Critic’s Notebook: Everything to Know Behind the Drake vs. Kendrick Lamar Rap War of Words

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When wrestling legend and WWE Hall of Famer Shawn “Heartbreak Kid” Michaels takes to social media and invites you to settle your rap rivalry in the squared circle — or Saturday Night Live takes a deep dive with a sketch — you know your quarreling is so huge it has permeated the mainstream. The musical conflict between Drake and Kendrick Lamar has escalated from a battle to an all-out hip-hop war that has the world keeping score. Each MC has displayed a stern commitment to lyrical excellence, pettiness as well as some ingenious combat zone strategy. These are not two MCs who are satisfied with their multiple Grammys and platinum albums, they’re not rich and lazy, both are hungry and have been showing out for the culture.

The stakes are extreme. This is not just “I don’t like you, you don’t like me, let’s see who can embarrass each other the most.” No, this is as high as you can get for a master of ceremonies. When the smoke clears from this, the victor could very well be crowned the greatest, not just of right now, but of his generation, maybe even of all-time depending on what fan you ask. That’s how serious this is.

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No matter what order you rank them, Drake and Lamar are both perched as hip-hop’s two most elite. Drake has dominated in his career with both rapping and singing supreme bars and melodies. He dropped his game changing mixtape, the aptly titled So Far Gone, just over 15 years ago and has been just that ever since. Outta here! He’s had a run of No. 1 records, club bangers, underground smashes and platinum LPs unlike anything rap has ever seen. He’s left no stone unturned, appealing to everyone. He’s touched multiple genres, working with fellow chart-toppers to virtually unknowns and has had success across the board just about every single time. Have there been rappers such as Eminem and Nelly from the era of physical album purchases that have sold more? For sure. However, for a decade and half, Drake’s had endlessly embraced content that’s been lauded by fans and journalists. Ask yourself, when’s the last time Drake hasn’t had a hit or multiple hits at the same time in the marketplace? He hasn’t had any lulls since he’s stepped on the scene.

Lamar is highly successful as well. He was literally knighted by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg at a concert years ago as a new leader of the West Coast. K. Dot is unquestionably special on the mic. He releases music that speaks to your soul. “Alright” was an anthem during the Black Lives Matter movement for Black culture. He’s an activist in his songs and in the streets. God blessed him with one of the most dangerous skillsets any rapper can boast, which he’s honed with hard work and dedication through the years. Lamar is one of the most critically acclaimed ever, with classics in his catalog. He has Grammys, he sells out tours across the globe, but the spotlight just isn’t his thing. You won’t catch him at the club. He stays out of the media. And he doesn’t drop music frequently. Lamar’s last album, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, came out two years ago and fans had to wait five years for that as it was the follow-up to his masterful, Pulitzer Prize-winning gem, Damn. Lamar doesn’t do a lot of guest features between projects either. Still, he is so potent, even though his presence in the marketplace isn’t imminent for years at time, he never loses his place. When he surfaces, it’s right back to the front of the line.

That’s what makes this clash of the titans the most marquee matchup since Jay-Z versus Nas in the early 2000s. Two generational talents, not just at the top of their games, but at the top of the game going at it. And they have delivered like no other face off we’ve seen.

“This to me has been the best rap battle I’ve ever witnessed,” radio personality Charlamagne The God said Tuesday on The Breakfast Club. “The two best of their generation, in their prime. I’ve never seen a rap battle give us this much music. Every time one of them drops, the other person answers and when the other person answers, they answered with some heat.”

The clash of titans has been galvanizing for the most part, polarizing (there’s still no clear cut winner as of press time, even Charlamagne and co-host DJ Envy debated on air about who is in the lead), beautiful in the high level of mic craftsmanship, brutal, cringeworthy at times with some of the outrageous, unfounded claims by both parties, but undeniably exciting. It has been real life cinema, watching the two in gladiator mode trying to one up the other, especially within the frenzy of the last few days.

On May 3, Drake vs. Kendrick Lamar distanced itself from every other rap rivalry ever with an unprecedented output of excellence at such a rapid pace. It was verbal pugilism, with each MC getting the upper hand with a seemingly devastating haymaker, only for the other to comeback with a bludgeoning blow.

Lamar dropped “6:16 in LA” early in the morning, a surprisingly swift follow-up to his masterful six-minute-plus lambasting of Drake on “Euphoria,” which was only released days prior on April 30. Not be outdone, later that night on Friday leading into Saturday, Drake took to his Instagram page with a diss interlude towards Lamar which social media has dubbed “Buried Alive Part 2” (Drake used Lamar’s flow and cadence from their decade-old-plus collaboration “Buried Alive.”) It announced that a new record and video, “Family Matters,” was “out now.” Drake’s mastery of rhyme flow, wit, humor and biting punchlines were on full display for seven-plus minutes as he threw barbs at not just Lamar but Rick Ross, A$AP Rocky, The Weeknd, Future and Metro Boomin. The record and accompanying video was all anyone could talk or post about … for merely 30 to 45 minutes.

A little over a half hour later, Lamar came right back with “Meet the Grahams.” There he aired out more grievances with his advisory while directly speaking to Drake’s parents, his son Adonis and a mystery female love child he alleged the Canadian has been keeping secret for 11 years. Keeping his foot mashed to the pedal, Lamar returned with furious tenacity not even 24 hours later with an insult laden banger “Not Like Us” (Lamar once again accused Drake of messing with underage girls and being a culture vulture). Produced by DJ Mustard, the record hit with immediate, intense impact as a new West Coast anthem that already has crossed over; it even broke a Spotify record that was previously held by Drake.

Not only can you see a gaggle of people including athletes and celebrities crip walking to the song on social media posts, cable network TNT played the song during an NBA playoff game between the Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets.

“Mustard just gave [Lamar] the perfect canvas,” says nationally syndicated radio host Bootleg Kev, who spins on Real 92.3 in Los Angeles. “He gets at Drake, but he paid homage to the West Coast. It was some of his flows, [reminiscent] of Drakeo, Lil Vada I feel was like a way to pay homage to like a lot of the L.A. shit that’s  going on. It’s a banger. I’ve never seen L.A. so unified. This might legitimately spark a national renaissance for West Coast music. It’s a West Coast thing, a LA thing, but it’s trending. Elon Musk is talking about it. The song is setting streaming records and we are playing it on radio.”

Even with such a powerful salvo delivered by Lamar, Drake refused to be knocked out. He countered on May 5 with “The Heart Part 6,” a title play off of Lamar’s previously released “The Heart Part 5.” On Drake’s record, not only did he discount Lamar’s claims of him having sex with underaged girls, he also revealed a diabolical plot twist: Someone from his camp fed someone from Lamar’s camp false information about his alleged daughter, thus leading to false fodder on the “Meet the Grahams” verse. Drake also doubled down on his claims that Lamar was abusive.

With certainly enough material for us to marinate on, both opponents have returned to their corners for now.

Oddly enough, Drake and Lamar were pretty cool over a decade ago. In 2011, Drake called upon Lamar to appear on an interlude on Take Care called “Buried Alive.” In 2012, Drake appeared on Lamar’s master opus good kid, m.A.A.d cityvia the hit “Poetic Justice” and Lamar opened on Drake’s Club Paradise tour. The pair were also featured guests alongside 2 Chainz on A$AP Rocky’s “Fuckin’ Problems.”

Despite the great vibes, the energy between Drake and Lamar forever shifted the following Summer in 2013 in the wake of Lamar’s much talked about verse on Big Sean’s “Control.”

“I’m usually homeboys with the same n—-s I’m rhyming with,” Lamar proclaimed. “But this is hip-hop and them n—- should know what time it is/And that goes for Jermaine Cole, Big K.R.I.T., Wale/Pusha T, Meek Millz, A$AP Rocky, Drake/Big Sean, Jay Electron, Tyler, Mac Miller/I got love for you all but I’m tryna murder you n—-.”

Lamar chalked it up to be just friendly sportsmanship, however, he ruffled quite a few of his peers’ feathers to say the least. But nothing really escalated that huge. In fact, from there though, the actual name calling between Drake and Lamar was dormant. Over the years, if you read between the rap lines, Drake and Lamar have levied subliminal daggers at each other such as on 2015’s “King Kunta” when Lamar mocked “a rapper with a ghostwriter” in the wake of Meek Mill and others accusing Drake of using hired guns to pen his acclaimed lyrics. Still, the issues with Lamar never really came to the forefront. Drake did have his hands full from time to time being lyrically at odds most notably with Meek Mill and Pusha T.

Last October, Drake and J. Cole collaborated on “First Person Shooter,” where Cole labeled himself, Drizzy and Lamar as rap’s “big three” The song debuted No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100.

Months later in late March, Lamar ignited his feud with Drake by appearing on Future and Metro Boomin’s “Like That,” declaring that Drake and Cole were not in his class on the No. 1 smash. He noted there wasn’t a big three, “It’s just big me.”

Cole was the first to retaliate with “7 Minute Drill” off his surprise April 5 release Might Delete Later.  The song came out on a Friday to a serious buzz, but by that Sunday, Cole got onstage at his Dreamville Festival and apologized for making it. By the following week, the song was deleted from Might Delete.

While Cole was ready to bow out, Drake was ready to tag in, dropping “Push Ups,” which was aimed mostly at Lamar but also at one his best and consistent collaborators Rick Ross (The Bawse, clapped back two hours later with a Drake diss “Champagne Moments”).

On April 19, Drake released “Taylor Made Freestyle” where he publicly asked Lamar where his retort to “Push Ups” was and scolded Lamar for taking so long with a response. Drake even went as far as using AI generated voices of Tupac and Snoop Dogg as features. Lamar came back relentlessly, starting on April 30 with “Euphoria.”

With some DJs such as Bootleg Kev predicting “Not Like Us” to be a candidate for song of the summer, this historic verbal jousting may just be heating, instead of cooling down.

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