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Kendrick Lamar, From On High, Has The Whole World Watching

Kendrick Lamar performs on the Samsung Stage during day two at Austin City Limits Music Festival 2016 at Zilker Park on October 1, 2016.
Rick Kern
Getty Images
Kendrick Lamar performs on the Samsung Stage during day two at Austin City Limits Music Festival 2016 at Zilker Park on October 1, 2016.

Kendrick Lamar did not come to play. That's the purest way to characterize the hilarious video meme that hit the web the same day hip-hop's self-anointed "rhyme savior" released his warning shot, "The Heart Part 4," alerting the industry to what we've all come to expect is his impending April 14 release, DAMN. (which he announced on Twitter Tuesday morning). The 22-second clip features a cutout of the Compton rapper's frozen face attached to the shotgun-toting body of fictional stick-up man Omar from The Wire. As he stalks down the street in a bulletproof vest, his 12-gauge poking out from under his black trench coat, he can be heard whistling Omar's signature tune, "The Farmer in the Dell."

The first lookout man to spot him is a bug-eyed Big Sean. The Detroit MC, whose relationship with Lamar has been on tenuous terms since Lamar used his guest verse on Sean's "Control" to spazz out on the entire industry, looks totally shook as he yells to forewarn his homies, digital stream king Drake and rumored Kendrick collaborator J. Cole, of the impending doom. "Something ain't right, yo," bobble-head Cole says, heeding the warning as Lamar, aka Cornrow Kenny, approaches the stash house they're supposed to be guarding. "Oh my God, it's Kendrick!" he yells. Predictably, Cole and Drake take off running in the opposite direction, with the crown left for the snatching.

"The cheese stands alone," Omar says in the most quotable line of the actual scene from the HBO cult hit. The parody draws a similar conclusion: When it comes to the return of King Kendrick, nobody's safe. Like the storm before the calm, his mere arrival on the scene can spark the kind of existential crisis that causes contemporaries, critics and consumers alike to lose their ever-loving minds: Is he the reaper back to send all competition to an early grave? Is he the benevolent conscience of the culture, returned to right the ship from conspicuous greed and glitz? Is he a conduit for the ancestral spirits whose voices were voided before their prime? Or is he God's son and Son of man, a prophetic soul whose divine flows know no bounds, other than his own masculine shortcomings?

Whenever Lamar signals a new project, things tend to get biblical. Since the March 30 release of "HUMBLE.," the most talked-about video of the year and presumed first single from a suspected new album, the Internet has been poring over his verses like holy scripture, debating visual interpretations and issuing digital decrees with more urgency than the Vatican. When it comes to driving the cultural discourse, Lamar has proven himself to be rap's main course.

But on the eve of what will be his first proper album-length statement since his masterful 2015 LP To Pimp a Butterfly, it stands to reason that the hip-hop landscape has changed — even if Lamar's effect remains the same.

Big Sean may be coming off his best album yet with I Decided., but he still has yet to take control of the conversation like Lamar. Future just made history by debuting two No. 1 albums on Billboard in back-to-back weeks, but even at his most introspective (HNDRXX) he remains an astronaut in solo flight, leaving the rest of us to ogle from below. Drake's More Life playlist is likely destined to be the most-streamed project of the year, but it's powered by a man who's clearly more infatuated with protecting his aura than baring his soul. And J. Cole, the only other black hippie doing certifiable numbers, finds more comfort in withdrawing from his peers than confronting them.

Unlike the other artists at the forefront, Lamar's never been a huge radio star. Rarely, if ever, will you hear his voice vibrating from box Chevys or soundtracking table dances in Houstatlantavegas strip clubs. His ethnopolitical diatribes are probably more likely to bring the average party to a temporary halt. Prior to "HUMBLE.," his highest-charting single, "Swimming Pools (Drank)," is about the dangers of abusing alcohol in the age of the double Styrofoam cup. Meanwhile, his most culturally pervasive song to date, "Alright," became the unofficial anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The truth is dude has no business being here: In a singles market driven by short attention spans and streaming platforms, he's an artist obsessed with conceptualizing sprawling album-length narratives rich with the kind of symbolism that rewards repeated listens. Yet his LPs still succeed commercially and critically, despite the regular declaration that his format of choice is on its deathbed. Lamar's that rare breed of artist whose qualities seem contradictory on paper: He's at once the philosopher-king and plunderer of the royal court, a mad rapper with lyrical-miracle whip whose gangland stories of survivor's guilt have rightfully earned universal acclaim.

While Drake — whose hunger for fame presents the antithesis to Lamar's eternal vision quest — dodges accusations of culture-jacking, borrowing newcomers' flows and riding other rappers' waves to stay relevant (see: Future, Migos, Makonnen, XXXTentacion and, yes, even Jamaica and London), Kendrick's true competition is buried deep among the dead MC scrolls. It's no wonder he had to resurrect a dearly departed rapper for inspiration on To Pimp A Butterfly. (R.I.P. Pac.)

The current moment, however, prompts a question: Can Lamar continue to raise the bar without hitting a ceiling? Lord knows it's lonely at the top.

The video for "HUMBLE." — which highlights black women with natural hair, unaltered butts, stretch marks and unretouched photos — received widespread criticism for what ultimately read less like an attempt to counter false beauty standards than part of an ongoing objectification of the female form. But with an album artist like Lamar, it can sometimes be hard to glean the full meaning of a song until it's heard in its complete context. The same thing happened with "The Blacker the Berry," the single released in February of 2015 in the lead-up to TPAB. The song's climax likened the politicized mythology of black-on-black crime to the state-sanctioned killings of victims like Trayvon Martin during the height of the protest movement. It felt like a punch in the gut from one of the genre's ostensibly woke voices. Yet hearing the song within a larger narrative upon TPAB's release reframed its sentiment as the expression of personal torment he'd intended.

Even the explicit hook for "HUMBLE." — "Be humble (hol' up, b****), sit down" — is hard to interpret without more context clues: Is he addressing testy rappers, the opposite sex, his own raging ego or, possibly, all three? It all goes to show that his ranking within hip-hop's horse race is the least compelling aspect of Lamar's creative contribution. It's not the shots he takes at perceived competitors but his provocation of thought that separates him from the pack.

In an interview with The New York Times' T Magazine last month, Lamar suggested that DAMN. would expound on the gulf between God and geopolitics. That explains the religious overtones in the visual for "HUMBLE.," where Lamar is seen dressed as the pope in the opening scene and, later, portraying a modern-day Jesus in the hood while reenacting Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper with his homies.

Whether the next sacrificial offering from rap's reigning GOAT will be rebuked or regaled is the only thing that remains to be seen. If history offers any lesson, the outcome is discernible. Until then, we'll all be on the lookout.

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Rodney Carmichael is NPR Music's hip-hop staff writer. An Atlanta-bred cultural critic, he helped document the city's rise as rap's reigning capital for a decade while serving on staff as music editor, culture writer and senior writer for the defunct alt-weekly Creative Loafing.