Picture the scene: It’s 2015 and Drake is the undisputed king of rap. He’s completely redefined what a rap star could be and is well into his phase of absolute pop superstardom. He has helped flame the careers of Kendrick Lamar, Future, The Weeknd, Migos, and A$AP Rocky. He basically cosigned the whole mumble rap movement when he turned iLoveMakonnen‘s song “Tuesday” into a club hit, a success that helped transform producer Metro Boomin into becoming the biggest producer in rap. Drake (with assistance from his production master Noah ’40’ Shebib) has at this point nailed down his aesthetic, his albums distinguished by a stress on vibe and insularity. These two qualities have come to dominate what rap sounds like in 2017. Drake pioneered that. He pioneered it all. Then Meek Mill came out swinging with ghostwriter accusations. The king was being called off his throne for a street brawl.
The Drake-Meek Mill beef was an odd spectacle that disintegrated almost as soon as it erupted. Following Meek’s accusations that Drake used a ghostwriter, accusations that were basic public knowledge already, the Twitter-verse exploded. Everyone was taking sides, everyone was hungrily anticipating what would come next. This was, in a sense, a long time coming. Drake, despite his undeniable status as a great artist and an innovator, was a rapper who rubbed people the wrong way, especially those who lived by the rules of old-school rap authenticity. Meek, a Philadelphia street rapper, was one such individual. The notion of a rapper who didn’t write his own rhymes was just unpalatable to students of the game. There was a growing sense that the values of rap were changing, that the once essential qualities of lyricism and authenticity were now reduced to retrograde aspirations of the old school. A reaction was inevitable and Drake became the poster-boy for how rap had changed for the worse.
Not everyone approaches music with such high ideals or with such preconceived notions. Others just wanted to see Drake take a L for virtue of taking a L. He never had at that point, and there’s a natural desire to see the guys at the top get knocked around once in a while. This desire to see Drake challenged didn’t have to come from a place of negativity either. It could have made him great by disrupting his flow of success and forcing him to work harder and push himself to new heights. The Drake-Meek Mill had so much potential. It could have been an updated version of the Kanye West and 50 Cent stand off in 2007 that West won handsomely, a moment in rap history that virtually killed street rap as the epicentre of rap culture. This beef had stakes.
Did the Drake-Meek beef deliver? No. Not really. Drake released a decent response song called “Charged Up” but it really was a warning shot more than any kind of direct confrontation. At this point Drake was probably still reluctant to actually get himself into a full blown rap battle in case he took on any serious damage (a key part of getting to the top is picking your battles). Meek stayed quiet. Then Drake went in. “Back to Back” is not a classic diss song but it is a great diss song. It’s catchy, all its blows land, and it swiftly became the type of song that an arena could rap the entirety of. “Back to Back” is what winning sounds like. It’s a god damn victory lap, an efficient piece of music that completely defined the narrative of the whole beef. It made Meek look like a jealous chump that was in over his head and riding the coattails of his then girlfriend Nicki Minaj. When Meek did respond with “Wanna Know” he was running a race that had already been run. He lost. And it wasn’t remotely close.
Meek will never not be defined by his feud with Drake. It turned the intimidating up and comer into a joke, a living, breathing reminder of his own failure. His career has never recovered from it. And Drake barely had to do anything to win. Strangely, the guy who has mastered the art of Internet celebrity (no one knows how to GIF themselves better than Drake) focused almost exclusively on music during the beef while Meek spent more time tweeting insults than spitting them. That’s how Drake won. His dispatching of Meek was just another notch in his belt and cemented his status as the biggest rapper alive. Rather than pushing him to challenge himself it justified coasting, exemplified by the incredible success of Drake’s worst album Views (he did bounce back with the great More Life though).
Meek isn’t the only rapper who has thrown barbs at Drake. Drake has long been engaged in a cold war of sorts with Kendrick Lamar in which the two throw subliminal insults at each other over Drake’s rumoured use of ghost writers. The same is true with Jay-Z. With Tory Lanez. With Kid Cudi. With countless other rappers. The difference is that Meek directly called Drake out where as someone like Lamar has usually never actually used Drake’s name when dissing him. The art of the subliminal insult is a key feature of rap in 2017 and it doesn’t seem likely to go anywhere. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Braggadocio is one of the most appealing aspects of rap and rappers will always take down others as they build themselves up. But throwing subliminal shots against your peers is annoying. At best they are an understated part of a song that you don’t necessarily have to really register when listening. More consistently though these insults dominate the discourse around a song as people infer meaning in the smallest of lines. It’s tiring. If you want to fight a guy just fight him. Anything else is just gossiping.
It’s not like anyone really desires to go back to the rap beefs of the nineties. But wouldn’t Lamar be better if he wasn’t talking about Drake all the time? Wouldn’t Drake be better if he wasn’t talking about Lamar (or anyone else) all the time? These rivalries don’t push these artists forward. They hold them back. At least when Jay-Z faced off against Nas over a decade ago it prompted some of their most iconic work. Artists still don’t go after Eminem because of how he used to just torch anyone who dared speak ill of him. Ice Cube‘s “No Vaseline” is still a confrontational classic all these years later (a problematic one though). Greatness can come from beef. But beef doesn’t really happen anymore in rap. Not really. Why actually go after someone and potentially lose when you can just hide a subliminal diss in one of your songs and gain free publicity without any of the risks? The larger truth is that rap is just not built upon confrontation as much as it once was. That’s for the better. What has replaced typical rap beefs though are lame and uninspired, a cheap gimmick, insubstantial and throwaway for an insubstantial and throwaway culture.
The most recent ‘classic’ style rap beef was between Remy Ma and Nicki Minaj, two female giants of rap. Remy Ma’s song “shETHER” was a uniquely direct and savage modern diss track, taking Nicki to task for her plastic surgeries and for sticking by her brother who was accused of child abuse. Minaj’s response was also strongly worded in “No Frauds”, a significantly better song than “shETHER” that also boasts guest verses from Lil Wayne and Drake. Yet, for all the attention this spat got, it produced nothing. It didn’t hurt Minaj. It didn’t hurt Remy. Maybe a rapper dissing you has no real effect anymore if you’re big enough. What could anyone really say to Nicki that would impact her career? Or to Drake? If credibility doesn’t matter anymore than what power does beef have in rap anymore? It would appear virtually none.
The reduced power of a diss track in 2017 may have a lot to do with the nature of modern celebrity itself. During the 1990’s and early 2000’s the access the public had to musicians was significantly more restricted than it is now. The only meaningful statements artists made were on their own songs. If you really didn’t like somebody than the only means to get that out there was by putting it in your music. Artists were larger than life then, almost existing in a sphere outside normal reality. Their words were decidedly more powerful on account of it. Now everyone has Twitter. Rappers have podcasts. They have TV shows. They’re everywhere. A rapper going after another makes headlines but doesn’t seem like earth shattering the way it once did. The world has just gotten too large for that.
Beef isn’t unique to rap though. Taylor Swift‘s latest song “Look What You Made Me Do” is a song born from beef with Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, Katy Perry, and the media that idolised and then demonised her. Swift’s stand-off with West over his lyrics regarding her in his song “Famous” is an example of one of the more enjoyable instances of modern celebrity feuding. Internet culture is built for moments like Kardashian releasing recorded messages of Swift approving the lyrics on “Famous.” It’s not high brow nor is it meaningful but if Russell Crowe were to ask me if I was entertained I would have to say I was. “Look What You Made Me Do” is Swift’s first piece of music since, a song that sees her abandoning her relatable nice girl persona for something darker and edgier. And it’s a god damn car wreck.
“Look What You Made Me Do” sounds like the villain’s song from a Disney movie, but not a good Disney movie. Swift has always been goofy, an acceptable quality for country or pop but not for the ‘edge’ that this song is chasing. The chorus is a hellish repurposing of “I’m Too Sexy” by Right Said Fred. The list of crimes this song commits are long. There is little that can be said for its defence. This track is ostensibly Swift taking a swipe at her enemies but lyrically it is reminiscent of that guy you once knew who would vaguely talk about all the things he was going to do to someone if he ever got the chance. There’s very little threatening or imposing about “Look What You Made Me Do.” Instead it seems desperate, the blind fumbling in the dark of an artist who can’t accept that to throw dirt you actually need to get dirty. Swift is a pop star. She’s too clean to ever accept being the villain in a situation. She should have. That would have been interesting.
Swift’s ‘diss’ tracks have never been anywhere near her best. “Bad Blood”, a Katy Perry diss, is as bland as her latest single due to her reluctance to really be direct in her insults. Swift is strongest when she plays the underdog in her songs as she doesn’t possess the ruthlessness or force of personality to play boss the way Beyoncé can. Katy Perry’s Taylor Swift diss track “Swish Swish” suffers much the same problems that Swift’s diss songs do though listening to “Swish Swish” is like listening to the finitude of time itself and can stand in as an apt representation of all the ways we waste our short lives. It’s not good is what I’m saying. The whole rivalry between the stars is petty and lacks any grit or substance. It’s nothing but a waste of time.
At least Swift and Perry’s combative relationship seems real. Minaj Vs. Miley Cyrus? Fake. Minaj Vs. Swift? Fake. Most beef between musicians now play out on Twitter rather than on records, usually culminating in some sort of reconciliation between the two parties. The most active case of recent ‘beef’ is between Nickleback and Slipknot. These are not relevant forces in music. No one should listen to music to hear artists knock other artists but the cheap appeal of it is undeniable. The proliferation of means for musicians to express themselves has completely redesigned how beef now plays out. Now it’s much more about Instagram posts and Twitter than it it is about music. Even when diss tracks are put out, they’re usually toothless and rendered inert in a culture in which it is increasingly difficult to ever say anything substantial enough to have any effect on a target. Maybe it wasn’t just Meek that Drake killed back in 2015. Maybe it was the idea of beef in music itself.