Drake and Kendrick's rap battle is defining hip-hop’s future

Drake and Kendrick's rap battle is defining hip-hop’s future

Many believe that hip-hop must be closer to what the Pulitzer Prize-winning Kendrick Lamar represents: a politically active tool, focused on self-interrogation and fighting oppressive forces.

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Last Updated : 17 May 2024, 05:16 IST
Last Updated : 17 May 2024, 05:16 IST

By William Ketchum

If you’ve spent any amount of time on the internet in the last couple of weeks, it would be nearly impossible to avoid these two names: Kendrick Lamar and Drake.

The two rappers have been involved in a musical feud that has captured audiences’ attention — so much so that it inspired a series of Spotify billboards, prompted a hot dog brand to weigh in and even made its way into a Joe Biden campaign video against Donald Trump.

While this is far from the first conflict in hip-hop’s history, its ability to infiltrate conversations outside of the usual entertainment circles is a testament to how the genre has become a commercial success and has been welcomed as part of the zeitgeist of the 21st century.

Here’s a simple question to drive home the point: During the height of the feud between Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls in the 1990s, do you think Bill Clinton or Bob Dole would’ve ever considered featuring one of their diss tracks in a presidential campaign ad? No. At the time, hip-hop was being blamed for being too dangerous and poisoning the minds of the youth during congressional hearings.

Much has changed since then. Rappers are business moguls, both for their own brands and as partners in Fortune 500 companies. They’re among the most popular artists in the world, putting up record-breaking numbers with streams, merch sales and concert tickets. And their cultural impact is innumerable.

The genre became so ingrained into popular culture that when its 50th anniversary was celebrated in 2023, critics wondered if it had assimilated into the mainstream so much that it completely abandoned its subversive, progressive, sociopolitical roots.

At first glance, the Kendrick-Drake battle might simply seem like a face-off between two of the genre’s most talented acts, but it’s more than that. They represent diametric visions of hip-hop’s future.

From one vantage point, the role of the music and the culture is to provide fun, much-needed escapism from a depressing reality, and it belongs to anyone who wants to participate. Drake has enjoyed much success with that formula, tying Michael Jackson’s record of number-one hits by building an insular musical universe with stories about his love life and his crew.

On the other hand, many believe that hip-hop must be closer to what the Pulitzer Prize-winning Kendrick Lamar represents: a politically active tool, focused on self-interrogation and fighting oppressive forces. To these fans, hip-hop belongs to those who are ready to use its might to advance critical conversations.

Things started off relatively tamely after Kendrick declared war with a guest verse on Future and Metro Boomin’s Like That, which hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in April. Drake responded by using the bouncy Push Ups to joke about Kendrick’s height, the critical dip in sales of his latest album Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, and allege that he was being extorted by his mentor. Kendrick hit back with the sprawling euphoria, which portrayed his opponent as a manipulative, wannabe tough guy who has insecurities around women, his body image and his racial heritage.

Both artists were at their best for what fans love them for: Drake employed clever, condescending punchlines and catchy choruses. Kendrick used unpredictable flows and blistering psychoanalysis.

Then things heated up, and both began to hit lower below the belt. It was no longer simply a matter of who deserved the top spot based on skills, but a battle of whose moral aptitude deserved fans’ support.

Drake used a music video for his song Family Matters to speculate that one of Kendrick’s two children is the biological son of his longtime manager and posited that Kendrick had physically assaulted the children’s mother. On meet the grahams, released less than an hour later, Kendrick accused Drake of being a pedophile, a gambling addict and a deadbeat dad to an unclaimed 11-year-old daughter.

Both artists deployed misogyny and homophobia, using women as ammunition to take down one another instead of treating them like human beings. It spurred discussions about why hip-hop hasn’t evolved past the tired trope.

While I hope that one day artists won’t feel the need to stoop to such deplorable levels to get the upper hand, many — including myself — believe that Kendrick won. Both sides’ worst allegations weren’t substantiated with hard evidence, but Kendrick used advanced wordplay and portraiture to make listeners reflect on whether Drake even belonged in the hip-hop community or was only an outsider who selectively exploited the genre’s cultural capital.

Adding a bit more salt in Drake’s wounds, Kendrick’s latest diss, Not Like Us, just debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100, and last week, it set a Spotify record for the most streamed hip-hop song in a day (a record once held by Drake). His other diss, euphoria, isn’t far behind, at the Hot 100’s No. 3 spot. Drake’s trump card had been his dominance on the charts, and Kendrick proved that he could compete in that arena.

The success of Kendrick’s campaign shows people still crave music that challenges them. Social media was flooded with listeners analyzing his lyrics and album art photos, trying to spot layered entendres and hidden references.

Only time will tell how much this moment will actually alter hip-hop’s trajectory. Kendrick has always been a singular force, so it’s hard to know if or how other artists will follow his lead. Drake is too dominant of a commercial titan for this to keep him down forever, but he’ll have to deliver great music and even better strategy to earn his way back in listeners’ good graces.

One thing is for sure: Future feuds will be measured against it.


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