There’s a certain unspoken truth that most hip-hop fans of a certain generation are probably reluctant to admit; that the landmark East Coast vs. West Coast feud that ultimately led to the tragic murders of two of its biggest icons, was, up until their untimely deaths, actually beneficial for rap as a whole.
The focal point of hip-hop’s most venomous rivalry landed squarely on Brooklyn’s Notorious B.I.G. and the acerbic Cali-bred rapper Tupac Shakur. By this time already considered to be at the top of their game, the former friends launched rap’s most violent era with a series of vitriolic diss records that culminated in their shooting deaths — both of which remain unsolved — just six months apart.
While you’d be hard-pressed to find a single rap fan who wouldn’t trade in the multi-year feud for a chance to hear another new Biggie or Makaveli single, there’s no denying the impact it had on the genre, pushing two of its brightest stars to the height of their lyrical powers, and effectively launching the careers of several of their compatriots to boot.
The same is true for the equally as divisive, yet notably less violent feud between Jay Z and Nas, now two of the art form’s most celebrated elder statesmen, who have both readily admitted their careers wouldn’t be what they are today without the other. While their beef never escalated beyond a war of words, some of the most instantly recognizable hip-hop songs from the last 15 years came out of their bitter rivalry. If you don’t believe me just say the word Takeover or Ether to any rap fan over the age of 20 and watch their eyes light up with glee.
Competition is nothing new to hip-hop; it’s a genre that thrives on it more than any other. In recent years, however, we’ve seen a different breed of MC swimming in the mainstream, one who’s more content with playing nice with the other fishes than scouring the seas for fresh meat. Which makes complete sense. Careers in hip-hop are no longer built on microphone skills, but teeth-rattling beats, infectious hooks and meticulously crafted public personas. The kids aren’t listening to lyrics nowadays anyway, or so we’re told, and it’s easier — and more profitable — to make friends than foes.
That’s why it’s been so refreshing to see the electric impact a single, masterful three-minute verse by critical darling Kendrick Lamar has had on the music world since its release last week. And it’s not just the industry intelligentsia who are weighing in, everyone from CNN to Phil Jackson to TMZ have discussed — at times quite awkwardly — the significance of the controversial song, Control.
Intended for Detroit rapper Big Sean’s upcoming album and featuring Jay Electronica as well as Kendrick, the song sparked an immediate reaction after its release on YouTube. Tellingly enough, no one has been talking much about either Sean or Electron’s verses, but Kendrick’s, who, in the tradition of diss tracks of yore, name-dropped a number of hip-hop’s top MC’s in what can only be classified as part brilliant marketing ploy, and part call to action.
While Kendrick’s verse contains the braggadocio typical of most rap songs — the Compton-born MC even controversially christens himself the “King of New York” at one point — it’s the calling out of some of hip-hop’s crème de la crème that has got everyone talking. While naming names is certainly nothing novel — MC’s have been riding the coattails of their superiors for decades now — it’s the who and how he did it that’s so invigorating.
Kendrick starts off the tirade by likening himself to Jigga, Nas, Eminem and Andre 3000 — certified saints of the hip-hop pantheon — but the 26-year-old quickly turns his attention to his contemporaries, like Drake, Jermaine Cole, Mac Miller and Tyler the Creator, all artists he’s worked or toured with in the past. He even calls out Big Sean and Jay Electronica, the two MCs unfortunate enough to share the track with him. This is where things start to veer from the traditional diss record; K. Dot is at once tipping his cap to his fellow rappers in a subtle nod of respect, while simultaneously kicking them out of their catatonic state.
“I got love for you all but I’m tryna’ murder you n----s, tryna’ make sure your core fans never heard of you n----s he bellows in gravelly defiance, begging someone — anyone — to try and push him off his current position atop the rap food chain.
Despite a slew of response tracks from rappers who weren’t mentioned in Kendrick’s submission for verse of the year, it’s revealing that the 11 MCs called out by hip-hop’s hottest commodity have remained largely mute in the days since it set the music world on fire. And if they did react, it was primarily to kiss the ring, paying homage to K. Dot’s umatched brilliance and unrelenting dedication to pushing his craft forward.
Before last week, the best way for a hip-hop star to get his name mentioned in national media was to commit a crime (See: DMX), release a woefully misogynistic single (See: Rick Ross), or name his newborn something dumb (See: Kanye/Jay Z). It’s small progress, but with one single track, Kendrick has managed to get both the hip-hop heads and the talking heads discussing an actual verse for once, and that can only be a good thing for hip-hop, where everything but lyrics typically take centre stage.
Bring on the beef, Kendrick.