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HomeEntertainmentKendrick Lamar vs. Drake Beef: Who Won

Kendrick Lamar vs. Drake Beef: Who Won

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We know Kendrick Lamar and Drake will throw more shots, levy more seedy allegations, and might even drop more all-out diss songs from here. But the bulk of the war has been fought, and the crown goes to Compton. In hindsight, the way Drake poked the bear with Instagram story provocations and his “Taylor Made” freestyle seems masochistic. Over the past week, Kendrick hit Drake with a relentless volley of diss songs that comprehensively dismantled his opponent’s character and, with “Not Like Us,” may make him the punchline of the summer. Drake deserves credit for stepping out and taking the risk of battling a seasoned lyricist like Kendrick, but he’ll have to take this one on the chin. 

It would be easy to call their tussle a heavyweight fight; I liken it to the great middleweight wars of the ’80s, when Sugar Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns, Marvin Hagler, and Roberto Duran went round for round with flurries driven by competitive instinct and genuine disdain at the notion of not being seen as the best. Even though Drake and Kendrick’s beef devolved into Shade Room fodder, it was initially derived from competitive instinct. Kendrick rapped “Cole and Aubrey know I’m a selfish nigga, the crown is heavy” on “Euphoria.” Drake keeps a passage about hip-hop’s inherently competitive nature on the wall of his dressing room. They both understood that this moment was inevitable. The people who don’t understand their rift haven’t spent the last 15 to 20 years wanting to be regarded as the best rapper ever. 

Rap beef traditionally plays out over extended periods. Often, in the past, albums were dropped, shows were performed, and lives were lived between diss songs. But Drake told his envoy Akademiks in April that he delayed a post-tour respite to figuratively go to the mattresses — and Kendrick obliged him. Hip-hop heads have to laud them collectively giving us one of the most exciting stretches in hip-hop history, if not ever, with supporting roles from Rick Ross, Kanye, and Metro Boomin, among others. If rap beef isn’t your bag, you’re thoroughly annoyed. But if it is, you’re on the edge of your seat. 

To quote Jay-Z, it was all good just a week ago for Drake. He had dropped two diss tracks, and I previously noted that jumping in front of Kendrick’s first drop with a third track containing the bite of “Push Ups” might have swung things in his favor. But then “Euphoria” dropped, and nothing was the same. Even then, Drake’s disses still would have gotten the best of most MCs. “Push Ups” and “Family Matters” are catchy songs that will end up on regular playlists outside the context of diss songs. The way he repeatedly flipped the Michael Jackson/Prince binary against Kendrick was smart. And he deserves credit for not wilting as numerous industry giants ganged up against him. That said, it seems like he just didn’t have as much to say about Kendrick as vice versa. 

Last night’s “The Heart Pt. 6” song was a Notes app statement set to rhyme, muddled with unforced errors. Drake misinterpreted the story told in Kendrick’s “Mother I Sober” (to project the very rational notion that Kendrick would hypothetically have a problem with pedophiles if he was molested), and volunteered that he’s never been inappropriate with actor Millie Bobby Brown when Kendrick never explicitly mentioned her. He claimed to have fed Kendrick false information about having a daughter, but also rhymed, “the ones that your gettin’ your stories from, they all clowns.” 

Both men’s attacks canceled each other out in significant ways; both appear to be off about their sensational paternal accusations, both men were in unfavorable record deals to start their career, and neither of them have much room to talk about how the other regards women.  Kendrick allowed Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith to leverage his catalog in attempts to keep R. Kelly and XXXTentacion on Spotify playlists in 2018, and he had Kodak Black, who took a plea deal after being charged with rape, co-star on his Mr. Morale album. He asked Drake “Baka got a weird case, why is he around?” on “Not Like Us,” but similar could be said of his mentor Dr. Dre, who has a documented history of accusations that he has assaulted women. Drake’s friend Baka Not Nice was accused of sex trafficking in 2015; the charges were dropped after the defendant refused to testify. The way women have become chess pieces in the latter rounds of this beef is disheartening, but more on that later. 

But overall, Kendrick’s shots hit harder. He rapped about Drake’s racial identity issues, his alleged vices, his lack of street smarts, his shady behind-the-scenes tactics, his transactional relationships in Atlanta, his alliance with Baka, leaks in his OVO camp, and most alarmingly, his alleged inappropriate engagements with teenage girls. It feels like he got most of his information from social media, and some of it remains to be corroborated, but he still properly executed it in the court of public opinion. Kendrick went through his gripes on four songs radiating distinct vibes. “Euphoria” is a gym-ready diss track, while “6:16 in L.A.” is soulful cruising music. “Meet the Grahams,” which was deftly released minutes after Drake’s “Family Matters,” is a mean-spirited expose over an Alchemist-produced horror score.

That brings us to “Not Like Us,” a DJ-Mustard-crafted knockout blow with a classic L.A. swing. Drake stepped out to quickly deny Kendrick’s “Meet the Grahams” accusation that he has an 11-year-old daughter, but it took “Not Like Us” going viral for him to speak on the chatter about the nature of his alleged relationships with teen girls. Kendrick’s detractors had lamented that none of the beats for his first three disses were club-ready — but the Saturday night after “Not Like Us” dropped was abuzz with videos of DJs playing the song at parties all over the country. Social timelines are full of people posting memes overlaying the track on dance videos. In 2015, Drake used the uptempo “Back to Back” and a barrage of memes to cement his victory against Meek Mill; in wrestling terms, Kendrick used his opponent’s own finishing move against him.

Kendrick’s sense of humor is underrated, and it’s most at play on the (current) bookend records “Euphoria” and “Not Like Us.” His comedic chops are in play on “Euphoria” when he incredulously raps, “Is it the braids!?,” and observes, “I even hate when you say the word ‘nigga,’ but that’s just me, I guess/Some shit just cringeworthy, it ain’t even gotta be deep, I guess.” If he were to have rapped “Euphoria” in an exclusively serious tone, it would feel too angry. If he had gone overboard with the animated delivery, it would feel like he wasn’t taking it seriously enough. But he displayed the perfect balance on the track, switching up his cadence and vocal tone almost every eight bars. And he went full camp on “Not Like Us,” with an “OV-HOE” chant and standup-worthy inflection on lines like “Devil is a lie, he a 69 God, freaky-ass niggas need to stay they ass inside.” Drake had spent his entire career trying to shed the stigma of being wheelchair Jimmy in Degrassi, to an overcompensatory degree — and now, the rap world is laughing at him all over again.

It felt like Drake’s brain power was focused on winning the social media war, while Kendrick was in his Pepe Silvia bag, figuring out how to make his disses as intentional as possible. He hinted at what his big Joker play would be with the titles of his first and second disses, “Euphoria” and “6:16.” The latter number has numerous permutations, from Tupac’s birthday to the premiere date of Euphoria, a show that Drake executive produces that’s been criticized for sexualizing high schoolers. He had Taylor Swift producer Jack Antonoff co-craft “6:16” after Drake sarcastically rapped about Kendrick’s subservience to the pop star. His writing was so sharp that he used foreshadowing in a diss, rhyming “’Back to Back,’ I like that record/I’ma get back to that, for the record,” on “Euphoria,” then paying it off with an Al Green sample on “6:16,” a reference to an obscure Back to Back Hits CD of Al Green and Teddy Pendergrass (the latter was also sampled on “Euphoria”). 

What Kendrick did isn’t unprecedented; Joe Budden dropped four disses against Drake in a four-week span in the summer of 2016. But at that point, Drake hadn’t garnered so much ill will with his actions, and Budden didn’t have the popularity to get the masses to veritably revolt. Many former Drake fans are tired of hearing about his (allegedly) weird relationships with teens, and him needlessly sniping at the likes of Megan Thee Stallion and Rihanna. Kendrick carried his own disdain toward the Toronto rapper, and let it out in what amounts to a diss song EP. It’s worth wondering if he’ll attempt to put the songs together on DSPs for another Billboard chart-topper. 

The past few weeks have sparked broader cultural conversations on racial identity. The notion of Drake carrying transactional relationships with Black music scenes isn’t new. But Kendrick laid it out even better than Pusha T did a few years ago, one by one listing Drake’s Atlanta connections and surmising that they collectively allowed Drake to assimilate into Black American culture. He rhymed “You’re not a colleague, you’re a colonizer,” a one-liner that may stick with Drake for years to come. 

On Sunday, media personality Rory policed Hot 97’s Peter Rosenberg for X posting about the line, joking that as two white men, “We gotta sit that bar out.” But it’s not just that line; so much of this beef leads into waters of racial politics that non-Black rap fans don’t have the lived experience to evaluate credibly, try as they may. As I’ve written before, rap fandom’s cultural disconnect is apparent through reactions to this beef. Are the media personalities and fans who still believe Drake got the best of this situation saying so as a matter of bars, or is conceding a loss for Drake admitting that ultimately, they’re “Not Like Us” either? 

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Most diss songs don’t end up leading to broader social commentary, but Kendrick isn’t most artists. After Nas’ “Ether,” where his resentment toward Jay-Z overflowed into a scathing diss track, most artists knew not to ever get him that angry again. And the same will be true of Kendrick. He’s known for taking years in between albums, but in just one week, he enhanced his legacy as one of the most respected lyricists of all time; he may be the rap boogeyman after all.  

Last year, X account Jah Talks Music posted, “J. Cole’s retiring after The Fall Off, Drake said he’s considering ‘a graceful exit,’ and Kendrick is choosing himself over music. We’re coming to an end with these 2010s legends.” The post elicited reflective commentary on what the three men had accomplished. But then “First Person Shooter” jolted the so-called Big Three from a past-tense convo into the biggest thing happening in pop culture. It feels like they’re crafting an epilogue to their story more than a new chapter. And in those final lines, Kendrick is the victor. 

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