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Kendrick vs. Drake is an Inevitable Clash of Hip-Hop Philosophies

If Drake and Kendrick finally have a rap battle for the ages, it won’t be solely because of Kendrick’s recent verse on Future and Metro Boomin’s “Like That.” It (probably) won’t be over industry politics that we’re not privy to, pillow talking, or whatever other trivial issues have caused prior rap feuds. I’m not the biggest fan of rap beef because, as Snoop Dogg told Latto, it’s often a product of ego intensified by corporate forces looking to maintain division. But Drake and Kendrick’s rift is deeper than either man —  it represents two poles of hip-hop in a civil war. 

Consider rap’s consensus “Big Three” — Kendrick, Drake, and J. Cole. Both Drake and Kendrick are and have been cool with Cole, and both have made music with him. Kendrick only shot at Cole on “Like That” because he’s too close to Drake. But there are alternate universes where both Kendrick and Drake are fine with Cole being the other half of a “big two,” because he represents a healthy balance of introspection, hip-hop traditionalism, and mass appeal. Drake vs. Cole, or Kendrick vs. Cole isn’t that polarizing. Drake and Kendrick, however, are simply too different for either of them to stomach the masses saying they prefer the other. That will forever have them at odds. 

Their catalog quality, release schedules, and artistic outlooks are in stark contrast to each other; if they were friends you could imagine they’d mutually resolve not to give each other career advice. Picture Drake advising Kendrick to drop four albums in two years. Imagine Kendrick telling Drake to take a five-year break, then come back with an 18-track concept album about being a vice-addled consequence of patriarchy and slavery. I don’t think Kendrick would take kindly to Drake suggesting a colorful, meme-ready album cover like Certified Lover Boy, nor would Drake to Kendrick advising him to surprise release outtakes from his last project that sound like experimental free jazz. 

Both men have reached rap immortality with decidedly different paths. Drake is the figurative CEO of Drake Inc., a streaming behemoth that runs on auto-pilot with annual releases of projects that have a couple of tracks for everyone—it’s rap’s most profitable example of hip-hop as a product. Kendrick takes time in between projects, which are often so thematically dense that they’re easy to admire but difficult to play all the time. His projects are routinely the most artistically and thematically ambitious in the mainstream rap sphere over the past 15 years. Those disparate catalogs feed two different fanbases that are often at war with each other. Kendrick fans find Drake too vapid, Drake fans find Kendrick too dense. 

That’s not simply about Kendrick or Drake, but the hip-hop community we’ve collectively cultivated. Both men represent facsimiles of two different hip-hop worldviews. Rap’s wondrous ambiguity allows two hip-hop heads to be equally obsessed with the art form and have completely different musical perspectives. It’s why some rap fans will denigrate some music as having “scaring the hoes” vibes, but Danny Brown and JPEGMAFIA can humorously embrace the phrase in the album title of their experimental project. We hold X discussions and barbershop debates which often end with every participant acknowledging how arbitrary it all is. Those debates happen because as hip-hop fans, we’ve learned to protect our values and be contemptuous of what we don’t. That’s why it’s so common for ardent fans to extol Kendrick or Drake while downing the other. 

Drake and Kendrick were once cool. Drake was commercially established before Kendrick, and he gave the then-rising Compton rapper a big career look with an interlude on 2011’s Take Care and an opening spot on his 2012 Club Paradise tour. There’s a clip of Drake giving a closing speech at the tour’s San Diego stop; it’s hard not to watch Kendrick in the clip akin to Russell Westbrook ogling the NBA MVP trophy during Kevin Durant’s 2014 acceptance speech. Kendrick was momentarily fine with the kumbaya energy but then came his verse on 2014’s “Control,” which split them on grounds of perspective that they may never make up again.  

Kendrick’s verse, where he called out a who’s who of rap peers and asserted his desire to lyrically dominate them, was a play on a 2011 Kurupt verse where he called himself “the King of New York.” It’s telling that while Pusha T (another Drake enemy) said that he recognized the verse was about sport, Drake was not enthused about being mentioned. “I didn’t really have anything to say about it,” he told Billboard in 2013. “It just sounded like an ambitious thought to me. That’s all it was. I know good and well that [Lamar] ‘s not murdering me, at all, in any platform. So when that day presents itself, I guess we can revisit the topic.” 

But that day hasn’t arrived, and they’ve both gone on their journey through rap barely mentioning the other. Despite, or perhaps because of their distance, It’s hard not to see them as the yin to each other’s yang. To many, Kendrick represents the essence of rap, Drake the commercial height of it. Drake feels he’s worthy of the figurative crown through attrition and volume, Kendrick through what many would consider a spotless discography. Last year Drake subliminally sniped at Kendrick’s sparse release schedule, while Kendrick rhymed that he needs time to “[protect] his soul in the valley of silence” on Mr. Morale’s… “Savior.” The rap king’s coronation route can go many directions, but both men likely scoff at the idea of the other’s approach being the most sensible one — as do their fanbases. 

In a later interview, Drake told VIBE about “Control” that, “ I think [Kendrick’s] a fucking genius in his own right, but I also stood my ground as I should. And with that came another step, which then I have to realize I’m being baited and I’m not gonna fall. Jordan doesn’t have to play pickup to prove that he could play ball, no offense.” Months later, Kendrick shot back during a BET Hip-Hop Awards freestyle where he rapped, “Nothing’s been the same since they dropped ‘Control’/ And tucked a sensitive rapper back in his pajama clothes/ Ha ha joke’s on you, high-five… I’m bulletproof/ Your shoots never penetrates/ Pin the tail on the donkey, boy you been a fake.” Drake felt like he was above responding to bait, while Kendrick feels like he’s “sensitive” for perceiving “Control” as “bait” and “fake” for not shooting back. There are rap fans who would vigorously argue either side of that debate. 

In reality, Jordan was a maniacal competitor who put a clause in his contract allowing him to play pickup ball against anyone. But, largely thanks to Jay-Z, rap’s perception of Jordan became a “too-big to compete” perspective that wasn’t always a part of rap ethos. Competition was baked into every element of hip-hop; even graffiti crews competed for real estate. From The Juice Crew vs. Boogie Down Productions, and Kool Moe Dee vs. LL Cool J, rap’s early years were defined by lyrical sparring. On LL Cool J’s, “I Shot Ya” remix he rapped, “I’ll battle any nigga in the rap game quick / Name the spot, I’ll make it hot for you bitches…Female rappers too, I don’t give a fuck, boo!” This came from a rap king who was starring in a TV Show at the time. 

Rappers were expected to shoot back when challenged. When hip-hop was a burgeoning scene that was still underground in the larger sense of pop culture, all rappers had was their reputation. But then hip-hop’s commercial boom arrived, and rappers began to weaponize their newfound economic power by downplaying peers on the grounds of commercial success. 

50 Cent made first-week sales numbers a talking point. Younger fans had come to view rap as a race to dominate the radio and sell the most records. Some fans began to take on those talking points as marching orders in debates, prioritizing numbers over intangible factors such as musical quality and impact. Artists are now forced to consider their career as a capitalistic endeavor as much as an artistic one, creating variant possibilities. Do they want to be the illest, the richest, or the most powerful? Kendrick vs. Drake represents a clash of rap’s greatest impulses over the past 50 years. 

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In the epic Jay-Z and Nas beef, Hov competed by bigging up his commercial accomplishments and knocking Nas’ pro-Black messaging: “shit is garbage, what you tryna kick knowledge?” Nas clapped back by lamenting, “You traded your soul for riches.” Fans debate Jay-Z vs. Nas to this day because their approaches and career paths are so different that the debate becomes a litmus test for what kind of rap fan you are. Do you prefer the top-selling artist with hits and mass appeal, or the artist that has hits, but also tends to eschew mass appeal for experimentation? Do you want your fave to be ubiquitous like early 2000s Jay-Z, or to take their time in between projects so they can come back rapping backward stories like “Rewind?” 

These kinds of debates would permeate a full-fledged Kendrick Lamar and Drake beef — if it happens. Kendrick and Drake respectively embody what rap was and what it’s become. Choosing between the two walks along dividing lines that shape one’s hip-hop philosophy. Thankfully, their feud doesn’t appear to be deeper than rap — but sometimes, that’s all the set-off one needs.

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