Kendrick Lamar has been out of office for a full presidential term at this point—his last studio album, DAMN., dropped in April 2017. In 2018 he oversaw the Black Panther soundtrack, which was a veritable TDE compilation project that bears his fingerprints and vocals on virtually every track, but still—not uncut Kendrick. His radio silence has been especially deafening since the pandemic began. Even the lone K. Dot guest feature in 2020 doesn’t really count, since it’s really just the mastered release of a song that’s been around since 2018. So it’s only right that his return has the grandeur of a State of the Union address.
It’s not a surprise, either—Kendrick album rollouts are carefully orchestrated events. With each project comes a well-manicured aesthetic that reflects the new themes he’s exploring, and the buildup to its announcement and release is finely tuned. The first move towards his next album came last week, when he posted a letter updating fans on his life and mind state, while casually dropping the bombshell that his forthcoming album will be his last with longtime label TDE. This didn’t come as a total shock—in 2020 Lamar announced pgLang, a new company he founded alongside his friend, and former TDE president, Dave Free. It’s only logical that Lamar would pivot to releasing albums through his own outfit as he seeks to build an all-purpose entertainment firm that seems similar in scope and ambition to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation. pgLang hasn’t done much yet, but the company’s primary focus seems to be breaking Baby Keem, a rising rapper who’s already scored a few buzzworthy songs and acclaim, and also happens to be Lamar’s cousin.
Which brings us to last night, wherein Keem’s latest single from his forthcoming album, “family ties,” also heralded the beginning of Kendrick Lamar’s next phase. Two minutes into the triumphant, horn-heavy, booming track, Keem tees up Big Cousin Kenny to completely take over—and Lamar wastes no time throwing the gauntlet down.
Of course the guy who made “Control” would start his first major verse in years off with lines like “I am the Omega,” or “smoking on your top five tonight” or “don’t you address me unless it’s with four letters” (read: G.O.A.T). For nearly two minutes straight, Lamar offers up a bevy of flows, voices (“Amazing, brother“) and bars, referencing the pandemic and casually taking his peers to task for their microwaved “activism” and social media gimmicks to sell records. Somehow he finds room for everything from a Hulk Hogan voice to a slick Megan Thee Stallion shoutout and makes it all work. And unless I’m reading too much into the line “One daughter, but they all my sons in this bitch,” he casually just told us he’s become a father, which checks out for someone who’s infamously reticent towards sharing the details of his personal life.
Towards the end of “family ties,” Kendrick re-connects with Keem for a familial back-and-forth. Keem isn’t as lyrical as Kendrick, but they have a complimentary style in their approach to melodic flows, warped pronunciations and using their voice as an instrument that lines up nicely for their first track together. (Day One Keem fans will appreciate his “two phones” reference.)
And lest the track’s State of the Union theme go understated, most of his appearance in the accompanying video (directed by Dave Free) is in front of a large, billowing pgLang flag. It’s a new era indeed. But don’t expect a full Kendrick album just yet. Lamar very carefully worded his note to say that he’s still working on the new project. Besides, if pgLang is staking its launch on positioning Baby Keem as the future, it would make sense to give Keem’s album some breathing room.
But make make no mistake, Kendrick’s coming. As Lamar warns: “2021 he ain’t taking no prisoner.” Hopefully we get an album by the holidays? Until then, do like he asks and “be patient, brother.”