Drake vs Kendrick Lamar: A story of narratives

For what feels like the first time in a long time, battle lines have been drawn in hip-hop. Not just between fans and rappers, but producers too. A long-brewing feud has culminated in months of back-and-forth rap records between arguably the best two rappers of their generation. It is a pinnacle moment in rap's history and now that the dust is settling, the question is who won?

Drake vs Kendrick Lamar: A story of narratives

When this question came up, a lot of fans started saying that social media has ruined the perception of rap beef and that everyone had picked a side before this beef began. Yet choosing sides has always been a part of such battles and in my view, social media has actually levelled the playing field. 

When we were 11 years old and Lil Romeo and Lil Bow Wow were beefing, the arguments were just as spirited as now but with a lot fewer actual facts. There wasn't a wide array of viewpoints or Google to settle debates, all we had were VCDs, posters we'd ripped out of magazines and a passion for our favourite rapper. The end result was that we had to concede that the rapper with the more impactful diss track(s) was the winner, and sometimes it felt like that wasn't a better rapper.

So by that metric, I would call this latest battle in Kendrick Lamar's favour. At this point, I feel I should confess that I'm a Kendrick fan, and as much as I might try to be objective, my biases may jump out from time to time. However if you feel there's a rapper who won this and his name isn't Kendrick, then you're looking at the picture wrong.

The Chronology of every track in the Drake vs Kendrick beef:

- Drake ft J Cole - First Person Shooter (6/10/23)

- Kendrick - LIKE THAT (22/03/24)

- Drake - Push Ups (19/04/24)

- Kendrick - Euphoria (30/04/24)

- Kendrick - 6:16 in LA (3/05/24)

- Drake - Family Matters (4/05/24)

- Kendrick - Meet The Grahams (4/05/24)

- Kendrick - Not Like Us (4/05/24)

- Drake - The Heart Part 6 (5/05/24)

Now I'm not going to dissect the wordplay, the lyrical ingenuity or the multiple entendres said on both sides, because in terms of just pure rap ability, this battle was evenly matched. Yet rap beefs don't hinge on that, because what matters most is strategy and shaping a narrative, aka the art of rebuttal.

If you go back to Drake's beef with Meekmill, he got accused of having ghostwriters and his rebuttal shaped the narrative that Meek was jealous of his success. One of the iconic lines from "Back to Back" is "Is that a world tour or your girl's tour?", and on any other day it's perfectly fine to support your girlfriend on her tour but the narrative shaped by Drake gave the implication that Meek can only go on world tour when he's supporting his girlfriend and that essentially won Drake the battle.

If you go back to Drake's beef with Pusha T, Drake made mention of Pusha T's fiancé and Pusha's rebuttal was to say you make reference to her because you're ashamed of who you decided to procreate with. On any other day, a rapper having a son and a baby mama is just a normal part of the entertainment news mill, but Pusha T shaped the narrative that Drake was not only ashamed of the mother but the son, and that won Push the battle.

Now in Drake's current battle with Kendrick, he tried to learn from previous mistakes by preemptively airing out his dirty laundry. Generally a smart move in rap. 

To put it in some local context, when Donne Jovi battled RayKaz, in the first round he said, "Now what's he going to do, flip Donne Jovi to John Doe?" and this meant that when RayKaz said, "Up and comer Donne Jo, they must have his name backwards because after I'm done with him, he'll be just another John Doe!" in the second round, it wouldn't have that sheen of cleverness.

Yet the difference here is that Drake tried to preempt pedophilia allegations, and even if you use Tupac's voice there's no pacifying that blow, especially when it comes in a song as catchy as "Not Like Us". 

On the opposite side of preemptive reveals, Kendrick said, "Fabricatin' stories on the family front 'cause you heard Mr. Morale" and this brought a reflection of Mr Morale and the Big Steppers into the conversation. An album that has Kendrick basically reflecting on all his failures and it's not easy to bring down someone who has revealed almost all their flaws.

When Drake makes his rebuttal to the pedophilia allegations in "The Heart Part 6", he makes an erroneous reference to "Mother I" a song on Mr Morale, and that only feeds into the narrative that Drake is not as calculated as he thinks.

To add to that Kendrick had always had the narrative that Drake lacks identity, so when Drake said, "Always rapping like you're tryna free the slaves" on "Family Matters" it perfectly feeds into the second half of "Not Like Us"

Once upon a time, all of us was in chains

Homie still doubled down callin' us some slaves

Atlanta was the Mecca, buildin' railroads and trains

Bear with me for a second, let me put y'all on game

The settlers was usin' town folk to make 'em richer

Fast-forward, 2024, you got the same agenda - Kendrick Lamar on Not Like Us

Kendrick makes reference to the slave trade and how black people in Atlanta were used to enrich the settlers. The verse not only brings into question his lack of identity as a black person but also his lack of artistic integrity. On another day being an artist who can adapt to different sounds is an amazing showcase of versatility but once again it's not seen as such because Kendrick Lamar shapes the narrative that Drake is stealing the style of all these creatives.

Ultimately Drake did not have the same consistency in shaping a narrative and cracks in armour are easier to achieve with repeated hits to the same spot. In terms of rap ability, however, Drake proved he could rap on the same level as Kendrick (not saying they're equal but on the same tier of artistry), but he didn't take Kendrick head-on. It doesn't help that his last release sounded like he was tired of Kendrick's drops when he spent 2 and a half weeks asking for him to release what he had in his locker.

So no matter the stature of artists, rap beef is always a war of narratives and rebuttals because the fans will always ask "What does he/she have to say about this?" and if your explanation isn't satisfactory we won't turn to your opponent but keep staring at you in disappointment.

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