Kendrick Lamar Vs. Drake Is a Decade Too Late

The biggest question about Kendrick’s Drake diss on “Like That” isn’t so much “Why?” as “Why now?”

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Finally, after a decade of false starts and errant subliminals and cold war, Kendrick Lamar full-out dissed Drake.

Better yet, Kendrick dissed Drake on perhaps the spiciest terms he could’ve arranged: on a song (“Like That”) with Drake’s favorite collaborator and longtime frenemy, Future. “Like That” is six tracks into Future and Metro Boomin’s new album, We Don’t Trust You, and Future also appears to be dissing Drake on the title track, though in much more opaque and ambiguous terms. Kendrick is exceedingly clear on “Like That,” though: “Fuck sneak-dissing / ‘First Person Shooter,’ I hope they came with three switches … / Motherfuck the big three, nigga, it’s just big me!”

These lyrics are written largely in response to Drake and J. Cole’s recent collaboration, “First Person Shooter,” from Drake’s latest album, For All the Dogs, which is a bit odd as far as provocations go since “First Person Shooter” isn’t a particularly disrespectful song. Drake and Cole both flatter themselves, in a lengthy celebration of their own greatness, and Cole mentions Kendrick only to flatter him, too: “Love when they argue the hardest MC / Is it K-Dot? Is it Aubrey? Or me? / We the big three like we started a league.” Maybe Kendrick found this bit of deference rather patronizing. Cole’s verse does ominously recall Jay-Z on “Where I’m From,” rapping a few years before he fell into his legendary feud with Nas: “I’m from where niggas pull your card and argue all day about / Who’s the best emcees, Biggie, Jay-Z, or Nas?” Maybe he objected to Cole going on to compare himself to Muhammad Ali. But Drake—Drake didn’t have to say anything on “First Person Shooter,” really. Drake vs. Kendrick has been a long time coming, regardless.

We could sit here all day dissecting the interpersonal dynamics and theorizing about the motivations of all the relevant players behind the scenes. Is Metro, as long rumored, really still pressed that Drake and 21 Savage’s Her Loss supposedly overshadowed his own chart-topping album Heroes & Villains during award season last year? Are Future and Drake, as recently speculated, really fighting over a stripper from Miami? What did J. Cole even do, exactly, to get lumped into this conflict? I doubt we’ll ever know for sure—such is the fog of hip-hop gossip. But the deeper question isn’t “Why?” so much as “Why now?” And what does this beef even mean now, compared to when it was supposed to be the defining rap beef of a generation in the mid-to-late 2010s, at the height of Drake’s and Kendrick’s respective careers?

Jay-Z vs. Nas—the legendary 2000s feud that in many ways set the standard for high-profile, nonviolent hip-hop conflicts—is especially instructive in the case of Kendrick vs. Drake, if largely because they’re in contrast. By the turn of the century, Jay had hits, and, as a protégé of the late Notorious B.I.G., he had stature. He was spoiling for a title: best rapper alive. But he had to contend with a series of hip-hop superstars—Ja Rule, DMX, Eminem, 50 Cent—who each for a time outsold him and overshadowed him in some way or another. Meanwhile, Nas, during the same period, was in a very different position. He’d fallen off for the most part. “Oochie Wally” was a modest hit but also, given its uncharacteristic sound and its club-oriented appeal, a worrisome sign of creative decline and selling out. Jay and Nas needed to overcome each other to elevate themselves to the top of the pile. Their inevitable conflict was one of fitting contrasts. Jay was from Brooklyn; Nas was from Queens. Jay was the savvy cosmopolitan hitmaker; Nas was the insular prodigy. Jay was the overlord; Nas was the underdog. Jay vs. Nas was a great story.

This is also why the feud had to end as it did in October 2005: with Jay calling his surprise guest, Nas, from backstage at his much-hyped I Declare War concert in New Jersey to sing the hook on “Dead Presidents II.” (This was the song that sparked the feud between Jay and Nas in the first place; Nas supposedly resented Jay for sampling “The World Is Yours,” from Illmatic, for the hook.) This was a year into Jay’s tenure as the president of Def Jam and a few months before Def Jam would sign Nas away from Columbia. Suddenly Jay and Nas were business partners and musical collaborators. Their legacies were settled, and now there was a new story to be told, about the great reconciliation of the rap gods. And there was money to be made, as hip-hop was on track to become the world’s biggest genre in terms of sales and, later, streams. So of course the war ended.

What is the story of Drake and Kendrick Lamar, then? They have a couple of early collaborations—“Fuckin’ Problems” and “Poetic Justice” in 2012—but conspicuously, they haven’t worked together in more than a decade. “Conspicuously” because, all the while, rumored tensions and implicit contrasts lingered between the most successful artist in the history of streaming music (Drake, with more than 75 billion lifetime streams on Spotify) and the only rapper to have ever won a Pulitzer Prize (Kendrick, for Damn.). Drake and Kendrick simply avoided each other. Instead, Drake fought Meek Mill, then Pusha T, then Kanye West. Each of these conflicts was entertaining in its own way, but none of them ever really seemed as vital as a potential feud with Kendrick. Kendrick, for his part, avoided rap beefs altogether. His famous tirade against several rappers, including Drake and Cole, on 2013’s “Control” was iconically provocative but also prohibitively broad and vague. He’s otherwise proved too high-minded to pick a fight with any rapper individually and see it through with a proper diss track. (Say what you will about Drake and the heavily passive-aggressive aspects of his songwriting and persona; he nuked Meek Mill with not one, but two diss tracks within a week of Meek tweeting about Drake’s alleged use of ghostwriters.) The story of Kendrick Lamar in the past decade is that of a rapper ascending to rarefied air, miles above the field of competition, years removed from any obligation to prove himself to Drake or anyone else.

But perhaps this was foolish of both Kendrick and Drake, thinking they could skip this step in forging their respective legacies. Jay-Z and Nas scrapped in the primes of their respective careers. Nas was in a rut before Stillmatic, sure, but he was 28, and Stillmatic would mark his return to mainstream relevance through the present day. In contrast, Kendrick is 36, and Drake is only a year older. Drake is nine albums and seven mixtapes deep. Kendrick is canonized. These guys are good money. And yet … their stories aren’t finished, if only because they’ve deferred the explicit realization of this feud for so long, until now. They need to overcome each other, to ultimately validate their elevation. Rap beefs (the nonviolent ones, at least) are in some sense quite silly—fits of name-calling and chest-beating and tedious gossip. But all those boasts and threats—the stuff of rap lyrics—have to pay off somehow, at some point. Also recall Jay on “Where I’m From,” outlining the iron laws of the Marcy Projects: “Your word was everything, so everything you said you’d do? / You did it, couldn’t talk about it if you ain’t live it.” It took Kendrick a decade to recognize as much. Now, let’s see how long it takes Drake to properly respond.

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