Drake, Kendrick Lamar & The New Era Of Competitive Hip Hop
Kendrick Lamar's "Control" verse wasn't a diss track. This wasn't antagonizing. This was a call to arms.
Of course Drake would claim victory in his Rap “beef” with Common on the same day Kendrick Lamar lyrically challenged seemingly every emcee in Hip Hop. The Pageview Gods wouldn’t have it any other way.
“That was the first time someone called me out personally,” Drizzy explains in the upcoming September issue of XXL, describing his tactical response to Common’s “Sweet” on Rick Ross’ “Stay Schemin.” He continues:
“First of all, I made sure it would run in the club because that’s more painful than anything. As opposed to just being on a blog, I wanted to be on a record that you would have to stand around and hear every night for months. That was my whole strategy going into that. Instead of sounding hurt and malicious, I wanted to sound fun, get my shit off. Like I said, if it happens again, not that I want it, not that I welcome it, but I’m ready. I really enjoy writing bars, man. I’m not nervous about anybody saying anything to me.”
For someone who once “laced” his self-loathing smash—“Successful”—with “Diss me and you’ll never hear a reply for it,” that’s some surprisingly evolved schemin’. Back in 2009, Emo-lines like that smacking bellies with sparse, nap time-type production and Keith Sweatish crooning were part of what made it so easy to hate-on Drake. In a sense, he became a pseudo Exhibit A as to why Golden Era nostalgics felt disconnected from contemporary Hip Hop. In the most competitive musical genre the modern world has ever known, a newly exalted artist unabashedly refusing to respond to on-wax competition felt much more than cowardly. It felt disrespectful—almost as if the Canadian Zack Morris was bastardizing the core of the culture responsible for his rapidly rising income. That bar amidst a ball-tickling industry at large made it even easier to commiserate with Nas’ charge that Hip Hop was dead.
Analyzing Drake's Conflicts With Aristo & Big Page
Now, a quick Google search puts Drake’s position into perspective. Before breaking big with So Far Gone, the Young Money-lyricist was at the center of at least two notable conflicts with fellow Toronto rappers—one with Aristo and another with Big Page.
The latter includes all of the indicators of legitimate beef: allegations of a stolen regional hit (“I’m Still Fly”), broken friendship, nightclub altercations, robbery, police investigations, snitching accusations, award show confrontations. “I feel unsafe in Toronto at all times,” he told The New York Times in 2010. “I’m a one of one, there’s no one else you can hate as much as me if you hate money, or you hate success.”
The former, on the other hand, includes all the indicators of classic Rap “beef”: two or more cats rapping at each other with little to no real world repercussions. In the aftermath of the Aristo battle, Drake gushed over his triumph on Flow 93.5 FM’s OTA Live radio show.
“It was good riddance. It was lights out. It was a body. When it comes to trying to check Drake, it was good riddance” he gloated before continuing in a fashion similar to that in the aforementioned XXL interview. “Rap is something that I’m just confident [in]. I feel good here. I’m not scared. I’m not scared to go at anybody if that’s where you want to go—only if it’s going to be good. If it’s not quality…I’m a busy dude. I’m not going to take the time. But if it’s somebody I feel like needs to be addressed then definitely I’ll do it and it’s calculated, too. The things that I’m going to say are calculated.”
50 Cent, Ja Rule & The Risks Behind Rap Beef
A privileged upbringing and a starring role on a teen soap series will plaster a bulls-eye on the back of any aspiring emcee—even in no-guns-allowed Canada. So it’s difficult to say Drake was afraid of competition by openly refusing to reply to jabs from arguably envious also-rans. Most likely he was conflict fatigued, especially after haphazardly playing a game of fatalism that many still fail to acknowledge. At best—at least for an artist swimming in a monopolized music industry—beef equals short money. At worst: life threatening. For a newly signed rapper gaining notoriety or otherwise, neither is acceptable. And for a corporation spending millions manufacturing the next global Hip Hop icon, backing Ja Rule Part Deux is financially off the table. There’s too much at stake for too many stakeholders.
Rap beef became commercially risky by the mid-2000s. 50 Cent was initially able to pimp the ploy farther than possibly anyone in Hip Hop history. But after masterfully bait-and-switching Jeffery Atkins’ career, latter bouts with Nas, Jadakiss, Game, Cam’ron, Rick Ross, all landed somewhere between flaccid and gimmicky. Not only did each new release following his multiplatinum debut, Get Rich Or Die Tryin’, come complete with a fresh new target; not only did each move fewer units than the previous, but collaborations between the East Coast’s most powerful collectives of the era withered under the weight of an us-versus-them mentality. It was either Dipset or G-Unit, for example. Few East Coasters not named Jay Z were able to maintain national relevance throughout the aughts.
Snoop Dogg was so concerned with the lack of unity amongst West Coast emcees following Gangster Rap’s prominence in the 1990s that he convened the Protect The West summit in 2005 in attempt to quell the conflict. “I felt we should come together as one, organize, unify and start making records and be about a cause,” said the artist now known as Snoop Lion, according to MTV. “It was me relaying to them that banging in the business ain’t making us no money. If we come together and move as one unit, money will be there and the opportunity to shine will be there.”
While the East Coast bickered and the West Coast rebuilt, artists from the South capitalized off of a comparatively unified front, commercially dominating the decade. Major names from below the Mason Dixon line rarely squabbled to the point of no collaboration. Every emcee seemed to land a feature on every other emcees’ mixtape. Southern drawls ran the consolidated airwaves. Talent eventually came secondary (if at all) to potential brand equity. Artists and labels en masse were no longer in the business of selling lyrical skill. “Cool” seemed to be the only product left on the assembly line in this Industry Of Cool. As a result, Golden Era Hip Hop competition took a backseat to the prospect of even bigger pimpin’. If success in the 90s was about being the best rapper, then in the 2000s, it was about being the wealthiest.
“I’m walking on South Beach the other day, right—the Memorial Day Weekend shit thing. Yeah, so, they got a nigga coming up to me with a video camera, right. You know, muthafuckas come up to me with cameras everyday, right, so I don’t be trippin’—all day, every day, you know what I mean. You know what this nigga asked me? ‘Yo, can I battle you on camera?’ I was like, ‘Dog, how much we gonna make for this?’” – Lil Wayne, “On Tha Block #1,” Tha Carter II
Hip Hop's Current Fascination With The 1990s
In his 2012 interview with HipHopDX, the wise sage George Clinton dissects the transition from Rock & Roll to Funkadelic. As he describes, Rock stars like Jimi Hendrix pushed the medium so far past its simplistic, “Tutti Frutti” origins that the evolutionary cycle forced the genre back to it’s basic beginnings. Clinton elaborates:
“Then it was time to go back and start all over again. Then we come along with “Whoa Ha Hey,” just chanting. We took ours all the way to Funkadelic and sophisticated and had to go back. So when we created “Atomic Dog” we just said, ‘Fuck it. Let’s not wait for it to get slick. Let’s just start the shit off. Let’s start this shit off slick and still be what Hip Hop looks like it’ll become. “Atomic Dog” is the beginning and the end of that shit.”
Hip Hop is looking real 1990s these days. Heads are rocking high top fades and Africa medallions again. All-over prints are back in fashion. Scores of Fresh Prince Of Bel Aire look-a-likes are roaming cities nationwide. Action Bronson rhymes like Ghostface Killah. Each member of the A$AP Mob has “A$AP” in their moniker similarly to how each member of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony has “Bone” in theirs. And most interestingly, over the past few years, the next generation emcees have inched into the mainstream conversation with a renewed lyrical focus, eschewing the simple bromides that littered the last decade for increasingly sophisticated stanzas more representative of the decade before—the Golden Era. As “Uncle” George Clinton would say, things been getting slick.
Rittz Says Rap Is "Competitive" & Glasses Malone Says "Lyrics Sell"
“People are rapping again, man,” Rittz told DX in 2012 when asked whether Hip Hop was still competitive. “I woke up one day to reality. I’m older. I’m over 30. I’ve always been listening to the radio and what was hot. I’m just from a different era. I woke up to the Internet one day—and to what was really going on—and I was like, ‘Wow, there’s some really good rappers now.’ Before there was a handful. There was a lot of garbage. There are a lot of talented rappers right now. So yeah, it’s super competitive.”
Glasses Malone agrees. “Everything else don’t sell. Lyrics sell,” he told us in 2011 in response to the same question. “That’s why a nigga like Lupe Fiasco can come back after years and years and years and come back and have as much hype as he did when he first came out, if not more. Because at the end of the day, fuck all of the hype. When you get through all of the fuzz and all of the bullshit, lyrics is what sells. Period.”
B.o.B. Says Rap Has "Evolved And Now Circled Back"
"Really, I think Hip Hop is definitely becoming more defined and recognized,” B.o.B. told DX this past April when asked if a 90s aesthetic has returned to the culture. “It just evolved and now circled back around. Now people, people just want to stand out and make a statement. [Now it’s like], ‘Who’s going to say some shit?’”
“And that goes for Jermaine Cole, Big K.R.I.T., Wale / Pusha T, Meek Millz, A$AP Rocky, Drake / Big Sean, Jay Electron, Tyler, Mac Miller / I got love for you all but I’m tryna murder you niggas / Tryna make sure your core fans never heard of you niggas / They don’t wanna hear not one noun or verb from you niggas / What is competition? / I’m tryna raise the bar high / Who tryna jump and get it? / You better off tryna sky dive.” – Kendrick Lamar, “Control”
The point is this: Kendrick Lamar stood out and made a statement this week. His verse on Big Sean’s “Control” is compelling for numerous reasons, but only important for one.
Sure, he named himself King of both coasts, comparing himself to Tupac Shakur while quoting Kurupt, willingly placing a lyrical bulls-eye on his own back. But what does that truly mean in an era where Mississippi rappers sound like Queens rappers and Harlem rappers sound like Houston rappers? Do regions that fail to rep for themselves deserve to be upset? Do regions matter at all when everyone is on the Internet?
Sure, he dropped a ton of highly relevant names in a row, challenging everyone to step up the competition, reminding all that Hip Hop at it’s core is a competitive sport. But Hip Hop’s been growing increasingly competitive for years now—word to Lupe “One-Nigga-Wu-Tang” Fiasco. K. Dot’s approach wasn’t new to the age. Hell, it wasn’t even new to his catalog. He already copped to killing your favorite rapper on “Rigamortis.”
Kendrick Lamar's "Control" Verse Was A Call To Arms
Kendrick’s “Control” verse is important for one reason only: the response. This unassuming kid from Compton, California rocking one album, a mid-top fade and a muted public persona kicked one verse and everyone in Hip Hop reacted in unison.
Seemingly every emcee with a mobile phone dropped an opinion or rhyme. Diddy, 50 Cent, Bun B, B.o.B., Big K.R.I.T., Action Bronson, Fabolous, Freddie Gibbs, Talib Kweli, Trinidad James, Crooked I, Pusha T, Joel Ortiz, Prodigy, Los, Lupe Fiasco, Cassidy, Iggy Azalea, Mac Miller, Royce Da 5’9, Slim Thug, Joey Bada$$, Killer Mike, Meek Millz, Tyga, Norega, Consequence, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. It’s like an entire iPod catalog took time out to take to Twitter. The verse was so impactful that even artists not mentioned on the song started sniping at each other.
This wasn’t a diss track. This wasn’t antagonizing. This was a call to arms; a call to take Hip Hop seriously. It’s a call to fight for what it is we all care about before we stray too far from what it means to own something that literally changed the world.
Justin "The Company Man" Hunte is the Editor-in-Chief of HipHopDX. He was the host of The Company Man Show on PNCRadio.fm and has covered music, politics, and entertainment for numerous publications. He is currently based in Los Angeles, California. Follow him on Twitter @TheCompanyMan.