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Chasing the Crown: What Does It Take to Be the King of New York?

Posted on April 30 2018

Google “King of New York” and the first thing that comes up is a 1990 film starring Christopher Walken and Laurence Fishburne.

But, Google “King of New York hip hop” and you’ll be immediately showered with images of Biggie. And rightfully so. He was the man who made being king important. No one knew why he was king, but no one could argue against it. Someone could step up but they would get knocked down.

He was king.

Then, of course, he died.

And when the king is dead, the crown must be passed on.

Who would take it? His son? (Spoiler alert: no.)

After Biggie’s death, the lineage of the crown gets murky. Diddy takes it when Big dies, but he ships it to Jay pretty quickly. Jay arguably slips and hands it to Cam’ron while warring with Nas, but Cam basically walks up to 50 and says, “Take it bro.” Then 50 does what 50 does until the crown is essentially meaningless. A$AP Rocky eventually picks it up, Kendrick snatches it. From Kendrick it goes to Joey Bada$$ but he ends up going full Jaden Smith.

Arguably Nicki or Cardi are holding the crown now, but you would have already commented about how I’m a dumbass and women can’t make real music because vaginas are naturally offbeat or some other leap of logic.

Regardless, the idea is incredibly abstract. What makes someone the King of New York? Looking at the rappers who were king (undisputed or otherwise), we can determine that there are 3 deciding factors in royalty.

The Bars

Hip-hop is competitive.

Hold up, let me say that again.

Hip-hop is competitive.

I said that again because somebody was already halfway through explaining that hip-hop is an artform and art doesn’t have to be competitive, artists should support each other, and collaborate, and be loving and kind, and…

I don’t care.

Yes, hip-hop is an artform.

No, you cannot win art.

What you can do is be technically better at what you do than other people. Questlove and Ringo Starr are both amazing artists, but Ringo couldn’t do what Quest does.

Hip-hop is competitive. Emceeing is competitive. No one steps up into a cypher without being prepared to steal the show.

It’s the lifeblood of the genre. The more you dilute that, the worse the music will become. A rising tide raises all ships.

A person can’t take the crown if they can’t prove they deserve it. If they can’t go toe-to-toe with any emcee who steps up, the crown is meaningless. Like T’Challa standing before the tribes, the King of New York has to be ready to take on all comers.

See: Kendrick after the Control verse. Despite not being from New York, New York couldn’t provide anyone worthy of the crown. Who responded to that verse? Do you even remember? Meek Mill, Joe Budden? The emcees were weak, and Kendrick Killmonger’d that shit.

The Attitude

Call it attitude, charisma, or whatever you want, you know what I’m talking about. Everyone on this list, at least the ones who stuck around, have this attitude, this swagger. Whether it’s the mafioso Jay-Z type or the introspective Joey Bada$$ flavor, it has to be there.

New York is gritty. New York is tough. It doesn’t give a fuck about you.

The King has to be all of those things, too.

This is why I think Cardi’s name needs to be thrown in the ring. Despite Funkmaster Flex throwing out ghostwriting accusations because his contract was presumably up for negotiation, you can’t deny that Cardi has the New York attitude that we all love.

She’s cold, and that’s lacking almost everywhere else right now. It’s pretty abundant in the new age of grown up rappers, the Royces and El-Ps of the world, but no one in the current generation has it. Some people, like Joey and Meech, had it at first, but their hunger was easily sated.

See: 50 Cent’s “How to Rob.” If you haven’t heard it, go listen to it right now. It’s just 4 straight minutes of 50 clowning everyone in his vicinity, with no personal reason. It wasn’t about beef, though it did start some. It was just 50 Cent puffing his chest and daring someone to come at him. He disses 49 people throughout the song, with some truly offensive bars like, “I'll rob Pun without a gun, snatch his piece then run. / This nigga weigh 400 pounds, how he gonna catch me, son?” It’s just straight up bullying, but it’s entertaining bullying.

The Respect

Above all else, the king needs to be respected.

None of the qualifications for being king are quantifiable. It’s impossible to say that one person is definitely more charismatic than another. You can come a little closer with bars, but even that’s difficult. You can show that Biggie used better imagery than 50, or that Kendrick has better metaphors than Cam’ron. What you can’t show is who has the objectively better delivery or mic presence.

The King of New York isn’t a fact, it’s a feeling. A ubiquitous feeling. Everyone doesn’t have to like it, but no one can disagree. In 2001, you could have said that Nas should be king. But you couldn’t deny that Jay-Z was on the throne.

A leader isn’t appointed, they are followed. We’ve seen, at various times throughout its history, attempts to hand someone the crown. They fail time after time. What happened to Nehru? What about A Boogie wit da Hoodie modernizing New York hip-hop?

You aren’t made king, you are king.

See: The fact that, 21 years after his death, Biggie still comes up when you Google “King of New York.” It’s hard to think of Biggie without thinking of the crown. After two decades and a grave robbing from Diddy, there are people who believe that Biggie is still the holder of the title. For a generation, Biggie Smalls is New York.

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