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If hip-hop had a timeline of milestone dates that placed the game in disarray, it would have to include August 14, 2013. If hip-hop had a list of lyrical giants that shook the table, then give that crown to Kendrick Lamar. If today's hip-hop needs to find a way back to the real competitive nature that first built this genre, they've got to start following the example of his "Control" verse.
Prior to the first moment the world would hear K-Dot name check 11 of his peers—before challenging them with "I got love for you all, but I'm tryna murder you niggas / Tryna make sure your core fans never heard of you niggas"— the game was flat-out boring, stagnant if you will. Aside from A$AP Rocky's major label debut that January—or possibly the chart showdown in June between Kanye West's Yeezus and J. Cole's Born Sinner—in 2013, the game was getting more notoriety for the tabloid drama (i.e. Lupe Fiasco's anti-Obama rant, Wiz Khalifa marrying Amber Rose) than the music.
Four years into the 2010s, and with four XXL Freshmen Classes already picked, the lane seemed wide open for one of those classmates to take over, while simultaneously redefining the genre. What's particularly intriguing about Lamar's verse is the fact that six of the 11 namedrops were knighted as XXL up-and-comers: Wale (2009), J. Cole (2010), Meek Mill, Mac Miller, and Big K.R.I.T. (2011) and, finally, Big Sean (2010), who was challenged on his own song. While all of those names have since made notable contributions since the magazine's endorsement, none have matched the vigor and history making of Kendrick Lamar.
His delivery on "Control" alone dismantled Big Sean's Finally Famous and Hall of Fame route of braggadocious spitting and Jay Electronica's straightforward preaching. While his co-artists both decided to go on and on about their style of greatness and the perks coming with that, Lamar was bold enough to not only check the industry, but practically say "we're the newly anointed leaders, I respect y'all, but step it up because I'm going in overdrive."
"Control" introduced the rise of a lyrical beast in the mainstream who proclaimed "I'm Makaveli's offspring, I'm the king of New York." It's as if his "devilish" selfishness and striving towards the title of G.O.A.T. marked a generational transition of sorts. Simply put, Lamar had called himself not only the New Pac, but also claimed no East Coast rapper of the new school could ever replicate The Notorious B.I.G.
Of course, a legion of rappers who respected the verse and a good challenge responded to the gospel the Compton emcee delivered, as did other celebrities. LeBron James reveled in the "real hip hop at [its] best" moment since becoming a more visible stan for Lamar on his social media warm-ups before his games. Joe Budden did his usual instigating by dropping his freestyle response "Lost Control," using his opening seconds to say "This for hip-hop… I love this shit, man!" He'd go on to rap "soul of a '70's number man," indicating that Lamar brought the game back to the foundations of simply talking your shit with a story to tell, a foundation seemingly lost for a while by the masses "that wanna hear pop and snap." And we can't forget that classic meme of Diddy laughing with JAY-Z about "the King of New York" line.
But the most interesting response came from Drake because that, in my opinion, changed the course of today's rap. He took offense to being called out—which was the point of the verse—but then didn't really engage like he should have. Instead, he turned the moment into magazine soundbites about how he thought Kendrick wanting to be his friend at the MTV VMAs, after the verse dropped, was fake. He claimed Kanye was actually his competition (something he's lived up to in Travis Scott's "Sicko Mode" or his own JAY-featuring "Talk Up"). Drake eventually threw subliminals throughout Nothing Was The Same (which was released that same year) and continued them on If You're Reading This It's Too Late.
But with all those moves, he didn't lyrically match Lamar's prowess. At the time, Drake considered Lamar to be "an underdog" needing a moment to gain relevancy. What he had foolishly ignored is how Kendrick already popped alongside him on A$AP Rocky's "Fuckin' Problems" (and with the better verse), landing them at No.8 on the Billboard Hot 100. Not to mention how Lamar's Good Kid, M.A.A.D City had been regarded as an instant classic by the hip-hop fanatics a little faster than Take Care experienced. Or maybe, knowing how calculated Mr. Aubrey Graham can be, he knew the trainwreck an official response may have caused his career.
Drake's words read as a pump fake, or a pokerfaced bluff. It set a tone for the industry: avoiding beef at all costs with the person you know will dismantle you. What hip-hop fans have been waiting a long time for has been the ultimate Drizzy vs. K.Dot showdown because they are the two commercial giants of this time that would put on good entertainment for the sake of culture. Instead, Lamar has been fist-fighting the air with his bars, and Drake has been outright beefing with everyone under the sun except the kung-fu lyricist himself.
Lately, the trending crop of new school rappers have been using that same approach. They're getting challenged, but instead of addressing it on wax, they take to social media or The Breakfast Club to complain. And maybe, just maybe, we might get five subliminals on their next project. The best example that comes to mind from this year is how Lil Pump handled J. Cole's "1985 (Intro To The Fall Off)."
Instead of reinvigorating the notion of rappers going after who they think is on top to become the new throne usurper, Lamar's "Control" verse stunted it. Old hip-hop heads like Budden understood the concept and had his fun, while the new school was more focused on protecting their bags, practically confessing "nah dog, you right, you're number one!" Since then, Lamar is still running the game when it comes to quality hip-hop that reminds us of those Bronx-rooted, Brooklyn- and Queens-hyped foundations. And you can tell, even Lamar knows this, which explains his seamless transition into an acting and music supervising career if he shall ever reach rap retirement.
Today, we're still receiving "Control"-esque verses but nothing compares to the original. With Nicki Minaj releasing "Barbie Dreams"— a spin on Notorious B.I.G.'s "Just Playing (Dreams)" and Lil' Kim's 1996 feminine follow up "Dreams"— there's another chance for rappers to prove something, possibly. Although it may seem weird for men to go up against women, this is hip-hop, and she noticeably belittled the men we relegate as the current hitmakers, essentially saying "I'm a better rapper than all you fellas." But what's crazy about even that moment is, she came for practically everyone, but Kung Fu Kenny himself. Just imagine what would have happened if he responded to her now proposed challenge?
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