Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Kendrick Lamar's Control Challenge: Updated 2016 Rankings

In August of 2013, the hip hop world was shaken to its core by a track that didn't even have an official release. Big Sean's "Control" was originally supposed to be on his 2nd album, Hall Of Fame, but sample clearance issues prevented it from landing on the final track list. By the grace of all that is great, Sean decided to share the track regardless, which set off a frenzy for the following weeks.

On a song that featured Kendrick Lamar and Jay Electronica, one would expect Big Sean to drop one of the best verses of his career or for the hermit-like Jay to chime in with a contribution of superb quality, but it was Kendrick that got the whole world talking:

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 KRIT, Wale, Pusha T, Meek Millz,
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
Trying to 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
What is competition? I'm trying to raise the bar high
Who tryna jump and get it? You're better off trying to skydive

Plenty of people answered the challenge, which was great since the culture always thrives when there is healthy competition involved, but the highest potential laid with those who were called out. Would we see any noticeable change in quality after they were given a warning shot in front of the entire world?

It's been more than two years since "Control," which I think is an appropriate amount of time to examine the impact Lamar's verse made on those that were mentioned. In order to be fair, I only took a look at an artist's career after they had enough time to respond properly, so I didn't factor in albums like Nothing Was The Same and My Name Is My Name since they were only released a few months after the fallout and it was likely too late for Drake and Pusha T to change course. While Kendrick didn't count sales as part of the criteria, I did take into account an artist's visibility throughout this period since it is a reflection of hard work. For the most part, I graded on how much an artist improved from their previous material and if their output was worthy of them being mentioned as the best since the track was made public.

Here are the current standings, as I see it, for Kendrick's Control Challenge in 2016.

1. Kendrick Lamar  

We've been through two calendars and no one has come close to knocking Lamar off the perch. He made another great album with To Pimp A Butterfly, which was as culturally relevant as anything released last year and earned Lamar a second straight Album of the Year nomination at the Grammys (not to mention having one of the best performances at the ceremony). Ideally, twelve of the best hip hop albums from the past five years should come from this group. Only one artist can undisputedly claim to having two spots on that list. The recent success of untitled unmastered with no promotion only further cemented the hold Lamar has on listeners hungry for quality. Outside of the recording booth, Lamar could be found conversing with Quincy Jones or performing with the National Symphony Orchestra, which is miles ahead of what anyone who has released a debut album in the past five years has done to expand the scope of hip hop. Whether it be on wax, on stage or freestyling on the spot in front of a bunch of kids, Lamar not only accepted his own challenge, but showed the rest of the field how it's done.

2. Drake 

He's certainly had stronger albums, with works like If You're Reading This It's Too Late and the Future collaboration, What A Time To Be Alive, falling short of the quality of Nothing Was The Same. The idea of the Control Challenge was to show improvement and take risks, but Drake pretty much stood pat for the most part and didn't do anything to alienate his core fan base. While Drake has been consistent, he rarely excites with a song the same way that other greats have been able to do. So why is he ranked at #2 for such a so-so outing so far? Look no further than "Back To Back." At a time where most beefs are handled on social media, Drake took it back to the core essence of hip hop and aired his grievances with Meek Mill using a pen and pad. The purpose of the Control Challenge was to flesh out who was going to grab that brass ring and at what cost. He hasn't measured up creatively, but when the opportunity came, he didn't back down.

 3. J. Cole 

One of my main gripes with J. Cole has been that it feels like he always plays it too safe, as if he has a general definition of hip hop that everyone can agree with and then adheres to it so tightly as to not to offend anyone. Not to say that he makes bad music, but much like Drake it has rarely excited me. While 2014 Forest Hills Drive won't be mistaken for a classic any time soon, there was a clear effort on Cole's part to improve upon his previous two albums. He honed in more on the honesty that's gained him such a following and while I'm sure he had every intention in the world of creating a masterpiece yet still falling short, he's at least setting his goals high. It also can't be overlooked that the album was released with barely any promotion and still sold well.

4. Big Sean

Sean Don's reputation has been more that of a party starter instead of an MC's MC, which there is absolutely nothing wrong with. An artist focused primarily on music for the dance floor shouldn't be considered any lesser for it since the pure release of joy and happiness is one of the great things about life. Unfortunately, Kendrick asked for a little bit more. While Big Sean won't be setting any ciphers on fire any time soon, he did display a desire to be taken more seriously on Dark Sky Paradise, (his verse on "All Your Fault" was a particular standout) and his drive to be a top MC was unmistakable in a year where he only fell behind Kendrick, Drake and Future in terms of ubiquity and chart success.

5. Pusha T 

Darkest Before Dawn didn't set the world on fire since it was considered a prelude to the main course that is King Push, but I've still got him at #5. The thing is Pusha has already proven himself as a veteran that there's not much improvement he can show to separate himself from the field. Based on skills alone, he would probably be #2, just to give you an idea of his level. He's as high as he is right now due to consistency and quality, not for lack of music. Luckily, DBD didn't do any harm and anticipation is still high for Pusha's next full-length album, which will ultimately prove the true measuring stick of where he ranks in the standings.

6. A$AP Rocky

At. Long. Last. A$AP. improved in nearly every way than its predecessor, both sonically and lyrically. Even in his mixtape days, A$AP had a penchant for putting together a cohesive effort and A.L.L.A. was the first hint that he might eventually have a classic in him. While he's not the most complex rapper, his strengths are in his style and sincerity, an aspect which he highlighted more of on this latest one instead of trying to appeal to multiple demographics. The idea of the album as a unique experience was not lost on A$AP, even as more talented MCs failed to match his cohesion.

7. Big K.R.I.T.

Out of all the rappers Kendrick name-checked, K.R.I.T. has the sneakiest potential to churn out a classic hip hop album. After some stellar mixtapes in K.R.I.T. Wuz Here, Return Of 4eva and 4eva N a Day, his debut album, Live From The Underground largely underwhelmed, lacking the soul and color of his previous efforts. K.R.I.T. mostly corrected that on Cadillactica, the strongest case anyone has made in recent years to carry the torch of the groundwork laid by The Dungeon Family. The emotion is there, as well as the ambition and the willingness to try new things, so don't be surprised if he moves up a few spots after his next album. Bonus points for directly addressing "Control" on "Mt. Olympus."

8. Tyler, The Creator

Never one to play by anyone else's rules, Tyler, The Creator seemed to ignore "Control" altogether and delve further into jazz with last year's Cherry Bomb. Standouts such as "Find Your Wings" and "Fucking Young" were a natural evolution of Tyler's career and seemed more concerned with chord changes and crooning than rhyming. As much as I enjoyed those songs, I have to judge this based on who's going for the brass ring and Tyler seemingly has another path in mind. He's still as sharp as ever and his videos are among the most unusual and clever, but everyone else on this list clearly wants to be the best MC. Tyler, on the other hand, seemingly just wants to make the best music.

9. Jay Electronica 

Much like Pusha T, Jay's skills are undeniable and the main reason why he's not at the bottom of the list. Despite the lack of an album and sporadic guest verses, his few appearances are always cherished and why fans still clamor for an actual long player. In today's climate though, you can't be considered the best in the game without having a sizable list of tracks on your resume, no matter how great you are. In the name of competition, I do admire him for going after Kendrick on "#TBE The Curse of Mayweather" in brutal fashion at a time where he's considered the #1 guy.

10. Mac Miller  

While Miller's initial response to Kendrick could certainly be seen as laughable, there wasn't much to joke about with GO:OD AM. By delving deeper into his own issues with drug use and depression, Miller released the most engaging album of his career and saw the biggest leap creatively out of anyone on this list. It's probably the best example of the Control Challenge at work, where we've seen the majority of those called out arguably release their best work to date. Miller expanded his songwriting skills to the point where he could conceivably be seen as an integral part of the genre and not just a workhorse who's only mentioned due to steady output.

11. Wale   

Much like J. Cole, I feel that Wale makes a living off delivering an accessible form of hip hop that is generally pleasing, but mostly bland. The Album About Nothing was certainly his best work since Attention Deficit, but in a current landscape where even Mac Miller is taking chances, Wale did himself no favors by playing it safe. The hunger was there as usual, along with other similar themes of sincerity and confidence, but not much else. In a field where just about everyone has a #1 album, a little extra was needed to stand out. "The Matrimony" with Usher was about as close as he got to that chart-topping, world-conquering hit he so desperately desires, but when To Pimp A Butterfly is the standard, your best can't just be an agreeable song that covers territory several other artists have covered.

12. Meek Mill 

Up until "Back To Back," Meek had been doing a pretty solid job of maintaining his hard-edged reputation. His intensity distinguished him from some of the more pop-oriented sounds of Drake and Big Sean and won him favor in the streets even if his chart success didn't match that of his contemporaries. The jump in quality from Dreams & Nightmares to Dreams Worth More Than Money was not overt, but still enough to make him a conceivable player on this list. As we all know, Meek made claims of Drake using a ghostwriter, to which Drake responded viciously with "Back To Back." The expectation was that with Meek's background in battle rapping, he could easily dismantle someone like Drake who was seen as less lyrical (you can't find one person who thought he got the better of Common. Instead, his responses were lackluster and he got a drubbing from someone who could have easily been rapped circles around given the right circumstances. With the Control Challenge daring everyone to step up, Meek failed considerably in his chance to break out and show his competitive side. He simply laid down and by the time he finally mustered up a response, it was too late and not enough people cared. There was no other place but the bottom for him, regardless of how solid his songs and sales have been.  

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