Road to Success: Kendrick Lamar vs. Trinidad James

December 19th, 2012

(photos From Left: John Ricard / BET, Johnny Nunez/WireImage)

(photos From Left: John Ricard / BET, Johnny Nunez/WireImage)

Defining success is difficult in today’s entertainment industry. Whether it’s money, influence or respect, no two artists want the same exact thing. Hip hop didn’t produce many new stars in 2012, but two gifted young creatives were able to use talent and strategy to find two very different roads to success. First is Kendrick Lamar, whose long grind from Compton stoop kid to international superstar recently culminated in a gold plaque (for stellar major-label debut good kid, m.a.d.d. city). “All Gold Everything” phenom Trinidad James took a more accelerated route to stardom. After the video for his hit single went viral this fall, the eccentric Atlanta representative has been mainstream hip hop’s golden child, sending labels and rival rappers scrambling to understand and duplicate his overnight success. James has since flipped his intoxicating jam into a string of sold-out shows, a surprise performance at Madison Square Garden and a $2 million deal with the most legendary label in rap, Def Jam Records.

How did they do it? While their paths couldn’t seem more opposite, both succeeded because they approached the antiquated industry with fresh visions that captured the spirit of hip hop’s next generation. Kendrick’s impossibly complex and insightful lyrics are his artistic foundation, but it was the strategic presentation of his skills that allowed young listeners across the nation to grasp and identify with his L.A.-centric concepts and imagery. Much like Drake’s 2008 rise to fame, Kendrick’s was split into stepping stones — first he earned the respect of the “true” hip hop heads with the mixtape (O)verly (D)edicated, a hit on blogs that proved him lyrically superior to the vast majority of his peers. “Was he the new lyrical messiah we had been waiting for?” purists asked. Next were the critics, who gushed at the concept and execution of his digital debut, Section.80 — a prelude to the vividly personal observations and imagery that made good kid play more like a grainy home movie from his youth than a commercial debut. Earning the financial and artistic support of Dr. Dre, and thus his entire coast, propelled him to the respect, adulation and financial successes that he’s currently enjoying.

While Kendrick rose in small increments, Trinidad leapt the rap industry in a single bound with his infectious hit, leaving many scratching their heads at the ensuing mania it has caused. But while some may discredit his pedigree as an MC (he admitted that he’s only been rapping for about a year now), there is no denying the brilliance with which he and his team executed their takeover. The right song, perfect video and proper push captured a moment in popular culture: hipster swag, street credibility and enough Molly’s to get the whole country sweating his style. But while his appearance and presentation may suggest dumb luck and “right place, right time” opportunism, Trinidad and his team simply recognized the power of his vision and put together a savvy plan that put all of the resources of their network to use.

So, who got it right? Depending on your definition of success, it could be both or neither. Kendrick started spitting at 13 and held on to a vision that many would have given up years ago. He revealed in a recent interview that he had been holding the concept, title and cover for good kid for years, waiting for the perfect moment. He clearly found it, as his patience and dedication appear to only just be beginning to come to fruition. Trinidad’s time as a pop culture icon may be limited to a few catchphrases but he’s already captured enough power to consider his young rap career a success. Both he and Kendrick can offer road maps for the next generation of young creatives hoping to make a living off their art. Only time will tell if the new lanes they’ve carved will stay open long enough to carry the next wave of artists to their dreams.

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