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Have a safe Memorial Day Weekend!

Taking the toll of Drake and Kendrick Lamar's vicious, gripping psychological warfare

Kendrick Lamar performs during the Rolling Loud hip-hop festival in Rotterdam, Netherlands in 2023 and Drake performs during day two of Lollapalooza Chile 2023. Last week, the two rappers' long-running feud exploded in a flurry of diss tracks.<a href="https://www.gettyimages.com/license/1515117715?adppopup=true"></a>
Jesse Wensing/ANP/AFP and Marcelo Hernandez
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Kendrick Lamar performs during the Rolling Loud hip-hop festival in Rotterdam, Netherlands in 2023 and Drake performs during day two of Lollapalooza Chile 2023. Last week, the two rappers' long-running feud exploded in a flurry of diss tracks.

In the waning moments of Drake's "The Heart Part 6," the isolated Toronto plutocrat, deflated and humbled, waves the white flag. With the latest song (at the time this was written) in a string of diss tracks on which he has butted heads with Kendrick Lamar, dating back to March, when Lamar appeared on Future and Metro Boomin's "Like That," he seems to all but tip over his king on the chessboard, but not before complaining about the rules of engagement: "Just let me know when we're gettin' to the facts / Everything in my s*** is facts / I'm waitin' on you to return the favor," he says, addressing Kendrick directly.

There are no favors in beef, and one of Drake's great miscalculations in this situation was thinking that he and Kendrick were playing the same game. In pursuit of the scandalous scoop, both artists seemed to lose sight of the opponent, thinking primarily about the impressions. When Pusha T changed the state of play for Drake — and the rest of us — forever with "The Story of Adidon," which turned the classic battler form into a Maury episode, he opened the door for "truth-telling" as an effective mode in an arena made for tricksters and spin artists. This has led to a rap climate that mirrors our political one — disinformation campaigns and murky intelligence coloring perception wars waged online, as isolated audiences filtered into the same arena to spectate. But they weren't just bearing witness, they were taking part.

For years now, the archetypes that Drake and Kendrick Lamar embody have been fixed in public opinion. On To Pimp a Butterfly's "Hood Politics," Kendrick, our era's chosen rap sage, presented himself as a galvanizing force: "Less you askin' me about power, yeah, I got a lot of it / I'm the only n**** next to Snoop that can push the button," he rapped, as if in command of a cultural nuclear arsenal. On For All the Dogs' "Stories About My Brother," Drake, the perpetually paranoid rap king, seemed to look out over his castle walls and see an impending siege: "N***** so down bad, they makin' alliances up / Cliquin' up with haters that was thinkin' of signin' to us," he rapped, implying a mutiny was afoot, orchestrated by a cabal of envious, impotent debtors.

Both of those perceived realities came to a striking head over the weekend, as a bubbling feud between the two biggest rappers of a generation reached its tipping point. In a new turn for this kind of exercise, the final exchanges between them played out at breakneck speed, with songs disseminated as YouTube links or posted straight to social media. It's a beef that expected a certain inside-baseball knowledge, and even then your mileage may vary depending on how familiar you are with names like Chubbs, Cash, Duval Timothy or Dave Free, and what Delilah means to you. But that tangle of background players could not disrupt the mass appeal of such a furiously entertaining sequence of attacks from the headliners.

When Kendrick released the frenzied rant raps of "euphoria" last Tuesday, it could have been another relatively isolated shot across a frosty battlefield, but then he took a page from the Drake playbook, not waiting for a response before following with the accusatory, clock-watching Instagram exclusive "6:16 in LA" on Friday morning, starting a chain of five songs released in a 72-hour span. That night, Drake dropped the epic heel turn "Family Matters," only to have all momentum undercut by the Kendrick response, the morose intervention "meet the grahams," which was out less than an hour later. With the upper hand, Kendrick doubled up again by dropping the floating, coast-rallying knockout punch "Not Like Us" Saturday afternoon; Drake's unofficial concession arrived Sunday night. Across these songs, Kendrick overwhelmed his opponent with a blitzing game plan, and the story he told was more compelling than Drake's.

Charting the beef and assessing its blast radius tells us a lot about how rap drama in 2024 feeds off narrative distortion. As a neutral observer long critical of Drake, I found something about this whole thing exhausting. From the beginning, the terms of it pointed in a specific direction: the built-in projections of the two stars overlapping in perfect harmony to cast a particular judgment against him. (I wrote weeks ago that playing this game could only diminish him.)

There is some tension between what Drake is owed and what he deserves. He has been too omnipresent, too excessive, too unprincipled, and his machinelike consumption at the commercial apex of hip-hop's food chain has bred a lingering desire to see him shamed and discredited. Kendrick, as a more private figure with a scrappy disposition and a perceived moral authority, is the perfect candidate for such a ceremonial execution. It was fair for Drake, having learned the importance of oppo research from his battle with Pusha, to believe that, in playing the game on those terms, he would be graded on the same scale, and the truth of that puts me in an uncomfortable alignment with the self-proclaimed 6 God, who should be taken down a peg (or two) after stepping on everyone else on his way to the top.


The bad blood between these two traces back more than a decade, to Kendrick's frag grenade verse on Big Sean's "Control," which prompted a yearslong cold war between the artists as they became heavyweights in different spheres. Drake was drawn into open conflict with Kendrick now, not simply by the "Like That" verse, which was more of a scattershot than a snipe, but by a throng of former Drake collaborators rallying around producer Metro Boomin in its wake to share his disdain: The Weeknd, Rick Ross and A$AP Rocky have all taken their whacks as if lining up beneath a piñata. In view of this onslaught, Drake used his initial response, "Push Ups," to reframe the attacks as peons revolting against their master, and he framed his purported lead over Kendrick as a numbers game, his usual tactic. Cocksure and swaggering, he depicted Kendrick's former TDE label boss Top as a slave driver to whom the rapper was still paying dues. Drake suggested that all of the acclaim Kendrick has received was merely to spite him, and he ended with a comparative analysis of the two stars as mainstays and earners.

By this stage, J. Cole, the other (lesser) target of Kendrick's "Like That" verse, had bowed out of any potential conflict and left his two peers to hash it out themselves. The move affirmed what some of us already suspected: That beef is only for a particular kind of unrelenting rapper, and that Drake and Kendrick, as the two left in the ring, solidified their dyadic bond at rap's poles. The beef became about awareness early on — Cole realized his limits, and Drake saw an opportunity. With "Push Ups," he put Kendrick in the middle of a conspiracy to unseat him as the sole rap front-runner, situating his rival within the rest of the pack ("You ain't in no big three, SZA got you wiped down / Travis got you wiped down / Savage got you wiped down") and implying that he was only emboldened by the strength in numbers.

Believing he had the high ground, Drake circled back with "Taylor Made Freestyle," a bizarre bit of roleplay in which he donned voice filters for Kendrick's OGs, Tupac and Snoop Dogg, trying to goad him into a response, suggesting the Compton MC wanted out of a squabble he started. A cease-and-desist from the Tupac estate got the song taken down from social platforms, which felt like a mercy for all of us — not only was it cringe-worthy and stilted, it felt particularly poorly timed.

It took nearly two weeks for Kendrick to finally respond with the venomous "euphoria" last week, but he immediately shifted the stakes from pissing contest to grudge match. Kendrick identified a demarcation line between them as artists ("electrifying vs. pacifying," explaining away the numbers disparity) before presenting himself as the inheritor of all of Drake's ongoing beefs, including those of Pusha and Pharrell Williams, drawing from that well of negativity to boost his own spite. "This ain't been about critics, not about gimmicks, not about who the greatest / It's always been about love and hate, now let me say: I'm the biggest hater," he taunts before rattling off everything Drizzy does to irritate him: the way he talks and dresses, the sneak dissing, the use of ghostwriters, his depoliticized and convenient relationship with his Blackness. The song's rambling quality is fueled by the intensity of its animus, which turned what once felt like unnecessary playacting into unavoidable score-settling.

Kendrick's designation of Drake as a "master manipulator" in "euphoria" was a psychological ploy to paint Drake as the deceiver facing a straight shooter, which set the table for "6:16 in LA." In the wake of Drake's AI identity swap, the song took advantage of what felt like an unscrupulous embrace of manipulation technology, saying Drake is running a rap PSYOP online to defame him, one that couldn't even work because Kendrick is in the streets, beyond the reach of the internet, and because those in Drake's employ are plotting his demise.

You can hear warnings on both Kendrick songs not to "take it there" — "there" being the crossed boundary of "fabricated family stories" — because he would take it further. Drake did not heed them: The multi-part muckraking "Family Matters" is a layered, if grim, attempt to penetrate a seemingly impenetrable reputation by pulling the thread at its center. Locked in and blustering, he tries to undermine Kendrick's high-minded image by stripping him of his activist bonafides (something Kendrick all but abandoned on his last album, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers), and, true to Kendrick's prediction, attacking on the homefront, punctuated by accusations that Kendrick abused his partner. It's an impressive attempt, demonstrating Drake at the peak of his technical and narrative powers — versatile, vindictive and machiavellian.

But before the weight of those allegations could really take hold, "meet the grahams" had dropped a bigger bomb: With listless energy seemingly built to undercut the gleefully malicious tone of "Family Matters," its verses directly address Drake's parents, his son, a faceless daughter that Kendrick suggests Drake has been neglecting and, finally, Drake himself. The tactic within the song itself isn't far from Pusha's, but its effectiveness is in its counteroffensive, the speed and sharpness of the rebuttal, its prescience and its outward omniscience. The maneuver itself was masterful.

And yet it took Kendrick only a few hours to one-up himself with "Not Like Us." The song seemed to hammer home the highlights from previous disses — Drake's weird relationships with underage girls, the sus-ness and dysfunction of his OVO crew, his extensive history as swag "colonizer" in Atlanta — as Kendrick reps Compton and America, pitting Drake as a cultural interloper, all while using his own strategy of generating a diss your adversary will be forced to hear out in the club. By this point, you could hear victory in Kendrick's voice, embodying all the showboating of a bat flip after a walk-off home run. It's impossible to bounce back from being called a groomer and a carpetbagger over a slapping Mustard beat that sounds as if it's conjuring the spirits of West Coast legends. As a response, "The Heart Part 6" couldn't sound more foiled and defensive.


By the rapid volley that defined this beef over the weekend, nothing was too illicit for mudslinging. It didn't really matter what was true, only what could draw the biggest reaction. That has always been the nature of beef, but the sadism is now amplified by our endless gaggle of livestreaming armchair clout stalkers and bloodthirsty digital storm chasers. (There were many moments where real-time discourse seemed to be shaping the beef, Akademiks debuted the CDQ version of "Push Ups" when it leaked, and commentators like DJ Vlad seemed to be hovering around the periphery.) The pageant is more consequential than the rapping now. Eventually, the one-upmanship was predominantly theatrical and, sadly, the women on both sides — Whitney Alford, Sandra Graham, Rihanna, Millie Bobby Brown and all the unnamed others treated as asides — became collateral damage in a dirt-digging operation with no purpose beyond keeping score. Whether or not lines were crossed (if you want to say so I wouldn't hold it against you), the slander isn't really about accountability at all; it is merely about the attention grabbed by greater and greater provocation. Even if everything they said was true, neither man would see the other held responsible for his actions, as evidenced by the ways they've dealt with the abusers they already know.

If there is any fact that has been truly revealed by all this, it is that Drake fatigue is real and palpable, not just among rappers but listeners as well, and most don't care what the repercussions of seeing him fall are. When Kendrick rapped that he represented what the culture was feeling on "euphoria," the response seemed to bear that out in earnest. I would make a case for "Family Matters" as the best song and diss to come out of this whole thing (with there being a strong argument for "Not Like Us," too), but Drake is operating from a disadvantage and his problems are twofold: He is the more known commodity with glaring flaws that have been talking points on the record for years, and many are simply ready to see him lose no matter what he does.

That shouldn't be read as a defense of Drake. There are no rules in beef, and the blowback here is the result of years of chickens coming home to roost for one of rap's most unsavory characters, his many calculated heel turns establishing the cottage industry of solitude he formed at the top. As much as anything, this is a lesson in reaping what is sowed. But it is interesting that, as everyone collectively decided the basis for this beef would be "facts," one rapper faced a higher burden of proof than the other.

Beneath the more sensational claims made by both artists were open secrets that still need addressing on both sides. Drake called into question Kendrick's moral superiority and his radical positioning. Consult his comments on Mike Brown, or his support of R. Kelly, or his own albums absolving Michael Jackson or signal-boosting Kodak Black. Kendrick called into question Drake's predatory behavior and a creative opportunism ceaselessly in service of self-interest. It is the latter that not only brought this barrage to Drake's doorstep in the first place but also induced a noxious atmosphere where everything he says feels like self-serving agitprop, and that is why he is now slouching back to his corner defeated.

With this beef more or less settled for the audience, it does seem like the appropriate time to reevaluate the general rules of engagement. I, for one, do not want the form to devolve into a game of feed-dumping, rewarding whoever can turn around songs the quickest or best harness the power of an algorithmic skew toward the sensational. The public decides who wins these, and if the public is scrolling, we're doomed. I'd like to see less "fact-finding," and let's do away with the AI stunts.

But if you can forget about the ramifications for a second, it's hard not to walk away from the experience somewhat invigorated simply because it feels like we've finally introduced some suspense back into the rap race. Clashes of this magnitude are rare. What began as histrionics became something more; for a time it even felt revelatory, and now perhaps hip-hop can experience entropy again. No matter what else is true or untrue, the circumstances set in motion were real. How else do we get Kendrick to take a break from invocation to just get busy? How else do we get a long-overdue Drake humbling? Only the spectacle of a spat this suggestive and high-profile could so dramatically upend the state of affairs — for better and worse. Perhaps some rules must be broken, some chaos instigated, to avoid the game feeling rigged forever.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Sheldon Pearce
[Copyright 2024 NPR]