“It’s a Habibi’s ting, ya?”: Empire and Nostalgia, Drake and Kendrick Lamar
Photograph of Drake with a hookah.
I confess I’m a Drake fan. I know I should be ashamed of myself, but I’m not. Hip-hop heads would probably tell me to listen to more Kendrick (and I do), but Drake fills me with an optimism I just can’t find in the lyrical genius of Kendrick, or in anyone else for that matter.
Don’t get me wrong—I really enjoyed Snoop’s “Nightfall Remix” and Rick Ross’s return to form in Rather You Than Me. I also enjoyed Kendrick’s critically acclaimed DAMN. But there’s still something unique, even special about Drake’s More Life.
In a sense, the Drake/Kendrick comparison is tenuous at best, since it is fueled by an industry overdetermined by Billboard charts and gossip magazines. Obviously, neither Drake nor Kendrick is immune from self-proclaimed declarations of greatness (see, for example, Kendrick’s verse on Big Sean’s “Control,” in which the former compares himself to “Jigga and Nas”). The Drake/Kendrick comparison or rivalry is also largely speculative since they occupy opposite corners of the hip-hop world. Drake is the rapper-cum-crooner; he’s the champion of global pop-rap. Kendrick, on the other hand, is the militant Christian rapper from Compton; he’s the “conscious” artist par excellence. “Jumpman” is something you listen to at the gym or the “pre-game.” “Alright” is what the youth deacon plays before the protest march. Both are great; but their specific functions are clearly defined.
“Different strokes for different folks,” as the saying goes; and yet that explanation falls short. I mean, in the realm of politics, for example, that explanation cannot suffice. Despite the intentions of Drake or Kendrick, their works often reach beyond the worlds in and presumably for which they were created. In October 2016, Sway Calloway and Heather B. interviewed the then President of the United States, Barack Obama, who discussed his favorite rappers: “I think the young guys—Kendrick and Chance—are doing amazing work. I love Drake, and the girls love Drake […] he’s commercially just doing great, and [he’s] unbelievably talented. Jay Z’s still the king. I mean, he’s got a track record. Same with Kanye. So, you know there’s a lot of talent out there; but when I look at who’s breaking new ground—Kendrick and Chance, those guys are doing just amazing work.”
Photograph of Kendrick Lamar hugging President Barack Obama.
It would seem that there was nothing wrong with the first black president picking his favorite rappers; but last night I read something in The Economist that changed my mind. Last night I read a glowing review of Kendrick’s new album, a review titled “Damned with praise: The meaning of Kendrick Lamar.” In the interview quoted above, then, I’m struck by the way in which the President emasculates Drake, and how the former positions Kendrick and Chance (who, we are told, is also a friend of the family) as role models. The critique that follows is somewhat unfair to Kendrick, since it is premised on realities that are arguably beyond his control, though even here it still needs to be said: the President valorizes Kendrick and Chance because they participate in the state’s “administration of dissent.” And here Su’ad Abdul Khabeer (the anthropologist from whom I’ve borrowed this phrase) is worth quoting at length:
“Domesticated racial politics narrow the concerns of U.S. communities of color to their rights to legal and affective citizenship. This is a move away from internationalist and transnational frameworks of belonging to a right that only the state can endorse. Therefore, the very demand for rights reinforces the authority of the state. The post-civil rights and post-9/11 era is defined by the ways in which this desire for belonging is taken up by the state, which coopts dissent through its administration of dissent. To put it more plainly, the state and the Black political establishment would like the movement for Black lives to protest through approved channels, but the movement has chosen to resist on its own, Black terms.”
To return to Kendrick, to what, exactly, can we attribute his critical acclaim?
Kendrick’s sonic and visual cadences are drenched in nostalgia for the civil rights movement, Black Power, and the politicized gangster rap of the 1990s (see, for example, Kendrick’s resurrection of Tupac’s allegory of the Crucifixion). In similar fashion, the rhetorical power of Barack Obama was kindled by our own nostalgia for the cadences of Lincoln, JFK, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Nostalgia is comforting; but too much comfort food gives me “the itis.”
At a moment when the next political horizon seems so far out of reach, crass commercialism and boundless personal ambition may be our truest lodestars. In this context, Drake’s ambition to become a global pop star gives him a much bigger canvas on which to sketch futures—futures beyond Kendrick’s nostalgia. Kendrick, let it be said clearly, is perhaps the most talented artist of his generation; but his genius produces a singular vision, even though it is steeped in the best of the African-American hip-hop tradition. Yet, even as we’re overcome with nostalgia for the individual genius and charismatic leadership of past political eras, Drake’s creativity is crowdsourced.
The challenge for Americans today is to listen. And as much as African Americans, in particular, have attempted to disavow our privileged place within the American Empire, our challenge is to listen to the diaspora. The intellectual historian Faisal Devji has argued that the endless wars in which America is currently mired are wars of America’s desire to project a single vision of the future onto the world. The political challenge for Americans in the twenty-first century is to learn to hear, to listen to, and to share the global stage.
One could make a similar point about African Americans with hip-hop. In our pride, we claim hip-hop as our own, ignoring important voices from other parts of the diaspora. Indeed, I would argue that this is precisely where Drake is “doing” his most important political work—work that is often misunderstood. Kendrick and Drake have very different “ears,” so to speak—“ears” which shape their distinct approaches to the genre. Kendrick’s DAMN features the familiar voices of Rihanna and U2. When he does gesture toward the diaspora, Kendrick’s references tend to be black orientalist tropes—his allusions to black Hebrew Israelites and affinity for kung fu both come to mind. Drake’s cosmopolitanism is more literal, grounded in the present—in addition to 2 Chainz, Young Thug and Kanye West, More Life features Giggs, Black Coffee and Jorja Smith, Sampha, Quavo and Travis Scott, and PARTYNEXTDOOR. To be sure, Drake’s cosmopolitanism often sounds awkward, even forced. At the beginning of “Portland,” for example, he begins with a syncretic gesture of Arabic and Caribbean slang: “It’s a Habibi’s ting, ya?” Odd, indeed; but I appreciate what, from my perspective, appears to be Drake learning how to listen to and speak the vernaculars of the diaspora. In his hunger to stay fresh, Drake speaks in foreign tongues. He is even willing at times to surrender the spotlight, giving entire tracks to the black Brits Sampha and Skepta (see, for examples, “4422” and “Skepta Interlude”). On “No Long Talk” and “KMT,” moreover, Drake—the rap crooner—jars his American listeners with the discordant and aggressive sounds of Giggs, while Skepta, who, we are told, “died and came back as Fela Kuti,” reminds America of its forgotten war by making a brief reference to the “Taliban” (see “Skepta Interlude”).
One of our challenges in the post-9/11 world is, again, to learn how to share the spotlight with voices from around the globe. Our future politics has to be a multilingual politics, a politics that reflects back to us the multilingualism of the world. Concerning the future of the American Empire, Drake is more dangerous than Kendrick in this regard, even if the former does sound “cheesier”—more dangerous because in Drake’s musical collaborations listeners can hear a black diaspora with multiple centers, a diaspora in which the African American experience is simply one of many (see, for example, “Come Closer,” a song by the Nigerian pop star WizKid, featuring Drake). Indeed, Drake’s music foreshadows a change that no “Mother of All Bombs” can dispel. However dominant, America is just one among many voices on the world stage, and the quicker we learn to listen to other centers and to hear other traditions, the safer all of us will be. In this way, then, More Life seems more radical—to a greater extent, at least, than an album of nostalgia for a citizenship some of us have never had.
Alden Young is an assistant professor of African History and the Director of Africana Studies at Drexel University; he received his Ph.D. in History from Princeton University in 2013. His first book, Transforming Sudan: Decolonisation, Economic Development and State-Formation, is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.
 Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, Muslim Cool: Race, Religion, and Hip Hop in the United States (New York: New York University Press, 2016).
 Faisal Devji, Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005).