Nothing Was the Same: Drake, Kendrick and Modern Rap Beef

By Shane Longoria

With the release of Drake’s “More Life,” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Damn,” hip-hop fans are back to doing what they do best: speculating.

Arguably the two biggest hip-hop artists in the industry right now, Drake and Lamar have been engaged in a rap cold war that dates back to 2013 – and fans have been anxious to see these two rap juggernauts collide.

But not everyone believes the hype surrounding the rivalry.

Kendrick Lamar (left) at Pitchfork Music Festival in 2012 by Gonzamos/Flickr. Drake in 2010 by Musicentropy/Flickr.

Carlos Acosta, a psychology major from Dallas, said Drake and Lamar’s styles and approaches are too different to ever manifest into an actual beef.

“He’s a pop rapper now,” Acosta said about Drake. “Kendrick sees himself as taking on the role of, ‘I’m going to try to put the streets on my back and try to keep elevating hip-hop to where it can be.’”

Since Drake’s 2015 surprise mixtape “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late,” the Toronto hip-hop artist has taken more of a pop approach, with songs like ‘One Dance’ and ‘Controlla,’ both from his most commercially successful album, 2016’s “Views.”

Lamar, however, has always been a rap purist, staying true to the roots of the genre on albums like 2013’s “good kid, m.A.A.d city” and 2015’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” both lauded by critics as two of the most influential rap albums of the decade.

In 2013, Lamar’s verse on the Big Sean song ‘Control’ called out a number of rappers by name – including Drake – telling everyone he was the best rapper in hip-hop today and igniting the tension between the two.

The two rappers have never engaged in a formal, public rap beef, but a closer look at the lyrics of both artists have led fans to believe that Drake and Lamar are trading implicit shots at one another.

Lamar’s newest album, “Damn,” was released on April 14.

In a 2016 piece from the song lyric annotation site Genius, entitled “A History of Drake and Kendrick Lamar’s Subliminal War,” author Vuk Aleksić compared lyrics and comments from both Drake and Lamar, noting that the artists have been going back and forth at each other with a Cold War-like mentality.

“Over the past three years, K. Dot and Drizzy have engaged in a game of cat and mouse in an attempt to outsmart, outwit and outplay each other as they compete for hip-hop’s throne,” Aleksić wrote in the article.

Chuck Ramos, a public relations major from San Antonio, said rappers today are less concerned with direct competition as lyricists, instead relying on popularity to establish dominance.

“There’s still competition, but it’s subliminal – no one’s really saying anything anymore,” Ramos said.

Ramos said the old school approach of who is on top – who is the best – has been replaced by success in music streaming and internet buzz.

There is some merit to this. Although Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” is regarded as a classic hip-hop album, its first week sales of 324,000 copes sold did not match Drake’s “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late,” which sold 495,000 copies in its release week. To date, “Views” has sold over 4 million copies, whereas “To Pimp a Butterfly” has sold only 1 million.

“If you just break it down by who’s getting more streams, then you’re diluting the whole hip-hop culture and what it was really built around,” Ramos said.

Caleb Ramirez, a personal financial planning major from Round Rock, Texas, said he attributes the change in mentality to how hip-hop has evolved from making music to being more of a business.

“It shows the difference between making this a career nowadays, when back then it wasn’t a career – they just wanted to make music,” Ramirez said.

Acosta said there is also a difference in how today’s rappers were brought up, leading to a psychological shift in the way they approach conflict.

Drake’s most recent project, “More Life,” was released in March.

“Kendrick Lamar was never a gangbanger,” Acosta said. “He is very open about his connections and affiliations, and he appreciates them.”

Acosta said Lamar’s decision to approach his music as a commentator of what he saw from his gang-affiliated friends allowed him to cultivate a different attitude from the straightforward aggression of rappers from the 1990s.

Acosta said the same of Drake, noting that it was Lil’ Wayne who helped him understand Houston rap culture, a culture Drake often cites as being one of his most important influences.

“I think that rap in general is straying from that mentality of, ‘Who’s bigger than who? Who’s stronger? Who’s meaner?’” Acosta said. “Now it’s more about how you listen to someone – how they make you feel.”

Ramos said the way people listen to music today shapes the way rappers approach making music, deviating away from lyricism and moving toward what sounds good, focusing less on the competitive aspect of rap.

“People are listening to music now to feel something more than they are trying to digest a body of content,” Ramos said. “Nothing’s really telling a story anymore.”

It remains to be seen whether or not Drake and Lamar will ever engage in an actual rap beef, but until they do, fans can only keep speculating and enjoying the music.

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