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Music August, 13 2013

Taking Names: Who DIDN’T Deserve to be Called Out on Kendrick Lamar’s “Control” Verse

Kendrick Lamar broke the internet. It usually takes some kind of explicit sex romp or a type of international scandal that infringes on the rights of normal people to get every single portal – from dedicated sites to mere personal interest blogs – buzzing at the mere spectacle of simple artistry. But Lamar’s verse on “Control” – which is pulled from Big Sean’s Hall of Fame album – did just that; West Coast explicit espionage rap of sorts. Due to a sampling issue stemming from No I.D.’s beat, ultimately “Control” is a mere throwaway, but Kendrick decided that if the track was in fact D.O.A, he might as well bury a few people along the way. Hence, the out of order sign that went up late last night and turned Twitter into a 140 character game of East Coast versus West Coast that would make the 1995 Source Awards look like functioning diplomacy.

Following a rather pedestrian first verse from Big Sean, the good kid channeled the m.A.A.d. city for nearly three minutes as he grew exponentially more aggressive while becoming infinitely clearer as he went on to proclaim King of New York status and a noticeable roll call of emcees ranging from platinum plaque grabbers to XXL cover page pasters. Lamar rapped, “I heard the barbershops be in great debates all the time/About who’s the best emcee, Kendrick, Jigga and Nas/ Eminem, Andre 3000, the rest of y’all/ new ni**as just new ni**as, don’t get involved.” One can’t help noticing the nice homage to Jay Z’s “Where I’m From” when he questions, “”I’m from where ni**as pull your card, and argue all day about who’s the best MC, Biggie, Jay Z, or Nas?”

While it’s easy to agree that Jay Z, Nas, Eminem and Andre 3000 have cemented their status in hip-hop, it isn’t until Kendrick goes on to address a crop of emcees many deem in his peer class – and one that he clearly sees in his rear-view mirror – that things resembling the scent of beef in the skillet hits the nostrils.

“I’m usually homeboys with the same ni**as I’m rhymin’ with,” Kendrick Lamar says. “But this is hip-hop and them ni**as should know what time it is. That goes for Jermaine Cole, Big K.R.I.T., Wale, Pusha T, Meek Mill, A$AP Rocky, Drake, Big Sean, Jay Electron, Tyler, Mac Miller. I got love for you all but I’m tryin’ to murder you ni**as. Trying to make sure your core fans never heard of you ni**as. They don’t want to hear not one more noun or verb from you ni**as. What is competition? I’m trying to raise the bar high.”

Eleven emcees; some more known than others, but all recognizable for bodies of work that span the mixtape circuit and have auditory bombs that hit the club dance floor with a stiletto stomp. These are who Kendrick deems to be both friends and enemies – truly capturing a competitive spirit in hip-hop that is far more refreshing than the Kanye West vs. 50 Cent “feud” that saw the measure of each’s success determined by sheer numbers. This isn’t about money to Kendrick, this is about skills. But are all eleven actual viable threats to a kingdom that now supposedly spans from Compton to every borough in the Big Apple? They always talked about “winter coming” in Game of Thrones – a program dedicated to various individuals looking to stake their claim at a crown. It seems Kendrick has brought the heat instead.

The Good

J. Cole is normally an artist who is listed as every backpacker’s favorite “commercial rapper.” He seems to respect the boom bap era that so many hold so dear, and has a sense of storytelling in his work. While there are noticeable misses in his catalog – captured in his meta “Let Nas Down” – he’s self-aware enough to realize that “misses” are all a part of the game. It also speaks to Cole’s staying power that Born Sinner hit number 1 on Billboard’s charts in it’s third week despite a crowded landscape of established sellers.

It’s interesting that A$AP Rocky is on record as saying “I just don’t like modern New York hip-hop” as Kendrick Lamar stakes his claim for NYC mastery – even mentioning Kendrick as one of his favorites. While he has a slew of impressive releases under his belt at a young age, lack of conceptual execution paired with his inability to create more commercially viable offerings makes him locked in music purgatory where someone needs to rescue him as soon as possible.

Let’s just get his out in the open, I’m not a fan of Drake’s music, but for the sake of thinking rationally, he deserves to be mentioned. No stranger to feuds – notching the ridicule of Pusha T and Common in the past – it’s hard to look past his success when establishing relevancy.  Two albums, two platinum plaques. Drake’s music is like sun tan lotion, you put it on because you have to.

Pusha T continues to improve. The better half of Clipse, he’s the best thing to come out of Kanye West’s supposed tastemaking for G.O.O.D. Music and seems to get better production out of West than the artist himself. Here’s hoping My Name Is My Name is as good as its initial samplings and that the push back is purely economical.

The Bad

Meek Mill’s Dreams and Nightmare’s dropped in 2012 and hit #2 on the charts backed by the singles “Amen,” “Burn,” and “Young & Gettin It.” Quick, try to tell me anything about those songs. Hum a melody. Meek Mill is easily forgettable in the way that many rappers who avoid one-hit wonder status are. They’re the byproduct of a crew with a much bigger boss.  Just like–

Wale should be thanking his lucky stars that Maybach Music scooped him up because at that time, even a Lady Gaga hook couldn’t get the masses to latch on. The problem with rappers who align themselves under the girth of a much bigger act like Rick Ross is that there’s always a sense that they are a mere extension. They’re the younger brother in The Sandlot just repeating everything in order to drill home a lavish point. Wale is talented, and his long-rumored mixtape with Jerry Seinfeld could take him to a different level.

The ? Marks

I like to think Big K.R.I.T. and Jay Electronica are on a similar career trajectory. There seems to be a constant demand for material from them but neither is willing to oversaturate the marketplace by hopping on remixes or releasing a stream of mixtapes as a way to remain relevant. They’re in the unique position where people want more despite not being properly fed in the first place.

Tyler, the Creator and Mac Miller carry the torch for a class of emcees raised on a DIY ethos and a youthful rebelliousness that perfectly fits into the social media landscape that allows fans to feel like they’re part of the movement. Tyler’s “Yonkers” was game changing, but the Odd Future side show hasn’t proven to be as entertaining musically as it has been sociologically.

It’s not a new phenomenon to be “murdered on your own track,” but it’s a rarity when you’re called out on a song that falls under your own byline. Big Sean is to G.O.O.D. Music as Wale is to Maybach Music – constantly flirting with pop culture at the cost of their credibility.

The Left Out

For once, Kanye West isn’t the target of someone’s distaste. But I’ll leave that alone. Notably absent is Action Bronson who is slowly becoming one of the real unique talents in hip-hop. Once you get past the Ghostface mentions and every interviewer stops asking him about his food references, you unlock a gifted emcee with an ear for production and a sense of humor that is a welcome sight in the genre.

Photograph by Robbie Fimmano/Interview Magazine

Alec Banks is a Los Angeles-based writer who has written for Esquire, Details, Maxim and Playboy in the past. He has no knowledge of Project Mayhem. Follow him on Twitter @smart_alec_

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