Kendrick Lamar saw this coming before it happened. On December 31, 2009, the Compton rapper unleashed a mission statement of a track called “I Am (Interlude)” on the Kendrick Lamar EP. It was his first project since abandoning the K-Dot alias, so the interlude made sense as a reintroduction of sorts. “Y’all don’t understand me,” he confidently declared over soothing piano keys. “My plan B is to win your hearts before I win a Grammy.”
More than eight years later, the Top Dawg Entertainment MC won 12 of those. His latest Grammy wins came on Sunday (Jan. 28), when he earned Best Rap Performance, Best Rap Song, and Best Music Video for “HUMBLE.,” Best Rap/Sung Performance for “LOYALTY.” (with Rihanna), and Best Rap Album for DAMN. That impressive rundown would not have been possible without the blueprint for the sincere connection that he laid down on “I Am.” Still, naysayers somehow complained.
On Monday (Jan. 29), controversial YouTuber DJ Akademiks of “Everyday Struggle” seemed to discredit Lamar’s wins as some sort of retribution. “I feel like Kendrick’s like a token negro,” said Akademiks. “I think they’ve realized, ‘This is a guy who’s safe enough but a little bit radical enough, if you get what I mean, in terms of straddling that line where, we’ll just give him the awards.” To make an argument like that, however, is to ignore and invalidate DAMN., “HUMBLE.,” and “LOYALTY.’s” artistic achievements, of which there are many.
The latter song, for instance, pairs two of music’s most important voices over masterful production by Terrace Martin, Sounwave, DJ Dahi, and Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith. Pulling inspiration from the likes of Bruno Mars and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, the song allows K-Dot and Bad Gal to prove why they’re such beloved stars with irresistible melodies and undeniable musical chemistry. Both did what they do best and RiRi added rhymes that were slick enough to prompt “Rihanna rap album” talks. Beyond the artistic distinctions, it also peaked higher than every other song in the category at No. 11. The second-highest nominated track in the category was SZA and Travis Scott’s “Love Galore” at No. 32.
“HUMBLE.’s” impact was even greater. DAMN.’s lead single topped the Billboard Hot 100 and became the first solo rap record to surpass one million in pure sales alone in 2017. Among its contenders for Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song, only Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow (Money Moves)” and Migos’ “Bad and Boujee” reached the pinnacle position. But “HUMBLE.’s” excellence wasn’t in chart standing alone. Produced by Mike WiLL Made-It, the song also worked as an infectious club banger with substance, exploring beauty standards, prayer, and humility, all while making heads bop. For all of these reasons, dismissing K-Dot’s wins here feels hollow.
“HUMBLE.’s” visual also balanced commercial and artistic triumphs. It clocked more YouTube views — a whopping 432 million — than any of its Best Music Video competitors by an enormous margin. For comparison’s sake, the second-highest view count in the category belongs to Logic’s “1-800-273-8255” (featuring Alessia Cara and Khalid) with 195 million. For non-math experts, that’s a 237 million view difference. But again, “HUMBLE.’s” video shines for more than just the stats. It’s also the artful brainchild of legendary director Dave Meyers and the little homies (comprised of Top Dawg Entertainment President Dave Free and Kendrick, himself). Together, they created a vibrant, lush visual with inventive perspectives, experimental cuts, fiery special effects, and compelling homages to Leonardo da Vinci and Gordon Parks. With its cinematic qualities and dynamic images, “HUMBLE.” raised the creative bar for music videos in all genres, while amassing success none of its competitors could.
What about the Best Rap Album category? DAMN. straddled that fine line between critical and commercial appeal too. It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, which only Migos’ Culture and JAY-Z’s 4:44 managed to do (among its competitors in this category). But more than that, it lived up to or surpassed the strengths that each of the other nominees possessed. Love the sonics on Culture ? The arena-ready boom on tracks like “DNA.” and “HUMBLE.” match up. How about the vulnerable lyrics on JAY-Z’s 4:44, Tyler, the Creator’s Flower Boy, and Rapsody’s Laila’s Wisdom? All remarkable, but K-Dot did that brilliantly too, on reflective standouts like “FEAR.,” “DUCKWORTH.,” and “LOVE.” He did all of this, mind you, while balancing versatility with cohesion on a concept album that can be played front-to-back or in reverse to tell a different story about life, death, wickedness, and weakness.
The Grammys don’t always “get it right.” In fact, one could argue that DAMN. deserved more hardware at this year’s event, including Song of the Year, Record of the Year, and Album of the Year. But to hear criticism of the awards he did win is just another reminder of that 2009 interlude. “See y’all don’t understand me,” he rhymed back then, and it seems that remains true for a small group of detractors. But the rest of that rhyme — “to win your heart before I win a Grammy” — still holds up as well, because he’s continuing to connect with and win hearts over, all while adding trophies to his mantle. Mission accomplished.