Chest-beating and braggadocio has always been an integral part of surviving as an artist in the music industry. Regardless of your musical skills, it is hard to maintain a public image if you lack the ability to portray yourself as an interesting figure. The general public is drawn to many characters within the industry that by most logical accounts have marginal talent (i.e. Lil Uzi Vert, Post Malone, Lil Yachty, Young Thug), yet compensate for it with their charismatic personalities and general appeal. A byproduct of their large egos is conflicting with other large egos in the business, which has been a staple in hip-hop culture since its inception. As much effort as these artists put into honing their skills and polishing their craft from a musical standpoint, they spend a lot of time interacting with their peers within the musical realm. Most of these interactions are positive ones, unless an artist is universally disliked within the industry, but friction between artists, especially those with naturally brash personalities, is not unheard of. In fact, in the general scheme of things, it is quite prevalent. The expression of this dissention has always existed through songwriting and lyricism, but it has evolved significantly over the years.
Hip-hop is an ever-changing genre that is marked by subtle tweaks in style over time, which eventually culminate into a larger period that the fans call an “era.” The landscape of hip hop overall has not made radical leaps to the extent that the integral aspects have been altered, but there are many differences that should be recognized, particularly pertaining to diss tracks and rapper interaction within the studio. These differences do not necessarily indicate the transition from one era to the next, but certain characteristics are more present than others based on the time frame within the hip-hop chronology. A singular principle binds the two: beef between artists has always been lucrative, at least initially. Songs that depict quarrel between musicians typically do very well in sales (i.e. Ether reviving Nas’ career commercially), but the reality is that the financial precipice doesn’t last and their longevity is sacrificed for a greater high. At the end of the day, music is a product consumed for the sake of entertainment. When an artist decides to malign another artist within their music, they most likely don’t have their long-term welfare in mind. Reaching a higher altitude in sales and attention is their main focus, and while it might put their overall success in jeopardy (artists tend to fizzle out along with their skirmishes), it sure as hell makes it fun for the rest of us.
The ensuing step is to survey the differences in eras pertaining to lyrical sparring between artists. While diss tracks are similar in the sense of their most fundamental attributes, the style of expression is starkly different. They all contain disdain for another figure within the industry, yet the old school approach is to be more forthright and raw, with little to no intention of mystifying audiences with their lyricism. A hip-hop novice could listen to “Hit Em Up” by Tupac Shakur or “No Vaseline” by Ice Cube and have zero questions about who they were aimed at or the tone of their sentiments. Conversely, the same person could hear “Two Birds, One Stone”, a belligerent, aggressive release from Drake aimed at several of his peers, and have no clue who Drizzy is referring to. They could probably figure right away that he’s not too fond of who he’s addressing, but dissecting his lyricism is another beast altogether. Only after a second or third run-through and having mulled it over for a bit would the lyrical meaning start to resonate. This track in particular is fraught with equivoque and obscure metaphors that leave the listener perplexed, yearning for an explanation. Think of it this way: the style of the preceding era contains messages that clearly present themselves right in front of your eyes, making it nearly impossible to misinterpret or misconstrue in any way, shape, or form. In contrast, the current model of diss track tends to reside in your peripherals, requiring incredibly keen vision to fully register after the first or even numerous times.
The premise of the music industry has always been profound marketability and commercialism. Music is very lucrative and there is a high demand for all types of artistic expression. However, artistic merit has also permeated the fabric of rapper feuds in recent years. This is not to say that the vitriol between Drake and Meek Mill is contrived for the sake of gossip gurus like DJ Akademiks generating extra publicity, and in turn, sales. Yet that does seem to be one of the factors. Biggie and Pac surely weren’t opposed to the additional publicity and commercial value they attained due to their skirmish, but it wasn’t a motivating factor, just based on their demeanor towards each other and their lyrics. There was a legitimate loathing for each other and their respective label-mates, and music was simply the easiest medium to convey their emotions through.
One way to interpret this is to praise contemporary hip hop for combining artistic and intellectual merit with dissing; blending clever and caustic into one. The other side of the spectrum is that this wordplay is convoluted and detracts from the rawness and authenticity of the message they are trying to convey. For what it possesses in witty lyricism and colorful language, it lacks in a style that fully resonates with the listener.
The history of rapper feuds can be portrayed as a roller coaster, an ever-fluctuating narrative that never levels out for any extended period of time. Concurrent with the advent of hip-hop was the spawning of incendiary interaction, but eventually rappers realized that beefs were not as profitable as they were initially. This shift in school of thought was evoked by the notorious career train wreckages of Ja Rule and 50 Cent, whose beef derailed each of their careers. This resulted in rapper feuds taking a backseat to career longevity, and mainstream artists became wary of beefing. However, the praxis made a resurgence with Meek Mill and Drake duking it out over Twitter back in 2015. Meek Mill’s accusations concerning Drake’s authenticity and lyrical integrity sparked two diss tracks released over the summer of that year, titled “Back to Back” and “Charged Up.” Drake has engaged in a few others of recent, and the reason he seems more inclined to entangle himself in such endeavors is due to his popularity. He’s very bold and does not shy away from dropping bars on his targets; on the contrary, other artists find it in their best interest to avoid striking a chord with him. When an artist loses to Drake in the court of public opinion, their career hits a brick wall, and this theory has been validated twice with Meek Mill and Kid Cudi. Jousting with Drake seems to be career kryptonite, which is why Pusha T recently facilitated a battle and subsequently backed off when Drake was willing to retaliate. It is safe to say that Drake has drastically transmogrified the landscape of rapper feuds.
Another contrast that correlates with the different eras is the shift in ego within the talent pool. The pool has always been very diluted and is tailored for supreme talent to buoy to the top. This has not changed. However, the most cunning rapper in the genre currently, Kendrick Lamar, is the most mellow personality and doesn’t divulge much of his personal life into the public eye. Juxtaposed with the norms of the industry, this is an anomaly. The face of hip hop prowess has always been an exuberant figure, from Ice Cube to Dre to Em to Wayne; each has passed the proverbial baton to a more electric and controversy-provoking persona. That trend stops with K-Dot, due to his insouciant demeanor and ambivalence to popularity. He’s far and away the most talented tactician of wordplay in the game, and yet he does not fit into the tabloids well simply because he just doesn’t showcase himself to the public. He cruises under the radar, and albeit hurting his sales to a modest degree, it does not hurt the artistic merit nor the critical acclamation of his projects.
At the end of the day, rap is still rap. The fundamental components of the genre are intact, from the genesis to its current state. However, there have been clear permutations that are magnified when feuds factor in. Rappers used to feast on their squabbles with one another, and now they shy away due to the brooding cloud of career mortality. Engaging in spats is a career pitfall. This makes the industry seem very serene, with the exception of Drake and whomever he chooses to target. Drake’s monopoly of the feud game might be ephemeral, but it still signifies a change in attitude and the overall coyness of the rest of the field. This is just a chapter in the entire narrative of hip hop, and barring unusual idleness, we’re on the cusp of the next one.