We can now all come out of the shadows. The sun is once again shining, the children of the world are safe to come out and play and life as we know it is finally getting back to some sense of normalcy, or at least something close to it. But for a minute, things were looking rather dark. When Kendrick Lamar decided to put virtually the entire rap landscape on notice with his passionate, fiery, and brazen proclamation on Big Sean’s “Control,” the now infamous call-out was deemed by many within hip-hop and beyond as the rhyme that carried the unmitigated impact of a nuclear bomb hitting a flower shop. Some applauded the move. Others overtly balked at Lamar’s claim to the throne as not only the best MC alive and breathing TODAY, but the status of K.O.N.Y. (King of New York), a bold, chess-not-checkers statement made all the more provocative when adding in the fact that the young lyricist hails from Compton, California—the birthplace of NWA.
“I think it's smart what he's doing on that song…these rappers need to step their game up…they’re not going to be able to get by with "abc" raps much longer,” my 17-year-old godson Tony said of Lamar’s savvy move in not only respectfully challenging the greats (Nas, Jay-Z, Andre 3000 and Eminem), but also taking on his own peers (Drake, Big Sean, J. Cole, Jay Electronica, Tyler the Creator and a line-up of others). The kid has a point. Yet while verbal rebuttals have ranged from more than respectable (Slaughterhouse representative Joell Ortiz took offense to K dot’s claim over hip-hop’s birthplace on “Outta Control” with boss lines like “Little homie you ain’t the king of New York/You the next thing on my fork…”) to conceptually highbrow (Lupe Fiasco literally channeled an unhinged Adolf Hitler reacting to his response to Lamar on “SLR 2”), there’s one response that is building a wall of HOLY SHIT!
Papoose’s "Control” freestyle is a fire-and-brimstone attack that takes no prisoners. There are some corners declaring that the perennial Brooklyn rhyme underdog has an “Ether” on his hands: a deadly salvo that conjures up memories of Nasir Jones’ bloodied 2001 knockout of Shawn Carter. But that’s a bit off. Papoose is really cribbing notes from Hov's “Super Ugly,” a merciless clap-back on Nas that was deemed so out-of-pocket by many observers that Jay apologized for unleashing such head-shaking details as having sex with his future ally’s baby’s mother next to the Queensbridge poet’s child’s car seat.
To be fair, Pap, who should send Lamar a check for giving his career a boost (during this year’s Hot 97 Summer Jam gig the West Coast MC humbly offered up some of his stage time to the BK rapper) has some potent, applaud-worthy lines. Papoose mocks Lamar’s government title ("Kendrick Lamar, where’s your last name? Rap bastard/You got two first names, your mama was ass backwards…”); questions his female game with some hilarity (“I've seen that footage when you got curved by Nia Long”); and flexes New York superiority (“Bronx lay your pussy down, do more than just Boogie Down…”).
Unfortunately, Pap, like Jay, forgot that battle rapping is one thing; getting emotional on the mic and going for lazy low blows is quite another. In the no-bullshit words of Kendrick Lamar, it’s all about pure lyrical sparring with the best man/woman coming out on top. “What is competition?” he questioned. “I'm trying to raise the bar high/Who tryin' to jump and get it?”
Pap’s idea of getting it is connecting Kendrick Lamar to his outside collaborators (Big Sean and Drake) and arguably the most influential hip-hop artist of his generation (Kanye West) as a way to question his testicular fortitude. “Kendrick, Kanye, Drake, they all act feminine/Wear a lot of clothes you usually see women in/So the mainstream America finds it interesting,” Papoose charges. There are nods to manhood being stripped on slave ships and in prison, George Zimmerman and “the feminization of the black man.”
Nevermind that Kendrick Lamar at times dresses like a Nigerian exchange student—unique—but worlds apart from the leather skirt swag of ‘Ye. Or that Lamar grew up in Crip and Blood gang culture, has gangbanging friends, has done his share of ‘hood shit and has been harassed by police. But as his brilliant 2012 album good kid, m.A.A.d. makes emphatically clear, Lamar also happens to be that Compton kid who saw more meaning for his life than just squeezing triggers and selling dope.
In other words, Kendrick Lamar is an average young black dude (with above average rap ability).
What Papoose’s response shows is hip-hop still has some room to grow up. Yes, Drake—with his crooning, EMO-fueled, female-friendly approach—is an easy target. And West is the father of that emo movement; the man is so comfortable with his softer side that it infuriates some folks who accuse the music visionary of being head of the gay rap mafia (oh yeah, don’t forget a card-carrying member of the Illuminati), as if such a thing would be a sin. In a lot of ways the 2007 cultural slaying of 50 Cent at the hands of ‘Ye changed everything. When West came out on top of the much-hyped battle of album sales it signaled that the old rules no longer applied. Being a gangster or repping the streets no longer meant being the coolest person in the room.
But some old heads are still holding on to the past. “The corny dudes who got slapped up in the hallways of J.H.S. are the ones dominating right now,” tweeted Brand Nubian vet Lord Jamar. “What I mean by that is THE STREETS gotta be ready to follow u into battle & ride for u in order to be considered as K.O.N.Y.” And just in case anyone was confused over Jamar’s target: “At the end of the day Kendrick couldn't qualify as K.O.N.Y. even if he was from here cause he's not "BUILT LIKE THAT...” Hell, Jamar might as well just screamed, “Why can’t you be more like Rick Ross???”
Beyond elder statesmen like Nas and Jay-Z, the ‘90s throwback energy of newcomer Joey Bada$$ or the hybrid anti-region swagger of A$AP Rocky, New York hip-hop lately has been pretty much dormant. So Lamar’s words were merely a wake-up call. Do better, NYC. But hopefully Lamar’s “Control” showing will force the hip-hop nation to do something much more important. Change the dialogue of what it means to be a man.
How gangsta would that be?—Keith Murphy (@murphdogg29)