We all know about the now legendary feud between Nas and Jay-Z in the late 1990s and early 2000s, which was a rare insight for the mainstream consumer into the underground world of rap conflict. However, for the past few years, this caustic side of music culture has been sedate – with perhaps the most publicized lyrical ‘diss’ of the last two years being Taylor Swift’s attack on Harry Styles in “I knew you were Trouble”. I think we can all agree that’s petty stuff indeed.
Step forward Kendrick Lamar, a man who many know solely for a verse on a Lonely Island single and a brave anti-substance abuse stance in several of the tracks on the critically acclaimed Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. In collaboration with Big Sean and Jay Electronica on Control, released on August 12th, Lamar over one verse names all his competition and former collaborators challenging them to compete at his level – a level Lamar clearly doesn’t think they are capable of reaching. The verse itself is delivered in a guttural, visceral tone, that is a far cry from tracks such as Swimming Pools (Drank), underlining the aggression of Kendrick’s lyrics. This bomb-drop on an otherwise innocuous track has already reignited the feuding and conflict that modern day Hip Hop has sorely missed.
Unsurprisingly, this explosive attack has resulted in a raft of response rhymes from other artists – although ironically none of them are name-checked on Kendrick’s verse. Even B.O.B. has contributed his own counterattack, presumably taking a break from his dire collaborations with Bruno Mars and Jessie J – surely this particular rebuttal can only be responded to by “why did you even bother?” This writer is praying that Macklemore doesn’t decide to throw himself into the melee as well. Yet as Ice – T tweeted, “I love how one verse woke Hip Hop the f*** up!” Is Kendrick Lamar trying to do something more than just tell everyone how great he is?
The fact is, the Compton-born rapper isn’t really saying anything he hasn’t said before. In Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” Lamar raps, “my city found me then put me on stages / to me that’s amazing / to you that’s a quick cheque”. Perhaps his incendiary claim to be ‘King of New York / King of The Coast’ is a call for his rivals to reclaim the cities that made them – otherwise ‘King’ Kendrick will expand his rule out of LA. His blunt recognition of mercenary competition is also in keeping with ideas covered in Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, whilst Lamar’s claim that he is trying to ‘murder’ his contemporaries sounds shocking – his assertion in Money Trees that “a dollar might say f*** them n***** that you came with” betrays the same view. That to gain recognition and success - one has to be cynical. Overall Lamar presents a complex view of money in both songs, that it is the root of vice (see Kendrick’s lambasting of other artists becoming “a bunch of rich ass white girls”) and of success. In short, whilst the verse on Control seems to be bordering on the ridiculous, Lamar is observing the music business as it is.
What Kendrick Lamar is tapping into, is that the Hip Hop game has stagnated, an idea that isn’t so novel – with Kanye West in Black Skinhead claiming his fellow rappers “ain’t breathing, you gasping/ these n***** ain’t ready for action”. Whether you see the verse on Control as arrogant or not, it does seem as if Lamar’s aim is to establish himself as great yet challenge his contemporaries to reach his heights. Yes, it is explosive. Yes, it is at times ridiculous. But Kendrick Lamar’s hyperbolic rhymes calling for his rivals to reclaim lost territory, and most importantly raise their standards to survive may just be the call to arms Hip Hop needs. Here at PearShaped, we’re eagerly anticipating whatever follows.