Kendrick Lamar's verse on "Control" is important. Just not for the reasons you're assuming.
By now, you have undoubtedly heard the Kendrick verse. You know which one I’m talking about. The one that starts three minutes into Big Sean’s “Control.” The one that bodied everyone in the game. The one where he sounds like he’s about to pop a vein. The one where he places himself in the same barbershop conversation as Jay, Nas, Andre, and Em. The one where he issues a rallying cry for greater competition in hip-hop and starts by claiming New York as his own and dismissing contemporaries J. Cole, Big K.R.I.T., Wale, Pusha T, Meek Mill, A$AP Rocky, Drake, Big Sean, Jay Electronica, Tyler, the Creator, and Mac Miller. The one where he invisible pull-ups himself into the next tier of rap stardom.
It’s a necessary challenge issued to the rap game, something out of Greek theatre masquerading as a rap verse, the young hotshot separating himself from the pack through a stunt so audacious you can’t help but pay attention. The strongest contemporary analogy for it is probably CM Punk’s infamous “Pipe Bomb” speech where he took pro wrestling’s status quo to task and lobbed a shot at resident WWE superstar Jon Cena, saying, “I don’t hate you, John. I don’t even dislike you. I do like you… I hate this idea that you’re the best. Because you’re not. I’m the best.” Essentially, Punk was saying that pro wrestling was antiseptic, in dire need of a shakeup. So he did something. And now, so is Kendrick.
If you’re surprised by the pro wrestling comparison, don’t be. Just as the best wrestlers aren’t necessarily the ones who can pull of the facsimile of kicking someone’s ass with the utmost verisimilitude, the best rappers understand that rapping is merely a single tool in a kit of many. What you do outside of the ring matters; it’s how you get people to pay attention to what you’re doing in it. It’s what makes Kendrick Lamar’s “Control” verse so vital and interesting, because it hits on a glaring truth in contemporary hip-hop. The lack of any real sort of tension in rap has bred complacency, which has bred laziness, which in turn has bred music that is often without teeth. Kendrick knows that his competition might be worthy if they have a reason to prove themselves so. Until then, he’ll be cooling out with the big boys.
Kendrick is about as an unlikely ascendant to rap’s highest level as CM Punk is to wrestling’s. “Swimming Pools (Drank)” somehow became a party hymn despite being a song about how drinking will kill you, which is about as unlikely as a gaggle of frat guys playing cornhole to Fugazi. And yet it happened. And it illustrates a very important truth about hip-hop that people are forgetting amidst the hullabaloo about Kendrick Lamar’s verse. And that’s that most of the time, nobody’s paying attention to the words you’re saying.
This isn’t about who can rap and who can’t. Everybody can rap. This is about making the best art you possibly can. What makes Kendrick’s verse so arresting isn’t just his lyrics or its implications throughout hip-hop. It’s his voice. He sounds angry, like he had something to say, something so important that he jumped into his car and broke into the first booth he could find and just rapped. There’s an edge to him, and you’d know what he meant even if he were rapping in Swaghili.
The reason Kendrick has been embraced so heavily by the world is that he understands that holistically, rapping—as in, “what you say and how you say it”—is the result of a series of aesthetic choices in service of a greater act, and that’s making a good song. Though we all intrinsically accept that every skilled musician isn't necessarily capable of making a good song, too many people fail to comprehend that “rapping well” is not the ultimate goal of rap. And just like Keith Richards not being a conventionally good guitarist didn’t detract from his ability to write iconic riffs, it doesn’t mean Chief Keef with his unconventional flows and disinterest in technical rapping can’t drop a song as stunning as “Love Sosa.” Thinking that a great verse is great because it showcases “good rapping” has never gotten anyone anywhere. That’s J. Cole logic. And J. Cole logic is stupid.
The thing is—and this is a thing that will not be met without controversy—is that for all of his ambition, talent, and ability to make great songs, Kendrick Lamar has not yet made truly original art. While good kid, m.A.A.d. City is a good, important album that showcases Kendrick’s impressive penchant for narrative and pacing, it feels coldly perfect, beholden to some nonexistent ideal established by albums such as Illmatic, Aquemeni, and The Chronic. good kid, m.A.A.d city is the sound of following rules when there aren’t any. Part of the beauty of hip-hop is you can literally do anything you want, and by virtue of you saying it’s hip-hop, it is and that’s the end of the conversation. Drake understands this, as do Kendrick’s fellow Black Hippy members Schoolboy Q and Ab-Soul. That’s why all three of these guys make better music than Kendrick. Drake could have his own “Control” moment easily, but he knows that doing something like that is pointless. Because to win the rap game, one must first be subsumed by it. Drake sees the moves on the hip-hop chessboard too, but he also sees that there are more important things in life than chess. And that’s why Drake made “Hold On, We’re Going Home” and Kendrick made “Control.”
“Control” is just another notch in a flurry of moves by Kendrick meant to position himself as the next Jay Z, the benevolent totalitarian whose word is bond, who sets every trend, and whose wrath is deadly. This is why the cover of the “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” remix features Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant on the court. But maybe the smart rapper doesn’t want to be the next Jay Z. Maybe the smart rapper wants to be the next Kanye. Maybe the smart rapper doesn’t want to be a rapper at all. Maybe the smart rapper is like water: powerful, but taking no default form. As impressive as Kendrick Lamar’s showing on “Control” might have been, being the best at something people have been doing for years is for suckers. Great artists don’t follow in the footsteps of others; they take influence from everywhere, cutting up and reassembling until they’ve got something completely new.
So, yes. The Kendrick verse is great. It should be taken as a challenge by his competition. But if the Kendrick verse simply yields an upward trend in great rapping, hip-hop will have not been improved. If Kendrick’s competition hears his “Control” verse and is inspired to make better music, then we’ll be on to something.
Drew Millard is an Assistant Editor at Noisey. He's on Twitter - @drewmillard