Hard to cheer for the homeboy in current rap battle

Drake biographer unravels the nuance of Toronto rapper’s battle with Kendrick Lamar

Dalton Higgins is a journalist, author and professor. He published the first book on Drake, Far from Over: The Music and Life of Drake, The Unofficial Story, in 2012 and teaches a university course Deconstructing Drake and the Weeknd. He is also one of the producers of the award-winning CBC podcast This is not a Drake podcast.

Higgins deconstructs the current rap battle between local hero Drake and Kendrick Lamar.

I wanted to flag-wave and be that Canadian nationalist guy rooting for Drake, the 6ix rap don going to battle headfirst against the big bad American hip hop juggernaut, Kendrick Lamar. But this one felt different. Over two weeks, Kendrick Lamar essentially became the “big me” and perhaps is not so much a member of the “big three” as laid out on the vocals of Drake and J. Cole’s First Person Shooter song.

And here’s why. While this Drake versus Kendrick diss fest was a contemporary rap battle of epic proportions, it was also one of apples and oranges as the two emcees couldn’t be any more different. Drake is apolitical and makes super fun, cute and highly commercial, inoffensive music geared towards middle America and pop audiences. Kendrick raps about Black cultural offerings and the ’hoods of America like his life depends on it, and some of his work makes up the soundtrack for global social protest movements (see: BLM and We Gon Be Alright). His work is studied at Harvard University and is celebrated by Pulitzer Prize juries.

You ever get in a room and engage those basketball GOAT debates, pitting LeBron James versus Michael Jordan? That’s what this felt like; a hip hop war of attrition. We learned that despite Drake’s Billboard chart dominance over the past decade-plus, Drake is still very much an enigma in the minds of most American rappers and fans; a bi-cultural and bi-racial middle-class, Black/Jewish, former child actor is the top dog in the rap game? GTFOH. Listen, I’ve been documenting and deconstructing The Boy for the last 13 years, in book, podcast and university curriculum/teaching form, and I still struggle to unfurl what it is that makes Drake Drake. We learned throughout this high-profile beef that the one thing that makes Drake Drake is certainly the way he employs technology to spread his music and messages, and recording that AI Kendrick diss track, Taylor Made Freestyle, certainly fed that narrative. It also fuelled Team Kendrick, as Tupac’s estate threatened legal action for unauthorized use of his voice and persona. It most certainly united the entire West Coast against Drake for even daring to mess with its late demigod.

This beef taught me a lot about what the Canadian media ecosystem looks like, and what it feeds on. From everyone’s least favourite rag (Toronto Sun) publishing a photo of some random braided-up Black dude with a Kendrick Lamar photo caption (we don’t all look alike!) to numerous out-of-touch Canadian journalists sloppily trying to keep up with the rap world and all of its nuances and subtleties, treating this rap beef like it was some new trendy thing to report on. P.S., the idea of beef in hip hop is as old as the culture itself. And rap is old, like, 50+ years old. Something in me desperately wanted to send these journalists some DSP links containing songs that anchored classic beefs from the ’80s: Boogie Down Productions’ The Bridge Is Over and MC Shan’s The Bridge. Or invite them into my class to lecture, or school them on our original Black community beef cultures, of Playing the Dozens, of storied African American verbal combat traditions that have been around since Jesus or the early 1900s.

The subject matter in most of the diss tracks, from Drake’s Family Matters and The Heart Part 6 all the way over to Euphoria and Not Like Us has been dark, there’s no question, as it’s no fun hearing allegations of domestic violence, pedophilia, grooming, deadbeat parenthood and sexual abuse, with women mostly being at the receiving end of many of the charges showing up in these diss records.

I’m also thinking that Drake must have posited, and rightfully so, that this might be yet another garden-variety rap battle, like the ones he’s engaged in in the past with rappers like Meek Mill. That is, until Kendrick Lamar dropped Euphoria and Meet the Grahams and essentially questioned Drake’s reason for being: his commitment to parenting, his commitment to the Black community and his own cultural identity, his sexism and misogyny, his business acumen, his spirituality or lack thereof. And it then felt like watching someone perform surgery. It was clinical.

When Mike Tyson was asked by a reporter whether he was worried about Evander Holyfield and his fight plan, he remarked: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Well, someone got punched in the mouth, and it wasn’t Kendrick.

Drake put up a good fight, and he’s fearless to a fault (see; Pusha T). He’s a skilled battle rapper and battle rap enthusiast who can be found frequenting Toronto’s King of the Dot events, which pits the best battle rappers in North America against one another. But should he have taken a page out of J. Cole’s notepad and issued an apology for going at Kendrick Lamar like this? Perhaps. Losing high-profile beefs doesn’t really do much to secure one’s legacy. And besides, battling in hip hop was supposed to be a vehicle to create peace, to replace physically battling (and stabbing and shooting) one’s arch nemesis. But our hip hop purist naivete is getting tested and has been tested. Rap iconoclasts, the late Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G, should be here today to witness this beef.

In the end, the real winners of this beef are the record companies profiting off the millions of streams of these diss records that came as a direct by-product of a nearly two-week viral moment. Atlanta producer Metro Boomin’ also won, big time, as thousands of indie rappers, singers, R&B singers and reggaeton artists are laying down Drake diss tracks over his BBL Drizzy open-source instrumental, some with a chance to win $10,000 in cold, hard cash.

For the entire duration of this beef, the lack of objectivity online and on socials is very concerning and deeply troubling. I learned that a seemingly endless list of social media participants and Drake fans lacked that basic skill: to evaluate the art and shed their stan/superfan/groupie skin. But then again, the word “fan” is a short form for the word “fanatic.” Many of us also got lost ourselves as, let’s be real, this beef that has dominated headlines for two weeks has acted as Great Distraction away from real-life concerns (e.g., the cost of living in most major Canadian cities is getting silly) and far more pressing issues happening around the world, led by the genocidal activity happening in real time in Gaza and the Congo.