Kendrick vs Drake: A savage lyrical brawl

Kendrick Lamar’s brutal, surgical evisceration of Drake over the past week feels like a seismic event

Bhanuj Kappal
First Published11 May 2024
Kendrick Lamar (left) and Drake have been taking subliminal jabs and potshots at each other since 2013.
Kendrick Lamar (left) and Drake have been taking subliminal jabs and potshots at each other since 2013. (AP)

In all of human history, there are few spectacles that are as universally compelling and era-defining as the humbling of an unpopular monarch. The end of Roman emperor Nero’s reign of terror—with him committing suicide after being dethroned and declared a public enemy—remains a cautionary tale about the hubris of tyrants two millennia on. The trial and execution of Louis XVI by French revolutionaries in 1793 dealt a crippling blow to the legitimacy of the ancient régime, lighting the fuse of global revolution.

Kendrick Lamar’s brutal, surgical evisceration of Drake—aka Aubrey Graham, the reigning king of mainstream rap—over the past week feels like a similarly epoch-defining moment in pop music history, a seismic event whose aftershocks will still be felt years from today. Over a series of rapid-fire exchanges—they dropped five diss tracks just over last weekend—the two rap heavyweights traded multiple haymakers, drawing on all of their lyrical skill and street-fighting experience as they tried to land a knockout blow.

It was rap beef as high-tension soap-opera. Ideological jabs about cultural appropriation and faux-activism were interspersed with low-brow jabs about height and hairstyles. There were horrific (but unsubstantiated) allegations of physical and sexual abuse, reputation-destroying nukes launched without any thought of the toxic fallout. The bars were by turn hilarious, nasty, and downright unpleasant, fuelled by over a decade of competition and personal animus. All of which adds up to the most brutal, no-holds-barred rap beef of the past two decades, rivalled only by the blood feuds of the 1990s.

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In a sense, this beef was inevitable. A half-black, half-Jewish suburbanite from Toronto who first broke through as a child actor on Canadian teen drama Degrassi, Drake is by far the most commercially dominant contemporary rapper, holding the record for the most No.1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 (he’s tied with Michael Jackson). But his pop-leaning tendencies, use of ghostwriters, and perceived inauthenticity mean that hip-hop traditionalists have always been a little leery of him.

Kendrick, a Pulitzer-prize winner from Compton’s mean streets, is the socially conscious alternative, a lyrical genius whose songs soundtracked the 2015 Black Lives Matter protests and explore themes like systemic anti-blackness and generational trauma. They represent two contradictory, competing lineages within rap music, each the undisputed flagbearer of their respective traditions. They’ve been taking subliminal jabs and potshots at each other since 2013, small skirmishes in a simmering Cold War. If anything, it’s surprising that it took them so long to escalate to open warfare.

Kendrick kicked off the current round of hostilities in March with a verse on Future and Metro Boomin’s Like That calling out Drake and J. Cole, declaring “motherf*** the big three (...) it’s just big me.” Drake responded in late April with the goofy, playful Push Ups, followed by Taylor Made Freestyle, where he used AI to rap in the voices of West Coast icons Tupac and Snoop Dogg, using their likeness to taunt Kendrick about his short stature, asking him to respond.

On 30 April, Kendrick unleashed his first proper broadside, a six-minute track titled Euphoria that is full of subtle double-and-triple-entendres and multi-layered put-downs. He called Drake a “scam artist”, implied that he was a culture vulture, and expressed his pure disdain for Drake’s existence. “I hate the way that you walk, the way that you talk/ I hate the way that you dress,” he sneers, throwing down the gauntlet while warning Drake to stick to rap and not make the beef personal. It’s a warning that Drake ignored. That turned out to be a huge mistake.

Three days later, Kendrick dropped another diss, titled 6:16 in LA, on Instagram. Just a few hours later, Drake put out Family Matters, rapping the best he has in years as he arrogantly struts over three beat switches, dropping accusations that Kendrick beat his fiancée, and that one of his children was actually fathered by his manager. It’s a masterful diss, one that would have made most rappers throw in the towel.

But Kendrick, it turns out, had already anticipated Drake’s angle of attack. Fifty-seven minutes after Family Matters was released, he put out his response titled Meet The Grahams. Over a haunting, funereal beat by the Alchemist, Kendrick spits six minutes of pure hate, addressing Drake’s son, his parents, and a supposed secret daughter (Drake has denied this allegation) in turn as he took Drake’s identity and persona apart with surgical precision. It was shock and awe on all fronts: accusations of sexual abuse and harbouring sexual predators, the revelation that he may have (another) hidden child, the sheer hateful spite with which he calls Drake a liar and a deadbeat dad.

The track—and the timing of its release—was so unrelenting that it left the internet in shock. But Kenny wasn’t done yet. Less than a day later, he followed it up with Not Like Us, a West Coast bop that doubled down on the sexual abuse allegations and the idea of Drake as an appropriator, with the vicious “you not a colleague, you a f***ing coloniser.” Having committed lyrical murder on his previous track, this was Kendrick inviting us to dance on Drake’s grave. And we obliged. Within a couple of days, the song—which calls Drake a “certifiable paedophile”—was playing at clubs all over LA and New York, blaring over the PA at the Dodgers stadium during a baseball game. Drake is now the punchline of the summer.

On Monday, Drake responded with The Heart Pt. 6, in which he claimed that his camp had fed Kendrick the story about the secret daughter, and doubled down on some of his own claims. But he sounds defeated on the track, a few good bars interspersed with lame punchlines.

There may still be more tracks to come, but for now, the internet has called it in favour of Kendrick, who not only out-rapped his opponent but also outplayed him strategically. It wasn’t a clean victory. Both rappers’ reputation has taken a hit, and the ugliness of some of these accusations will leave a bitter aftertaste. Even without proof, they will be hard to shake off. As some critics have pointed out, there’s also something a little distasteful about using women and children—allegedly victims of abuse—as props in a rap battle. Misogynoir and homophobia are not new to rap beefs, but some fans are no longer willing to look the other way.

These are all important debates to have, and the discourse is already underway. In the meantime, it’s undeniable that this will go down as one of the biggest, most savage lyrical brawls in pop culture history.

Bhanuj Kappal is a Mumbai-based writer.

Also read: Heems’ triumphant return, fresh sounds from Sheherazaad and Naya Beat

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