"Competition breeds excellence." This quote is commonly used as motivation during back-breaking Marine training programs (I know this because I just googled it, obviously), but it could just as easily be applied to hip-hop. Since its inception, the genre has seen many of its keystone moments ignite from the sparks of blazing hot rivalry. Canibus and LL Cool J spat some of their most succinct, inventive and high-impact rhymes while throwing fearsome lyrical barbs at one another. Same goes for KRS-One and Marley Marl, N.W.A and Ice Cube, Biggie and Tupac, Jay-Z and Nas and countless other rappers, both high-profile and underground. Rapping, after all, was created on street corners as a way to avoid violence, using rhymes instead of fists to settle conflicts.
That spirit of competition in hip-hop was rekindled in a big way last week by the verse heard 'round the world: Kendrick Lamar's feature on Big Sean's "Control." As bears little repeating, Kendrick utilized the lengthy diatribe to call out many of his contemporaries by name, throwing down the guantlet for a return to dynamic, competitive lyricism in hip-hop and using his rhymes to deal the first blow to, well, pretty much everyone, their mom, grandma, great aunt, gardener, etc.
"I'm usually homeboys with the same niggas I'm rhymin' with," rapped Lamar ominously, "...but this is hip-hop and them niggas should know what time it is." Since the track was first aired last week, many, including myself, have hailed the verse as a call to arms for a genre that, as of late, has been largely dominated by a plethora of complacent, mindless party raps about molly, Bugattis, and Tom Ford (Interestingly, one of the rappers who Lamar's verse lets off the hook is Jay-Z, whose latest album revels in many of the ills plaguing the current state of hip-hop).
What's great about Kendrick's verse, aside from the fact that it's a tireless masterclass in classic hip-hop lyricism, is that the opening salvo is of the artistic breed, not the material one. Hip-hop today, and much of popular culture as well, has developed an outsized focus on a material-driven competition, as opposed to a quality-driven one. Who owns more cars, rocks higher-end duds, pays for more designer beats or sells more records has, in many ways, completely usurped who is actually making the highest-quality music. Kendrick seems to be pointing out this distinction when he states, "I ain't rockin' no more designer shit, white tees and Nike Cortez', this is Red Corvettes Anonymous." Clearly, Kendrick's taking hip-hop's elite on a much needed trip to sports-car rehab.
In an intriguing twist, the opposite corner of the pop music cosmos from Kendrick & Co bore witness to its own competition recently, albeit a much more superficial one. In the past week, two of pop music's most prominent doyennes, Katy Perry and Lady GaGa, both dropped their highly-anticipated new singles, "Roar" and "Applause," respectively. Almost immediately, the internet lit up with blog posts and tweets pitting the two women against each other. "Katy Perry and Lady GaGa Duke It Out," read the headline on Rolling Stone. "Katy Perry almost triples Lady GaGa's sales!," gloated Perez Hilton. Personally, I think PopJustice took the cake: "Katy Perry vs Lady GaGa: THE ULTIMATE FACEOFF" (Is this pop music or a monster truck show?).
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece that discussed the ever-increasing prevalence of pop star cults. This GaGa / Perry sales battle, one that was completely manufactured by fans with the assistance of the media, represents one of the more disturbing side effects of these celebrity sects. A casual twitter search for 'Katy Perry Lady GaGa' produced a literal avalanche of tweets, not necessarily pitting the merits of their tracks against one another, but rather who was going to outsell the other on iTunes or receive the most YouTube views. Twitter user @arthusandnico flaunted: "Lady gaga dropping on iTunes. Katy Perry stays #1 #roar." Right below it, @monsterkid tweeted: "Lady Gaga's 'Applause' audio has more plays than Katy Perry's 'Roar' lyric video."
Later in the week, things escalated to the point of violence when GaGa's fans, known rather fittingly as "Little Monsters," began sending death threats to Perez Hilton and his newborn son over comments he made on his site regarding "Roar" outselling "Applause" on iTunes (It's worth noting that GaGa played a role in fueling this when she tweeted publicly about Hilton "stalking" her New York apartment building). "Sending threats of any kind, using hateful or abusive language, and the provoking of others on the internet is not supported by me or anything that I stand for," GaGa was, for some reason, forced to state. The fact that the release of two pop singles and their respective sales on iTunes indirectly resulted in death-threats against a one-year-old speaks volumes about the dark side of these fundamentalist pop fan-bases.
Against a backdrop of this war of the words on twitter, however, it was reported this afternoon that both singles debuted healthily, each reaching the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Clearly, both tracks are being embraced, and Perry and GaGa are each benefitting from the immense pre-release buzz ahead of their fall album releases, regardless of who "wins" this fabricated Singles Showdown. Each has also individually dismissed the notion of a "battle" or competition for sales, and moreover have paid respect to one another on Twitter and in interviews. Unlike Lamar's artistic battle cry to his peers, this sales skirmish is being waged independently of the artists themselves and even more disconcertingly, of the art itself.
Towards the end of his "Control" verse, Kendrick asks, "What is competition? I'm trying to raise the bar high. Who's trying to jump it?" Indeed, the establishment of this verse means that any rapper who wants to be considered a contemporary of Lamar's has to rap with as much lyrical ferocity and dexterity as he does in this verse and, it should be said, throughout his entire catalogue. This can only mean great things are coming in hip-hop: when artists push each other creatively, whether it's Nas and Jay, Prince and Michael, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, or even Picasso and Modigliani, the results can often be thrilling for the fans.
However, what made these past rivalries so great was not artists racing to garner approval from the public (and, indirectly, their record labels) based on sales, but rather from their peers based on their ability to do the best work possible. Prince's albums never sold as much as Michael's, likewise with Nas and Jay, but that didn't diminish their competitive verve when it came to their work. By focussing on "Roar" selling 400,000 copies as opposed to "Applause's" 200,000, we, the fans, are doing ourselves and these women a disservice by taking the focus off the material they are producing and putting it on the amount of money they are generating (Newsflash: it's a shitload for both women, and none for you).
And it shows! Both "Roar" and "Applause" are well-done contemporary pop singles with soaring, addictive hooks, but neither is particularly thrilling in its innovation or artistry. I like them fine, but when the pressure is on to simply outsell your rival, we are robbed of the real thrill of something that's actually new and fresh in the race to move the most product. Surely "competition breeds excellence" when used correctly, but a premium on the bottom line just as certainly breeds something far uglier: stagnation.