Out of nowhere, Hip Hop’s stakes were raised during the late hours of August 12, 2013, when Big Sean’s “Control” surfaced. Produced by No I.D., the song was intended for the Detroit rapper’s sophomore album, Hall of Fame, but was discarded due to sample clearance issues. That remains the only ownership Big Sean has over the song. Though it also featured the always impressively perceptive Jay Electronica, “Control” was yet another lyrical showcase for Kendrick Lamar, as the Compton rapper issued a lyrical call to arms to the entire genre. More audacious than his “King of New York” claim was the decision to name 11 of his peers and the wish to “murder” them whenever he’s on the microphone. His bold, unexpected statements invigorated Hip Hop, triggering essays, response records and arguments on the way to instantly earning a spot on the timeline of Hip Hop’s landmark moments. A year after its earth-shattering arrival, his verse remains every bit as important.
“What is competition?” Lamar asks in the midst of his tirade. The inconvenient answer is, “What was largely absent from Hip Hop up until the emergence of “Control.’” At the time of its release, the climate had grown too convivial, similar to how the NBA has become disappointingly friendly. To some degree, this is the result of what is commonly referred to as a toxic A.A.U. culture featuring players who grow up playing with and against each other for years before competing at the highest level. This collaborative spirit has become common in Hip Hop as well, and though it’s resulted in good music, it’s also robbed the game of a competitive element. “Control” was jarring because it acted as a spark, much to the approval of fans.
The Importance Of Hip Hop’s Competitive History
A key reason that “Control” will always be regarded as a watershed instance in Hip Hop’s chronology is because it garnered the attention of fans across generations. For those who grew up in Hip Hop’s first Golden Era, it was a reminder of more combative moments.
“There was always friendly competition. Even when you talk about going back, and a lot of the young niggas need to go back and do their research,” Crooked I told HipHopDX just week’s after “Control” was released. “Big Daddy Kane told me himself, that Kool G Rap’s verse on ‘The Symphony’ was so long, that they had to cut it. Kool G was like, ‘I ain’t cutting it.’ He was like, ‘I’ll just do another verse.’ That was the sense of the competition, like, ‘I’m doing a song with these heavy hitters? I’m coming!’”
One of the most storied rivalries in Rap history is the conflict between the creators of “The Symphony,” MC Shan’s Juice Crew, and Boogie Down Productions, led by KRS-One. The contention of “South Bronx” and “The Bridge Is Over” gave way to more intense face-offs during the ‘90s: Ice Cube versus his former group, N.W.A, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg against Dre’s onetime friend, Eazy-E, Common squaring off against Ice Cube. Hell, Biggie and Nas even had a bit of an understated rivalry prior to the former’s murder in 1997. Nas confirmed as much on the 2002 song “Last Real Nigga Alive,” rhyming, “Y’all don’t know about my Biggie wars / Who you thought “Kick In The Door” was for?” As it currently stands, the art of the battle in mainstream Hip Hop is a lost one. However, Kendrick helped restore it.
Opposition has always been inevitable in Hip Hop, as the bravado radiating from each artist makes friction unavoidable. To the new generation of Hip Hop fans, it’s rare to see competition between artists without it being the direct result of beef. “Control” became that exception. Lamar upset the status quo with his verse, which some misconstrued as a diss.
“I’m usually homeboys with the same niggas I’m rhymin’ with / But this is Hip Hop and them niggas should know what time it is,” he asserted, affirming that Rap should be competitive, but doesn’t have to be confrontational to do so.
“I feel like he was feeling like an apex predator on that track,” Crooked I suggested. “It was just like, ‘I’m about to hunt, I’m about to kill and I’m about to eat.’ That’s what apex predators do. You hunt, you kill and you eat.”
Revisiting the sports metaphor, all rappers should want to figuratively murder their counterparts the same way athletes want to annihilate contenders, friends or not. Of the rappers Lamar mentioned, only one of them is in the same talent bracket as him. As fate would have it, he’s also the only one who publicly took offense to what was said.
How “Control” Created A Contest Between Kendrick Lamar & Drake
Perhaps the most rewarding product of “Control” is the contest it’s created between Kendrick Lamar and Drake. It’s been said many times over the past year, but it’s true: not since the lyrical bloodshed between Jay Z and Nas have two equally-matched, highly-exalted rappers gone toe-to-toe. Though he attempted to downplay the significance of “Control” whenever questioned about it, “Control” clearly impacted Drake in some manner.
“It just sounded like an ambitious thought to me. That’s all it was,” Drake told Billboard last August. “I know good and well that Kendrick’s not murdering me, at all, in any platform. So when that day presents itself, I guess we can revisit the topic.” It’s as if Drake either didn’t hear Kendrick say he has love for him and everyone else he named, or he was just too self-absorbed and emotionally immature to distinguish an insult from a challenge. In fairness, Drake didn’t seem to be the only rapper having difficulty with the distinction. Kendrick never said he was “murdering” Drake or anyone else, he simply declared that his approach to Rap is to eliminate competitors—to be the best. That’s how every rapper should think.
Comparing the verse to Kurupt’s “Callin’ Out Names,” Terrace Martin detailed precisely why it wasn’t a diss.
“Shit…that ‘Control’ verse. That was the cool, mild-mannered version of Kurupt’s “Calling Out Names,’” he explained to HipHopDX last year. “Kurupt was a lot more personal, but it would still smash, and Kendrick smashed. It wasn’t him smashing in terms of dissing, because he wasn’t dissing New York on that. But, I mean who could out-rap him? That’s a problem. You want to try to go after a humble kid? He’s just having a little fun one time. I’ve been listening to people’s interviews about that, and I just sit back and laugh, ‘cause we’re used to that.” But the fact that fans and artists alike weren’t used to that type of gavel-slamming diatribe is why some reacted as they did.
The same navel-gazing that powers Drake’s insight also leads him astray at times, as those emotions get the best of him. A month after the release of “Control,” Drake further tried to marginalize the verse to Rap Radar’s Elliott Wilson, alleging that Lamar was “giving people moments.”
The implied competition between Drake and Kendrick brings up the interesting points of what people aren’t saying. By 2012, Drake had already surpassed Jay Z as the rapper with the most #1s in the history of Billboard magazine’s R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. By then, Drake had bagged a Grammy and sold 4.5 million albums in less than four years. In a July, 2014 interview, Kanye West told GQ magazine Drake had “got last summer.” Drake appears to pick and choose which tenets of Hip Hop’s past he wants to honor. Overly wordy raps are out, and he’ll generally avoid alpha-male pissing matches, with the now-squashed Common and Chris Brown beefs being the exceptions. But Drake clearly understands Hip Hop’s competitive nature, despite seemingly downplaying the fact he was thrust in the middle of it with “Control.” Conversely, while Kendrick aspired for alpha status, a Grammy and the “hearts of the people” he lacked many of the accomplishments casual fans and outsiders associate with Hip Hop dominance.
“That verse was a moment to talk about,” Drake continued. What’s ironic (and what Drake might not realize) is that, with those words, he actually described his own verse on Migos’ “Versace” remix. I disagree with the opinion that “Versace” was 2013’s best verse. It remains fun to recite in social settings, but I think it’s done nothing to advance the culture, which can’t be said about “Control.” As Drake told Billboard, Kendrick did give the people a moment to talk about, and it will continue to be talked about years from now, as he did something no one else in recent memory—Drake included—has done: raised the bar for the entire community with a single verse that captured the essence of what Hip Hop used to be and what it’s supposed to be.
Some have resorted to short-sighted arguments in the wake of “Control,” maintaining that it’s lost relevance because people aren’t talking about it anymore (another Drake claim), or that Kendrick didn’t say anything “hot” in his verse. This group fails to realize that they’re proving themselves wrong by discussing it. What’s more, those who took nothing away from his verse other than the alleged absence of “hot lines” skipped the call to arms in search of theatrics and tabloid fodder. Kendrick used “Control” to reach for supremacy, exhibiting an unmatched hunger for Rap’s title—the same hunger that earned him his acclaim in the first place. What Kendrick said was very clear: “I want to be the best.” Then, 10 months after the release of good kid, m.A.A.d city, he proved why his words should be taken seriously once more.
The Importance Of Hip Hop Crowning Kings By Internal Standards
Despite the both real and implied competitive nature of Hip Hop, emcees have historically taken umbrage when one of their peers proclaims themselves king. While he wasn’t particularly regarded as a battle-ready emcee after being dissed by the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, 3rd Bass and LL Cool J, 1988 found the usually peaceful MC Hammer throwing shade.
“Did I hear you say king, or call yourself ruler / Sit down ‘cause the Hammer’s gonna school ‘ya / A ruler is a stick I use to measure / Sell it to kings who have no treasure,” Hammer rapped on “They Put Me In The Mix.”
Whether he was taking shots at Run DMC (“Kings of Rock”), Slick Rick (“The Ruler”) or someone else, Hammer’s implication was that “they”—the people—put him in the mix, while other rappers merely proclaimed themselves to be kings. His staggeringly impressive album sales aside, the historical record doesn’t exactly favor Hammer’s argument. But there’s something to be said for Hip Hop fans defining both success and the individual dominance of one performer by their own, internal standards.
Let’s also remember that “Control” had no impact on the charts. It didn’t get spins on many terrestrial radio stations, and the album it was axed from wasn’t a commercial smash. The RIAA certified the single “Beware” as a gold seller on November 20, 2013, but Hall Of Fame bowed out of the Nielsen SoundScan Top 200 Albums chart in October, 2013 after modest sales of 115,000. There’s satisfaction in the knowledge that such a critical point for Hip Hop happened outside of the typical realm of commercial success. It’s rare in today’s climate that a milestone exists in that space, which alone is a testament to the strength of this one verse. It’s also an overwhelmingly positive indicator when pondering Hip Hop’s future.
On the “I Am” interlude from 2009’s Kendrick Lamar EP, Kendrick Lamar said, “My plan B is to win your hearts before I win a Grammy.” It was an eerily prophetic statement, as good kid, m.A.A.d city earned him the adoration of Hip Hop purists and the mainstream alike, though it was shut out at the Grammy awards earlier this year due to the unstoppable commercial force that was Macklemore. His “Control” verse solidified him as Hip Hop’s people’s champ, simultaneously able to balance the respect of all fans with one hand, similar to the bi-coastal superiority boast he made on Big Sean’s record. It forced artists across Hip Hop to step their game up, including Drake, whose Nothing Was the Same album was armed with passive-aggressive posturing upon its release the following month. The fact that Drake—who was so upset by the verse a year ago—called Kendrick “legendary” at his OVOFest recently with a genuine aplomb that only he could muster speaks to its lasting effects. The fact that conversations about it will continue over time will only reinforce them.
Julian Kimble has written for Complex, Vibe, Billboard, the Washington City Paper and more. Follow him on Twitter @JRK316.