Memes Worth More Than Money?: Meek Mill and Drake's Rap Battle Isn't As Clear Cut As It Seems
The consensus is that Meek Mill lost, but what did Drake lose?
There’s a classic fight in the early 90s X-Men comic crossover storyline “Fatal Attractions” where Professor X leads a team of X-Men into battle to stop Magneto, who, long believed dead, has come out of hiding to trigger an elaborate plan to terrorize mankind. Things come to a head as the team engages Magneto directly, and Wolverine, sensing his foe distracted, jumps in for the kill. He gets Magneto bad but forgets he’s fighting a guy nicknamed the “Master of Magnetism” as someone with a skeleton gilded in metal. Magneto sadistically tears the metal from Wolverine’s body, leaving him at the mercy of his famed healing factor. Each one narrowly avoids death after a crucial misunderstanding of the other’s capabilities proves near fatal.
Meek Mill and Drake have had a similar exchange this month. Meek’s accusation on Twitter that Drake relies heavily on cowriters (which are not ghostwriters, it should be noted, because they receive fair credit) was met with a methodical one-two punch of diss tracks in “Charged Up” and “Back to Back Freestyle,” where Drake paints Meek out to be a small fry dating above his tax and talent bracket. Meek’s response, last night’s “Wanna Know,” arrived alongside a cache of reference tracks Hot 97 DJ Funkmaster Flex promised to unveil after jumping into the fray, snippets of frequent If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late cowriter Quentin Miller’s preproduction sketches for Drake’s lyrics on IYRTITL’s “Know Yourself” and “Used To” and Dreams Worth More Than Money’s “R.I.C.O.” Meek’s diss assumes the Drake revelation is the killshot and doesn’t go for much beyond it. The song is choppy, rushed and possibly unfinished, fatal faults in a diss war many had already decided he’d lost days prior. The Drake disses don’t have this issue; they’re sleek, pristinely recorded, and as of this afternoon, available on iTunes.
Meek underestimated Drake’s most enduring ability: subterfuge. Drake shifted the focus of the battle back onto Meek and why he felt the need to lash out. He flipped Meek’s connection with Nicki Minaj and plush spot on her Pinkprint World Tour into liabilities (“Is that a world tour or your girl’s tour?”) and used his social media habits to question his street cred (“Trigger fingers turn to Twitter fingers”). The speed and efficacy of the move greatly outstrips the ferocity of the tracks, which, frankly, is low. “Charged Up” is smarmy tea time talk, and “Back to Back” is ruder but just as one-note: Drake is not bothered; Meek is Nicki’s plaything. Meek barged into a fight without a plan for what to do after the first hit—it was a very good hit—and now he’s suffering under the destructive force of the Canadian’s magnetism. Salient questions raised about Drake’s authorship and authenticity in the release of audio of someone else rapping his lyrics vanished overnight in a hail of meme fire. The battle, for now, is won. But what of the war?
Although Drake’s moves this past week are being discussed as the calculated moves of a mastermind, it’s well worth note that he doesn’t go to bat on record for more than a bar or two unless there’s something at stake. Pusha T lobbed whole verses with “Exodus 23:1” (“You signed to one nigga that’s signed to another nigga that’s signed to three niggas, now that’s bad luck”) and “Suicide” (“I built mine off fed time and dope lines/ You caught steam off ‘Headlines’ and cosigns”) and got back interview snark. After criticizing Jay Z in Rolling Stone and catching a dig on “We Made It” (“Sorry, Mrs. Drizzy, for so much art talk/ Silly me rappn' 'bout shit that I really bought”) he quipped “Just hits, no misses, that’s for the married folk,” a jab whose ruthlessness depends on whether you think he’s saying “misses” or “missus.” Kendrick Lamar called Drake by name on “Control (HOF)” and dropped a dart in TDE’s BET Hip-Hop Awards cypher (“Nothing’s been the same since they dropped ‘Control’/ And sent a sensitive rapper back to his pajama clothes”) only to get back some lines in “6PM in New York” that could just as well be for anyone. What makes a Twitter rant from Meek Mill deserving of two whole response tracks from a guy who has rarely more than sneak dissed a rival?
Firstly, you hunt what you’re sure you can kill. “6PM in New York” effectively shut Tyga down for slick talk this year because it was light work, and it’s clear Drake has come out swinging this week partly because he knows he is the better rapper. But beneath that confidence is concern about the seriousness of Meek’s attack. Drake can laugh off Pusha cracking wise about his label situation and play Kendrick as petty for changing up on him from Take Care to Nothing Was the Same. Reference tracks don’t go away with a shrug. Drake’s meticulously organized response this week, from strategic silence to the Apple Music reveal of “Charged Up” to bottles sent to Charlemagne the God at Power 105 to match the line from “Back to Back,” was damage control. But can you maneuver out of proof you buy lines from outside writers? Is hip-hop just like R&B and country, where the use of outside writers is acceptable, even commonplace?
For some, the takeaway from Drakegate is that it doesn’t matter who writes what so long as the end product is great. There’s some truth to it. Playing Quentin Miller’s “Know Yourself” and “Used To” tracks alongside the final Drake cuts, it’s easy to hear what Drake brings to the table, the whooping, haughty opulence always just a hairpin turn away from questioning self-doubt. There’s room for artists for whom the writing process is nebulous and collaborative. Kanye bounces lines off other writers. Dre has performed verses written by Jay Z, Eminem and Kendrick Lamar. Ol’ Dirty reportedly borrowed material from his Wu-Tang brethren. Diddy famously rapped “Don’t worry if I write rhymes, I write checks.” All of them have been involved with records fans rank among hip-hop’s best. No one questions their place in the history of the culture. But they don’t come up in conversations about the best pure rappers. The Hall of Fame doesn’t like you if you cork, and it’s a pipe dream if you juice.
Drake paying for bars isn’t shocking or deplorable, and it’s an open secret among anyone who has chanced through his songwriting credits over the last three albums and repeatedly stumbled across the names of guys who are neither producers nor sampled artists. As he continues to beef up his delivery and subject matter and intimate that he’s the best rapper out right now, though, he’s sliding past the station allotted for guys who rap well but don’t necessarily write all their stuff. Tough talk about friends who have done jail time, this thing with Meek, the new Sprite “Obey Your Verse” campaign, which outfits soda cans with lyrics from Drake, Nas, Rakim and Biggie… Drake’s open thirst for authenticity has reached critical mass, and his myth deflated a little this week. You can have help with your writing, but you can’t go beating your chest about your pen game. You can still rap if you didn’t have it too bad growing up, but you should ease up on street talk. Drake’s had it both ways for too long. There’ll be a bright neon asterisk on future discussions of the Drake v. Meek battle that Meek “lost” by delivering on a promise to prove Drake writes less than most people care to believe, and that Drake “won” by running from it.
Craig prays the real lives forever, man, and the fakes get exposed. Follow him on Twitter.