By Adam Cancryn
We are on notice.
As of about 11 p.m. on Aug. 12, we are all on notice. That’s when Kendrick Lamar dropped the verse of the year, the verse that reverberated across the internet and shocked the hip-hop community to its core.
We were shocked by the viciousness. We were shocked by the hunger. We were shocked by “King of New York” and those 11 names, rattled off with venomous precision.
Most of all, though, we’re shocked that, days later, we’re still shocked. This wasn’t just some tricky wordplay over a sick beat. This was a challenge:
Step back and look around at the hip-hop you’ve wrought. Do you like what you see?
For too many, I suspect the honest answer is no. And that’s jarring, because we thought we’d made it. A genre that started in grungy Harlem basements and on street corners in the Bronx now dominates the charts. Rappers aren’t regarded as criminals or thugs anymore; they’re celebrities. Jay-Z hangs with the president. Questlove and the Roots are on NBC every weeknight at 12:30/11:30 central. That’s a long way from “Fight the Power” or “Licensed to Ill”
Hip-hop clawed its way into the mainstream, and now it’s firmly entrenched. This is success.
It’s supposed to be, at least. But the reality is that for a genre that was once the road to opportunity for anyone with rhymes and a flow, success is now being defined and enjoyed only by an established few.
ItstheReal’s Jeff Rosenthal once joked that the same six rappers are on every song nowadays. He wasn’t far off. Hip-hop, that rebellious, proletariat anti-culture made by and for the masses, is in many ways no longer. What’s replaced it is what you see everywhere else now, from music to politics to the economy: a small, rich clique helping each other get richer on the backs of the people and streets they long ago left and mostly forgot about.
Kendrick grabbed hold of that reality and threw it in everyone’s face. He tapped into mainstream hip-hop’s lingering guilt; embraced that elephant in the studio trumpeting that hip-hop gave up a bit of its soul in pursuit of its profits. That success made it lazy. That it focused too much on bettering individuals at the expense of bettering hip-hop culture as a whole. That, after climbing to the pinnacle of music, it pulled up the ladder, closed the hatch, and left the up-and-comers behind.
Why else could he come in and just take the crown as King of New York? Why else could he name-drop 11 rappers with no fear? Why else would a simple battle rap tip the hip-hop world on its axis?
This was the wakeup call that hip-hop needed. The hope is that rappers will heed it. Because, realistically, one great verse isn’t going to hit their pockets. Drake can still make a mil off talking about how he’s catching bodies, though it must’ve been hard to do all that killing in between rehearsals for Degrassi. Big Sean can still talk about how he “really raps,” even though he knew before anyone how hard Kendrick came on “Control” and still ran out of stuff to say at the end of his own verse. Jay Electronica can still drop one song every three years like that’s an acceptable thing to do. Nobody’s bank account or popularity will suffer if they don’t respond.
But you would hope that they all have more pride than that. Hip-hop’s stars have a greater duty to both honor the culture’s past and make its future better, and it’s one they’ve failed to take on so far. The pressure is on now for them to step up and prove that hip-hop under their stewardship hasn’t just devolved into big talk carried by a nice EDM beat.
And the pressure is on us now, too. We have to demand more than a bass-heavy dance track every few days. We have to seek out the best; the kings of New York, of the West Coast, of the South and the Midwest, like we did before industry A&Rs beamed the throwaway song of the day directly into our inboxes. Rappers have to prove they can really rap. We have to prove that we really like rap, and not just big talk carried by a nice EDM beat.
So that’s the challenge. A few rappers have stepped up so far, but none of the 11 have dared emerge yet. Cassidy reminded everyone he’s still a born natural punchline rapper, Astro showed his potential and even Papoose came out of hiding to drop an otherwise solid diss track derailed by a rare combination of lyrics that were at the same time anti-feminist, xenophobic and homophobic. But the hunger long missing from hip-hop was there. They were punching up, and doing so furiously.
The next few weeks will teach us a lot about the state of hip-hop. It’s a chance for us to conduct a sort of recalibration of the ranks, a correction from the this-should-be-good-enough era. Kendrick reset the bar, and we’ll soon find out who’s suddenly too short to reach it.