Changing Of The Guard: Drake, Kendrick Lamar And Hip-Hop’s New Throne

2013 will be remembered as the year of hip-hop’s official passing of the torch. Yet while Drake’s dome hangs heavy with the crown’s weight, the throne is not uncontested

WORDS: Luke Fox

You can pinpoint the exact moment the throne was seized.

It’s a warm August night in Toronto, and Drake is holding court to a historic hip-hop showing: the fourth annual October’s Very Own Festival. It’s like the Canadian Summer Jam, and Drizzy is master of ceremonies. He’s reuniting icons (Puffy and Ma$e), swapping rhymes with rap peers popping in their own right (A$AP Rocky, J. Cole) and even has the nerve to drop jaws by bringing one of his own idols, Kanye West, as a special guest. Number one singles and platinum plaques aside, this was Drake’s public assertion of his dominance. Hip-hop, at this moment, is unequivocally his.

If there was an iota of doubt that the training wheels hadn’t been yanked off by hip-hop’s new riders, that notion was shattered in the last few weeks. Those stabilizers have now been stomped to smithereens, lying in a heap by the curb.

Yet there’s one particular hip-hop contemporary conspicuously missing on this monumental night in Ontario—and you’ve got to wonder if that’s by design. It’s none other than Compton’s own self-proclaimed king of New York, Kendrick Lamar. Along with Drake, the pair represents the game’s two greatest musical forces right now— and they’re no longer premium prospects or heir apparents.

They’re sitting on either arm of the throne and trying to box each other out for the red velvet seat. About a month after the album guy dropped the most buzzed-about cameo verse in years, the cameo guy dropped his most focused album to date.

It’s their time, they know it, and they’re working overtime for that No. 1 spot.

“I’ve been working so hard on the album, I missed the whole summer,” Drake admits on “The Language” from this week’s Nothing Was The Same, his third studio LP and a surefire candidate for biggest-selling rap record of the year. This same song contains some barbs that could be perceived as slick talk toward K Dot.

Kendrick, too, is a workaholic, a perfectionist.

“And kind of insane, too. I’m getting worse, for better or for worse,” Kendrick told me days before his good kid, m.a.a.d. city became the mostly widely heralded insta-classic since—what?—Jay-Z’s The Blueprint? Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy?

“I’m not competing with new artists, no. I’m competing with Kanye, Jay-Z, Eminem, whoever else considers himself to be the best. Nah, I’m not finna just compete in the realm of new artists. Once you in this league, there’s no divisions. You gotta be coming at everybody. That’s what’s going to keep hip-hop alive. We’ll have that longevity if we have that intensity, that drive to be the best one out,” said Kendrick, a year before his “Control” verse underlined and triple-stamped that mission.

Years from now we will look back on 2013 and remember Kanye West’s id dropping a minimalist and somewhat hasty CD that divided both fans and critics—which is a nice way of saying that, by Kanye’s celestial standards, Yeezus, despite its brilliant and brave moments, was a flop. We’ll want to forget Lil Wayne’s been-there pussy punch lines and Jay Z’s marketing campaign excuse for an album/app that served mostly as an excuse for the living legend to get some of that world-tour dough. And we’ll acknowledge that Eminem can still twist language with the best of ’em, but realize he’s 40 and there’s probably some portion of listeners out there who think he’s jocking Tyler, The Creator’s style.

Those will be side notes to 2013’s main narrative, which is being written in all caps by a pair of 26-year-olds. Drake’s flow will never be as natural as Jay’s in his heyday. Kendrick’s beat selections may never push the imagination like Kanye’s. But these artists are a decade younger than Mr. West, 17 years younger than Jay. These are rappers in their prime, free of the baggage that comes with wives and children and legacy and label-running, and bolstered by a younger audience that has the appetite and time to devour and recite their every syllable.

Kanye said it himself on stage at OVO Fest: “Me and Hov would’ve never made Watch the Throne if [Drake] wasn’t putting pressure on us like that.”

Take Jay’s rhymes on Drake’s “Pound Cake”—another business-legacy verse reminding us how he made Beanie Sigel a millionaire, a verse outshone by Drake’s—as another torch-pass.

“I’m also here to be the best. I’m here to surpass. I’m here to outdo. I’m ready for whatever with anybody,” Drake told XXL of his awkward idol/rival relationship with Kanye. “I remember coming into this year thinking, ‘How am I going to cut through all these people and shine?’”

We already know the answer, and it’s the same reason why the good kid shone in 2012: by putting more effort into songwriting.

The respect Drizzy and K-Dot have for the legends before them is evident and important, but it’s not interesting.

What will be compelling is how these two MCs—complete-package artists of the same age, both wielding wit, concepts, honesty, hooks, work ethic and varied flows—continue to live out their friendly rivalry, which is now being waged as a main-card creative battle.

Drake lent a verse to Kendrick’s five-star studio debut; Kendrick spat on an interlude for Drake’s Take Care. They used to tour together.

Then Lamar mentioned Drake’s name on his “murder” list on “Control.”

“I know good and well that Kendrick’s not murdering me, at all, in any platform,” Drake told Billboard. “So when that day presents itself, I guess we can revisit the topic.”

Rap’s Mufasas might want to kick back with some popcorn and watch the Simbas battle for the throne they once owned.