Watching The Throne: New York's Drought Of Rap Kings
For Rap overall, New York not being in control is emblematic of an evolutionary shift in the genre to possibly something greater-than-Rap.
This past Sunday, March 9, marked the anniversary of the passing of the Notorious B.I.G. Aside from proclaiming himself the King of New York a la Christopher Walken’s character, Frank White, Biggie is regarded in some circles as the greatest rapper of all time. In April, Hip Hop will also be collectively taking a nostalgic look at Nas’ Illmatic album, as the five-mic rated project celebrates its 20th anniversary. Since both of those landmark events—the death of Notorious B.I.G. and the release of Illmatic—contenders to the throne of being Hip Hop’s most dominant emcee have been plentiful, but not particularly long lasting.
There was a time when the idea that Rap’s greatest rapper representing Rap’s birthplace of New York City was important. There’s an important cultural tie to the idea that Rap can leave New York, travel around the world, and then come back “home” again. Once back home, the unique gift of assessing the genre’s new cultural cues and assimilating them into the New York-born Rap styles imbued the genre with a renewed and expanded sense of strength, purpose and connectivity. However, in the king of Rap either not being in New York (or not existing at all), the questions of who didn’t accept the throne, why they didn’t accept the throne, what New York not being the kingdom ruled by Rap’s king means and when does this era come to an end all deserve answering.
Why Has New York’s Rap Throne Remained Vacant?
Marcus K. Dowling: 50 Cent and Jay Z ultimately failed the classic standard of Rap music. Eleven times out of 10, big business corrupts the organic influences of any creative process, thus allowing for swift (and oftentimes damaging) revolutionary changes to occur. With Jay Z now selling an album to Samsung for release and 50 Cent cashing out of the game (well, many games) on multiple occasions to engage in empire building, the level of creative output needed to maintain New York’s hold on the throne was not reached.
Omar Burgess: If I’m following you correctly, this is a perfectly fair question, but maybe it’s the wrong one at this particular time. Jay once quipped, “The City Is Mine,” in regards to Biggie handing him the crown as New York Rap’s de facto king. And 50 had designs on the crown since he threatened to put four shots through the door of Jigga’s Bentley coupe on “How To Rob.”
But how many emcees have really cared about being the King of New York in the last decade? In his 2011 autobiography, My Infamous Life, Mobb Deep’s Prodigy asserts that one of the reasons for his short-lived beef with Jay Z was essentially due to New York pride.
“Jay-Z couldn’t confront the issue that started our whole drama,” P wrote. “The debate was about Jay not being active in the Rap beef with Snoop and Tupac and how he waited years, until ‘Pac and Biggie got murdered, to start running his lips about ‘New York’s been soft ever since Snoop came and crushed the buildings…’”
Fast-forward to 2014, and as you mentioned, many of the Empire State’s top emcees are more focused on empire building. When Maino recently dropped his K.O.B. [King of Brooklyn] project, even he admitted that heavyweights like Jay had grown beyond borough dominance. Maybe the real question is, what’s being the king of New York worth in 2014?
Why Did The “Next Kings” Not Accept Responsibility For New York?
Marcus K. Dowling: Jay Z’s 1996 debut, Reasonable Doubt and 50 Cent’s 2003-released freshman album, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ stand as unquestionable moments of New York Rap’s supremacy over all other national or global standards of Rap excellence. They rode the wave of Rap music’s most opulent era, allowing both emcees to expand from being just rappers to re-entering the industry by legalized means. The hustle was on, and both rappers excelled at not just a) being great rappers, but b) being great representatives of exactly what New York-based emcees should aspire to as kings of industry when industry came to Rap.
However, when recording profits began to slip, both Jay Z and 50 Cent (when both could be considered iconic kings of both New York and Rap) quietly slipped off the crown and ascended to a wholly corporate and industrial space greater than Rap itself. From cashing out his Vitamin Water deal in 2007, starting the Street King energy beverage and SMS (audio and promotions brand) companies in 2011 and now leaving Interscope Records for an indie label deal, he’s gone from being the king, to willfully leaving the throne and becoming a businessman who raps for fun. Insofar as guidance for New York, it’s apparent that 50 is likely far more out for his own interests than for the interests of New York, or even Rap itself.
As well, in being another ultimate hustler who flipped the King of New York crown for dough, Jay Z became (in a manner similar to 50 Cent) another ultimately self-interested mega mogul whose connection to Rap is real, but connection to his city is possibly best only useful for his own corporate branding needs. Between 2007 and 2014, Jay Z has sold Rocawear, dissolved Roc-a-Fella, been President of Def Jam [Jay assumed the Def Jam presidency in 2004], started Roc Nation Management (under promotions giant Live Nation), started the 40/40 Club chain, purchased a stake in the New Jersey Nets (and was a key piece in ensuring the franchise became the Brooklyn Nets with a brand new arena), executive produced the music on a video game, started an agency for athlete representation, released a (pre-release) platinum-selling album with Samsung and effectively became a billionaire by merging assets through marriage with Beyonce Knowles.
At the same time as he was becoming a global mogul, with incredible efficiency he’s released four albums in those seven years that have seen his level of critical respect as a rapper wane, while his pop cultural influence grows. More so than anything 50 Cent has done, what Jay Z has done in possibly placing the throne of New York Rap (and thus the king of all things Hip Hop culture) on top of the mountain of pop culture overall, he may have made the throne inaccessible to other local New York competitors not nurtured and guided by Jay during his rise in order to reach the throne.
Omar Burgess: I’d argue that 50 Cent was never truly King of New York. Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ represented a great moment in terms of showcasing Rap’s crossover potential, and teaming up with Dr. Dre and Eminem was an incredibly smart move. With half of the Empire State still salty at 50 Cent for “How To Rob,” and some career damaging shots to Ja Rule, 50 Cent was more like New York’s evil dictator. And while Reasonable Doubt was classic status, I think Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ was a really good, accessible album but far from an unquestionable moment of New York’s global dominance. I’d argue any New York dominance ended at the turn of the 21st century.
But beyond all the above, I don’t think accepting responsibility for New York is profitable. The identifying characteristics of traditional, Golden Era New York Hip Hop created from roughly 1991 through 1996 are rather limiting. Can a mainstream rapper make a string of hit singles (let alone an album) powered by obscure samples, solid, yet lo-fi drums and intricate wordplay based on similes and metaphors? I grew up on that style of Hip Hop, and I don’t see it happening. Aiming to be Rap’s king of New York might get you critical acclaim but not much else if you have designs on being a commercially successful, mainstream rapper. And about I think today’s most commercially successful, mainstream rappers view rapping as just one of many business ventures. For most of the top, commercial artists, rapping is just something you do until your TV sitcom gets renewed for another season, your signature alcohol beverage gets worldwide distribution or your clothing line’s sales skyrocket.
I agree with your assertion that Jay (intentionally or otherwise) placed the throne of New York Rap on top of the mountain of pop culture. Aside from just making the throne inaccessible to anyone without Jay, 50 or Diddy’s considerable capital, I think that removes some of what makes Rap special. Pop culture bleaches the soul of everything it co-opts. If rapping is just another parlor trick you can bust out on your way to riding high on the pop culture zeitgeist, what’s to stop someone like Miley Cyrus or Katy Perry from trying their hand at dropping 16 bars? When was the last time one of the most bar-for-bar, technically proficient rappers was also one of the most commercially successful mainstream performers? If the art of rapping itself isn’t held in high regard—and the fact that popular Rap contributors are giving Miley and Katy a free pass to rhyme makes me think it isn’t—then the specific type of Rap that caused New York to be perceived as a cultural innovator probably won’t be held in high regard either.
When Did N.Y. Lose Control And What Does That Mean For Hip Hop?
Marcus K. Dowling: Isn’t it funny that we mention the word “control,” here? Maybe the most damning thing to come out of Kendrick Lamar’s verse on Big Sean’s “Control” was not the millions of other “Control” verses it spawned, but rather the fact that the verses were spawned because Kendrick was right about everything he said—even taking Rap’s arguably vacant crown away from the five boroughs. Mainstream Rap is easily akin to a room that’s kept dark by the homeowner so that the cockroaches don’t run free. Rap’s arguably become so commercialized that rappers aren’t button-pushing bellwethers for cultural change, but rather interchangeable entertainers owned lock, stock and barrel by a cabal of record labels struggling to maintain their market share in a depressed era. In not being anybody’s roach, Kendrick turned on the light, and while some roaches ran wild, others just laid back in the filth as though nothing troubling had even occurred.
Of the metaphorical cockroaches attempting to scurry up the leg of Kendrick Lamar, the ones from New York City (namely artists like Maino) are possibly the most concerning. Making threats to a man while still on all fours as a roach is laughable at best. Yes, it’s difficult to first rise up against a label and industry structure that is engineered at-present to keep you in a dark corner, but when you’re the progeny of kings, to act like a serf is absolutely shameful. As well, seeing the A$AP Mob as well-dressed cockroaches turning up and shooting dice in filth instead of excelling at doing what is necessary to assume the throne and maintain a semblance of Rap’s classic ideals (A$AP Nast’s “Trillmatic” is an improvement, but far from the “Control” level performance required for a seismic shift in the Rap game) is troubling, as they have the juice, but have turned it into lean, and just don’t seem to care.
For Rap overall, New York not being in control is emblematic of an evolutionary shift in the genre to possibly something greater-than-Rap. Talent in Rap is now widespread, and corporate interests, branding and alternative sources of commerce are now super-important to the health of the industry, too. What this may possibly mean is that a concept of Rap wherein New York is the hub is outmoded, which means that something new (and less based on the idea of Rap traveling globally and having to only return to New York to regenerate) must develop. What will that be? The jury is still out. But the evolution is certainly underway
Omar Burgess: New York hasn’t ushered in any groundbreaking innovations in Rap since about 1998, which I think is around the time the South took control. I think the South’s current dominance has less to do with what Southern Rap detractors insultingly refer to as “being simple” and more to do with where and how people are interacting with Hip Hop culture. A very small percentage of the population is interacting with Hip Hop via graffiti writing, B-boying and deejaying. Once that gradual shift happened, New York failed to adapt by introducing any stylistic or technical innovation. Things are looking up for a select group of Big Apple emcees and producers. Guys like Action Bronson and Joey Bada$$ are being well received. There are elements of their respective styles (sample-based, boom bap production, heavy use of metaphors and similes) that remind fans of the Golden Era. If they can own that comparison while still experimenting with their styles, they won’t necessarily take the crown, but a consistent track record goes a long way in improving the roach-den analogy you introduced. Will guys like Bronson, Bada$$ and the A$AP Mob be embraced for what they are or ignored for what they’re not while New Yorkers look for the next charismatic, hyper-rhyming mogul-in-the-making who reps N.Y. til the death?
Luckily, New York not being in control isn’t some death knell for Hip Hop. Detroit used to manufacture the best automobiles, but the global car industry didn’t cease to exist just because Japan and Korea cornered the market on stylish, fuel-efficient cars while the US was churning out gas guzzling Escalades. New York will always be revered as the birthplace of Hip Hop, but the best Hip Hop is usually produced in regions that are busy innovating. In all fairness, there are huge socioeconomic factors (too many to name here) usually spawning that innovation. But if New York isn’t in control of Rap, it probably means too many members of the New York Hip Hop ecosystem are talking about “taking it back.” Hip Hop was built upon innovation. When New York starts to push forward and evolve the next iteration of Hip Hop, there’s a good chance you’ll see the crown back atop the five boroughs. But Hip Hop is going to continue to evolve even if that never happens.
Marcus Dowling is a veteran Washington, DC-based writer who has contributed to a plethora of online and print magazines and newspapers over the past fifteen years. Follow him on Twitter at @marcuskdowling.
Omar Burgess is a Long Beach, California native who has contributed to various magazines, newspapers and has been an editor at HipHopDX since 2008. Follow him on Twitter @omarburgess.