Five years removed from Kendrick Lamar’s “Control” verse and it feels like we just stopped talking about it. The verse was one of the most infamous hip-hop moments of this era, where literally every hip-hop-related conversation surrounded Kendrick Lamar’s soul-splitting, earth-shattering, Infinity Stones-ending verse. Maybe we’re going too far with the hyperbole, but the verse represents a major shift among the new breed of MCs. Friendships, support, and comity amongst hip-hop’s biggest names (Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Big Sean, Wale, A$AP Rocky) felt compromised when “Control” dropped. The “happy-to-be-here” outlook of celebrating new success was decisively over and true competition in rap finally returned.
While everyone focused on the tenacity of Kendrick’s verse, Big Sean was the real composer behind the song. The Detroit-rapper emerged as G.O.O.D Music’s prodigal talent after a year of show-stealing verses (G.O.O.D Music’s “Mercy,” Justin Bieber’s “As Long As You Love Me,” Meek Mill’s “Burn”) and a critically-acclaimed mixtape (Detroit). The stars were aligning for his highly-anticipated sophomore album Hall of Fame, an album that boasted a dream collaboration between Kid Cudi and Nas, No I.D production, and of course, the Kanye West co-sign. “Control,” unquestionably an album-worthy track featuring Kendrick Lamar and Jay Electronica, was left off the album due to sample clearance issues. However, that didn’t stop the track from seeing the light of day. Determined to deliver “straight rap shit” to the people, Sean dropped the record off to longtime purveyor of “straight rap shit,” HOT 97’s Funkmaster Flex. By 10:00 PM EST, the biggest Flex bomb had been dropped and “Control” was unleashed to the world.
From its opening moments, “Control” sounds like a hip-hop epic in the vein of classics like “It’s All About The Benjamins” or “Ante Up.” The combativeness, bravado, and intensity of the song felt reminiscent of the lyrical flexes traded by JAY-Z, DMX, Eminem, 50 Cent, and Nas during hip-hop’s golden era. Big Sean and Jay Electronica brought their best verses, but it is without question that Kendrick Lamar stole the show. The Compton MC constructed his verse with surgical precision and sent shockwaves through hip-hop. In the verse, he donned himself the “King of New York,” a deep cutting declaration as a West Coast-bred MC and swiped his hip-hop peers by name – 11 of them, in fact – and vowed not only to murder them on the mic but also to have their fan bases denounce them, too.
It was, without a doubt, a moment. Twitter was on fire, conversations came to a halt, and all publications – from Complex and XXL to Huffington Post and USA Today – reported on it. Kendrick Lamar’s “Control” verse became worthy of mainstream coverage:
“What Lamar did was force the conversation front and center in a way no other rapper has ever managed to do before.” (NPR)
“In an era when the third element of hip-hop is leveraging relationships (rather than breakdancing), and the fourth is protecting corporate partnerships (in place of graffiti), when there is no single dominant voice but rather a plethora of them, fighting for control of the narrative, Kendrick just centralized the discussion. His “Control” verse is a bold statement about who matters and who does not.” (Complex)
“By putting everyone on notice, Lamar solidifies his place as not only one of rap’s most gifted lyricists, but positions himself as a defender of the culture, inspiring his peers to put more effort into their work.” (Huffington Post)
Big Sean was one of the first MCs to respond, and was proud to be the mastermind behind the moment. “That’s what it needs to get back to… It gave me the feeling of how hip-hop was, how it used to be,” Sean told VIBE. Hip-hop vets like Jadakiss, Prodigy, Raekwon, Diddy, Styles P, and Pusha T echoed the sentiment.
But it created waves in the industry, too. Nicki Minaj, who was absent from Kendrick Lamar’s hit list, responded, “I’m the Queen and King of New York… you better respect my muthaf—in gangsta bitch.” The verse also kicked off a series of back-and-forth jabs between Kendrick and Drake. “It just sounded like an ambitious thought to me,” Drake told Billboard. “That’s all it was. I know good and well that Kendrick’s not murdering me, at all, in any platform.” Joey Bada$$, Lupe Fiasco, Papoose, Joell Ortiz, Cassidy, King Los, and many other MCs hit the studio to strike back, too. It was clear that Kendrick ignited something in hip-hop, and everyone wanted to defend their crown.
Five years later and Kendrick Lamar’s declaration on “Control” still stands as one of the greatest moments in recent hip-hop history. It was a career-defining performance, one that propelled him to mainstream stardom and quickly made Kendrick the most in-demand feature in rap.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2018.