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Can rap beef exist when no one agrees on what's being fought for?

J. Cole and Drake perform during the 2023 edition of Cole's Dreamville festival in Raleigh, N.C., last April. Their collaborative track "First Person Shooter" recently touched off a war of words with fellow MC Kendrick Lamar.
Astrida Valigorsky
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WireImage/Getty Images
J. Cole and Drake perform during the 2023 edition of Cole's Dreamville festival in Raleigh, N.C., last April. Their collaborative track "First Person Shooter" recently touched off a war of words with fellow MC Kendrick Lamar.

In 2016, then-President Barack Obama weighed in on an issue of utmost national importance: Who would win in a rap battle between Kendrick Lamar and Drake? "Gotta go with Kendrick," he said. "I think Drake is an outstanding entertainer, but Kendrick, his lyrics ..." It was pretty clear what distance he was covering between "entertainer" and "lyricist"; it's one that has been subject to debate since hip-hop's earliest days. But just as fascinating, to me, is the idea of asking the commander-in-chief such a question in the first place: not simply pitting the two divergent stars against each other in the critical imagination, but supposing that any such showdown could be conclusive — that it could say something substantial about the artists' standing — when even the framing of Obama's answer seems to be partitioning them.

Such a battle may yet come to fruition thanks to Kendrick Lamar, who recently made a surprise appearance on Future and Metro Boomin's "Like That" to take aim at Drake and the other peer with whom they have formed the defining rap triumvirate of the last decade, J. Cole. Kendrick, no stranger to putting others on notice, made plain his distaste for the duo collaborating and asserting their primacy on the chart-topping 2023 single "First Person Shooter," and decided to shoot back. On Friday, only a few weeks removed from the explosive Kendrick verse, Cole provided his own lukewarm response on the song "7 Minute Drill," from a surprise album called Might Delete Later. His fire didn't even last the weekend: During a set at his Dreamville festival, he denounced the song, calling it "the lamest s*** I ever did." "I felt conflicted 'cause I'm like, bruh, I know I don't really feel no way," he continued, "but the world wanna see blood" — in essence admitting he was going through the motions of a ritual he does not believe in.

In recent years, Kendrick, Drake and Cole have been frequently lumped together as a stable of thoroughbreds sometimes known as the "big three," in part because of how their respective rises overlapped across the 2010s. Drake was the first to break through, as a teen-drama bit player turned passive-aggressive love bomber, and his performance of emotional availability and inclination toward pop melody quickly made him a pervasive (and sometimes malignant) presence, consuming everything in his path. As Drake was expanding from Young Money scion to capital asset, Kendrick emerged from the indie-rap giant TDE's Black Hippy supergroup as a world-weary eyewitness powered by a formidable, disarming lyricism; his cinematic debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city, set the stage for a blue-ribbon career, elevated by the intrepid jazz-rap pièce de résistance To Pimp a Butterfly and capped by rap's first-ever Pulitzer Prize win for music. Cole, a small-market rapper-producer studying at St. John's, realized his rap dream by becoming a Jay-Z apprentice, and the striving, parochial focus and withdrawn disposition of his subsequent albums made him a self-tormented rap monk for a devout following of armchair intellectuals.

Every aspect of the recent exchange between these three makes me question who and what beef is for, especially now. There is an obvious thrill in rappers going head-to-head for the sport of it, particularly at this level of visibility, where exposure becomes theater. But in today's game, the terms of the wager feel opaque: None of the participants seem to even be playing by the same rules, much less for the same prize. Any pursuit of rap's invisible throne seems almost immaterial without real matters of succession to be settled. Can such a thing have meaning if the factions don't at least agree on what is being fought for?

Even if the gladiatorial spectacle of great competitors duking it out for glory has historically been entertaining and at times career-making, rap beef has usually come with tangible stakes. The Bridge Wars were fought over territory, airplay and rap's birthright. Drake's feud with Meek Mill was about authorship. His feud with Pusha T is an extension of Pusha's feud with Drake's mentor, Lil Wayne, over style. Every Nicki feud — Lil Kim, Remy Ma, Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion — seems to come back to the Highlander principle that there can only be one successful woman in rap at a time, which has long been dispelled and yet seems to remain primary directive driving her quarrels. Even Jay-Z's shots at Nas on "Takeover" were a response to Nas claiming he was taking Biggie's name in vain, as both men made a play for his vacated title as King of New York. This latest feud isn't predicated on any slight, real or perceived, but instead is largely about positioning — who gets to finally break away from the pack — and yet there is little for any of them to lose, and less to be gained.

Drake and Kendrick are natural foils that play into an established binary, the commercial juggernaut facing down the highbrow philosopher messiah. Neither portrayal is entirely fair: Drake has, on many occasions, displayed not just bars but battle savvy (and a love of the form, co-hosting a King of the Dot rap battle in 2011), and Kendrick spent much of his last album rebuking any attempt to put him on the cross as a lyrical emancipator. Yet there is still something symbolic at play in pitting them against one another. It is hard to imagine a more blatant dividing line for hip-hop morality, and it helps that they are the most celebrated rappers of their era, if by vastly different measures.

Cole has often felt like the odd man out in this conversation. Neither hitmaker nor auteur, his inclusion in the so-called "big three" seems to be out of respect for the relevance he enjoys via a reverent fanbase, but his limitations stand out when compared directly to his peer group. What's more, even though it was in part his invocation of the "big three" on "First Person Shooter" that started all this upset, he has never had the disposition for the pugnaciousness and scheming of rap kingmaking. Drake is petty and has never met a dig he couldn't take to the grave. Kendrick is proud and has never met a challenge he couldn't take personally. Both modes lend themselves not only to settling gripes in the open, but the shoulder-checking required to emerge atop a hip-hop scrum. Even releasing his diss on a project called Might Delete Later implies an apprehension in Cole that simply does not fit the format.

As declarations of war, "Like That" and "7 Minute Drill" could not be further from one another, and each one says a lot about the rapper who made it, perhaps more so now that Cole has backed down. On "Like That," the barbs are strung together like razor wire, and there is a charge that runs through it, the exhilaration of getting something off your chest. Kendrick is teeming with energy, on the front foot, making a case for his skill as singular and undercutting Drake's advantage in the process. "I'm really like that / And your best work is a light pack / N****, Prince outlived Mike Jack," he raps, nodding to Drake's recent move into a dead heat with the King of Pop for most Hot 100 No. 1 singles. (It is clear that most of his vitriol is for Drake, with whom he has traded jabs for many years.) The verse was effective in riling up the internet, enough to pressure a response from Cole, and it's hard to argue against its potency, but it's unclear what is being accomplished. Unlike his scorched-earth verse on Big Sean's "Control," where Kendrick was an upstart staking claim to an authority that had yet to materialize but felt inevitable, "Like That" does not say anything his work hasn't already said for him, and it cannot cut into the market cap of his competitors. He also has not changed the state of play, as Pusha T once did. He sidesteps detailed talking points for undermining both artists to come at them straight on, which is more in line with a move to maintain the status quo than to shake things up.

"7 Minute Drill" is the response it deserves — halfhearted and full of pulled punches. The song and its subsequent disavowal are befitting of the rapper who made "Pride Is the Devil," one wrestling with the pressure of his ego at all times. Cole directly cites "Takeover," critiquing the Kendrick album arc (and TPAB, specifically) by reusing Jay's blueprint: "Four albums in 12 years, n****, I can divide." There was never a path to victory in this for Cole; the worst Kendrick album, whatever it may be, is better than the best Cole album. His has always been an underdog story, underscored by the "platinum with no features" mantra, and to play to that persona in this situation is a tacit acknowledgment that he is punching above his weight. In this way, Cole recusing himself from the clash feels less like some damning confirmation that he is not The One, and more like proof that he and his opponents are simply after different things. And it underscores something that fan accounting of rap beefs tends to overlook: The case for your legacy is made by your music in its totality, no matter what you do in battle. After all, Jay-Z, the one being cited for his landmark offensive against Nas, is recognized by many (myself included) as the greatest rapper ever — and he lost that fight.

Each member of the "big three" has, at one time or another, revealed themselves to be students of Jay's tactics; though Nas' "Ether" ruled the day back in 2001, "Takeover" has held as a defining document for them. Kendrick once said that the latter was better because Jay was "saying more facts." I'd say it's more that it makes you believe a fiction — that it carefully rewrites the Nas narrative to suit Jay's ends. You can hear Kendrick's obsession with "facts" in the upfront "Like That" verse; Cole clearly shares the ethic in his bending of the truth; and the debater's methodology surfaces in a Drake diss like "Duppy Freestyle." But their paths diverge in their adoption of this gospel, as each seems to have a different Hovism running in their mind. For Cole, it is "I hear you baiting me lately, I been doing my best just to stay hater-free / Still, watch what you say to me," as the ease-seeking, reluctant combatant. For Kendrick: "Don't talk to me 'bout MCs got skills / He's all right, but he's not real," as the obsessive heir apparent. For Drake: "Men lie, women lie, numbers don't," as the all-consuming data machine in a time when fans wield figures like a cudgel. One seeks success in solitude, one in culture-shifting, one in quantifiable ubiquity. Militancy suits Kendrick best, and to play by those rules is to skew the elusive target at the center of rap discourse in his favor.

That's why it is hardest to imagine what Drake might get out of all of this if it continues into a second phase. He has yet to respond, but it feels as if any response would only diminish him. Drake is too big to fail, a chart certainty at this point, and he will likely never be "rap" enough for those who really value this kind of exercise. Unlike previous Drake foes, Kendrick is the only rapper in his class who isn't dwarfed by his numbers, and thus presents a true challenge for a shrewd competitor. Why take the risk for no reward? There is no cachet to be earned in such a clash because, as every Drake album this decade makes clear, he has no interest in playing the prestige game anymore. His security lies in his sheer undeniability — an armor that even a perception-shifting diss labeling him a self-hating deadbeat dad couldn't pierce. This even being a conversation must be as unfathomable to him as it is to Kendrick.

If that feels like an anticlimactic outcome for hip-hop's reigning titans squaring off, blame it on the context-flattening effect of our current social reality. Rap purists and pop number-crunchers are all wading around in the same murky discourse soup, and a lot of the metrics that used to feel like a given are looser now, superimposing a shape on something gray and amorphous. It figures, then, that the truest means of ascent is to try and to get to the top of the trending list, and to stay as long as possible; the only thing of equal value to everyone is collective attention. The diehards will never admit it, but beef has become far more about the drama than the bars or even the hostility, which explains both the overenthusiasm for a pretty down-the-middle shot from Kendrick, and the sourpuss complaints about Cole's retraction. Watching the video of that apology, I can't stop thinking about his characterization of beef as a vicious spectacle: "The world wanna see blood." In that context, you can think of the "Like That" verse as chum in the tank, bait that hooked Cole into a squabble he didn't even really want. Maybe if there was something that actually needed hashing out, it'd be worth it.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sheldon Pearce
[Copyright 2024 NPR]