When Kendrick Lamar dropped his second album good kid, m.A.A.d city in late 2012 something happened. After a stagnant few years where wave after wave of new rappers came out of the woodwork sounding pretty much exactly the same, we had a new voice.
Sounding a few octaves away from grating, Lamar went from longtime house-rapper of Dr. Dre's near-dormant label Aftermath to international headliner, sounding like someone mixed one of the Bone Thugs and a thugged-out Q-Tip, pitched him up in Compton and let him loose with some of the best beats in modern rap. GKMC was rightly lauded as a near-landmark album and Lamar, himself, an early contender for a few speculative top five MC lists.
Then things went a bit quiet. Despite putting out another great mix tape in Welcome To Compton 2 and a few high-profle guest appearances, nothing much had changed. Now, thanks to Big Sean's new album and a clever bit of leak-marketing from his management, the entire genre seemed to have awaken from its stasis in a matter of hours.
The song everyone lost their shit over is 'Control' by Big Sean, an originally slated album cut that missed out on the final LP due to sample clearance issues. With all due respect to Big Sean (who provides a stellar verse): the song would have made zero ripples were it not from a vitriolic verse from Lamar. Pity poor Jay Electronica, who limped around in the post-Kendrick apocalypse with a closing verse which felt several years out of step with the air-tight appearance that preceded it.
Calling out everyone from Jay-Z, Mac Miller, J Cole and Drake, Kendrick even pulled no punches with Jay Elec and Sean.
"I'm usually homeboys with the same n****s I'm rhymin' with/ But this is Hip Hop and them n****s should know what time it is/ That goes for Jermaine Cole, Big K.R.I.T., Wale, Pusha T, Meek Mill, A$AP Rocky, Drake, Big Sean, Jay Electron, Tyler, Mac Miller/ I got love for you all but I'm tryin' to murder you n****s/ Trying to make sure your core fans never heard of you n****s/ they don't want to hear not one more noun or verb from you n****s."
This could be a possible landmark moment for rap. Like when 'Ether' effectively killed the Nas/Jay Z beef (and subsequently all rap beefs along with it) and ushered in the Soulquarian antidote, with Kanye West's College Dropout finishing off that bloated period a few years later.
For a genre still in its relative infancy, hip-hop has had a fair few rough patches and we've been mired in one of the worst for a while now. What Lamar's verse has done has laid down the gauntlet. What Public Enemy did in 1988 with It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, pitching hip-hop as a commercially viable platform for real art, Lamar does now with his 'anti-fashion rap' stance and a knife thrown into the middle of a too-friendly cypher.
The 'Versace era' has provided nothing but shiny, slick shit with paper-thin surfaces. Many blamed the rise on Kanye West and that's undoubtably true in a way (though only superficially, Kanye's albums have always been thematically rewarding) but where Kanye has moved on to forge his own (admittedly divisive) lane, once promising rappers like Curren$y, J Cole and Wale have all settled. Why rock a boat on such steady waters where everyone is putting out the same shit but everyone stays getting rich? Rap has become the musical equivalent of a kickabout in the park between friends: sure, nobody wants to lose but you know, deep down, that the result is immaterial.
The verse on 'Control' is exactly what rap has been crying out for for a long time. Not a diss track - Kendrick admits that he has a lot of respect for his peers - but more of a call to arms for the creative competition that once dominated the genre, lost to a landscape consigned to back-slapping and kushy musical director roles at Raf Simons shows.
Of course, as is expected of such a standout stone dropped into a stagnant rap pond, the internet has been rippling like fucking crazy:
Now, as rappers get their back up about a perceived public slight, the ground has been refreshed and some life might finally grow again. Maybe Jay Elec will release that album he's been stalling on for eight years? Maybe Joey Bada$$ (a conspicuously absent name in Lemar's rant) will continue his push and produce the first great NY rap album in years? Maybe A$AP Rocky and Tyler, the Creator will fuck off?
Only time will tell.