I’m not NOT gonna write about this. Has a hip-hop track like this, a hookless pure cypher coming in at a whopping 7:33, ever received this much media attention? If you haven’t heard it yet, here’s why people care about “Control”…
“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/ And 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 tryna murder you n—-s/ Tryna make sure your core fans never heard of you n—-s/ They don’t wanna hear not one more noun or verb from you n—s.”
That’s from Kendrick’s verse, in which he also locates himself in a hip-hop pantheon with Jay Z, Nas, Andre 3000 and Eminem. We’ll come back to it in a second. In the spirit of the cypher, we’re going through this one verse by verse. Bring that beat back, No I.D.
Big Sean: Ok, I will go to the mat for Big Sean as a rapper to take (somewhat) seriously. He does a great job on trad-rap soul beats (see hyah, and hyah) and, while I’m not huge on his big bass-y club songs, I appreciate that he’s capable of them. He’s got mass appeal, and it’s because his rapping is accessible…and secretly smart.
His verse on “Control,” like most of his work, is not what you might call Headphones Rap. It doesn’t demand too much from the listener, but that’s okay; you can picture yourself riding around listening to it, vibing, letting it take you away. You’re not craning your neck in the direction of the nearest speaker to hear ever little word, but occasionally your ears might stumble upon a line like, “but f–k tryin and not doin / cause not doin is something a n—a not doin.”
Now, on paper, that looks like a dumb line. But think about actually coming up with that line; it requires thinking outside the box. It’s quietly impressive, in a hidden-in-plain sight, “why has nobody else thought of this” kind of way. Most of all, it’s fun. Big Sean’s verses are full of fun, clever lines. Fun to listen to, fun to rap along, fun to hashtag, just straight up fun. A lot of people will appreciate it, which doesn’t make it bad.
This is why Big Sean has mass appeal, and it’s why I wouldn’t bet on him being worried by…
Kendrick Lamar: The verse heard ’round the world. Something important about good kid, m.A.A.d city, Lamar’s magnum opus and easily the most intelligent hip-hop album that received mainstream exposure in 2012: its greatness lies not in its rapping, but in the complexity and nuance of its concept, its commitment to thematic coherence in service of that concept, and the fact that a hip-hop album with a concept like that made a difference in 2012 at all.
Kendrick got great press, critical acclaim, and a legion of fans out of that album. All this competitive “real hip-hop” stuff he’s seemingly into now is indicative of the fact that he’s still pretty juiced by that. He wants to be the greatest, and he thinks it’s time for his shot at the title. He wants the throne, but this isn’t Westeros. You don’t always have to battle your way there.
Competition is how great art forms start. Dionysian playwriting contests in Ancient Greece. “Cutting” contests on the streets of New Orleans in the early days of jazz. Kool Moe Dee and Busy Bee Starski in ’81.
But hip-hop has long since entered its postmodern stage, and in 2013, an eight line verse from Rick Ross is just as valid as a lung capacity-defying 64 bar hailstorm from Yelawolf. Revving the competitive engine of hip-hop is a surefire way to get attention, but ultimately, it distracts from Kendrick’s greater contributions to the medium. Remember when Lil Wayne did pretty much exactly what Kendrick’s doing, going on record calling Jay Z the best rapper alive but still claiming to be better than him in a paradoxical piece of rap media baiting rhetoric? Wasn’t that around the time Lil Wayne started to fall off?
Everyone wants to talk about the benign-but-not-benign trash-talking of Kendrick’s verse, but I’m more interested in his last few lines. They go like this:
“What is competition? I’m tryna raise the bar high/ Who tryna jump and get it? You better off tryna skydive/ Out the exit window of 5 G5’s with 5 grand/ With your granddad as the pilot he drunk as fuck tryna land/ With the hand full of arthritis and popping prosthetic leg/ Bumpin Pac in the cockpit so the shit that pops in his head/ Is an option of violence, someone heard the stewardess said/ That your parachute is a latex condom hooked to a dread.”
This, on a technical level, is extremely good rapping. It takes an uninhibited, boundless imagination and a masterful command of language to build this from scratch. But it’s an empty signifier – to quote the homie Gertrude Stein, there’s no there there. Good rapping is all it is. I listen to it once, I’m impressed, I move on. I have no desire to listen again, because it doesn’t mean anything bigger.
Jay Electronica: The SparkNotes on Jay Elec: a would-be boom-bap messiah anointed at the dawn of this decade in response to pretty much just one song, the truly awesome “Exhibit C.” Listen to it: the flows, the scope of narrative imagination, the production, the Nas-ness of it all. You can see why people got excited, plus it got him signed to Roc Nation. Now check out the top comment on that YouTube clip, and keep in mind this is his biggest song. That should bring you up to speed.
Suffice it to say, Electronica hasn’t done all that much since then. But I don’t think laziness has much to do with it. I don’t think he’s in the right profession. Just like Obama doesn’t seem to want to be president and Andrew Bynum doesn’t seem to want to play basketball, Jay Electronica doesn’t seem to want to be a rapper. At least not in any traditional sense. He’s underachieving, and people hate it when they perceive that public figures aren’t reaching a level of output commensurate with their imagined ceiling. But maybe he just doesn’t want to play the game.
Playing the game, of course, would entail trying to shine as hard as possible on this song (probably the most high-profile guest appearance he’ll have this year) and taking advantage of the renewed exposure and potential for “buzz.” Instead? Jay Electronica turns in a fairly low-key verse about his religion, using conventional, judiciously applied rhyme schemes and clocking in at least a minute shy of both other verses. Cue the Twitterverse claiming that Jay got “bodied” and that his career is over. Maybe I’m the only one that liked his verse better than Kendrick’s. Well, me and Teju Cole.
Conclusion: “Control” seems to be leaving everyone with questions about its middle reliever, but I have one about its closer: was this the best or worst possible moment for the world’s reintroduction to Jay Electronica? His verse is thoughtful, full of complex imagery and easy to listen to, but it doesn’t say “I want it” like Kendrick’s. That’s the danger of invoking competition in art: you create a culture in which individual “wanting it” becomes everything, and artists with collectivist hearts (albeit genius brains) can’t hang. Trust me, Jay is not going to rush into the studio today and try to “body” Kendrick. He’s not the kind of rapper that’s worried about what the guy in the next booth over is doing, and if that’s what hip-hop means in 2013, Jay Electronica won’t participate. You know who that sucks for most? Rap fans. To the thirsty go the spoils, I suppose. Meanwhile, Big Sean’s album will sell handsomely, and a few years down the road he’ll have a star on the Nelly Walk of Fame with all the other pop rappers smart enough to position themselves as populists and make some decent cash off of it.
A final word of advice to Kendrick Lamar: if you want the title, if you want the throne, if you really want to be the best, make smart music that’s about something and also appeals to the masses. Thats what each artist in The Big Four that you name-check in “Control” (Jay Z, Nas, Eminem, and Andre 3000) did. Only one of them, Nas, ever made competition with another artist his number one priority. It’s no coincidence that of these four, his career has been the bumpiest and most maligned by far.
Don’t worry about everyone else. Just make another classic album. I’m sure that Biggie and Pac, wherever they are, wish that they could do the same.