And if Drizzy takes the bait, then the game won't be about memes anymore.
This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.
Dr Dre’s “grand finale” dropped at the end of last week—a soundtrack inspired by the NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton that is, as writer Jeff Weiss noted, “much better than any rap album from a 50+ year old hermit tech billionaire” deserves to be. It’s worth talking about, that’s for sure. But let’s put Dre’s grandiose adieu on ice for a second and focus on his auspicious protégé, Kendrick Lamar, who features on three tracks on Compton, because on two of them—“Darkside / Gone” and “Deepwater”—there are lines some people have interpreted as subliminal disses toward Canada’s most sweltering hip-hop property, Drizzy Drake.
Here they are:
“Darkside / Gone”: “Got enemies giving me energy I wanna fight now/ Subliminally sent to me all of this hate / I thought I was holding the mic down".
“Deepwater”: “Motherfucker know I started from the bottom"
"They liable to bury him, they nominated six to carry him / They worrying him to death, but he's no vegetarian / The beef is on his breath, inheriting the drama better than / A great white, nigga, this is life in my aquarium"
If you choose to read them that way, then “Darkside / Gone” references Drake’s track “Energy,” and “Deepwater” namechecks “Started From the Bottom,” as well as Drake’s nickname for his home city and upcoming record Views From the 6. At first it might have seemed like the initial “Kendrick Lamar Disses Drake” news posts at the end of last week were a reach. But when you view it through the prism of years of frosty interaction, arguably dating back to when Kendrick dropped the “Control” verse in 2013, then it's clearer that some real tension has come to exist between the two. So let’s trace this saga from its conception to present day.
According to Drake himself, he has “never been reckless—it’s always calculated.” For those who have followed the recent Meek Mill beef, Drake’s self-assessment stands up. Meek was surgically taken down with coordinated “Back to Back” response tracks and a subsequent set at OVO Fest where Champagne Papi performed against a backdrop of memes intended to shame Meek for suggesting he uses ghostwriters. Drake emerged the near-consensus victor and arguable new king of rap.
Kendrick and Drake started as friends. Drake was one of the first artists outside of Kendrick’s camp to hear Section.80 and, as a result, gave him not just a guest spot, but an entire interlude on 2011’s Take Care. Kendrick returned the favor on GKMC; they went on tour together; they released "Fuckin' Problems" with A$AP Rocky (as of their most recent tours, they both continue to play it live). But ever since Kendrick dropped his “Control” verse in 2013—in which he called out 11 rappers and demanded they “raise the bar high”—Drake has seemed to perceive him, like Meek Mill's accusations, as a threat to the crown. In the past year, their relationship, depending on how you interpret certain lines, has turned into Kendrick saying he’s “endin' our friendship, baby, I'd rather die alone”, and, on the aforementioned "Energy," Drake stating he’s got “rap niggas / I gotta act like I like / fuck them niggas for life.” So what went wrong?
Like with Meek, but a little more subtly, Drake attempted to sweep Kendrick out with a malicious and calculated shrug as soon as he perceived him to be a threat. When that “Control” verse dropped, Drake brushed it off. “It just sounded like an ambitious thought to me”, he told Billboard back in 2013. “That’s all it was. I know good and well that Kendrick’s not murdering me, at all, in any platform. So when that day presents itself, I guess we can revisit the topic.”
In a follow-up interview with Elliott Wilson, Drake shrugged even harder: “Are you listening to [“Control”] now? At this point? I can’t wait to see what [Kendrick] does because now it’s time to show and prove consistency. It’s been, like, one album. Consistency is make more than one album. I look forward to seeing what he does. He’s super fucking talented. When it comes to competition, I’m more worried about consistency, about bodies of work. I’m talking about hit records, that’s Kanye West. He’s always going to be the guy who’s trying to out-think and outdo. That’s my guy that I aspire to surpass.”
Looking back, you can see Drake’s responses are coated in manipulative double speak. In two sentences he went from calling Kendrick “super fucking talented” to an artist that isn’t consistent and can’t make hit records. In one swift move, he consigned Kendrick to a level below himself and Kanye West. The thing is, Kendrick had never taken direct shots at Drake—it’s widely accepted the “Control” verse was an invitation to “raise the bar high” rather than a malicious threat (Kendrick ends his roll-call by saying “I’ve got love for [you all]”) directed toward the rappers he mentioned.
But Drake’s reaction showed he may not have taken Kendrick’s provocation so lightly, even though the two were peers who had come up together. Instead, Drake offered backhanded responses and one line that many took as a subliminal diss: On “The Language” he rapped “fuck any nigga that’s talking shit just to get a reaction / fuck going platinum, I looked at my wrist and it's already platinum / I am the kid with the motor mouth.” The lines could be seen as positioning him above the “Control” verse. And that’s when things went really sour.
In a BET Awards cypher Kendrick responded with the line “nothing’s been the same since they dropped ‘Control’ / And they tucked a sensitive rapper back in his pajama clothes,” framing Drake as, well, a man child. My guess is he saw Drake's response to “Control” as childish: Rap music should be about supporting each other to go harder, rather than being sensitive when another artist raises the bar. It was a small threat, but Drake seemingly took note because a few months later, he switched up. Ever calculated, he probably knew that upsetting Kendrick more could be detrimental to his career, so, at last year's OVO Fest, he appeared to defuse the tension, shouting Kendrick out: “Kendrick was on my album. We went on tour together. That’s one of the hardest niggas alive right there. He’s legendary. He should be standing right there. There’s a lot of kings in this shit.”
To my ears, Drake’s praise sounded less genuine than a talk show presenter introducing a guest; he was attempting to make up for the past year because he didn’t want Kendrick to jump in—and likely annihilate him—rather than offering a genuine assessment of his peer, which he could have done months earlier when “Control” dropped. On Kendrick’s latest record, To Pimp a Butterfly, he stresses the importance of respect. Arguably, Kendrick saw, in the shifting attitude toward him, that Drake didn’t possess much respect for his fellow artists, so a few months after the OVO Fest appearance, he dropped these lines in his verse on Jay Rock’s “Pay For It,” which some people interpreted as a response to Drake's bars on "The Language": "I tell 'em all to hail King Kendrick, resurrectin' my vengeance / been dissectin' your motormouth, 'til I break down the engine... endin' our friendship, baby, I'd rather die alone/ your diaphragm is dietary, what you eatin' on?"
Which brings us to “King Kunta”, from To Pimp a Butterfly, which could be the greatest subliminal diss track ever written. One now-famous verse in particular—“A rapper with a ghost writer? What the fuck happened? / I swore I wouldn't tell / But most of y'all sharing bars like you got the bottom bunk in a two man cell”—preluded Meek Mill’s accusations that Drake uses ghostwriters. Elsewhere, Kendrick says he’s got “the whole world talkin’” and that people want to “cut the legs off him.”
These lines could be seen as generic boasts, but, in the two years since “Control” dropped, one of the people attempting to take off Kendrick’s legs has been Drake. Unlike with Meek, Drake hasn’t been able to exercise his power through a direct diss track or a response, because he knows he would lose. Instead, he’s resorted to subliminal disses, carefully constructed quotes, and ostensibly voicing his support of Kendrick. On Compton, Kendrick’s verses are suggesting that by disrespecting him in that way, Drake’s swimming in shark-infested waters. It’s the biggest—and perhaps only—threat he’s sent Drake’s way yet; the fact that he’s ready “to fight” is telling. And considering the lines on “King Kunta,” maybe there are more secrets out there Kendrick could lay down on wax, given the opportunity.
Drake’s beef with Meek Mill has given people a lot to talk about. We noted that his "myth deflated a little." He’s been called “the chilling logical extreme of the beta male’s triumph over the last decade: the ultimate evolution of the nerd turned jock”; it’s been argued that “the conversation around Drake's worthiness as King should not be silenced by voices screaming "Long live the King”; and some people have backed Drake up because he creates foolproof rap music that transcends cultures. More than anything, though, despite the differences between Drake’s beef with Meek Mill and his long-running, subliminal feud with Kendrick, it’s clear Drake is a manipulative player of the game. He stamps down on weaker opponents (Meek) but cannot do the same with an artist who's on par with him, instead resorting to calculated power-play tactics.
Kendrick’s verses on Compton are 100 percent disses at Drake, and they suggest he’s not going to stand for Drizzy’s approach much longer. In a piece published last week on NPR, writer Kris Ex suggested artists like "Kendrick Lamar and J.Cole appear utterly disinterested in playing the game the way it needs to be played in order to become king" and that Drake occupies rap's top spot because he's marketable, commercialized, as well as musically successful. He's bankable currency, basically. But if Drake ends up in a beef with Kendrick, it won't be about becoming king and meme avalanches anymore, it'll be about the importance of respect. The question is: Will he take the bait that Kendrick’s dangling?
You can find Ryan Bassil on Twitter.