There was a time when beef in hip-hop could get you killed. Thankfully, our current times are less severe, but nobody should be thankful for whatever it is that’s being served between Kanye West and Drake.
We got to this place thanks to our passive-aggressive times. Yes, it’s a wonderful thing that some of hip-hop’s most authentically talented M.C.’s have moved far beyond simple gangster rap into more mature subject matter, from big-timers like Jay-Z and his 4:44 album to similar “grown man” LPs recently released from beloved underground heroes, like Book of Ryan by Royce da 5’9″ and No News Is Good News by Phonte, a rapper who also sings. But in a way Phonte is entirely different than what you’d hear from a guy like Drake or Kanye, who many fans say were highly influenced by the North Carolina rapper and vocalist. Nothing’s wrong with having and expressing honest emotions over instrumental tracks—you could argue hip-hop is only great when that type of music exists. But when the emotions are expressed in tweets, it all sounds like teary-eyed emojis instead of true expressions of conflict.
And that’s where we are now with this nonsense tweet-storm that Kanye delivered, in which he accused the pride of Toronto (Drake) of delivering messages of intent to harm him (Kanye). Of course that would be bad, even if spoken in the form of a rap, because nobody wants a real war.
Kanye doesn’t handle things in the traditional way that rappers are expected to deal with drama. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, except that he also doesn’t have to say anything at all. This isn’t a “stop snitching” diatribe; I’m simply stating the obvious—there’s no need to tell everybody if you’ve been threatened. That’s what the police are for, if you’re really intimidated. Of course most threats are empty, and people don’t usually get hurt after someone promises such action. So Kanye could have just ignored it. I’m pretty sure he, like everybody else, receives a threat or two on occasion.
But in the situation of Drake, there’s calculation involved. Calling him out on Twitter may not result in a response, but it’ll wave in a certain number of likes, retweets and news mentions. A friend of mine named Travis Broyles, who works as a content strategist here in Atlanta, recently explained his reasoning for saying Kanye has the best “brand” in hip-hop: His strategy may be quantity instead of quality. He even went so far as to compare Kanye to a weapon.
“I think Kanye is a gatling gun, let’s say, while a Jay-Z or a Kendrick is a sniper,” Broyles said. “If you fire enough, something’s gonna hit. If you’re consistently firing, you can keep up brand inertia constantly.”
He also said more. “When’s the last time we went a week without hearing about Kanye? And if the goal is not you feeling any certain way about him, but just feeling about him in general, then he’s a massive success. Top of mind all the time. Attention at any cost. And while it’s a different game than most others are playing, I’d argue that it’s so successful that his brand is known far outside of hip-hop. My aunt has an opinion of Kanye West. My aunt does not have an opinion of Jay-Z. She probably doesn’t know who Kendrick is. Kanye plays his game more readily than anybody else is playing theirs.”
That’s a change from the “old Kanye” dearly missed by most of us who were there for his rise. And it speaks to what has become of hip-hop now that it’s intertwined with social media and “brands.”
“The brand is not quality or wisdom—it’s ubiquity,” Broyles told me. “The reason he relates to Trump is that they have the same angle. Not quality of product, but proliferation.”
Rap battles are now as valid as everything else on the internet, which isn’t a compliment. It means they’re only worth entertaining until something else of equal or greater unimportance takes over the national consciousness. Ever since Soulja Boy “defeated” legendary rapper and actor Ice-T in their 2008 social media “beef,” it’s been all about the level of petty, and the victor’s ability to out-troll the other person. And while Ice-T will forever be the more important rapper, in terms of legacy (and probably respect, SVU GIFs be damned), Soulja Boy continues to be more relevant to major news outlets. It’s a lesson we all picked up in kindergarten, which makes sense when you recall that this was around the same time that most of us were still repeating nursery rhymes and chants taught to us by parents who forced upon us the weird cultural rituals that make America so great.
This thing between Kanye and Drake is not hip-hop. It is tweet-beef. Follower beef. Retweet wars. Perhaps we should call it “beef tartare.” It’s soft, chewy, rich-people beef, with garnishes and demi glace. As we know, rich people never even finish their plates, maybe because the appearance of actual hunger looks lower-class. Hip-hop used to be all about hunger, and the top dogs—the Jadakisses, the Busta Rhymes—have long told us that they would “eat your food.” But this is vegan beef. A big Impossible Burger of two grown men who won’t just duke it out or squash it, with the result softer than soybeans. And it produces just as much gas.
Kanye is already in decline, truth be told, due to political views expressed on social media that don’t exactly line up with his own base. But that’s an “L” he’s inflicted upon himself, who he’s also clearly playing since his artist and G.O.O.D. Music label president Pusha T recently and expertly handled Drake just by showing up in Toronto, watching his security beat a hospital bill onto a would-be stage attacker and finishing his show in Drake’s city with a Drake diss song. That’s hip-hop.
Ultimately, both men will win—and we’re all losers for even talking about this beef like it’s real. Drake can’t lose these days, because he has baked into his personal “brand” this image of the guy who is always losing, and hurt by forces that hurt us all, even though he’s wildly successful. So even in defeat, Drake wins. And he’s reached a level where he’s newsworthy simply because people have been convinced that they have to be a Drake fan to be cool. Even though he’s having kids with random French softcore porn stars and being called out for it, and having “goons” in his own home city getting beaten down by his rival.
All that’s going to happen here is that two emotional rap-singers will end up hurting the culture even more than they hurt each other’s feelings or the next generation of hip-hop creativity with their recent albums. The battle between Kanye West and Drake is ultimately for the title of Most Passive-Aggressive Rapper. And with the exception of Kim Kardashian West, who stays winning, we all lose.