You can hear JAY-Z’s iconic laugh in the above tweet—one of the eight he sent between January 1, 2012, and December 31, 2012—but the quote is a rather obscure reference to an incredibly insulated subculture of hip-hop: battle rap.
It’s no surprise the greatest rapper of all time (who once battled DMX in a Bronx pool hall for almost five hours) is tapped into the underworld of battle rap, but the extent of his fandom might be.
“Jay-Z has probably watched every SMACK DVD, Grind Time battle, freestyle, and every battle that has ever been on YouTube. If you ever battle in any situation that has any remote type of promotion, he’s seen it. He calls me like, ‘Please come watch this battle.’ Jay watches all of them. I mean all of them. Every battle that has ever been on.” —Young Guru, Complex
Of the countless battles that JAY-Z has likely forced Young Guru to watch with him, there’s a reason the GOAT tweeted about this battle in particular—it’s widely regarded as the greatest round in battle rap history.
Loaded Lux, a Harlem native, is a battle rap legend with an extensive resume; he was fresh off of a six-year hiatus when he made his grand return at “Summer Madness 2,” an event hosted by SMACK / URL (Ultimate Rap League) in 2012. Lux’s opponent was a Detroit rapper named Calicoe, an up-and-comer quickly climbing the ranks of the URL, and the son of Blackface, a prominent member of the Black Mafia Family—one of the biggest drug conglomerates in the nation, founded in Detroit by the Flenory brothers (Big Meech and Southwest T) during the ‘90s—who, at the time of the battle, was incarcerated. With lines like “BMF, that’s signed, stitched, read it in the fine print,” Calicoe’s lineage is integral to his gangster persona.
“And basically, if you ask the DEA or the task force agents, they’ll say: ‘All the coke on the streets of Atlanta came from BMF.’ [...] they had labs there and they would cut the kilos and then send them off to Miami, Detroit, St. Louis, New York, certain parts of South Carolina, Tennessee, and LA.” — Mara Shalhoup (author of BMF: The Rise and Fall of Big Meech and the Black Mafia Family), Miami New Times Interview
Onstage at Webster Hall, Lux is suited up from head to toe. The women in his entourage don mourning veils, holding black roses and memorial booklets, and a full-size casket is present on stage. Towards the end of his first round, a series of lines resonate with the crowd:
“You n****s came here playin’, it’s cool / But y’all gon’ leave givin’ headcounts / They didn’t even book you n****s rooms / I told ‘em Harlem Hospital givin’ beds out”
Fans of the Harlem veteran roar, with Lux taking a moment to revel in their praise, flashing a triumphant smirk toward Calicoe. The camera pans to the balcony: Busta Rhymes, standing next to a riled up Diddy, looks like he’s about to implode—eyes wide open, jaw dropped in disbelief.
After the commotion dies down, something inconceivable happens. “Hold on, hold on—let me get it together,” says Lux, his voice unusually shaky. He puts a hand to his temple and mumbles a few lines to himself.
Is he really choking?
The crowd’s disappointment becomes increasingly audible.
Calicoe shouts to the balcony: “Easy money! Put that 10 stacks up!” His next round begins, again, with his hyper-aggressive rap style, rattling off countless—albeit creative—gunplay metaphors. But this time, Lux quickly recalibrates, and, shortly into his third round, the battle turns into something else entirely.
Lux addresses the audience like an impassioned preacher at the pulpit. “I want y’all to picture this as I paint the slide / Tombstone grain inscribed, here lies my beloved, grave this wide,” he raps, turning to look Calicoe in his eyes.
“I mean I had that much love for you / I know that ‘cause you got that much hate for I / Don’t want you to hang your eye / Not for a second, lil n***a, catch it, brace your vibe / Be froze, for death is cold”
Lux then emphatically acts out the lines “I wanna search your soul / And hold onto whatever hole’s exposin’ the pain you hide / Bring me mine, n****a” as if he’s physically extracting a tangible void from Calicoe’s body. When a visibly exasperated Calicoe—who turns away and simply shakes his head—appears in the frame, onlookers can't believe there isn't actually a gaping hole in his chest.
“Now I don’t wanna break this bond, I just wanna break the cycle,” Lux continues.
As a Black man, he respects the sanctity of a father-son relationship, but for the sake of delivering his message, Calicoe’s BMF bloodline will be caught in the crossfire.
Lux breaks him down to a molecular level:
“You see, I take in mind your situation / And though I never met your father / I see a lot of his ways in your stride / I mean, you got that ‘talk it like I walk it’ kind of attitude / And you know it’s real good he gave you pride / Every son should be proud of his father / And I look at my little one and I want the same for mine / That’s why when I look up at you / I see what he can go through when a father don’t take the time”
Hysteria ensues; the tension is mounting. “He gon’ get this work,” Lux exclaims to the rabid crowd before directly addressing Calicoe: “You gon’ get this work, n***a.”
This impromptu exchange—the first of many—amid a heated battle is integral to the visceral element of battle rap. Lux ad-libs with venomous fervor, adrenaline surging through his system as he recognizes and takes full advantage of the tectonic shift in momentum; Calicoe, wiping the sweat off his forehead, half-heartedly offers a rebuttal: “I killed you.”
The specificity of Calicoe’s family ties allows Lux to avoid platitudes, and he continues getting viciously personal:
“He told you he had to do what he had to do / To put food on y’all plate to dine / You mean to tell me all that slangin' and bangin' was to give y’all greater lives? / When God gave him drive? / And that Big Meech backup singing-ass n***a left your moms out here alone for the latest ride? / That don’t plague your mind? / Them mistakes ain’t guides?”
The crowd erupts, a cacophony of cheers reverberating through Webster Hall. Suddenly, the energy has shifted–again.
Lux, weaponizing empathy, digs deeper into Calicoe’s psyche: “Tryin' to be like the only daddy you got / And I understand you wanna keep his name alive / But youngin, I’m tryin' to save you from your demise.” Later, he seamlessly pivots from endearment (“You said it yourself, ‘My pops was a real n***a’ / Youngin, that ain’t no lie”) to overarching truths (“He was in the business that the system perpetuates on the side / To keep us in the condition where we ain’t made to survive”) to rhetorical questions (“But you think he a God? Well, let me ask you this / Would you kill the world to save yourself, n***a?”) all in the same breath.
Calicoe now looks less like a Detroit gangster and more like a guilty child being scolded by his parents; it’s a jarring juxtaposition as Lux continues rapping about Calicoe’s incarcerated father. “Your pops wasn’t no gangsta, he was just another lost n***a,” Lux says, introducing the anchor of his entire verse.
In fact, this line is repeated so often that, by the end of the round, the audience can recite it word for word in real time; to be on the receiving end of such a dramatic, interactive verbal assault must have felt like a fever dream.
It seemed as if Loaded Lux conspired with the universe to make the stars align in his favor, and every minute detail crystallized into a timeless performance that borders on dramatic theatre: the funeral attire, the coffin, the choke, the ad-libs, the motif, and even Calicoe’s reactions. Lux raps with a preacher’s passion–masterfully manipulating tension with his cadence and intonation–gesturing like a manic conductor to bolster the gravity of his words.
The underlying power of Lux’s message is that of a broader stroke: it’s a PSA to the countless other battle rappers who shamelessly perpetuate these tropes in their rhymes and anybody who associates with or glorifies illicit, destructive lifestyles. Lux’s third round against Calicoe is a tour de force that transcends battle rap, and a line from his first round provides a chilling insight into the man responsible for such a singular moment: “I used to battle on the roof, the loser had to jump.”