, Nas, Big Daddy Kane, Jay Z, and so many more. It was this odd yet beautiful limbo period—wrestling to prove its mainstream appeal, while establishing a legitimate fanbase. Rappers were experimenting with different styles; some clinging onto its ‘80s, jazzy predecessor, with other visionaries aiming to change the game. Within these visionaries, we have the two defacto “greatest rappers of all time” (I personally don’t agree with this, but it’s the generally accepted consensus), 2Pac and The Notorious B.I.G.
The two rappers were complete opposites: Pac was from Cali, Big grew up in BK; Pac was fit, Big was…big; Pac was a socially conscious political activist lobbying for African American justice through his poetic rhymes; Big was an incredible storyteller, relying on his legendary dynamic flows to propel his materialistic, shallower, more fun lyrics. Perfect strangers, yet their combined powers encompassed Hip Hop’s terrain. That’s not to say that they didn’t dabble in each other’s discipline—Pac created some superficial jams like “I Get Around”; Big offered his rare melancholic side on “Suicidal Thoughts,” amongst others. Regardless of these exceptions, the majority of their content revolved around their respective strengths—Pac was the social activist; Big was the life of the party.
Pac and Biggie planting their flags on Hip Hop’s opposing ends legitimized the genre by offering a dichotomy. Rap fans had a choice; they had options. They didn’t have to listen to redundant content passed off by different lyricists. If a disenfranchised youth had a particularly bad day, feeling oppressed and misunderstood, they could turn to Pac’s “Trapped” to seek refuge. If someone was feeling jaunty and accomplished, they could highlight their devil-may-care attitude with Big’s “Juicy.” Of course the whole “East vs. West” beef forced some fans to blindly pick sides, robbing them of mutual appreciation. But for those patrons who didn’t get lost in Pac and Big’s petty beef, they could enjoy their stylistic differences that foiled one another.
Aside from conceptual differences, the East and West commanders also supplied a sonic contrast. Pac’s music was shaped by his California culture, often employing a variation of G Funk bass lines, like on “Ambitionz Az A Ridah”; Big’s production was often much more upbeat, combining jazzy features with hi-hats and kick drums to create a futuristic sound that influenced a gaggle of his successor’s production—he was a true visionary. Listen to “I Got A Story To Tell” off Life After Death and tell me that beat doesn’t sound ahead of its time. A lot of rappers were complacent; afraid of taking creative risks, relying on classic, comfortable beats—for the East, it was boom-bap; for the West, it was G Funk.
Pac and Biggie’s disparity performed a necessary musical service: demonstrating Hip Hop’s breadth. Two young kings are perpetuating that necessary balance today.
Kendrick Lamar and Drake are modern embodiments of Pac and Biggie, with the former following Pac’s styling, and the latter heeding Big’s direction. K.Dot and Drizz represent Hip Hop’s Venn Diagram. On the far left side, Kendrick stands confidently, resuscitating Hip Hop’s lyrical inclination through his dazzling, intricate rhyme schemes. Leading the opposing charge is Drake, who is a rare Hip Hop — pop star hybrid, relying less on social consciousness, and more on exploring superficialities. Despite their differing styles, Kendrick and Drake share common ground by using their respective strengths to be two of Hip Hop’s most influential modern players. (It pains me to pick Drake over Kanye for that side of the Venn Diagram, but Drake is undoubtedly a bigger current name.) Just like Pac and Biggie were, Kendrick and Drake are perfect strangers who encompass Hip Hop’s landscape.
Golden Age advocates champion Kendrick for harnessing yesterday’s lyrical emphasis, while applying modern touches to strengthen his appeal. K.Dot facilitates his meticulously crafted bars that highlight social injustices plaguing the black community with his impressive intellect. His early album releases, Section .80 and good kid, m.A.A.d city, foreshadowed what his 2015 groundbreaking project, To Pimp a Butterfly, confirmed: Kendrick is a special talent. TPAB is a socially conscious commentary on black suffrage derived from institutional racism and racial inequality. Its combination of jazz, spoken-word, and soul make it almost an avant-garde piece of artwork. The content makes Kendrick a modern-day 2Pac. On the closing track, “Mortal Man,” Kendrick even conducts a posthumous interview with Pac, bringing this comparison full-circle. With Kendrick supplying the conscious rhymes, Drake proudly supplies the club hits.
On his past three projects (Views, What A Time To Be Alive, and If You’re Reading This It's Too Late), Drake appears content assuming the role as Hip Hop’s hitman. Not going off and murdering people for hire, but for delivering a surplus of hit records—“One Dance” off Views is Spotify’s exclusive track to exceed 1-billion streams. Part of Drake’s widespread appeal stems from his dynamic flows, much like Biggie. He can spit a flurry of bars like Connor McGregor punishing a victim with lethal combinations; he can slow it down to a molasses pace. Drake’s dynamism also materializes by matching his superstar rap status with his sensational R&B aesthetic. He refuses to stick to one lane. He is Hip Hop’s Lebron James. Just like Biggie took creative risks throughout his career (i.e. “I Got A Story To Tell”), Drake continuously changes his style in fear of sounding stale or complacent. Although I think he spread himself too thin, Views is his most diverse project sonically by featuring a Hip Hop core, orbited by dancehall, R&B, and pop. But just like Pac and Biggie did, K.Dot and Drizzy occasionally switch glasses to view Hip Hop through the opposing lens.
Lamar’s “The Recipe” off good kid, m.A.A.d city is an homage to his beloved home state, California, and their coveted three Ws: women, weed, and weather. This enviable track off his highly entertaining album is a fun diversion from his conventional socially conscious content, but he doesn’t sacrifice his lyrical cornerstone. During the second verse, K.Dot is in classic wordplay form with the bars, “You want to be on, to peak on the charts / So the peons can be gone and pee on their hearts.” No matter the content, Kendrick’s intellect shines. However, cornrow Kenny isn’t the only one who can switch (shouts to Will Smith). For his multitude of club hits, Drake is no stranger to serious content. A solid portion of his dense library revolves around emotional struggles buried in a perpetual tug-of-war battle between insecurity and overconfidence—I guess they're technically one in the same. But personally, I think he soars the highest when he cuts the bullshit by offering touching, grounded music. “Look What You’ve Done” is a contending favorite Drizzy track of mine. It’s a loving tribute to the people who’ve helped him achieve his superstar status: his mother, grandmother, and uncle. They were always there for him, and he wants them to know his gratitude: “You knew that I was gonna be something / When you're stressed out and you need something, I got you.” No bragging, no big booty hoes—just a kid showing his sincere appreciation.
Kendrick and Drake are continuing 2Pac and Biggie’s differing styles to provide Hip Hop’s necessary duality. The divergent artistry and content represent Hip Hop’s expanding scope that shows no signs of slowing—only growth. The differing energies clash, but also give way to each other’s form to create an intertwined, well-balanced perspective. Balance is always a necessary part of life, no matter the subject, to fully understand and appreciate something. I’ll always be thankful to the Chinese for opening their doors on Christmas to satiate my hunger, but I’m more thankful for their sage, universal yin and yang philosophy.