Kendrick Lamar Reaches for the Belt: What His "Control" Verse Means for Hip-Hop

Kendrick Lamar's verse set off a firestorm. What does it mean for hip-hop?

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Complex Original

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Kendrick Lamar’s verse on “Control,” a song by… uhh, someone else, dropped last night. You might have missed it because you’re living with your deaf, dumb, and blind grandad inside a cave underneath another cave behind a third cave, one without electricity, fire, water, oxygen, or even wi-fi.

But seriously, apologies to Big Sean, who actually had a solid showing (even if it was immediately overshadowed). We hear Jay Electronica may have also shown up for a verse, but we’re not sure, because we immediately hit the rewind button. Future rap archeologists may unearth Jay's verse and celebrate it for generations of cyborg-humans, or it may be lost to the sands of time, but that’s neither here nor there.

Kendrick’s song immediately ignited a firestorm, because he lit a fuse that underlies a lot of the debates that hip-hop armchair quarterbacks discuss. There are three major reasons “Control” became such a flashpoint: (1) Kendrick claimed the crown in New York. (2) Kendrick named names—and, “I’m Talking to You”-style, didn’t name others. (3) And because Kendrick gave hip-hop a much-needed shot in the arm, an overall sense of purpose to a game that has felt especially disparate, disconnected, and overly friendly.

At first glance, claiming New York’s throne seems like the most aggressive of all Kendrick’s moves. Particularly since he calls himself “Makaveli’s offspring” in the previous line, calling on the still-all-too-fresh history of lethal rap beef. (For rap heads, there’s a wealth of Easter egg references throughout. Not to get too RapGenius here, but from the time-honored “bombs/Vietnam” rhyme scheme to the dismissive line about Elvis to the Eminem-style extended metaphor about the drunk grandad that ends the verse, Kendrick puts his influences to work for him, which helps explain why the verse resonates among multiple generations of rap fans.)

But this beef, of course, is not like the old beef. The good kid himself explicitly specifies: “I’m usually homeboys with the same niggas I’m rhyming with.” This is a battle about rap skills. Furthermore, calling yourself the King of New York in this department doesn’t come close to meaning what it once did. When the song broke, French Montana, New York's most popular current rapper, was recording with Miley Cyrus. Although French's bars have been slept on, to a degree—in large part because his best appear primarily on mixtapes—those lyrics have little to do with his current commercial success. Sure, there’s the A$AP Mob, Action Bronson, and Joey Bada$$ (who, if we’re being generous, could just be one of the nameless new rappers Kendrick says shouldn’t get involved). Otherwise, New York is groaning under the weight of its 40-year history. Even a NYC vet like Prodigy (who, on the low, released a pretty solid project this year) weighed in to support Kendrick’s verse. New York rap knows the writing is on the subway-station walls.

"In an era when there is no single dominant voice but rather a plethora of them, fighting for control of the narrative, Kendrick just centralized the discussion.

The real controversy, then, is about the names Kendrick mentioned—as well as the ones he didn’t. His perspective on the canon leans toward the lyrical and popular, and skews away from the streets. He puts himself on hip-hop’s Mount Rushmore alongside Jay Z, Nas, Andre 3000 and Eminem. Meanwhile, the most visible artists left off of Kendrick's roll call are largely Southern, e.g. Lil Wayne, T.I., and Rick Ross. These are surprising omissions for an artist who has talked extensively about his early love for the Hot Boys. Nicki Minaj is probably the most notable of his left-out peers, especially since she's a New York rapper. Once again, women in rap get short shrift.

Also notably absent are two Chicagoans, likely avoided for opposite reasons. Lupe Fiasco is a lyrical animal, but also one who’s marginalized himself outside of hip-hop’s mainstream. And, of course, there's Kanye West, who not only recently released an album that heavily divided hip-hop opinion but also raps in a style that doesn't quite follow in the dexterous lyrical tradition Kendrick Lamar seems to respect most.

Omissions aside, there’s also something audacious about a young artist putting himself up in lights with rappers more than a decade his senior. The rappers Kendrick sees as his peers (J. Cole, Big K.R.I.T., Wale, Pusha T, Meek Mill, A$AP Rocky, Drake, Big Sean, Jay Electronica, Tyler The Creator, and Mac Miller) are, by and large, not really in competition with Kendrick on a creative or commercial level. With one notable exception: Drake. And part of the reason that this diss has drawn so much attention is because Drake, a proven hitmaker, is currently the no. 1 contender for hip-hop’s crown. But if there’s a seed of doubt in hip-hop’s collective conscience about our new Canadian overlord, it is in the “skills” department. Drake averted street-cred questions with a Young Money co-sign, and avoided questions about his lyrical bona fides with careful cultural positioning. But despite the strides he's made on tracks like "5AM in Toronto," the rapper has never been as craft-conscious of an MC as Kendrick—which leaves him open.

One thing today's beef (if you can even call it that) is missing is the kind of ad hominem shit-talking that would have been brought by other rappers in years past. Which of the rappers named would dare call Jay Z out for wearing chancletas with jeans? Would any of them call good Kid a “weed plate” and say “Never the king of New York, you live in California?" The visceral, low-blow diss seems out of range for most of Kendrick's competition. (Drake and J. Cole, after all, recently apologized for a dig about autism.) These rappers might try to rap circles around each other, but it's more like Olympic divers showing off for the judges than wrestlers jumping into the ring to do battle.

Eventually, embarrassing efforts by rappers to come at Kendrick might make us regret this moment. Meanwhile, his attempt to kill designer clothing is likely to be even less successful than Jay Z’s attempt to murder Autotune—although it is nice to see someone repping for proper rapper uniforms in the high-fashion, post-A$AP era.

There's a subtler reason that Kendrick’s verse has ignited so much excitement in the hip-hop community. As the genre slides further from the mainstream spotlight, and as the Internet has introduced every niche artist to a new fanbase, the hip-hop audience has fractured. For today's rappers, gaining fame means demographic appeasement, guest spots with any and every artist, and industry politics papering over dissent.

In an era when the third element of hip-hop is leveraging relationships (rather than breakdancing), and the fourth is protecting corporate partnerships (in place of graffiti), when there is no single dominant voice but rather a plethora of them, fighting for control of the narrative, Kendrick just centralized the discussion. His "Control" verse is a bold statement about who matters and who does not. While everyone else was busy groveling for support, he directed everyone to the wrestling ring and reached for the belt.

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