Kendrick Lamar Versus Michael Jackson

We could call Kendrick Lamar and Michael Jackson the two “Kings of the Grammys;” they now hold the two highest records for number of nominations in a single night, at 11 and 12 nominations respectively. Aside from this shared title, however, the music stars represent vastly different types of royalty.


Jackson is almost inarguably the “King of Pop,” an accolade that fellow friend and celebrity Elizabeth Taylor first gave him at an awards ceremony in 1989. Part of the title’s immortality can be attributed to Jackson’s own ego and persistence—he later refused to accept a lifetime achievement award at the fifth MTV Video Awards unless DJs referred to him as the King of Pop in subsequent shows.


Lamar’s title is more multidimensional, if not more ambiguous. Fellow rappers Snoop Dogg and Game crowned him as the new ”King of the West Coast” in 2011, but in recent years Lamar seems to have voluntarily imposed himself onto more controversial thrones as well: in one of his most popular tracks, “King Kunta,” he compares himself to a slave fugitive of the same name from the book and TV miniseries Roots. Lamar’s kingdom comprises an uneasy combination of artful lyricism and controversial rebellion, rather than just pop stardom.


This juxtaposition points to the contrasting approaches that Jackson and Lamar have taken to building their careers. Although they embrace similar themes—albums as personal manifestos, racial and political confrontations, groundbreaking music videos—they execute on these themes with two critically different sets of underlying values and career goals, which then manifest themselves through different chart rankings and levels of media coverage. Nonetheless, they are now both at the top in the Grammy world, and, if anything, their careers prove the widely-held statement that there is no one formula for success in the music industry.




Perhaps the most significant contrast in the careers of Jackson and Lamar is their performance on top mainstream music charts. Jackson’s Thriller occupied #1 on the US Billboard Year-End charts for two consecutive years, from 1983–1984, while Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly‘s position on the 2015 Year-End chart was only at #81. One reason for this gap may be the stars’ different musical tastes and styles; while Jackson consistently aimed for radio-friendly pop and R&B, Lamar’s music is mostly void of catchy hooks, opting instead for more unsettling musical and lyrical content that is meant to spark conversation, rather than satisfy the airwaves.


These different ratings may also be a direct result of the stars’ personalities. Biographical accounts claim that, when Thriller was no longer #1 on the charts, Jackson would make late-night calls to his manager demanding an explanation of the situation and an immediate turnaround in performance. Lamar approaches fame in a more cautionary manner, using his music and the media to criticize both himself and the systems responsible for his success.

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