Again and again, the apparent desire to make Lamar and his friends fit into old tropes runs against Lamar's actions and words, but the tropes themselves are never questioned. The lede talks about how Marsh had wanted a “a guided, cue-the-G-funk-synth Star Maps tour” but Lamar canceled so as to mourn a “murdered friend he calls his ‘little bro’—a kid from a neighborhood where friendship is defined primarily by neighborhood.” A whole section details apparent tension between Lamar and Drake—the kind of tension that can be reduced to “rap beef,” but that Lamar downplays to Marsh. And there’s this:
The gossip from Diddy's Ciroc Amaretto Launch Party/VMA Afterparty sounded like it fell out of a massive tear in the mid-'90s West Coast-East Coast time wave. Bloggers breathlessly recounted a surreal scene at Dream: booths packed with hip-hop illuminati—Jay, Bey—mouths agape as a wasted Diddy, incensed by the "King of New York" boast, attempted to pour a drink (Ciroc Amaretto, presumably) over Kendrick's head, only to be thwarted by Jay Z acolyte J. Cole, who was kicked out in the ensuing chaos. Naturally Kendrick himself refused to corroborate any of this. "It was all love at that party," he told me on the private jet.
Lamar’s positivity comes off like image management; the frustrated “naturally” and "refused" implies that when Lamar says “it was all love,” he's probably lying. Given the choice between continuing to buy into a cliché about out-of-control rap rivalries and believing the truth-telling genius being profiled, the reader’s asked to favor the cliché. Of course, it's good for journalists to maintain skepticism about their subjects. But why bring up this party at all if Lamar has nothing of note to say about it? It's to evoke that "mid-'90s West Coast-East Coast time wave."
Elsewhere, Tiffith’s described as “basically TDE's Suge Knight.” To an extent, it makes sense to mention the Tupac/Biggie era; Lamar’s from Compton and references its musical history constantly. But the story equates Lamar’s Top Dawg Entertainment with Death Row Records by the mere fact that they’re both from with Southern California; again, generalities blot out specifics. In this case, the effects are particularly dangerous: As Tiffith said in his complaint, he and his associates are being linked with violence.
“Lamar is our embedded correspondent,” Marsh writes, which helps explain one way this well-intentioned, at times very perceptive piece ended up offending the people it was meant to flatter. They’re inside hip hop, but much of the magazine’s presumed audience—white people—don’t know much about the genre these days. Focusing on “drama,” making comparisons to recognizable touchstones: This how a lot of publications, The Atlantic included, have to write about rap. But problems arise when those touchstones and drama get unquestioning, preferential treatment over how things really are.
The article, to its credit, does recognize that Lamar’s act offers a “deconstruction” of rap clichés. That’s why it’s all the more frustrating to see it lean on those clichés. Yes, Lamar defies and subverts popular notions about hip hop. But more importantly, he insists on portraying people in all three dimensions—and asks, rightfully, that the rest of the world do the same.