That's What Makes It Hip Hop
Some shit just came across my makeshift desk that I cannot believe. Royce Da 5'9, Lupe Fiasco and Mickey Factz. If you're a hip-hop head, you already know what I'm about to talk about.
I don't know all the facts (no pun intended), and I'm not going to regale you with all the backstory that I do know. What I will say is that the three MCs had a...difference of opinion when it came to the age-old, often debated but ultimately unanswered question: Who's the greatest MC? Things got a little heated, and Royce responded in classic hip-hop fashion. He released a diss track directed at Lupe Fiasco and, in part, Mickey Factz. Lupe responded in kind. Mickey added his opinion on the matter. What resulted was a good old-fashioned three-way rap battle. This made my little hip-hop heart cry tears of absolute joy.
As well as not delving into the background specifics, I'm not going to attempt to dissect each diss track. Too many bars, way too much intellectual scheming and setups. I'll leave that to MCs and rap commentators who have more experience in the battle breakdown than I do. However, I will go into what I believe are some of the highlights. Otherwise, we'll be here untl next week.
Before digging into any of the rapping, though, I want to give all my respect to Carlos "Six July" Broady, Soundtrakk and AWSME J, the three producers who created the music for these individual tracks. The elegance (be prepared to see that word a lot) in the music itself should clue you into just how powerful this battle is (and is about to become).
Royce Da 5'9: Silence of the Lambda (prod. Carlos "Six July" Broady)
Full disclosure: I never listened to a lot of Royce before now. I listened to a bit of The Allegory, but my follow-through with actually sitting down, headphones on and finishing it wasn't there. That being said, I knew he was an incredible MC before this track. He's got so many bars in his arsenal he could pull out about 50 in a three-minute song and still not scratch the surface. Which is exactly what he does here in seven. He started the battle, so he set the pace and the bar ridiculously high. From the first word, Royce is on a mission to prove a point: "Before you even think about stepping to me, be sure you know what you're getting yourself into." He seems to have his own armory of metaphors, references and setups all executed to within and inch of their lives. So thorough and tightly packed are his bars, you'd be hard-pressed to find any cracks in the defense. And that doesn't really matter anyway, because he loads this track with so much that a lesser MC would give up before being able to so much as get past the first line of defense. For example, a rapper with even a speck of self-doubt would absolutely fold at being dissed with his own album titles, as Royce does to Lupe with so much weight around it you almost miss it. And in part that might be what holds him back. Royce is like one of those athletes who have so much talent, so many damn options they get caught up in exactly what to do. In this case, Royce isn't so much tripping over his feet. More like he's triple and quadruple knotted his shoes to the point that you have to hack your way through with a serrated knife to even get at the source of the tangle. He packs every milisecond of his track with bars, references and schemes. There were several moments where I was squinting through the song just to hear each bar. Running it back and forth to make sure I didn't miss anything...and I still missed things. As a first-round opening track, it's hard to compete when you can't even untie the bars. Seemingly, Royce's rap was meant to stop anyone who'd dare try to break in at the door. And again, any lesser rapper would've scraped their fingernails bloody at the nub without leaving a deep scratch on the steel door of this song.
But Royce isn't dealing with lesser rappers.
Lupe Fiasco: Steve Jobs (prod. Soundtrakk)
From the moment Lupe opens his mouth, the scheme has started. He proclaims he's making this track last-minute, then sings a jaunty little nursery rhyme whose ultimate moral is, "You're building your reputation on me."
From there, Lupe, too, just hits you with wall-to-wall bars. The difference is Lupe doesn't need to overfill his cup with words. His delivery is laidback to the point of being cavalier. Dare I say...cool. With the elegance of his penmanship, he's earned the right to tap into his Miles Davis-inspired namesake. Because that's exactly how he sets up his responses. He does in three words what Royce took 12 to just set up. Lupe's less Sonny Liston and more Ali. Liston hit hard from both sides, offense that would wear opponents out before they realized they were being beaten into oblivion. Ali was interested in laying you out efficiently, and doing it in style. Lupe informs you of why you're about to lose, then proceeds to do it in a few well-placed jabs. Every line of this track has purpose and depth. He's the type of lyricist who can make even a metaphor straightforward and hit you wehre it hurts (both in good and bad ways). What makes his delivery so potent, though, is that while he sits in his "cool," he's very obviously riled up. There's a razor-sharp bite to everything he says, as if he's just waiting for someone to give him permission to slice you open. Then upon second thought he just decides to decapitate you anyway. He ends the track taking jabs at a man who tried to dismantle him because his interests in the streets ran in complete contradiction to an artist like Royce. Instead of running the streets trying to prove how connected to "Thug Life" he was, Lupe was focused on cleaning up the mess left by gentrification and government neglect. He was called a nerd for it. In street terms, "nerd" and "goofy" aren't compliments. They're meant more as a means to diminish one's manhood and his authenticity to the hood he grew up in. As if his nerdism makes him not only less of a man, but less of a Black man, and further less of an MC. Instead of running from the word because of its connotation, Lupe embraces it weaponizes it to great effect. Tearing down what he reveals as inflated ego masquerading as strength with the intelligence of a valedictorian. The brilliance of Lupe's delivery and his lyricism lay in one word: simplicity. He doesn't attempt to prove just how gifted he is. He simply lays down his bars and moves on. While it takes Royce "weeks and a beat" to get his words out, it supposedly took Lupe 12 hours. That poise under attack in my eyes sweeps Royce off his feet. Crumbles his steel walls like tissue paper.
Then there's Mickey Factz.
Mickey Factz: WRAiTH (prod. AWSME J)
Where...How...Where do I even start. If Royce is Liston, Lupe Ali, Mickey Factz is Bruce Lee. He takes the best of everyone and completely transforms every aspect into something transcendental. It's no longer about fighting. It's about craft. I admitted to being less than versed in Royce's discography. I didn't even know who the hell Mickey Factz was until this moment. I haven't actively watched battle rap since high school. Now I rely on Hermanito to keep me abreast of those shaking the foundations of the art.
Mickey is in a league of his own entirely. More than Conceited, Dummy, Lux, K-SHINE, Clips, even Iron Solomon...all of 'em. Mickey has a gift within him to take all of the grit, lyrical athleticism and theatricality of the best MCs and mold it all into his own style. It's aggressive, it's angry, it's dangerous.
Mickey automatically goes into his track with murderous intent, opening with, "Hurts to kill a nigga you love." Royce is complex bar arrangement. Lupe is all deceptive cool. Mickey? He's straight, no chaser ready to destroy any hopes you might have of recovering from his verbal assault. He not only dismantles Royce's entire complex (some might say convoluted) setup. He takes the time to talk to him. His scheme setup is simply going back to the conversation and explaining exactly, exactly what he's about to do to you. For the first time in a very long time (if ever), I actually got chills, goose bumps listening to a diss track. This man Miceky Factz takes on the actual persona (voice, delivery and wordplay) of the two rappers who Royce has an issue with...in order to diss Royce with the spirit of the very rappers he dislikes. Even being warned about it from Mickey himself, nothing could've prepared me for it. It's like hearing someone's verse posthumously on another track. (Neither of those rappers have passed away, thankfully, but it's the same eerie effect.) My breath caught, heart stopped, then sped up. "Watching" someone transform into another human right before your eyes. And Mickey does it not once, not twice. Three times! This man does perfect characterizations of three other MCs while delivering bars that could shatter your psyche. His third character is Royce himself. Let that sink. Mickey Factz used Royce Da 5'9's voice and delivery to diss Royce Da 5'9. A pantomimed seppuku put into digital mapping for the whole world to witness.
The intricacy of Mickey's schemes are so daunting, yet so simple. It's a wonder anyone even attempts to battle him. If this is the kind of craftsmanship he shows in a recorded diss track...? I can't even fathom what kind of massacre he executes when on a physical battle stage. His entire penultimate scheme uses the phrase "Checkin' boxes" as every single punchline. And every single usage is different. If that doesn't show you the dexterity of this man's mind and pen...!
What's the conclusion after all of this? I clearly have my opinion about who ethered whom here. But that's not the point as far as I'm concerned. Ultimately this is what I want people to walk away with. We just witnessed hip hop at its absolute finest. A throwback to the South Bronx in the early 1980s. The $1 house and block parties where MCs would get on the mic to represent their neighborhood or block. The winner takes home bragging rights and the respect of the entire city. Until it's time to do it again.
That's what makes it hip hop. The ability to bring the art of rap to the table, lay everything out and genuinely see who's working with the best material. The squabble itself is often petty (this is no exception, at the end of the day). But the way we settle things, or used to, is on the mic or the floor. And you damn well better bring your best because there's somebody bringing theirs and they will gladly smear you all over the wall with their skill. Truth be told, this was light work for these three MCs. If they actually give us their best...?
Pure hip hop. What made me fall in love with it enough to stay along for the whole messy, ever-evolving ride. I hope whatever tension there is between these three paragons of hip hop can resolve itself peacefully, with powerful music and even more powerful lyricism. Because hip hop needs this. Music needs this. Let us hope and pray for an official mixtape. We'll call it Battle of the Century.
(That being said Mickey Factz decimated Royce. Respectfully.)