"This is chess not checkers/These are warning shots/After your next move/I’ll give you what I got.”
—50 Cent, "Piggy Bank" The Massacre (2004)
When Kendrick Lamar dropped his major label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, in October 2012, hip-hop rediscovered El Dorado at the intersection of Central Ave and El Segundo. And while the good kid’s next chapter is yet to be written, 2013 was the year in which Kendrick Lamar mastered the art of suspense, thus commanding our attention and definitively becoming the Best Rapper Alive.
On the one hand, Kendrick Lamar raps hellfire circles around his peers, even those in their lyrical primes this season. Just ask Big Sean and Jay Electronica (ah, we’ll get back to that shortly). Hell, ask Jay Z. And it’s hardly fair to drag Kanye West or Drake into this mix.
To regard him merely as a dope “lyricist” is to sell Kendrick short.
Yes, his rhyme skills have been extensively noted. But to regard him merely as a dope “lyricist”—a term that has sadly come to be haunted by its hints of Canibus’ “deep” metaphysics—is to sell Kendrick short. There are lots of technically complex rappers, where Kendrick Lamar stands out, and above, is in his ability to craft a full, coherent, organic-feeling album out of songs that are compelling enough for a close-listen zone-out on your headphones but also catchy as hell and bump-able at a party. It's this wide-ranging appeal that allows him to outsell most of your favorite young rappers, too. On August 21, 2013, good kid, m.A.A.d. city was certified platinum by the R.I.A.A. A milli in sales, of an album—that's a feat only accomplished by three other peers: Nicki Minaj, Drake, and Macklemore.
Without a new solo project lined up for 2013, Kendrick found himself free to hype new projects from his T.D.E. brethren—next up, ScHoolboy Q’s Oxymoron—and to spread his wings atop rap’s top tier. For Kendrick, 2013 was a year of away games. High-profile collaborations including a “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” remix with Jay Z, and guest verses on studio releases from J. Cole, Pusha T, Eminem, and Robin Thicke.
He topped all that off with five BET Awards, seven Grammy nominations, and a debut VMA performance—one hell of a summer vacation from the game. All this visibility in a year when Kendrick debuted no new projects of his own, just letting his major label debut gain in respect and prominence, maintaining burn in a refreshingly competitive summer. One which heralded full-length releases from Kanye West, Drake, J. Cole, Wale, Pusha T, A$AP Ferg, Big Sean, Earl Sweatshirt, etc. There was plenty of shine to go around...
Until August 12, 2013—the night "Control" dropped, and damn near cracked the moon.
A throwaway cut from Big Sean’s Hall of Fame, "Control" opened with Big Sean and finished with Jay Electronica bookending a literary onslaught from Kendrick Lamar. A gold medal verse in which Kendrick threatened the lives and longevity of his rap peers. By name. Including his two homies on the track with him. It was 50 Cent’s “How to Rob” for a new century. And for weeks months on end, the aftermath of Kendrick’s jack move was rap’s immense, undying fascination.
”Nothing’s been the same since they dropped ‘Control’...”
More than just a lyricist, more than just a songwriter, Kendrick proved to be a master strategist. His delighted and accurate boast at this year’s BET Awards Cypher lit the Internet abuzz with rumors of tension with Drake, who may or may not have felt some type of way about Kendrick’s swinging for him (among others) and who kinda maybe sort fired back on his "The Language." Others responded more explicitly: numerous New York little-knowns—incensed by Kendrick's claim, “I’m Makaveli’s offspring, I’m the King of New York/King of the Coast, one hand, I juggle 'em both...”—as well as Meek Mill, A$AP Ferg, the Slaughterhouse fam. Kendrick put everyone on the defensive with "Control." Everyone was talking about it so everyone was asked about it, so everyone was forced to comment on it and to position themselves regarding it. The snowball effect. And four months later no one, not even Drake, has regained their footing to land a solid jab back at dude or else convincingly shrug it off. Kendrick is haunting motherfuckers. Unfazed, grinning that devilish grin ("Wanna see a dead body?"), he knows he's haunting them.
Heading into 2014, we hear the knives being drawn. Steel sharpens steel; or so we hope.
Heading into 2014, we hear the knives being drawn. Steel sharpens steel; or so we hope. Ain’t no halfstepping, not when every rapper and their latest protege will get their turn at escalation, to show and prove. In the meantime, Kendrick’s position on the board is fortified, so far as we can see. With Q on deck, Ab-Soul and Jay Rock in the hole, the whole T.D.E. camp is newly empowered, so much that Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, T.D.E.’s CEO, blasted GQ magazine’s cover story on Kendrick, an analysis that drafted an awkward parallel between the group’s ascendancy and the notoriously violent rise of Death Row Records under Suge Knight. Boycotting your own performance at GQ headquarters after the magazine just named you "Man of the Year"? That’s power.
That’s the confidence of a sophomore savant who can do no wrong—yet. We’re a year departed from the album that launched Kendrick to stardom. Miraculously, he’s only grown brighter since. And his narrative is richer now than ever. From start to finish, 2013 was the Compton prodigy’s year. What'll happen next in rap's endless chess game? Kendrick has us on the edge of our seats, waiting to find out.
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