Updated: May 28, 2021
What is competition/I'm tryna raise the bar high/Who tryna jump and get it/You're better off tryna skydive/ - Kendrick Lamar "Control", 2013
"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!"
These fiery bars sent shockwaves throughout hip-hop, with living legends like Cassidy and Fabolous responding to the verse alongside as seasoned veterans like Lupe Fiasco and B.o.B, rising stars like Joey Bada$$ and King Los, even superstars like like Kevin Hart weighed in, albeit as his persona Chocolate Drop.
But this isn't about those rappers. This is about the actual effect of the gauntlet Lamar threw down to the eleven artists he specifically mentioned by name. I want to use Metacritic scores to judge growth, for the simple reason that it's an aggregator, meaning it provides a somewhat balanced view of an album. To be honest, I have very strong opinions on every single rapper on this list, and there are a few I've stopped listening to because something about them didn't fit my tastes. We'll go in the order Lamar mentioned named, discussing their album scores pre and post-Control.
Cole World: The Sideline Story - 75
Born Sinner - 71
2014 Forest Hills Drive - 67
4 Your Eyez Only - 75
KOD - 73
I think it's interesting Kendrick not only dropped J. Cole's name first but referred to him by his real name. Kendrick and Cole have always been intertwined, despite only releasing three songs: HiiiPower in 2012, Forbidden Fruit in 2014 and the Black Friday double song in 2015. Kendrick and Cole almost remind me of Lebron James and Dwyane Wade. Similar to James and Wade, both of them shared a rookie year but competed with each other throughout their careers. We've been waiting for them to unite a la the 2011 Heat, but that seems more and more like a fantasy.
J. Cole's star has risen in recent years, but it seems the critics weren't quite as kind. I personally loved 2014 Forest Hills Drive, but according to the Metacritic aggregate, there was only one album that even matched the peak of J. Cole's debut album. I think this might be where some of the divisiveness J. Cole has experienced begins to show itself. His die-hard fans represent for him and the Dreamville clique, whereas the everyone else seems to dismiss him as boring. His numbers were surprisingly low to me, albeit consistent, which raises an interesting question on what matters more, quality or consistency.
Live From The Underground - 78
Cadillactica - 88
4eva Is A Mighty Long Time -80
K.R.I.T. Iz Here -69
Big K.R.I.T. is one of those guys your friend would describe as the best rapper you've never heard of. Besides the posse cut modern classic that was 1Train, K.R.I.T. was introduced to me by a friend of mine from Birmingham, about two hours away from K.R.I.T.'s hometown of Meridian, Mississippi. I've always wondered if the deep south was where his influence would stop and it seems like it has, despite the critical acclaim of the first two post-Control projects.
This sort of regional hero status affects a lot of rappers, but the south is such a hotbed of trends and talent, the double-edged sword of living and creating in an area that dictates so many trends can make or break a lot of artists. After label issues caused him to leave Def Jam, his scores began to dip, culminating in a critically disappointing 2019 release.
Attention Deficit - 77
Ambition - 69
The Gifted - 65
The Album About Nothing - 66
Shine - N/A
Wow...That's Crazy - N/A
Wale might be one of the saddest hip-hop stories as far as industry treatment goes. I swear the entire All-City Chess Club squad has been cursed with label issues. Asher Roth, B.o.B, Charles Hamilton, The Cool Kids, Diggy, Dosage, Blu, J. Cole, Lupe Fiasco, every single artist in that clique has had some sort of problem with the record company (and almost all of them were with Atlantic). His affiliation with Rick Ross' Maybach Music Group is always interesting since MMG doesn't seem to align with Wale's musical style, but after nearly ten years at that label, it's encouraging to see he's found a home.
The absolute freefall of Wale's stature is baffling. Only three artists are missing Metacritic scores, and Wale's reason for missing scores seems to be because not enough people reviewed them. I actually really liked The Album About Nothing, and while it's not setting the world on fire, it's certainly better than a 66 score. He's released albums every two years since his debut as well as a ton of mixtapes and visibility with ESPN and WWE, so I don't know what more he needs to do to get people excited about a new Wale project.
Lord Willin' - N/A
Hell Hath No Fury - 89
'Til The Casket Drops - 64
My Name Is My Name - 81
King Push -- Darkest Before The Dawn: The Prelude - 85
Daytona - 86
Pusha T is a unique case in this list because everything he did pre-Control was in Clipse, a duo with his brother (No) Malice. This legendary group predates Metacritic, explaining the lack of a score for their debut. By the time the GOOD Music president was ready to release his own music, Pusha T released back-to-back-to-back albums that were above 80, with each one being better than the last.
It's a shame it took a beef with Drake to put Pusha T in the mainstream, but don't let that distract you from the rising quality of Pusha T's discography. There may or may not be a ceiling to how good he can be, but Pusha T has always had a good choice of producers, whether that is Pharrell, Kanye West or The-Dream, so I think as long as he maintains his calculating approach to hip-hop, the title of "Best Rapper Alive" Complex bestowed on him in 2018 might be his to lose.
Dreams And Nightmares - 69
Dreams Worth More Than Money - 74
Wins And Losses - 72
Championships - 77
Meek Mill is very similar to Big K.R.I.T., but he's transcended that "regional hero" label through his legal fights. I'm a bit afraid his cultural relevance might overshadow his musical influence, much like Nipsey Hussle, but I'm not sure if that's a problem. The exciting thing I see with Meek is him finally having the freedom to create.
You can see that with his rising scores as well. After being plagued with legal issues throughout most of his career, he was able to focus and deliver a very good album with Championships. No more Drake beef. No more legal issues. Now with the support of Jay-Z, Robert Kraft and Van Jones, I think he's primed to make a big impact in his future releases.
LONG.LIVE.A$AP - 75
AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP - 76
Testing - 67
A$AP Rocky has the smallest discography of any of the active rappers, but he arguably has the biggest impact on this list. He's made himself the ultimate slash: rapper/actor/designer/director/model, you name it, Rocky has done it. He's the face of A$AP Mob and the de facto leader of the group, which has kept his name in the hip-hop sphere through a ton of features with artists all over the musical spectrum and group albums with his own crew.
I'm a massive fan of Rocky, mostly due to ALLA, his sophomore album. That being said, I completely understand why Testing didn't receive the same acclaim as his last two albums. It completely lives up to its title, but even for me, it took a while to acquire the taste of the album. He's promised a collaborative album with Tyler, The Creator, Rocky's next album All Smiles is rumored to be out soon and it's pretty certain a third Mob album will eventually be out, but my question with Rocky is if his massive artistic ambitions can ever be realized.
Thank Me Later - 75
Take Care - 78
Nothing Was The Same - 79
Views - 69
Scorpion - 67
I'm not the biggest Drake fan and his inclusion is actually one of the main reasons I chose to refer to Metacritic rather than my own opinions. His pre-Control output is easily the best of anyone on this list. The trilogy of Thank Me Later, Take Care, and Nothing Was The Same is probably up there with Kanye West and Eminem as far as the best first three albums by a rapper.
O how the mighty have fallen. There are probably a couple of reasons for such a collapse afterward, but my guess is the fact Drake's main musical output is not albums. It's singles and collections of singles. Since 2007, he has 133 singles, with 75 of those being features on other artists' songs. He's released three mixtapes, two EPs and a compilation album since 2015. With that much output, it makes sense he wouldn't focus on traditional albums. That means on average, Drake releases eleven singles a year and two collections of songs a year besides traditional studio albums. Plus he tours around once every other year. All this has positioned Drake as the blueprint for millennial moguls similar to how Jay-Z was for Generation X.
Honestly, I could leave this entry blank and it would be a fair assessment of Jay Electronica's career to most listeners. His only album was released in 2007, a low-key, enigmatic fifteen-minute project released on MySpace. But since then, his only other output has been the Exhibit A and Exhibit C singles and a bevy of guest appearances, four on singles and eighteen on albums.
He's kind of the Best Rapper Never. The talent is undeniable and his singles and the buzz around him alone got him signed to Roc Nation. But still, the lack of output despite constant teases and announcements turns him from internet urban legend to the rap equivalent of Half-Life 3 - hype waning for what should be legendary.
Finally Famous - 69
Hall Of Fame - 72
Dark Sky Paradise - 72
I Decided -67
This is Big Sean's song and each artist's verse is excellent in its own right, but this verse is probably the best Big Sean has ever sounded to me. The scores seem to agree, with Hall Of Fame (the album sample issues prevented this song from being on) being tied for his best album.
Big Sean is really one of the reasons I chose Metacritic rather than sales. His affiliation with GOOD Music almost guarantees him good commercial results and his two collaborative albums, one with former girlfriend Jhene Aiko and one with star producer Metro Boomin (Side note, if you're making an album with only one producer, how is that not a studio album? Isn't the producer acting as the executive producer at that point?) definitely keeps him in the blogosphere. Critically, he's never really been a darling, kind of being a cult hero who critics keep waiting for his breakout.
TYLER, THE CREATOR
Goblin - 72
Wolf - 70
Cherry Bomb - 69
Scum Fuck Flower Boy - 84
Igor - 81
Of everyone on this list, Tyler has been the most fluid musically. Goblin and Wolf were sarcastic, juvenile masterpieces that make up another fantastic trilogy along with the depends-on-who-you-ask mixtape/debut Bastard, which ranked on Complex's Top 50 Albums list. After those three albums, his style began a change, with the punkish Cherry Bomb being the catalyst.
Flower Boy is an absolute masterpiece, delving into identity and love and sexuality while maintaining his introspective rowdiness and raucous thoughtfulness over a perfectly sequenced album. Igor was a worthy successor and seems to mark a transition to a more R&B style, similar to Childish Gambino. And similar to Gambino, the question is if Tyler's rap career is over.
Blue Slide Park - 58
Watching Movies With The Sound Off - 73
GO:OD AM - 71
The Divine Feminine - 70
Swimming - 78
Before his death, Mac Miller was starting to come into his own as an artist. Blue Slide Park was abysmal, even by fans' standards. By his sophomore release, Miller had recaptured the essence of his mixtapes, albeit in a more grown-up way. He was still improving over his next three albums and I personally don't think he had peaked yet. Swimming was his highest rated album, although I think The Divine Feminine is his best project. Mac started to explore musically as time went on, incorporating elements of R&B and funk into his hip-hop, becoming one of the most well-rounded artists of his generation.
Drugs were a major part of his music, which was the ultimate double-edged sword for an artist like Mac. So much of what he does is run by emotions, which has created some amazing art. But that amazing art based on experience had to have taken a toll on him and although drugs are nothing new to hip-hop, or any sort of music for that matter, having a habit that went from weed to codeine to pills to professional highs and personal lows, things were always going to be teetering on a knife's edge,
Rest in peace, Mac.
WHO JUMPED AND GOT IT?
Of the eleven artists Kendrick Lamar mentioned, we've seen some of the greatest rappers of all-time emerge. Pusha T is the veteran throwback, a man out of time being an idol-turned-rival as a sort of reminder to hip-hop's grittier days, like watching Vince Carter dunking on a hyped rookie. Tyler, The Creator and A$AP Rocky have transcended hip-hop in ways that personify the DIY ethos of Los Angeles skaters and the flashy hustle of Harlem drug dealers, respectively. Drake turned into a commercial powerhouse that put an entire country on the hip-hop map, energizing Toronto into a hotbed for undiscovered talent. Meek Mill capitalized on his struggles and rebuilt himself into a paragon of criminal reform. J. Cole, the self-proclaimed “middle child” of rap is hip-hop’s most promising label boss, the Dreamville label having some of the fastest rising stars in rap. Big K.R.I.T. and Wale seemed primed for breakouts, but seem to have lost their footing despite their status in their hometowns. Mac Miller’s death snuffed a promising light, but he had successfully carved out his own lane, paving the way for rappers like Juice WRLD, Lil Uzi Vert and Lil Peep.
But I think the most amazing artist is the one who challenged the rap world to begin with. Since Control, Lamar has released two albums. To Pimp A Butterly scored a 96. Damn. scored a 95. The person who’s jumped the highest is the one who set the bar. Kendrick Lamar as turned himself into the undisputed king of hip-hop, even telling the threats to his throne they have a free shot at him. Omar Little’s wisdom holds true: When you come at the king, you best not miss.