The BET Awards cypher is, in part, a necessary nod to hip-hop traditionalism, where the ability to rap very well remains a touchstone. But it’s also an apologia for the garbage the station airs the other 364 days of the year, as well as emblematic of a strange, recent trend to turn the art of “lyricism” into a marketing tool. By isolating technically adept off-the-dome or (“off-the-dome”) hip-hop, it has the effect of, well, ghettoizing lyricism as a niche, a token element of the culture, dragged out for some cred points and nothing else. An easy way to answer the grousing real-hip-hop contingent, but also keep it moving.
This approach has hit a fever pitch in 2013 thanks to a series of well-rapped though otherwise wretched Eminem singles (“Survival,” “Berzerk,” “Rap God”) alongside, of course, Kendrick Lamar’s flashy, endless “Control” verse, which led to a few days of pandering radio-rap DJs praising dudes as “lyrical” — and a sea of healthy-competition responses — but ultimately gave way to the next rap talking point, from twerk troll Miley Cyrus to Drake’s album to Kanye vs. Kimmel.
The Top Dawg Entertainment cypher from this year’s BET Awards show made this whole rappity-rap stunt worth it, though. Kendrick, Schoolboy Q, Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, and TDE newbie Isiah Rashad crept on the infamous beat to Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones Pt. II” with the right mix of menace and word-piling joy. Whether their verses were all written and rehearsed and all that hardly matters, because it felt vibrant and real and spontaneous. Black Hippy aren’t a business conglomerate of dudes posing as a rap crew like Young Money or G.O.O.D. (who presumably think they’re too good for the cypher shtick, but aren’t), and they aren’t joyless jerks like Slaughterhouse, and they aren’t a bunch of lightweights playing early-2000s rap cosplay like the A$AP Mob. Kendrick and company actually seem to, you know, acknowledge each other’s presences. It seems like they hang out together when the cameras aren’t rolling.
And even if the evil atmospherics of “Shook Ones Pt. II” were mostly responsible, there was something fuck-you-up determined about Black Hippy here. Sporting pragmatically designed TDE sweatshirts and stomping around, gassed up on each other, they felt inappropriate for prime time in a laconic, #DGAF way. In particular, the stoic presence of Jay Rock — in shades and Dickies, building on his commanding “Money Trees” verse from good kid, m.A.A.d. city — established himself as the working-class marrow of the group. Disses were sent Drake’s way, but it all seems irrelevant and not very interesting (Drake deals with rappers the way he deals with the ladies in his life, i.e. with wounded passive-aggression and mansplaining condescension, so it’s hardly a fair or engaged “beef”), especially because this cypher doesn’t need to indulge rap-as-WWF histrionics.
Not to mention the real “beef” narrative here is TDE launching a number of low-key zingers Jay Z’s way. Not really in the spirit of “beef,” but more like a playful warning that these guys have their sights set as high as possible: “I’m out-y on them islands with my crime-y’s chillin’ / Hide your feelings, now, can I live?” Jay Rock declared; Ab-Soul mentioned Biggie, Puffy, and CL Smooth (more East Coast trolling!) and added, “And y’all still trippin’ off of Jay Z tweets /? I still got laps to run when me and Jay Z meet.”
Obviously, though, Kendrick was the highlight. It’s another fevered, effortlessly epic verse from the indefatigable rapper — an unofficial sequel to “Control,” perhaps? What’s most interesting here is how it builds on his rapping talents and pumps itself up into a genuine performance. Particularly toward the end, when Kendrick was more talking than rapping, just making declarative statements that rhyme, and throwing words up in the air and hitting them over the fence like it ain’t no thing. Look into his eyes. He seemed possessed. There was a Denzel Washington charismatic-leader-gone-maniacal attitude to his delivery. And then, to lighten the mood, he high-fived ScHoolboy Q and laughed at one of his punchlines and kept it moving. It’s rap as Oscar-winning performance. You feel it. It isn’t the performative “spittin’ that has plagued a little too much of the PR-pushed rebirth of lyricism this year. This is better than “Control.”