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The Number One Song In the Country Is a Diss Track. Is That a Good Thing?

This week, the Number One song in America is a diss track. Kendrick Lamar’s “Not Like Us” debuted at the top of the charts, to the surprise of no one who’s seen the track go viral since its release earlier this month. The song is buoyed by a catchy  DJ Mustard beat and a slew of unforgettably delivered lyrics by Kendrick — even if the lines are vulgar barbs toward his rival Drake. 

What does the record’s success mean? For one, it highlights how desensitized we are as a music-listening public. Drake’s “Back to Back,” a 2015 Meek Mill diss that went No. 1, was filled with G-rated shots like, “Is that a world tour or your girl’s tour?” But on “Not Like Us,” Kendrick is levying career-ending — if not freedom-ending — accusations toward Drake, and we’ve collectively decided to turn up to it. 

So much of the Drake and Kendrick beef, which TDE CEO Top Dawg recently declared in an X Post was over, fixated on speculation of a “red button” diss — “Not Like Us” was a deep scarlet. But the song also presents cultural quandaries along with moral ones. The record’s primary premise is that Drake is a voyeur of Black American culture. When Kendrick says “us,” he’s referring to Black Americans like the Atlantans that he reeled off in the song’s third verse, when he alleges Drake exchanged his visibility for their cultural credibility and tells him, “You not a colleague, you a fuckin’ colonizer.“ (Yes, 21 Savage was technically born in the U.K., but he spent his formative years in Atlanta and is respected like a native.) That verse connects with Kendrick previously asking Drake, “How many more Black features ’til you finally feel that you’re Black enough?,” and rhyming of Canadian OVO members “tell ’em run to America, they imitate heritage, they can’t imitate this violence,” on “Euphoria.” He drew the dividing line early on in their war of words. 

“Not Like Us” is meant to be an anthem for those sharing the Black American experience, but its astronomical streaming numbers make it safe to assume that we aren’t the only people enjoying the record. What are we to make of millions of listeners screaming “they ain’t like us” to the heavens — including the people who aren’t like us? There are numerous viral videos of the song being played at sporting events and other public gatherings. A group of college-aged Torontoans danced to a remix of the song outside Toronto’s New Ho King  (where they apparently have a Kendrick Lamar special). The British producer Fred Again even dropped an edit of the track, which was captured in a TikTok and viewed by close to 100,000 people. One X user noted, “Just went to a graduation party and the girl screamed ‘A minorrrrrrr’ as soon as the beat dropped.”

Again, it’s a bit disconcerting that one of the hip-hop moments of the year is referring to preying on a child. But dissonance shrouds hip-hop, and the tone of a diss song allows leeway to bars that would probably be called out on a “normal” song. So people are having fun with “Not Like Us.” Besides the song becoming a chance to dance on the figurative grave of Drake, DJ Mustard’s flip of Monk Higgins’ “I Believe to My Soul” has a classic West Coast swing, and Kendrick sounds as playful as ever. Even if some of his accusations are basically fighting words, he’s saying them so colorfully that listeners can’t help but recite them. 

The song is going viral on TikTok with videos of people Crip Walking to it, which, in LA parlance, is weird. In 2003, CJ Mac released a documentary called C-Walk – It’s A Way of Livin where he asked people from LA how they feel about the dance’s assimilation into mainstream culture. Ice T noted that he viewed it as “just a dance.” But others in the documentary purporting to be Crips lamented that they’re not a fan of the co-opting because there was a time when “you had to be from somewhere” to do it without risking violence, “somewhere” being a Crip neighborhood. Despite what the dance’s actual progenitors have said about their preferences, people who’ve never heard of Tookie Williams —  or CJ Mac’s documentary — listened to the “LA-type beat” on “Not Like Us” and decided to channel their inner Snoop Dogg. Doing a gang dance to a song dissing someone for appropriating street culture is pretty dense, but perhaps we’re all having too much fun to care. 

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The toothpaste is out of the tube when it comes to hip-hop. There’s a hip-hop culture and a hip-hop consumer base; artists engage the latter. They probably don’t get to be multi-millionaires (and billionaires) without opening the floodgates to hip-hop listeners with no proximity to the communities that started the art form. Critical listening is merely an option in that cohort because many of these fans wouldn’t understand the full scope of what’s being said even if they did listen. We’ve seen this dynamic manifest throughout a beef that hinges on racial elements many of the most avid observers can’t credibly speak on. And now we see it in the epilogue. 

“Not Like Us” isn’t just a Drake diss, it’s a rally against perpetrators who shifted hip-hop from a Black and Brown community with culturally understood modes of being into an at-times parodic circus. That’s why when Kendrick rallies his cultural peers against the Canadian with “the braids,” one can’t help but wonder if the figurative victory parade is being attended by people who aren’t on the winning team. Kendrick probably doesn’t care who fills his bank account, but the song’s virality presents a weird paradox. “Not Like Us” has become a microcosm of hip-hop itself as art by and for Black and Brown people that’s being consumed by the entire world. 

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