Rap Session: Drake, Kendrick, and What Makes a Classic

The following was an impromptu discussion between my friend Vince and I from earlier today via text message, transcribed and edited for clarity and typos. We’ve been friends for nearly 15 years and share the same love of hip-hop, so I both value Vince’s opinion and appreciate these little chats. We dove deep down the hip-hop rabbit hole for this one, talking about everyone from Kendrick Lamar to Drake and broke down some of our favorite albums. I’ve always wanted to get him on a podcast, but this will have to do for now. Follow him on Twitter @Turk_Jr. I’m the one in bold.


I had to take a break from Kendrick. It’s too deep. I’m bumping that Action Bronson Mr. Wonderful album.

I’m starting to peel through the layers. Alright and How Much a Dollar Cost are really deep.

This is random, but would you consider To Pimp A Butterfly a concept album? I obviously love him as a lyricist and appreciate everything about the album, but in my music library, it won’t stand shoulder to shoulder with good kid maad city over time.

I don’t know how to classify it really. Someone said it sounds like a kid just venting, which is kind of true about him as a whole.

That makes sense considering all the social issues he touches on.

It could be a concept album. But anyone with a vision of how an album is going to play out I think u could say that for. I mean, is Yeezus a concept album? I’m not sure where the line is. But to your point, yeah, I’d rather listen to GKMC at this moment. The grit appeals to me more.

The story is more identifiable with a larger audience: a young kid commenting on all the craziness going on in his hometown (Compton) with his family and crew. Everyone can identify with that. Someone wrote something interesting about the new album and it kind of echoes how I feel. The author talked about how strong the “Control” verse and his BET cypher were and all his guest appearances, really, from the time GKMC debuted until now and how he just diverted from that “I’m going to crush every other MC” mentality to what TPAB eventually became. It was somewhat disappointing. His content is so strong and his skill is elite, but it’s just diverted into being an instrument of social change and a voice for his people rather than devouring fellow MCs and “spitting”, for lack of a better term. But I guess hip-hop needs that. Kind of like what Cole did on Forest Hills Drive, but on steroids.

I actually didn’t listen to the whole Cole, to be honest. I agree with you completely. I’d rather hear him spit. I think his whole thing is, “I’m gonna rap circles around y’all on features and then go make a classic album of substance.” Kind of like, this is how it’s done.

I can’t argue with that. He’s really managed to carve out this lane for himself where he’s both so respected as a rapper for his talent but he’s also a symbol people look to. Dissecting his albums is like dissecting LeBron’s MVP seasons. You compare them to his already ridiculously high standards instead of just saying, “Fuck, this is still better than everyone else in the game.”

It’s nitpicking. You’re comparing him to himself, which is kind of irresponsible. But as a fan that’s just how we look at it, I suppose.

Someone tweeted that this was It Was Written, referring to the fact that it was an underwhelming follow up to a classic.

We weren’t in the moment when it came out. Who knows how we would have reacted at the time. There’s no way to follow up Illmatic.

Illmatic is a fucking seminar. It’s literature. It’s a class in a PhD program.

I think Biggie is the only one not to disappoint on a sophomore album for real, and I still personally like Ready To Die better. I see the parallel with Nas and Kendrick though. It’s just like, which sound do you prefer?

Big did a really good job of blending street shit (which there is a TON of on Life After Death) with the pop shit.

And Puff said he didn’t really want to do it at first. I hate saying shit like this, but I think when it comes down to it, he’s pound for pound the best ever. I don’t recall a single wack verse.

Although he had some disturbing bars occasionally. Some lines from Me and My Bitch and Dead Wrong stand out. But he put out two classics. No blemishes on his record.

Everyone has his or her freak moments I guess. Kanye has a book’s worth.

Eminem made a career out of it. Where do you rank the younger guys in the game today, not in terms of skill, but in terms of how much you like them?

In terms of who I enjoy listening to it’s Kendrick then Drake, even though I probably listened to Drake a lot more based on how much more content he has. After that…I’m trying to think. I actually really liked Wale’s Ambition, even though I think he’s got some dweeb in him.

There’s a steep drop off after Drake and Kendrick. I love guys like Cole and Wale but they don’t put out enough consistent shit. I’m really looking forward to the Album About Nothing. I thought his mixtape More About Nothing was the best thing he’s ever done.

Big Sean, I thought his new album was his best shit, I just can’t take him seriously. Cole, I just want more from. He’s the clear third best, I think.

Agreed on Cole. Sean low-key steals some songs with his verses. Cole’s developed a really good following. I love him as an artist because he gives a shit and really cares about the music. I just wish he’d have a different producer to infuse some new life into him. His production is so bland, I think he’s spreading himself too thin trying to do it all himself.

Just how you said you like when Kendrick spazzes out, Cole never really did it in the first place and his flow and lyricism could support it. He’s got that Nas thing going on (with his production). Jay always crushed him on beats.

Cole murdered some really good MCs on “Looking For Trouble”. I wish he did that more and I wish someone like ‘Ye would give him some beats. Going back to your Jay point, he went from Primo to prime Swizz and Timbaland to Just Blaze and Kanye. And he had Neptunes hits for days.

Yeah there’s no comparison. Producers make 90% of these rappers their money.

Although, I like the fact that all these guys have “their” sound and I think that’s what makes them shine as artists. Drake doesn’t make sure he has a Kanye/Pharrell/Timbaland beat on his album like people used to. He has his team of producers and they cater to his sound. In the mid-2000s, everyone was seeking out beats from big producers for hits and I think it hurt their overall quality. That being said, I wish Cole’s sound was cultivated by someone else and molded around his lyrics. Sidebar: I think a J. Cole/Roots collabo would be amazing.

The rappers, in total, were better back then. Especially the Philly/New York guys. But they didn’t have thematic albums really. They weren’t sonically similar throughout. Drake does that exceptionally well.

40, Boi-1da and his guys really know his sound and what he likes to do and I think that’s part of the reason why his shit always pops.

That and his lyrics being really identifiable to the masses. That’s his recipe. A lot of people don’t want to sit there and figure out Nas/J. Cole. They just want to hear bangers.

Drake really does have his finger on the pulse of the masses.

He’s got it figured out. Funny thing is, he said he gets a lot of creative input from Kanye and vice-versa, but they never impede on each other’s sound really.

Kanye always praises him, which is somewhat surprising. He knows he’s his biggest competition. He said “it’s Drake season” on a radio interview.

Yeah it’s a little weird. He’s always put people on though; I got to give it to Kanye. I guess he feels like it easily could have gone the other way for him, not getting a shot.

I think he and Jay have both alluded to this point before too: they know they don’t speak to the same generation Drake does. They know that there already is a generation or two of young people that grew up on their music. Hell, they inspired this entire group of rappers now. Without 808s and Heartbreak there’s probably no So Far Gone.

It’s definitely smart of them to be so self-aware. If Rakim went into 2002 and tried to “point out the bounce,” it just wouldn’t have worked. You’re so right about 808s though. And it’s funny because everyone hated it at the time. Now some people say it’s their favorite/most influential Kanye album.

Yeah, which I never would’ve imagined in 2008, but it really introduced a new sound that Drake ran with.

One of the things I appreciate about music the most is artists going across genres and saying, “I’m going to take this risk.” I always loved Kanye for that. I was listening to The Doors last week and I said to myself, dude really took a rock song from the 1960s, mixed it up and said, “Jay-Z, I think u should rap on this.”

And it was a monster.

Drake hopping on a Lykke Li song and making it better than the original was a risk, and it worked perfectly.

It goes on and on. Frank Ocean samples Coldplay, MGMT and the Eagles on nostalgia.ultra. The guys that break down those walls and try new things are usually the ones we sit around talking about years later. Even what Puff did, making Biggie rap over some old disco beats. Fuck, all of Bad Boy’s epic late-90s run was on the shoulders of shitty 80s music. I guess it all kind of comes full circle back to Kendrick now, because that’s where he is on this album, drawing inspiration from so many musical genres to make an excellent hip hop album.

Did you ever think about what your ranking of Kanye albums would be?

It varies day to day, but it’s usually MBDTF and College Dropout in one tier, Graduation and Late Registration in the next tier, then Yeezus and 808s at the bottom. Again, it’s nitpicking, but over the course of time that’s where they kind of fall for me.

I go back and forth with College Dropout and MBDTF all the time. I think 808s and Yeezus should be in same tier, they are the “polar fucking opposite but potentially groundbreaking tier” and then ranked with a) and b) based on preference.

For me, I still go back and listen to songs like Street Lights, Amazing and some others. Other than Blood on the Leaves, I really don’t consistently play anything from that album. Not even New Slaves and Black Skinhead, which are both good.

I’m the exact opposite. I can’t tell you the last time I listened to 808s. Which likely means I’ll go listen to the whole thing after work. Tier 2 is really unique. It’s so close. Both albums have their skips for me, songs that’s could have been left for a G.O.O.D. Friday release, even though that hadn’t happened yet.

I actually think Graduation’s two bonus tracks, Good Night and Bittersweet Poetry, are significantly better than some of the chosen songs. But the highs were really good. Flashing Lights, Can’t Tell Me Nothing (flame emojis).

I just think We Major, Gone, and Addiction for me beat that. Maybe it’s the nostalgia factor. And Flashing Lights, Can’t Tell Me Nothing and Glory are some of my favorite songs ever. It’s so damn close I might change my mind tomorrow.

How about ranking Drake’s albums. Where do they stand for you? (So Far Gone and If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late included.)

So Far Gone is far and away #1.

I’m just going to go ahead and say it: So Far Gone is the best mixtape ever. I play it just as much now as I did in 2009/10.

I’d probably agree and that’s even with Wayne’s murderous flurry of mixtapes that were probably better than his albums. Nothing was wasted on So Far Gone. I thought about it a few weeks ago and I was stuck after So Far Gone. I don’t know how to rank them.

I have Take Care in an almost dead heat with SFG. I think it’s mostly for nostalgia reasons. I listened to that shit so much for like a year straight and it really has some of my favorite Drake songs on it. After that, I might have IYRTITL over Thank Me Later, with Nothing Was The Same last. I may just be in the moment, but I think IYRTITL is really good. They’re really close. NWTS was underwhelming for me. There are only a few songs I keep going back to.

Interesting. I’m honestly not sure what the big fuss is over the new joint, but I haven’t studied it enough. Initially, I think it’s like a Drake “Stan” overreaction.

I may feel differently a year from now, but I think you can throw on the first half of that tape and you have a string of bangers. I wish he would’ve combined the best songs from the tape and from NWTS and it would be great.

Great call. I felt that way about Blueprint 2. I just feel like Drake has a bit of a “Beyhive” following, then the same “dropped the album out of nowhere” made people go crazy and the music doesn’t live up.

A common theme amongst my favorite albums though, whether it’s Drake, Kanye, Jay or whomever, all resonate with me because of where I was when they came out and what I was going through. There are very few albums that I love that I just kind of stumbled upon and they’re mostly just albums like Illmatic or Ready To Die or Reasonable Doubt, that are just undeniable.

The feeling of nostalgia can sway you.

You live with music. Take College Dropout, Black Album, 50’s old shit. Everything we used to bump in high school. You can pinpoint the time and place and how it affected you. 

No way Out, Harlem World, too. I remember I hated the Black Album when it first came out, same with Take Care. Now I actually prefer to listen to the Black Album more so than Reasonable Doubt. Take Care is probably pound for pound his best album, but I was going through it during Thank Me Later. Plus, I think the first three tracks are criminally underrated.

No Way Out, Harlem World, It’s Dark and Hell is Hot and Hard Knock Life were the first rap albums I ever listened to.

Back when we were coming of age. I think it’s fair to say that Drake hasn’t made a classic album, even though his body of work the last five years is better than pretty much everyone’s.

That’s fair, as long as we’re not counting So Far Gone. Take Care is a personal classic for me but I can see it not being a universally-recognized classic. His body of work from 2009-now > everyone though.

Yeah I’m not counting that. I jus don’t like throwing around classic like that and I don’t think any of them have the firepower for me. But I think you’re right, it’s the best of his three albums. TM101 is a personal classic. It speaks to me. But in the whole rap pantheon, I don’t know.

That’s a regional classic, wouldn’t you say? I think a lot of people in the south would label that a classic.

Maybe that’s a bad example. It’s not in like the top 50 rap albums of all time though I guess is what I’m saying. GKMC might be already.

It’s funny that’s the album you use, because I’m pretty sure Kendrick is a huge Jeezy fan.

I think if I had a count of how many times I listened to an album, TM101 would be up there with The Blueprint and them.

I think rap is in a good place right now. The game is so different than it was ten years ago with iTunes and streaming. Artists don’t even make their money from albums anymore. But good music is winning out more than before. These artists cultivate fan bases and really put out quality music because these fans are going to pack in arenas and stadiums to see them on the road. Cole could’ve never debuted at No. 1 ten years ago. Kendrick might have gotten lost in the “throwback” era. I like when artists drop songs or whole mixtapes out of nowhere online. I think rap is fun again. The music isn’t about “what sells” because nothing sells anymore. No one’s buying albums. You can’t really go platinum off a hot single anymore.

I’m loving the content right now. It’s just…so much has changed in 10 or 15 years I guess.

Everything’s changed.

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