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BLACK MUSIC MONTH: THE KING OF NEW YORK, PART TWO

Stop! Read Part One first, if you haven't already.

"It made my focus both as a [beat maker] and rapper that much sharper,” says producer Havoc, one half of the legendary Queens duo Mobb Deep (the other half being the late, celebrated MC Prodigy), who recently teamed up with Yonkers, N.Y., lyricist and member of The Lox Styles P, a Bad Boy labelmate and mentee of The Notorious B.I.G., to form the hip-hop duo Wreckage Manner. “Mobb Deep recorded songs with Nas, one of the best to ever do it,” he continues. “I produced Biggie. Jay-Z, Wu-Tang Clan… All these people are historically top-tier. You couldn’t come with any weak bullshit. The whole King of New York talk was a badge of honor.”

After the 3/9/97 drive-by murder of the Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, who’d go on to become hip-hop’s first billionaire, assumed the crown. By May of ’99, the Roc-A-Fella Records co-founder had dominated the New York mixtape scene, scored his first multiplatinum album (Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life) on the way to moving more than five million copies and was headlining a record-breaking arena tour.

“It might seem counterintuitive now considering the incredible path Jay has walked,” Hinds continues, “but he was perfectly suited to wear the King of New York crown.”

As for Nas, the gifted MC who’d taken post-Rakim lyricism to new heights had removed himself from the conversation altogether. It wasn’t until 2001 and his landmark dis track “Ether” that he reclaimed the crown from a seemingly invincible Jay-Z.

“I think people who aren’t of our generation don’t fully understand how introspective, retiring and how much of an artist’s artist Nas was,” Hinds says. “When he was first given the King of New York title, it was early in his arc, and he was uncomfortable with it.” 

Others, meanwhile, gladly ascended to the throne, in-cluding Queens’ 50 Cent, who ushered in a more confrontational approach during his King of New York run in the ’00s, beefing with seemingly every rapper in the Tri-State area.

But as Southern hip-hop began to rise, the King of New York sobriquet started to lose its luster. When Kendrick Lamar, tongue firmly in cheek, declared himself King of New York in his riveting verse on Big Sean’s 2013 “Control,” the future Pulitzer Prize winner—who is, of course, from Compton—was making a point about New York’s dwindling influence but at the same time acknowledging the prestige the designation once held.

Indeed, NYC’s boom-bap, sample-heavy sound had taken a back seat to the bass-heavy drums and dusty soul of Atlanta and Houston’s hypnotic trap style. It became so pervasive that at times it was hard to tell if the next wave of New York royalty, led by Harlem’s A$AP Rocky, was even from the East Coast. Brooklyn’s Bobby Shmurda seemed destined to rule, but the “Hot N——a” rapper’s momentum was cut short by his 2014 incarceration.

Thereafter, two women stepped in to fill the void. Nicki Minaj, who moved from Trinidad to South Jamaica, Queens, when she was five, boldly asserted in 2013 on Power 105.1’s Breakfast Club, “I’m the queen of New York; I’m the king of New York.” Five years later, Bronx bombshell Cardi B declared on the Lil Yachty cut “Who Want the Smoke”: “The fur on my shoulder mink/Tell me what Hov would think/I get the money/I am the King of New York.”

Not everyone agreed; tweeted Hot 97 DJ Funkmaster Flex, “A below average rapper that doesn’t write could never be King or Queen of NY! BIGGIE/JAYZ/NAS BUILT THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THAT TITLE!” And it wasn’t just Flex; more than a few hip-hop purists bristled at the idea of including Nicki or Cardi in the King of New York discussion.

Georgette Cline, editorial site director for rap magazine XXL, disagrees with the detractors, reasoning, “They’re both dynamic individuals with diamond singles; Nicki has one and Cardi has three. They’ve got multiplatinum albums, chart-topping hits and plenty of awards. Breaking records, creating music that remains culturally relevant and showcasing skills that consistently resonate is their norm. Self-confidence is the cornerstone of success no matter the gender. Both Nicki and Cardi can arguably lay claim to the title of the city that raised them.”

Today, the King of New York debate is complicated. Pop Smoke may be viewed as the most recent MC to deserve the honor, but his drill sound owes as much to London and Chicago as it does Brooklyn. To hardcore East Coast hip-hop aficionados, Buffalo’s Griselda Records—led by high-powered lyricists Benny the Butcher, Westside Gunn and Conway the Machine—is home to talent with a credible claim, despite the crew’s hailing from a blue-collar town 372 miles from NYC.

Hitmaker A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie and rising rapper Lil Tjay, both products of the Bronx, have deemed themselves fit for the crown, though their melodic, R&B-influenced rhyme styles are worlds away from the pivotal period of Nas, Biggie and Jay-Z.

Complications notwithstanding, Styles P believes the King of New York question will never disappear; he sees it as a generational debate that will bounce around barbershops, bodegas and apartment stoops for decades to come.

“God bless, Pop,” Styles says. “He definitely understood the importance of New York. That’s why he was able to claim the King of New York title. In the future, somebody else will do the same.”

The king is dead—long live the king!

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