“Tell Flex to drop a bomb on this shit.” It's easy to imagine Kendrick Lamar looking up from a plate with half a rib hanging off his teeth while in the studio recording his verse for Big Sean’s “Control.” That bar alone was a call to action that immediately echoed from Compton to the East Coast on August 14, 2013, a dog whistle for rap elitists with a sharp nose for blood in the water. It would’ve been intense enough if he had left it there, but the bloodlust was potent enough for him to claim King of New York status and single out 11 rappers, including the two he shared the song with:
"I'm usually homeboys with the same niggas I'm rhymin' with / But this is hip-hop, and them niggas should know what time it is / And that goes for Jermaine Cole, Big K.R.I.T., Wale / Pusha T, Meek Millz, A$AP Rocky, Drake / Big Sean, Jay Electron', Tyler, Mac Miller / I got love for you all, but I'm tryna murder you niggas / Tryna make sure your core fans never heard of you niggas / They don't wanna hear not one more noun or verb from you niggas"
This wasn’t a friendly sparring match anymore. It was an all-out war. To Kendrick, Sean, and fellow guest Jay Electronica, the spirit of competition had been squeezed out of the rap game, and all three came to resuscitate.
All three were at a crossroads in 2013: Sean had rapped his way into Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. graces, earned a spot up top and a Platinum plaque for his 2011 debut Finally Famous, and was ready to prove that the album lightning could strike twice. Jay Electronica was six years removed from his mercurial debut Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge) and was stoking the flames of an album that didn’t exist with singles and an impromptu signing to JAY-Z’s Roc Nation imprint. Kendrick Lamar had begun his meteoric rise as rap’s lyrical savior with 2011’s Section.80 before kicking into overdrive with his 2012 opus good kid, m.A.A.d City, his stamp as an MC who could expand your mind while soundtracking your club night. It was enough for MTV to peg him as the Hottest MC in the Game in 2013, and he was hungry to continue proving it.
Kendrick surveyed the game and plucked J. Cole, Big K.R.I.T., Wale, Pusha-T, Meek Mill, A$AP Rocky, Drake, Big Sean, Jay Electronica, Tyler, The Creator, and Mac Miller as his 11 equals and issued a decree fit for a king. Everyone from Lupe Fiasco and Joell Ortiz to Joey Bada$$ and B.o.B had responses on deck, but all eyes were on those chosen few.
Kendrick is undoubtedly at the peak of his popularity five years later, looking down on the rap game in his Nike Cortez with the dense and lauded DAMN. in one hand and the Black Panther soundtrack in the other as he continues to mold his 2018. It’s clear that he’s still a king in the castle, but how far have those 11 other rappers moved on the chessboard five years after “Control” leveled the playing field?
Fellow DJBooth scribe Yoh and I took some time to look back on the last five years of their lives and careers and see what, if any, changes led them to keep the nouns and the verbs flowing.
Here are all 11 rappers Kendrick called out on "Control," five years later, ranked in terms of current relevance, along with career highs and lows and best bodies of work since "Control" and our projection for their future.
11. Jay Electronica
Best Body of Work Since “Control”: We're still waiting...
High Point: Touring without an album.
Low Point: Debut album paralysis: Act II: Patents of Nobility (The Turn) has been promoted as coming soon for eight years.
Future Projection: The Vanishing Wizard.
Hip-hop loves the prospect of a savior. A symbol of culture. The representation of some gold standard. That’s who Jay Electronica was when he appeared, an ideal MC to rise following Nas’ declaration of hip-hop’s death and the growing mania surrounding Soulja Boy’s Superman dance craze. Just Blaze and Erykah Badu were cosigning early, bloggers soon followed, and there was even a bidding war between JAY-Z and Puffy (never forget “The Ghost of Christopher Wallace"). From upper echelon moguls to the underground, hip-hop as a culture was enamored by the elder shamanic lyricist. “Exhibit C” came at the tail end of 2009, and the single was celebrated as a foreshadowing of forthcoming greatness—the dawn of Act II: Patents of Nobility (The Turn).
JAY-Z said he wanted to “reintroduce magic to hip-hop” when he signed Jay Electronica. What’s magical is how time doesn’t affect the New Orleans-born MC. He hasn’t rushed for attention, nor tried to retain affection. Instead of being loud, Jay Electronica followed up “Control” with mostly silence. Long bouts of invisibility ceased briefly with tour announcements, social media rants, impromptu guest features, spontaneous singles (“Better in Tune With the Infinite,” "Shiny Suit Theory," “Letter To Falon”), and promises of an album that never came. Every passing year Jay Electronica has receded further from public view, going from hip-hop’s savior to another artist discussed for what could’ve been, and not what was. And yet, still, we wait. —Yoh
10. Big K.R.I.T.
Best Body of Work Since “Control”: 4Eva Is a Mighty Long Time (2017)
High Point: Leaving Def Jam
Low Point: Being stifled by Def Jam
Future Projection: Traditional King of the South
Big K.R.I.T had his eyes set on Mount Olympus from first glance. His path to Southern godhood led him through the mixtape circuit, refining the funk and sub-rattling bass of OutKast and UGK with his own glossy purple glaze. A contract with Def Jam was set to amplify his reach but only proved to burn the wax he’d spent years adorning to his wings. 2012's Live from the Underground wasn’t what his fans wanted or even what he wanted. The drawing board could only do so much when it was in someone else’s studio.
If “Control” lit a fire and dared rappers to stick their hands inside, K.R.I.T. played Prometheus on the response “Mount Olympus,” meeting backhanded compliments with his own heavenly fire. “Thought they wanted gold, thought they wanted shine / Thought they wanted radio, bitch make up your mind,” he declared, daring anyone to say different. After 2014’s Cadillactica, K.R.I.T. was clearly tired of the false starts brought on by changing fan expectations and his increasingly fruitless contract with Def Jam, eventually parting ways with the label in 2016. A little over a year later, the warring sides of K.R.I.T. and Justin Scott were exposed on his third solo album 4Eva Is a Mighty Long Time, his most refined and ambitious work to date. K.R.I.T. was able to extol his good, bad, and ugly on his own terms under his Multi Alumni label. —Dylan
Best Body of Work Since “Control”: The Album About Nothing (2015)
High Point: The first rapper to perform at the White House before President Obama's State of the Union Address
Low Point: 2017's SHINE sold 28,000 units in its first week, the lowest of Wale's career since his 2009 debut Attention Deficit
Future Projection: Unrelenting Underdog
Every U.S. radio station in 2013 was playing “Bad,” the top 30 single from Wale’s The Gifted album, his first project to debut at No. 1. “Bad” was his second R&B-esque rap record to reach the top 40 following "Lotus Flower Bomb.” This level of success was unprecedented for a rapper hailing from D.C., much less one who separated from his first record deal due to low album sales. After Attention Deficit failed to make much of a mark and no singles hit, Wale rebounded with the odds against him to a new record deal with MMG and, finally, radio success. When "Control" hit, Wale was transitioning from mixtape darling to commercial star—just behind J. Cole and Drake as forerunners of the post-blog new school.
Months after “Control,” Wale made the notorious phone call to Complex after their Top Albums of 2013 list was published. The growing pains of celebrity came with the progress of his rap career. There have been many obstacles for Wale, one of the biggest being himself. 2016's Platinum single, "My PYT" was the last time he's punctured the charts. Sales for his fifth studio album, SHINE, were well below expectations. With mainstream visibility dwindling, he slipped back to square one. What has been Wale’s saving grace is: shortcomings don’t break him, and continuing to provide good music through numerous pivots. He’s once again in a new deal, and a string of strong EP releases show hip-hop’s underdog is still fighting against the current. —Yoh
8. Mac Miller
Best Body of Work Since “Control”: Faces (2014)
High Point: The astounding, ongoing artistic evolution from Blue Slide Park to Swimming
Low Point: Arrested on DUI and Hit and Run charges in May 2018
Future Projection: Captain of Self-Reflection
Mac Miller was completing the final shedding of his frat rap persona in the days leading up to “Control.” The change was gradual but miraculous, and Mac Miller completely redefined who we believed him to be. His early, breakout projects aren’t without their moments, but his older songs are rooted in a teenager who found rap as an outlet for his adolescent musing. Mac didn’t solidify himself as a hip-hop force until Macadelic, his seventh mixtape. He became sharper, meditative, and willing to dip his pen in experimental ink. All of these traits were expounded upon a year later with Watching Movies with the Sound Off, the sophomore follow-up to his history-making but negatively reviewed debut album, Blue Slide Park. The album sales dropped, but the praise rained down.
Mac Miller didn’t just improve further but continued to transform as if he was updating iOS to fix bugs and enhance performance. He reached a new level of bizarre brilliance with Faces, his visceral 2014 opus that dives into the deepest, darkest depths of his creative mind. From there he continued to explore self, artistically and musically pushing personal boundaries with little regard for accomplishments and accolades and finding a new voice every album. Even after going from indie Rostrum Records to a $10 million man signed under Warner Bros. Records, he's continued chasing personal waterfalls instead of swimming in the mainstream cesspool. Swimming, Mac's latest album, is the next stage of his evolution. An evolution no one saw coming. —Yoh
Best Body of Work Since “Control”: DAYTONA (2018)
High Point: DAYTONA
Low Point: 5-year lack of a hit song
Future Projection: G.O.O.D. Music Kingpin
Few rappers in or out of the game are as observant as Pusha-T. As a member of the Clipse with his brother No Malice, he saw how potent their brotherly team-up could be, catapulting the duo to massive sales and attention that reportedly had them playing “Grindin’” for damn near every drug dealer in America. Malice retiring from the game and their former manager going to jail for his part in a drug ring left Push to pick up the pieces if he ever wanted to survive on his own.
Push’s hard-nosed cocaine raps helped secure him a spot on the G.O.O.D. Music roster in 2010, which led to a handful of great songs and features but no steady project to keep him in the conversation. His proper solo debut My Name Is My Name came two months after Kendrick called him out on “Control”; he was ready to move to the big leagues with a snarl. There was a hunger and focus that dictated Push’s every move, prepping him to take over as president of G.O.O.D. Music and eventually drop DAYTONA, the highlight of Kanye's Wyoming Sessions and a seven-track sprint that polished his snow white to a mirror sheen. Classics elude many an elite rapper, but now Push can revel in the DJ saying his name just a little prouder. —Dylan
6. A$AP Rocky
Best Body of Work Since “Control”: AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP (2015)
High Point: ALLA debuting at No. 1
Low Point: Losing mentor and partner A$AP Yams
Future Projection: A$AP Avant-Garde
Who knew a kid from Harlem could love Texas rap and DJ Screw as much as A$AP Rocky did? His style was cribbed from the corners of Tumblr and Hypebeast as much as it was from the corners of Dyckman and 10th Ave. and popped on a whole new level with videos for “Peso” and “Purple Swag," especially under the tutelage of A$AP Yams. LIVE.LOVE.A$AP was the culmination of both of their curatorial powers blending the slow and sticky of Texas with the grit and grime of New York to woozying effect. Rocky carried this internet grab-bag onto his debut album LONG.LIVE.A$AP, a more haphazard recreation that no doubt helped grow his profile even more.
Rocky was arguably at the top of his game when Kendrick called him by name on “Control,” and he leaned into new ideas and avenues. Fashion led him to runways, and AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP saw acid creep into his music and marked the point where experiments traveled past the rim of a double cup. Fashion and outsider art continued to push him toward the sounds of his third studio album TESTING and, arguably, to the outer limits of listenability. Regardless of musical quality, Rocky’s sound is distinct and attentive, a familiar pin dropped onto a different location every 20 minutes. He’s attempted to widen his sphere of influence for every new album, and since Kendrick’s “Control” verse, he's been a walking embodiment of rap’s potential to be endlessly remixed. —Dylan
5. Big Sean
Best Body of Work Since “Control”: Dark Sky Paradise (2015)
High Point: 2014's "I Don't Fuck With You" and "Bounce Back" were both huge hits, and each has been certified 4x Platinum
Low Point: Double or Nothing
Future Projections: Detroit's Golden Heart
The year before “Control,” Big Sean crashed Datpiff. Fans rushed the mixtape hosting service to download Detroit, Sean’s then-latest body of work that caused anticipation for Sean's sophomore album to skyrocket. Guest verses found on Kanye’s “Clique” and “Mercy” put a substantial amount of commercial visibility on G.O.O.D. Music’s young, rising star. Sean often falls victim to being more corny than clever, but fans latched on to his rapid-fire fun, charismatic flow, and motivating sermons in the form of rap anthems. Sean stood out as the Kanye protégé who was like a little brother you wanted to see win.
“Control” being Big Sean’s song is ironic considering Kendrick Lamar is inseparable from the record. Sean’s every bar was minimized in the company of Lamar’s verse. It’s a mild metaphor for his position in hip-hop, the passionate practitioner who has struggled to leave a lasting impression since his 2015 career high, Dark Sky Paradise. Even with the success of “Bounce Back,” “Move,” and "No Favors,” Big Sean has been colliding with a ceiling of creative stagnancy. Both I Decided. and Double or Nothing landed as lukewarm offerings rather than position-defining efforts. The interest surrounding Sean has remained, and there are still fans who are looking forward to what will come, but that brings pressure upon his shoulders to deliver. Sean has the tools to deliver a record in the class of Dark Sky Paradise, the question is, can he put it together? —Yoh
4. Meek Mill
Best Body of Work Since “Control”: Dreams Worth More Than Money (2015)
High Point: Hitting the Summer Jam Stage post-prison
Low Point: Drake beef; prison
Future Projection: Philadelphia's Lionheart
Meek Mill had a lot to be proud of in 2013. Teeth cut in the Philadelphia battle rap scene and a record deal with T.I.’s Grand Hustle leading to Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group and a debut album debuting at No. 2 is the dream that can make the block boy nightmares more bearable. Meek’s is a flow energized by the desperation and hunger of the gutter, survival tactics flipped into storytelling devices. Against all odds, his steady flows had fought their way to the top of the heap with his debut album Dreams and Nightmares and 2013 tape Dreamchasers 3.
After the call to the stand of “Control” and actually talking to Kendrick about it, Meek’s ambitions got the better of him. His second studio album Dreams Worth More Than Money debuted at No. 1 in 2015 and secured his position as a rap talent to watch. But all of that melted away in less than 140 characters when Meek accused Drake of using a ghostwriter on their song “R.I.C.O.” Drake quickly turned the internet and the general public against him. No reply track could help him out of his career spiral, which wasn't helped by a parole violation that sent him back to jail again in 2017. A wave of support from the rap community helped him get out quickly; a parole violation led him back to the Summer Jam stage, the “Dreams and Nightmares” intro blaring over the speakers while he stared from the ATV he just rode onto the stage (only months after the Eagles took the Super Bowl field to the song). Prison gave Meek a new perspective on both life and music, which his exhilarating EP Legends of the Summer proved beyond a shadow of a doubt. —Dylan
3. Tyler, The Creator
Best Body of Work Since “Control”: Flower Boy (2017)
High Point: Flower Boy's career pivot and GRAMMY nomination for Best Rap Album
Low Point: Being banned from the UK
Future Projection: Hip-Hop's Willy Wonka
If the public won’t look at you, make them. Tyler, The Creator was more than willing to play the heel to a world that he and his Odd Future bandmates thought couldn’t handle them. “Kill people, burn shit, fuck school” wasn’t just a lyric, it was a lifestyle that built an empire of tie-dye and socks while also hiding burgeoning musical potential, a Crayola-scrawled cover that was pulled back even more with 2013’s Wolf. Tyler conducted raucous posse cuts over string embellishments and mourned the recent passing of his grandmother over ornate jazz loops; Odd Future’s Wizard of Oz was finally drawing back the curtain on his own life.
It’s hard to tell exactly how much impact the “Control” verse had on Tyler’s trajectory, but his own brand of maturity came swift and hard regardless. 2015’s Cherry Bomb was heavier on angst than rage, smuggling love songs in overproduced packages and tipping the scales even further away from Odd Future’s firebrand beginnings in the process. This set the stage for 2017’s Flower Boy, a gorgeous album where Tyler’s whimsy and Neptunes-inspired musical ambition finally met halfway to create what Pitchfork’s Sheldon Pearce called "Find Your Wings: The Album." Tyler had spent years forging his wings in the garden shed, coming out to a fanbase stubbornly convinced he was trolling about his sexuality. Tyler finally sounded comfortable in his own skin, supplying a steady drip of loosies and even finding a kindred spirit in A$AP Rocky. His love for cartoons, jazz, high-top socks, and breakbeats had finally congealed in a vat of pure imagination. —Dylan
2. J. Cole
Best Body of Work Since “Control”: KOD (2018)
High Point: 2014 Forest Hills Drive turned Cole to a superstar; selling out Madison Square garden—twice.
Low Point: Cole's skill at crafting granola bars is almost impressive
Future Projection: Your Problematic Rap Uncle
Sometimes, you just want to be the greatest rapper of all time, no more and no less. Jermaine Cole applied to school in New York City just for the chance to potentially run into JAY-Z, who would surely sign him to the deal of a lifetime (he did, but not at first). He was an eager fan with a love for chopped soul samples and an ear for beats, flows, and crushingly cringy one-liners that would haunt him from his early mixtapes to albums like 2013’s Born Sinner, an album hell-bent on both repenting to Nas for going too pop but also fighting against Kanye West’s Yeezus on the same release day. Cole had respect to give but everything to prove within rap's most competitive boundaries.
Cole’s perspective grew louder as his voice grew quieter, especially in the wake of his non-response to Kendrick’s “Control” verse. 2014 Forest Hills Drive marked the beginning of his music becoming more insular but no less cocksure as his star continued to rise. The everyman continued to grow up as he dealt with fatherhood on 2016’s 4 Your Eyez Only and held a mirror up to a culture at large that’s strung out on drugs and running low on empathy on 2018's sprawling screed KOD. Cole’s messages can be heavy-handed, but the conservatism he used to fully indulge has started to slip away slightly. Cole has long since completed his transition into rap’s favorite uncle, but he's also become one if it's biggest and most bankable stars. —Dylan
Best Body of Work Since “Control”: Nothing Was the Same (2013)
High Point: Being the biggest artist in the world
Low Point: Ghostwriting allegations from Meek Mill; hiding a son
Future Projection: Unchanging Royalty
By Take Care, Drake’s 2011 sophomore album, he was undoubtedly the biggest rapper to breakout from the blog era. While Thank Me Later wasn't a classic debut Drake could hang from a mantle, he rectified the mishandling with the celebrated Take Care. What expanded Drake’s dominance was being an omnipresent feature, the kind of artist who didn’t miss a chance to appear as a guest or remix a record. He was everywhere, touching everything, and each verse was followed by louder fanfare. Lil Wayne’s mixtape model was updated for a mainstream audience; the bulletproof consistency placed Drake in the forefront of rap as an heir to the throne.
The throne is still occupied by Drake but he’s no longer bulletproof. He’s permanently scarred by the knives of former friends, by secrets exposed in war. While the public perception of his persona has wavered over the years, he remains unrivaled by the numbers. If there’s a record to be broken, Drake will break it. Album sales, album streams, Billboard streaks—it’s all topped and topped again. For all his success, the critique that Drake hasn’t displayed artistic growth still hangs over him like the undisputed classic that continues to elude him. But in his world, the formula isn’t broken. He continues to refine what works and what continues to succeed. It’s the stagnancy of an unchanging king who wants to live within the Kodak moment of a perfect kingdom, ignoring the fact that the times are changing. Yet, he’s too big for hip-hop to change without him. —Yoh