Coming off good kid, m.A.A.d city, one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the decade, rapper Kendrick Lamar could have rested on his laurels. Instead he stole the spotlight on Big Sean's 2013 single "Control," going bonkers with wordplay for almost three minutes and calling out 11 emerging rappers by name. More than a dozen response songs turned up and Billboard reported that Lamar gained more than 200,000 Twitter followers in the track's wake. Here's nine ways that this verse changed the game.
While "Control" was serviced to radio stations, it didn't appear on Big Sean's Hall of Fame album, nor was it sold on iTunes or Amazon as a standalone track, nor was it given away as a free download. The official explanation is that No I.D.'s unauthorized sample usage precluded its sale, including Jay Z's "Where I'm From" (which seems implausible since UMG owns the rights to Jay's Def Jam catalog), Terrace Martin's "Get Bizy" and Seventies Chilean folk band Quilapayún's "El Pueblo Unido Jamas San Vencido."
It's surprising that the biggest music conglomerate in the world didn't clear those samples for the most-talked about rap song of 2013. But perhaps that was the problem: "Control" arguably overshadowed Big Sean's Hall of Fame, a critical and commercial disappointment that only yielded a modest Top 40 hit in "Beware."
Once upon a time, Kendrick was not the unanimous favorite of the Top Dawg Entertainment roster, with Jay Rock scoring the label's first XXL Freshmen cover, ScHoolboy Q breaking through to New York radio first and Ab-Soul holding sway over a dedicated following. And even after good kid, m.A.A.d. city's success, there was lots of hope that, as Mac Miller predicted, ScHoolboy Q's album would be even better. But soon after "Control," Q dropped the quietly excellent Oxymoron, Ab-Soul fought with TDE to release his divisive independent album These Days… and Jay Rock has remained mostly missing in action. Black Hippy is still a unified front, but the idea that any of them could have achieved what Kendrick has done has been put to bed.
On Drake's mixtape If You're Reading This It's Too Late, he's growling through tautly constructed ciphers like "Energy." Ditto for Big Sean's Dark Sky Paradise. J. Cole may spend much of 2014 Forest Hills Drive musing on love and fame in a ruddy, heartfelt voice, but he also offers "GOMD (Get Off My Dick)," where he raps, "Rest in peace to any nigga that want beef." Even Kid Ink made sure to add at least one cut on his recent Full Speed, "What It Feels Like," where he asserts his lyrical bona fides. Did Lamar's "Control" verse inspire everything that came after? Probably not, but it was certainly a wake-up call.
In the era of the subliminal shot, when Jay Z and Drake seem more than content making lyrical blind items about their rivals, "Control" stood out. And since then, we've seen a rash of likeminded boasts from MCs that don't just claim they're better than everyone but point out specific examples — most notably Childish Gambino's live freestyle that ambitiously put him in competition with Drake and Lamar.
The rappers who Kendrick challenged directly had all been named crown princes in hip-hop before. The ones who released an album post-"Control," however, would experience career-best sales that only cemented that stance. Big K.R.I.T.'s Cadillactica sold several thousand more than his debut, 2012's Live from the Underground. Pusha T bested all of Clipse's first-week sales figures with solo debut My Name Is My Name. Drake's Nothing Was the Same had the biggest opening sales week for a rap album in 2013, while J. Cole's 2014 Forest Hills Drive was the best-selling rap album of 2014, period. Only Big Sean suffered slightly under the pressure, as 2013's Hall of Fame sold 15,000 copies less than his 2011 debut, Finally Famous. This makes sense – after all, Hall of Fame arrived two weeks after he revealed "Control," and that verse, to the world — but Sean has certainly bounced back since.
Veteran Chicago producer and current Def Jam exec No I.D. has a long history of producing songs that manage to piss people off. Common's "I Used To Love h.e.r." sparked a beef with Ice Cube, and Jay-Z's "D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)" had T-Pain and a nation of singing rappers catching feelings. "Control" cemented No I.D.'s legacy as a producer whose banging beats can help foreground a controversial message, as he's continued to nurture the careers of new acts like Vince Staples and his supergroup Cocaine 80s.
This is one of the downsides. "Control" whipped Lamar's fanbase into such a frenzy about the aggressive side of his music that it seemed to poison the well for his next solo single. The Isley Brothers-sampling self-esteem anthem "i" was a Grammy-winning ray of sunshine and critically acclaimed, too, but it was the exact opposite of "Control" — which means it faced resistance from hip-hop heads and had weak support from urban radio. It only hit Number 11 on the R&B charts, while three different singles from good kid, M.A.A.D. City had hit Top 10.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Big K.R.I.T. acknowledged that Kendrick's "Control" shout-out inspired him to pen the lyrically monstrous "Mt. Olympus." "[T]he "Control" thing happened and it was positivity there, because I understand hip-hop is competitive. But there was a lot of negativity that I'd never experienced before in my career. It was people that never even noticed my music and because of that, they prejudged what my music may have been. So with that, it kind of threw me into an overdrive to do a 'Mt. Olympus.' To start, 'Aight, with these records, I'ma go in even harder,' because now I know that Cadillactica might be the album that people may first hear from me. So I went back to my house. I went back to just recording in my room. I went back to writing as much as I could and not focusing on metaphors so much, but saying exactly what I meant to say and doing it my way."
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Lil Wayne saw it as a reminder of where he is in the rap game. "If you hear an older athlete talk about the game — some of them keep it real and let you know, 'Man, I couldn't get out there with these young boys,'" he told Elliott Wilson for a #CRWN interview. "That's how I be lookin' at it now when I hear a Kendrick verse or something like that, I'll be like, 'Oh man, I'm tired of this, man.' I'm not about to be jumping out here talkin' 'bout, 'I'm the best,' I don't need nobody coming at my neck. None of that."
"Control" inspired responses from B.o.B ("How 2 Rap"), Joell Ortiz ("Outta Control"), Lupe Fiasco ("SLR 2"), Joey Bada$$ ("Killuminati Pt. II"), Meek Mill ("Ooh Kill 'Em") and many, many others. More than being the "Roxanne, Roxanne" of the new millennium, the subtext is that rappers responded to Lamar with actual songs and freestyles. Twitter rants, YouTube threats and random keyboard dissing no longer sufficed.