Kendrick Lamar’s rise within the ranks of hip hop doesn’t come as a surprise to hip hop purists. His lyrical ferocity has been on display for quite a while. Since releasing Overly Dedicated in 2010 and Section.80 in 2011, the hip hop underground has taken stark notice of Kendrick’s ability to bend and contort his thoughts into sharp and deadly weapons of lyrical murder.
But Lamar’s adroit political skills have also been on display. Kendrick has aligned himself with the greatest hip hop producer of all time, Dr. Dre, and shielded himself via Independent label from the same fate as the long list of unreleased artists signed to Dr. Dre’s Aftermath Entertainment label. Meanwhile he’s benefiting from the “buzz machine” that is Aftermath/Interscope Records. This move proved to be absolutely vital to his 2012 good kid, m.A.A.d city release and catapulted him onto the world stage with platinum sales, certifying to the world that he was a major player.
And then there was Control.
Everyone knows the lyrics that set the hip hop world on fire. But very few people, Drake included, expected it to be so intellectual. The song is lyrical poison and chess move worthy, all at once. Not only did Kendrick call out hip hop’s most lyrical and talented new school of artists, he called them out by name. Not only did he say that he was the King of Hip Hop, he called himself the King of New York! That is akin to starting a war for most artists, but for your average West Coast artist to say that? That is career suicide.
But Kendrick is not your average emcee. Most people were put on notice that this particular lyricist was not one to play with. Kendrick dropped a lyrical cake in the middle of a dirty room, waited and flipped on the lights. Anybody that came out and spoke was instantly fumigated and confirmed Kendrick’s lyrics. Anyone that was silent was killed too because this move showed that they didn’t have the courage to display themselves to the dare. They weren’t hungry enough to come and get it. Chess not checkers.
|photo credit: hds via photopin cc|
Hip Hop has a long history of “The MC Battle”. It’s what makes the art form different than every other genre. Artists engage in verbal combat to determine lyrical supremacy above all challengers. Krs One, MC Shan, Roxanne Shante, Common, Ice Cube, NWA, Tupac, Biggie, 50 Cent, LL Cool J, Big Daddy Kane, Eminem…. All of these emcees have battled on the world stage and attempted to defend their place in hip hop.
The most recent example of this tradition is the Jay Z versus Nas battle. In terms of lyrical battling it stands as the greatest hip hop battle of all time. Ultimately Nas prevailed as the winner of the battle. But the fact that these two MCs that had sold millions and millions of records and at the height of their professional success, chose to engage in lyrical combat was one of the bravest and most exhilarating moments in hip hop history. It’s a tradition that separates the chart surfing rappers from true lyricists.
Drake’s refusal to directly engage Kendrick Lamar speaks more to his desire to make profit. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. At the end of the day hip hop is a business and you have to provide for your family.
But Drake is missing a very important point here. After the chart sales have diminished and your flame has died down, you have to deal with legacy. What will hip hop remember him for? Will he be crowned one of the best and a visionary in pushing his craft further into the future? Or will you be just another rapper who sold a lot of records but didn’t make an impact? And while Drake may be years and years ahead of a Young MC or Tone Loc in lyrical ability, by refusing to directly address his competition he scars his legacy tremendously. He looks weak. He seems afraid. And fear is something true hip hop heads can smell a mile away.
Kendrick Lamar has the backing of the greatest producer in hip hop history. He just completed a Grammy performance with Imagine Dragons that blew apart the stage and has every eye focused on his next move. Right now Drake is the sales king. But clearly Kendrick is about to take his crown. Is this the end of Drake?