Last week, late Monday night, Detroit rapper Big Sean used Funkmaster Flex of New York City's HOT 97.1 FM to release "Control (HOF)," a song which, as Sean announced via Twitter, won't be featured on his forthcoming sophomore album Hall of Fame, ostensibly due to sample clearance issues. The first three minutes of the song try too hard. The music is faux eventful and Sean's thin voice yelps at a timbre beneath a breathless yell while he runs through elongated civic boasts and declarations of self-importance. Further tweets from Sean had teased guest spots from rap's most critically-acclaimed new star, Kendrick Lamar, as well as rap's most enigmatic wordsmith, Jay Electronica, and so listeners familiar with the current health of hip-hop were suspicious that "Control" was a salvage move by a rapper whose recent singles and videos aren't getting the traction his label hoped they would ("Fire" failed to catch on despite a Miley Cyrus video that's damn-near soft porn). It's not an unheard of move — last year, when A$AP Rocky's single "Goldie," didn't shine, he followed up with "F---in' Problems" and "1 Train," both Rocky songs in legality only. The former featured Drake, 2 Chainz and Lamar, with Rocky making a nominal and forgettable appearance even on his own hook; the latter played host to just about every blog buzzy rapper of note.
But something happened around the three-minute mark of Flex's first airing of "Control," as Los Angeles' Lamar introduced himself via hermetic polysyllabic ramblings before gleefully announcing "I don't smoke crack motherf---er, I sell it!" The song began to feel alive, and midway through his verse, Lamar challenged just shy of a dozen of his rap peers (including the two on the song with him) by name: "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 / They don't want to hear not one more noun or verb from you n----s." He didn't just rap this; he throttled the words out as if he meant it more than anything else he's ever said.
It was a spellbinding invocation as much as it was a wake-up call to arms. Kendrick is that rare breed of rapper who simultaneously comes off as fan and student and practitioner. His "I don't smoke crack, I sell it" is an inversion of an Eminem freestyle lyric ("I don't sell crack, I smoke it"), which in and of itself is likely a riff on a classic COPS admission: "I don't sell crack, I'm a prostitute." That Lamar swims this deeply amongst pop culture flotsam lets listeners know: he's one of us. As one of us, he said what we've all been saying: rappers need to try harder. And when he named names, our collective jaw dropped because, dammit, we'd been saying the same thing in those proverbial barber shops where we debate who's the best emcee (as he notes).
Since the release of his widely-lauded and platinum-selling major label debut, last year's good kid, m.A.A.D city, Kendrick Lamar has seemed one verse away from being pigeon-holed as the rapper more likely to talk about his family history in the corner of a party than to actually party. He's been rebelling against this designation by objectifying and acting ignorant and confrontational in his guest appearances in the interim. As the one rapper who's both avant-garde and old guard, he's universally accepted as talented and important on both coasts, respected in underground and mainstream circles alike, deemed essential by blogs and print media and revered by new school fashionistas and old school purists equally. Lamar's been at once David and Goliath — a spastic rapper who can mill interpersonal emotion and the observant kid with street connections that sounds violent, without ever actually being threatening.
But with one verse — rather, a few key lines — he's created a whole of his parts and issued an edict that Jay Z was too cool to, Biggie too subtle, Nas too introspective, Eminem too white and Andre 3000 too Andre 3000. "What is competition?" Lamar demands. "I'm tryna raise the bar high / Who tryna jump and get it?" The challenge works from Kendrick because he is that "good kid" and any duel with him is bound to fall under the spirit of artistic competition and not much else. He also has enough skill and respect that no one can brush off his confrontation with a shrug or a chortle. From him the call is weighty, to be taken seriously and, perhaps crucially, all about the music.
In the hours that followed the song's release, word of it spread as a thing spreads when it captures the attention of a great deal of youth, rappers big and small, and record industry executives at once — on social media, text, forums. Even in an age of virality, it was a fast-moving and almost total infection — discussion around the track hijacked Twitter's trending topics with what would become an onslaught of shock, awe and jokes that are still spiraling. Mac Miller, a white rapper known more for his get high persona than his lyrics and one of those mentioned by Kendrick, comically sidestepped the challenge, tweeting, "If I can't do no more nouns or verbs ima start comin with the wildest adjective bars that anyone has ever heard." But others seemed ready to rise to the occasion: Mississippi rapper/producer Big K.R.I.T. tweeted "'This is Gladiator Shit'...Gotta give the people what they want." Former Clipse member Pusha T was more cryptic: "I hear u loud and clear." (Even zen master and former Lakers coach Phil Jackson responded to Lamar's claim in the verse that he's uncoachable, although he's since deleted that tweet.)
The blast radius wasn't contained to social and hip-hop media circles, as algorithms and analytics pushed the story to news outlets like the Huffington Post, the Atlantic and here; TMZ approached Wale at the airport to ask him how he felt about being name-dropped, Buzzfeed made "A Flowchart To Help You Decide If You Should Respond To Kendrick Lamar's 'Control' Verse" and a New York Knick made a rebuttal record.
In the week since, a litany of rappers have released "disses" and "responses" to the verse. Most of them use the same track; none of them are the guys named. It seems as if the rappers who were called into the arena are internalizing the nature of Lamar's challenge. In one sense, his timing is astute: of the peers he invited to tango, all but three have released albums too recently to respond in a big way. While the whole affair is being couched as rap qua rap, Lamar's lyrics make it clear that this is about servicing the fans, not just making better rap bars. And even though the albums scheduled to be released by Drake and Pusha T next month had been largely completed by the time either one heard "Control," those albums will be seen as answers to Kendrick's rhetorical questions.
There's a scene in A Knight's Tale where the pretty unlikeable Count Adhemar, realizing the prowess of Heath Ledger's Sir Ulrich von Liechtenstein in jousting, turns to a confidante and asks, "And how would you beat him?" The reply: "With a stick. While he slept. But on a horse, with a lance? That man is unbeatable." And that's Kendrick Lamar. There isn't a rapper breathing who can defeat him when it comes to feats of rhyme; the most any of his peers can hope to do is rap him to a standstill. Most of the retorts so far have come from New York rappers, upset about Lamar referring to himself as the "King of New York." It's silly for a number of reasons, but here are two: One, Lamar is playing at opposites when he spits that line. Much like he says he "got love" for his peers but wants to "murder" them in one breath, he's juxtaposing dichotomies when he raps "I'm important like the Pope, I'm a Muslim on pork / I'm Makaveli's offspring, I'm the King of New York / King of the Coast — one hand, I juggle 'em both." But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, those are not his lyrics.
That passage is lifted almost wholesale from one of Kendrick's idols, Kurupt of Tha Dogg Pound. It's fitting because Kurupt started a similar brouhaha in 1999 when he name-checked his own foes on "Callin' Out Names." And Kurupt was central to much of the mid-'90s East Coast/West Coast rivalry, when his group released the song "New York, New York" and an accompanying video which featured Snoop (then Doggy) Dogg kicking over a New York skyscraper. The lines that have New York rappers upset are from a small 2010 posse cut called "Get Bizy." That no one responding in rhyme seems to have noticed this speaks not only to rappers' deficiencies in the fact-checking department and Lamar's study of hip-hop (to be fair, he was also featured on the song), but also to the atomization of the rap market and the heedlessness of struggling New York rappers like Papoose. Papoose, who had a minor hit eight years ago and has been perennially deluded of his own grandeur since then, received some notice earlier this summer when Lamar graciously ceded some of his stage time to the footnote rapper during Hot 97's Summer Jam, in violation of the concert's agreements. Seeing as no good deed goes unpunished, Papoose not only released a vitriolic response toward Kendrick and his crew and record label, he also took to the radio to defend the honor of New York City, as well as Muslims. It would be funnier, if it weren't so heartbreaking.
Meanwhile, conversations have been taking place in private amongst rap fans, industry players and artists — in emails, during interviews, in studios, in offices, at bars, wherever two or more fans of hip-hop congregate. It's not a longshot to think that we'll soon be asking, "Where were you when you first heard Kendrick's verse on that Big Sean song that stopped being a Big Sean song the moment Kendrick started rapping?"
The verse means something — and not because it's the best verse ever. It's not even the best Kendrick Lamar verse ever. It's not a far cry from what he said two years ago on "Rigamortis" or what Pusha T says just about every time he gets in front of a microphone. What's significant here is the clear layout of sentiment and the direct attack. Rappers from Lil Wayne to Jay Z to Drake routinely claim to be the best, but they tend to go after anonymous targets and duck and dodge when asked who it is that they're talking about. Save for 50 Cent, who remains an outlier and provocateur, nationally viable rappers have mostly been coy about confronting their peers since the deaths of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. There have been a few exceptions — say Jay Z vs. Nas, which was the result of long simmering animosities and ego — but for the most part it's been rap and let rap, with coded jabs or maybe some Twitter shade. What Lamar did was force the conversation front and center in a way no other rapper has ever managed to do before.
It almost doesn't matter that his "Control" verse turned a lyrical giant like Jay Electronica into a non-entity, or that it's spawned untold numbers of meme-jokes. Even the fusillade of answer tracks can be set to the side. What's truly interesting is that it sounds like a future in which the strategic partnerships, label politics and shrinking financial viability of the marketplace that have made the rap world beholden to an unwritten "speak no evil" policy are no longer sacrosanct. In hip-hop, everyone has been jockeying for position against everyone else, yet acting like they're all on the same team.
Where this goes is anyone's guess, but if the past week and a half is any indication, there will be a marked dispensation of niceties and an increased level of verbal pushing and shoving in the months to come — but also, more optimistically, a renewed focus on craft and song-making.
It may be a while before any rapper is brave (or reckless) enough to request a guest verse from Kendrick, and those he's recorded but haven't yet been released will very likely be adjusted in light of recent events. (His R&B worth may be skyrocketing, however — everyone wants to hear his next verse.) Lamar himself has been on tour in Europe and largely out of the conversation, so we're left with just speculation and those response records, but only for a couple more weeks. He takes the stage at Jay Z's Made in America festival in Philadelphia at the end of the month. He's not headlining or anything, but as he's proven, he doesn't require top billing — he knows how to steal a show.