“It’s funny how one verse can f*#! Up the game!”
– Jay Z in ‘Imaginary Player’
By Sage Salvo, Updated 1/26/14
“So I’ma have to diss and bro, you could get a smack for this, I ain’t no joke!” said legendary emcee Rakim in the classic 1987 track ‘I ain’t no joke’. Less than a year later, another rap act, the duo EPMD, crafted lyrics of “Smack me and I’ll smack you back” in their single ‘You’re a Customer’. Thus was the climate of hip-hop’s golden age when emcees were as territorial as pit bulls and barked in rhymes that warned of a more deadly bite. Collaboration was minimal, insults could be subliminal, but the battles were legendary. And fans have always loved epic battles.
In August of last year, rapper Kendrick Lamar brought Hip-Hop fans to the edge of our seats and set the digital world ablaze with his verse on Big Sean’s song ‘Control’. The salvo (pun intended) heard round the world was worded as follows: “[…] that goes for Jermaine Cole, Big KRIT, 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 [expletive]/ Tryna make sure your core fans never heard of you [expletive].. ‘. With a dazzling array of punch-lines and flawless timing, Kendrick Lamar reminded some of us of another emcee who brought Hip Hop to its knees with his guest appearances. Circa 1997, the legendary battle-rapper Cannibus appeared on several songs and completely overpowered every emcee who rhymed on the same song as him. But, then Cannibus put out an album. And it was Cannibus who became the prototype for the super talented bar-heavy emcee who can’t string together a dope enough hook, beat, and verse to save his artistic life! This prototype is modeled out in emcees of similar ilk like Joe Budden, Joell Ortiz, Papoose, and Cassidy. All are truly great emcees who now rely on overseas tours, the internet, and mixtapes just to stay afloat. How truly fitting then, that of all the emcees named in Kendrick Lamar’s verse, not one has lyrically responded with an equal volume of dedicated verse. ‘True’ hip-hop fans hate this. However, Budden, Ortiz, Papoose, and Cassidy each responded in exactly their typical punch-line and bar heavy manner illustrated countless times on their respective mixtapes.
However, the economics of mixtapes just don’t make sense. Perhaps because the economics of ‘bars’ don’t make sense either. Hip Hop has a typical verse and chorus/hook pattern that yields 16 bar lines per verse with three verses per song for 48 bars per song. So let’s inject economic reason here. Mixtapes are about getting your ‘name’ out there and introducing yourself to your intended audience. Hence, why they’re commonly free and/or easily freely downloaded. Joe Budden, Joell Ortiz, Cassidy, and Papoose each rhyme continuous bars for no less than 3 minutes straight, approximately 36 bars, in their response to Kendrick Lamar’s verse. But for established emcees, why would you promote free music? Free stuff sends a message through the population that your work is not worth a price tag. When’s the last time Jay Z put out a free mixtape? For that matter, try downloading the song ‘Control’ right now. [Hint: You’ll have to pay]
The lack of bars in response from the named rappers in Kendrick Lamar’s verse should be oddly familiar to us actually. We’ve witnessed this behavior in hip-hop before but also from another young black man of enormous rhetorical talent, in President Obama. Just a month shy of his 43rd birthday in July of 2004, then Senator Barack Obama dazzled America at the Democratic National Convention with an array of illustrations and testimonials of what America’s true potential is. His powerful oratory propelled him to the throne of POTUS in 2008 but not before a sparring match with the mighty Clintons. In a mark of ingenious politics however, Obama never actually struck back at Hillary or Bill Clinton through the campaign battle. And almost as if he plagiarized from President Abraham Lincoln, President Obama then maneuvered for the Clintons to become his most effective allies with Hillary becoming Secretary of State and Bill galvanizing a tepid re-election campaign for President Obama next election.
In Doris Goodwin’s book, ‘Team of Rivals’, she writes “That Lincoln, after winning the presidency, made the unprecedented decision to incorporate his eminent rivals into his political family…. It soon became clear, however, that Abraham Lincoln would emerge the undisputed captain of this most unusual cabinet, truly a team of rivals.” Indeed, President Obama went onto to nominate and fill his cabinet with personalities who were once his political rivals and even some who were or would turn out to be his detractors [I cite Gates here].
Similarly, Another 43 year-old African American male seems to understand the value of having a Team of Rivals. Jay Z has confessed in recent interviews that he’s “…a serial collaborator.” With epic whole-album collaborations with the likes of Kanye West and R. Kelly as well as song collaborations with everyone from Lenny Kravitz, Linkin Park, The Roots, Cold Play, and Justin Timberlake, Jay Z certainly remedies the tensions in disparate aesthetic perspectives. With a monumental rap battle with Nas under his belt, Jay Z has proven his proclivity to collaborate with rivals as he and Nas have appeared on over five songs together since their historic rap battle.
Making great songs may be more about collaboration than individual talent. Advancing the analogy, success in general may be more about collaboration than individual talent.
In this new era of Creative Economy, collaboration is critical. Through the examples of President Obama and Jay Z, quite possibly, today’s young black male is more prone to collaboration, team-work, and goal accomplishment. At tonight’s 56th Grammy Awards, rapper Kendrick Lamar is up for seven nominations. His collaborations for possible grammy include Best Rap/Sung Collaboration with Mary J. Blige and Best Rap song with A$AP Rocky, 2 Chainz, and his primary rival, Drake. K dot also goes toe to toe with his rival Drake for Best Rap Album. Though unlikely, it’s possible one of these two rivals could share the Grammy for Best Rap Song with the other while garnering a victory over the other should either win Best Rap Album. What would be the stroke of political genius, as seen with President Lincoln, President Barack Obama, and Jay Z, is if both these artists decide in the near future to bring each other into their respective folds, and work collaboratively on larger music goals.
This is a significant message for David Johns and the newly created White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. Through their work, hopefully our education systems will more fully prepare our young black and brown boys for functionality in the Creative Economy through both their respective and collective brilliance and collaboration.