Competition has been key in hip hop since the beginning.
There’s been great competition and garbage competition, along with positive (musical) and negative (violent) outlets for this competition. From b-boying to rap battling, hip hop has only grown when folks bring their best.
As long as hip hop’s been around, it’s been the best way to duke it out, whether on some cardboard or on a mic. In the 90s shit got real and rappers started getting gunned down, but then luckily Mos Def and Talib Kweli solved all that with Blackstar. Then in the early 2000s Nas and Jay-Z beefed (and Ether was born) but they settled it in the studio rather than in the streets. Since then, most rap beef has been settled with mics, and the last few years have seen the gauntlet thrown down by a few rappers who are trying to raise the bar of competition in rap. The first of this wave was Kendrick Lamar.
Control isn’t even a Kendrick song, it’s a Big Sean song featuring Jay Electronica and Kendrick, but most people noticed it because of Kendrick’s verse. In it, he ends up naming a bunch of rappers (including Big K.R.I.T., J. Cole, and Big Sean and Jay Electronica, who were in the studio with him) and not only claiming he’s the best of all of them (and the king of both coasts), but that he won’t stop until all their fans don’t care about them anymore.
Control got a lot of buzz, and a lot of responses from a lot of rappers (most of whom weren’t even named by Kendrick.) The best song that came out in the aftermath wasn’t even a response to Control. Big K.R.I.T. did mention it, though.
In Mt. Olympus, K.R.I.T. does claim he’s the best, but his bigger point is that people gotta start taking the South seriously. K.R.I.T. is justifiably mad that it took folks 10 mixtapes before they started taking him seriously, so he just says fuck em for sleeping on the South and just claims he is the King. by the end of the track, you’ll probably agree.
Finally, just recently, Cole dropped Fire Squad, saying it’s “silly” to argue about “who gon snatch the crown” because “white people have snatched the sound.” J. Cole took it a different direction by ignoring who the best was (although, to be fair, he does claim he’s the God just a few tracks earlier in the album) and trying to refocus other black rappers on keeping hip hop and being guardians of it. I mean, he’s definitely calling out Eminem, Macklemore and Iggy Azalea (not to mention Justin Timberlake), but it’s less a diss track than a call to action. In a way, it’s a call for unification. It’ll be interesting to see what the response will be.