At a time when many artists are resting on their laurels, a battle for supremacy and bragging rights is just what hip-hop needs.
Hip-hop’s culture has traditionally been predicated on four key elements: MC’ing, DJ’ing, Beatboxing and Graffiti Writing. With the latter two more by-products of the renegade movement that originated in the minds of the Bronx’s expressive youths rather than being closely aligned with its current guise, it begs the question as to whether there are persisting attributes that are more befitting of the worldwide phenomenon that it has since become. First brought to the fore by the warring factions of Boogie Down Productions and The Juice Crew as they sought to assert their respective borough’s pre-eminence over the rap game, one defining characteristic of life on the artistic frontlines has been the irrepressible urge to test your prowess against your fellow creative minds. Whether it manifests in displays of wordplay, a perceived slight or trespass on a fellow MC’s skillset, or in the morbid shape of violence, the desire to test your mettle against those perched at the genre’s highest totem is dyed in the wool of hip-hop like little else.
A student of the artform’s doctrines in every way, the practice of pitting the merits of your material against your contemporaries has been tantalizingly reignited by Atlanta’s J.I.D. Scarcely more than a few days after he offered a late contender for album of the year with earth-rattling sophomore project Dicaprio 2, the J. Cole protégé didn’t mince his words on his aspirations for the Dreamville collective in the years to come. Boasting artists such as Bas, EarthGang, Ari Lennox and Lute among others, an interview with Complex saw the “East Atlanta Playboy” throw the gauntlet down to their Los Angeles based counterparts in Top Dawg Entertainment: "We competing with TDE. That's what needs to be known. Dreamville, we gotta step this shit the fu*k up. Cause them n***as is fire! I don't even know any entities that I fu*k with, but I fu*k with TDE." Derived from admiration rather than animosity, this call-to-arms hasn’t gone unnoticed by the label that comes complete with one of the finest rosters ever to assemble under one incorrigibly inventive banner.
J.I.D - Image by HNHH
A hot prospect in his own right with an undeterred self-belief akin to J.I.D’s, TDE signee Reason responded to his light-hearted provocation after the two met at Rolling Loud. Comically captioned as “ran into this random guy at @RollingLoud he said he was part of some dream team or something idk. Really cool guy tho,” the image of the two conversing intently sent a clear message that the respect he’d shown to the spiritual home of Kendrick, Schoolboy Q, Jay Rock and more was reciprocated, but that his challenge had been duly noted.
At a time where many hip-hop heads have been left disenchanted by uniformed passibility acting as the low barometer for critical or commercial success, the news that two factions revered for thought-provoking output won’t be banding together, but will instead draw the battle lines, has left many clamouring for dream hook-ups rather than hotly-contested square-offs. Despite the fact that any ardent connoisseur of theartform would salivate over the announcement of the long-gestating collaboration between Kendrick and Cole, to decry these two labels for respectively wanting supremacy is to negate the competitive spirit that’s a crucial aspect of hip-hop’s lifeblood. There is a misconception that beef and rivalry are indivisible from one another, but this could not be further from the truth. Where one is formed on genuine; or in the case of some of today’s artists, manufactured, hostility, the other is more in line with a sporting contest with the clear goal of crowning a victor and putting as much of a deficit between you and your opponents in the process.
On J.I.D’s part, there was likely no apprehension in sending this jovial shot across the bow to TDE, considering its de-facto leader, Kendrick Lamar, once lobbed an incendiary device into what he saw as a wilting and detrimentally harmonious eco-system with "Control." Alongside stealing all of the headlines from a track that featured verses from Big Sean and the elusive Jay Electronica, this 2013 offering saw K-Dot proclaim that "I’m usually homeboys with the same n***s I’m rhyming with, but this is hip-hop and these ‘n***s’ should know what time it is" before providing a laundry list of MCs that he wished to massacre on wax. Cole was among the inventory of rappers that Kendrick wanted to displace, a frontrunner that could viably protest K. Dot's status as hip-hop’s kingpin. This friendly rivalry has simply been inherited by their respective crews.
On the subject of the rosters at their disposal, there has never been a time where they’ve been on such an equal footing when it comes to vitality, artistic distinction and relevance as they are currently. Bolstered by not only Dicaprio 2, but the globe-trotting sound of Bas’ breakout project Milky Way, as well as the clear anticipation for EarthGang, Cole’s claim that "Dreamville stacked like the warriors" seems apt (lest we forget, Lute, Cozz and Ari Lennox are only warming up). Coupled with the label mastermind’s engulfing opus KOD, it could be argued that Dreamville goes into 2019 a step ahead of their West Coast rivals. That’s not to say that TDE has laid dormant in 2018 however, offering stellar projects from SiR, Reason’s debut There You Have It and most notably, Jay Rock’s Redemption. Now that the seeds of war between the two have been sown in the listeners’ mind, success of upcoming projects from both camps will be made all the more pivotal due to its effects on our internal scoreboards.
Jay Rock - Image by HNHH
While the status of Kendrick’s new project remains unclear, the release slates of both imprints seem more than capable of besieging the industry in 2019. On Dreamville’s starting line-up, there is Cole’s The Fall Off, EarthGang’s full-length Mirrorland, a new offering from Ari Lennox, whispers of a ‘conceptual project’ between J.I.D & No ID and that’s without even broaching whether the oft-teased Revenge Of The Dreamers 3 will finally emerge. Meanwhile in Cali, the ever-imposing Schoolboy Q, who purposefully delayed his new record after Mac Miller’s untimely passing, will be returning to the fray, likely alongside the enigmatic Ab-Soul, Tennessee import Isiah Rashad and the critical darling that is SZA. With both Dreamville president Imbrahim Hamad and TDE’s patriarch Anthony ‘Top’ Tiffith’ proclaiming 2019 to be a big year, the looming specter of competition breathing down their necks should lead every artist to hone their new projects until they border on perfection.
Harbouring all the makings of the most contentious tug-of-war over the market share since the days of Bad Boy and Death Row, the crucial difference is that each bout will be decided by accomplished music rather than bullet wounds, which makes it not a fight to be worrisome over, but one to bask in the sheer brilliance of.
At time when countless stars are criticized for complacently riding waves or relying on a well-trodden sound, the challenge that J.I.D issued will not only push the parties involved, but encourage hip-hop at large to reach a higher plateau. In that sense, this declaration of war from J.I.D is not a cause for alarm but a time to rejoice, in what has all the makings of a compelling and historic event for culture as we know it.