Two Years Later, How Kendrick Lamar’s “Control” Verse Changed Hip-Hop

It’s been two years since “Control,” but what lasting impact has Kendrick’s verse actually had?
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[Art by vadivisuals]

It’s an annual event.

The corndog, the fried onion, the funnel cake, the indigestion the next day. Shooting up a balloon with a water gun game like Birdman ordered me to. Petting adorable farm animals. Of course, the rides.

It’s the Montgomery County Fair.

Every mid-August the woes and I get together, fight traffic to squeeze into a crammed, 15 dollar parking lot, pay an additional 50 bucks for a ticket and food, and then go HAM. It’s become an annual tradition because, like every tradition, you can never remember what happened the year before, only that it happened. 364 days later you’ve forgotten about the sun burn and the guy who almost threw up on your shoes, all you can remember is that you vaguely had a good time and so you should probably go again. When you’ve done the same thing for five years running, the years all kind of blur together.

Still, there’s one fair that always stands out to me: August 12, 2013.

I refuse to go on rollercoasters at county fairs. Call me a wimp, fine, but I’m not strapping myself into a hunk of metal operated by a “former” meth addict. So as my friends all went nuts on the rollercoaster, I chilled by the metal barriers trying to look as cool as possible while holding three purses and seven stuffed animals. Naturally, I pulled out my phone (the fallback for when you are trying to look busy), and quickly saw that Twitter was spinning like the Tilt-O-Whirl. When Phil Jackson is talking about rap it’s most definitely a lituation.

As my friends got off the ride I told them I had to bounce because I had a work emergency. They looked at me side-eyed, but I didn’t care. I raced home, checking Twitter as I was merging, speeding through stop signs so that I could get to the crib to join the conversation. It felt like a moment I didn’t want to miss, but little did I know the conversation wouldn’t die down for months.

Admittedly, I resisted Twitter for a while, so “Control” represented the first big internet event I felt a part of. I included a handful of tweets above, but that doesn’t capture a fraction of the mayhem that ensued from Kendrick’s verse. Beyonce twerking with Donald Trump to the tune of “Back To Back” while holding a cute puppy from the ‘90s wouldn’t touch what “Control” did. It was a virtual onslaught. Every rapper mentioned was put on the spot and every rapper not mentioned was mad they weren’t. Every tweet I saw for days was about it and so were the interviews. Within a few hours, interviews lead with “I’m sure you don’t want to talk about Control but…” If the responses weren't in interviews or tweets they were in verse form (see Joell and Lupe). Even though he wasn't invited, Papoose even felt compelled to join the party.

I remember where I was when “Control”  dropped, and so does just about everyone else who cares about hip-hop. Do you know how rare that is? Not only did radio stations break format to play the song, they often began the record with Kendrick’s verse, completely cutting out Big Sean...and IT WAS SEAN’S SONG! We had seen people get ethered, we’d seen them get murdered on their own track, but Sean getting “Control”-ed was the next-next level. It was undeniably a moment in hip-hop history, but two years later, was it just a moment? Did Kendrick’s “Control” verse really mean something? Did it really change anything?

“SHOTS FIRED!”

Kendrick was Omar, whistling through the streets and fearlessly pointing the shotgun at the biggest players in the game; it was exciting. But once the fair packed up and moved to the next town, the hype subsided. I think we all realized it was less of a calling out and more of a call to arms. Kendrick wasn’t saying “fuck Rocky, KRIT, Drake and Cole,” he was merely saying, “Here are the next generation of rappers I’m included in and I’m going to be the best of them.” It’s like when a football player guarantees a Super Bowl in training camp. It may sound arrogant, but you want a player striving to his absolute best. I would expect a rapper of Kendrick’s stature, of K.R.I.T’s caliber, to want to be the best and not afraid to say so. Besides, it’s not like Kendrick hadn’t already done the exact same thing on “Rigamortus” and his “Monster” freestyle.

"Control" had an obvious immediate impact, but if it’s had any lasting effect the connection is far more hazy. Artists may have been worked up at the time, using it as bulletin board material, but are they still? Do you really think any of the emcees mentioned (and the ones who weren’t) are currently in the studio with “Control” on their minds? Are we knocking Joey Bada$$, Tech N9ne or Action Bronson because they weren’t mentioned? Do you think A$AP is up late rewriting lines about jizzing in Rita Ora's mouth in an effort to not be “Control-ed”? It does seem like hip-hop is a better, more competitive environment--the bar has definitely been raised-- but I’d argue it has more to do with albums like To Pimp A Butterfly, the product of Kendrick’s declaration, then whatever Kendrick declared on “Control.” In the two years since “Control” we’ve seen a resurgence in concept albums, project that strive for more than radio hits, a bar seemingly has been raised, but it’s a hell of a stretch to say that’s because of Kendrick’s verse.  

Still, I can’t speak for rappers - I don’t know what goes through their minds as they enter the booth - and it is true that even two years later Mac Miller is still being asked about his inclusion on “Control.” I do, however, feel (somewhat) comfortable speaking for the average hip-hop fan and so I can say “Control” is an afterthought. I may remember that first night vividly, but I haven’t listened to the song once in the last year. Have you? Looking back it’s not “Control” itself, the literal verse, that mattered, but the way we reacted, what “Control” came to symbolize.  

Now more than ever, the court of public opinion dictates the winners and losers. It’s not about being the best or the most right or the dopest, but the most retweeted. Look at Drake and Meek. Even if Meek had countered "Charged Up" and "Back to Back Freestyle" with an incredible record that picked Drake apart, it wouldn't have mattered, Drake had already won. The memes were already viral, the jokes were already made, the narrative was already written. And that’s likely why none of the emcees mentioned truly responded, because they were wise enough to know that even the illest bars wouldn’t be able to change the story the internet had already etched in digital stone.

Perhaps it was “Control” that truly ushered in that era. It’s not the best verse ever, far from it, but it’s the fervor surrounding that has lasted. The rapper who controls the internet is the one who’s really in control, so in that spirit, let’s raise the bar. I'm not trying to read another noun or verb from these blog writers.

[Lucas Garrison is a writer for DJBooth.net. His favorite album is “College Dropout,” but you can also tweet him your favorite Migos songs at @LucasDJBooth.]

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