Like many other human interests in popular culture, the way hip-hop is viewed and analyzed is far different today than it was when I was coming of age during the 90s. The immediacy of information and the somewhat close access to famous people and public figures via social media has cultivated a landscape in which an artist’s talent has been tied to the hitch of their perceived character qualities.
Despite the fact that he was once on his way to being the greatest golfer of all time, people now have an axe to grind against Tiger Woods because of the very public fallout of his personal image. That fallout is often used to take his once never-before-seen talent down a couple notches, even though the two should be mutually exclusive. Likewise, in politics, scandal – which is now unearthed on Twitter and Instagram as opposed to the evening news – is like kryptonite for someone in public office even though there is no scientific evidence to support the notion that personal problems definitively means that someone is unfit to perform a particular function; especially one that they have honed and mastered with great experience over a significant period of time.
Whether we’re talking about politics, sports, or entertainment, the rapid nature in which the consumer has access to a celebrity’s sensibilities/morals/integrity has oddly shaped the very fabric of that celebrity’s perceived abilities. Funny thing is, hip-hop has always uniquely functioned within this tenet. Before there was ever a Twitter feed, a rapper’s success, particularly during times of conflict, was based largely on his/her authenticity as an artist. Unlike film, in which an actor is using their abilities to portray someone whom they aren’t, or sports, where skills speak for themselves and winning championships trumps everything, rap music has been predicated on whether an artist is being real, truthful and authentic to the music that they create.
Rap historically has operated in its own lane in this respect. It was born from a place of rebellious expression against the sociopolitical powers-that-be and the need for the disenfranchised to be empowered by a mouthpiece of their own. It is arguably the most personal form of music with respect to what is being said and who it is being said by. A rapper’s lyrics are closely tied to the artist who is delivering them, and the assumption amongst listeners that these are experiences specific to that particular artist is made instantaneously. The same may be applicable to other forms of music, but rap music is assuredly grounded in this dynamic more so than any other genre. Perhaps the worst thing that can happen to a rapper is the assertion that they aren’t really living the existence that they’re music says they are. A similar revelation made by fans of a rock or pop star would hardly have the same catastrophic effect on that artist’s perceived genuineness as a musician.
It should therefore not come as a surprise that rap beefs have operated in similar fashion. With skills always serving as a baseline (it’s a requirement, not a bonus), authenticity has reigned supreme. But where authenticity ended, a rapper’s image as a tough guy persisted, and one’s toughness often proved to be the deciding factor behind who ultimately won the battle. LL Cool J’s beef with Kool Moe Dee during the late 80s is widely believed to have been won by Kool Moe Dee. This is due in large part to the perception that LL’s image as a smooth and suave ladies’ man couldn’t hold weight next to Kool Moe Dee’s hard-as-nails delivery and stern cadence.
After Moe Dee dropped “Death Blow” and Todd Smith seemingly relented in response, the ensuing narrative was such that Kool Moe Dee was just too rugged, tough and street-seasoned for LL Cool J to handle. Both MCs were pioneers during the rap renaissance, both were skilled, and Ladies Love went on to have a lasting career despite being regarded as the loser in the conflict, proving that losing rap beefs doesn’t have to be a death nail for a rapper. Nevertheless, LL’s loss and Kool Moe Dee’s victory served as one of the earlier case studies for how toughness stood as the deciding factor for one’s victory in rap conflict.
Such a trope continued into the Golden Era. Rap’s most famous beef between 2Pac and Biggie, though unresolved, stands in the annals of time as somewhat of a win for 2pac’s hyper- aggressive, hyper-masculine approach, particularly when you look at the transcendent lens through which we view “Hit ‘Em Up”; and Jay Z’s epic face-off with Nas is no different. Perhaps rap’s 2nd most famous beef ended in a victory for Nas in the eyes of most fans because Nas’s “Ether” was too hard-hitting, gritty and cold for Jay Z to match wits with. The battle is much more close than fans who engage in revisionist history would care to admit, but needless to say, Ether served as the blow that put Nas in the victory lane.
As an aside, I personally believe that the combination of “Takeover”, “Super Ugly” – personal as it may have been – and “Blueprint 2” was enough to take down Ether, “Got Ur Self A…”, and “Last Real Nigga Alive”, but in the interest of transparency, I am a Jay Z fan.
Whether you’re looking at LL Cool J vs Kool Moe Dee, 2pac vs Biggie, or Jay Z vs Nas, what’s clear is the fact that the perceived champion of any beef has typically been the artists who put out the grittier, tougher material. Toughness has simply been a mainstay barometer with which to gauge who is to be given credence when it comes to who to side with in battle. Rap was just designed from the cradle that way. This in no way served as a referendum on the artists’ continued success, however, as Jay Z and LL have respectively enjoyed more fruitful careers than those of the combatants that they lost to. Suffice to say, if you were to attempt to pinpoint the subtle psychological nuance most attributable to victory in rap beefs, toughness would be that nuance.
Man, things have changed.
Today, two of the genre’s more prominent rappers, Drake and Meek Mill, have found themselves embroiled in a contemporary war of words. It began when Meek, off the heels of the collaborative effort “R.I.C.O.” for Meek’s Dreams Worth More than Money album, accused Drake of not writing his own rhymes. As previously stated, this is the most serious accusation that you can levy to a rapper, and in the aftermath of the comments, a new beef ensued…well, sort of.
After the initial accusations from Meek, bolstered by the efforts of romanticizing hip-hop purists like Funkmaster Flex who took it upon himself to unearth and disseminate Drake’s supposed reference tracks, Drake kicked things off with the quiet and underlining “Charged Up”. Critics and fans took the track to task for its underlying references and unsatisfactory subtleties that weren’t necessarily akin to an effective, overtly aggressive battle record. Little did we know, this was all part of Drake’s master plan.
Charged Up was meant to serve as fodder to bait Meek into a response. After 48hrs of silence, Drake went ahead with phase 2 of the plan and dropped “Back 2 Back”, a far more directed missile in the barracks of Meek Mill’s position. Not only was the track deliberate and calculated, complete with the lyrical and physical delivery of bottles of champagne to Drake antagonizer Charlamagne of New York’s Power 105 fame, but it was also effective in going for Meek’s jugular via perhaps the second-most vile accusation that a rapper can be hit with: the idea that your girl is better and/or more successful than you are.
Cold. How brilliant this was on Drake’s part. Meek’s eventual response, “Wanna Know”, could do nothing to stop the avalanche of heat descending upon him, even with a badly utilized sample of the theme music for professional wrestler the Undertaker (something the WWE isn’t very happy about). There are also reports that Drake brought Philly native Will Smith out to the stage for his OVO Fest in Toronto, in addition to a host of other other artists, memes on a giant screen, and Drake wearing a “Free Meek Mill” t-shirt, further adding fuel to the “Drake bodied Meek” conversation. Drake is simply thinking three, four, even five steps ahead. The point that we should all be taking away from this is that Drake’s apparent victory represents a shift in how victory in hip-hop beefs is now looked upon.
Meek Mill is by all accounts perceived to be the tougher of the two contestants. His rough upbringing as a product of the tough streets of Philadelphia have served as a foundation for his hardened exterior and aggressive approach to making music. He is a throwback to the emergence of the trap rapper and its champions – Jeezy, Rick Ross, Pusha T and the like – in an era that has seen rap transition into more appeasing, less threatening music from the likes of J. Cole, Wale, and Drake. Given this, the idea that Drake could stand to best Meek Mill in any battle can come across as a bit odd unless you look at the landscape of the culture from a macro standpoint.
Hip-hop is in its most progressive state to date, by far. Social media access, emojis, tight clothing, and an increased acceptance of androgynous social norms and practices within the hip-hop community has increased the relative worth of the emotional, savvy and socially gregarious rapper and decreased the relative worth of the hardened, street-centric emcee. The tough guy act has begun to wear thin in the culture, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Before, a battle consisting of participants in possession of skills and access to the ability to produce a high-quality product came down to a matter of who was the tougher act. Nowadays, a battle comprised of the same set of circumstances comes down to a matter of who’s more cunning and savvy with regards to their social media usage and who is more adept at tugging at the heartstrings of urban contemporary culture.
Drake and Meek Mill’s respective hardness, or lack thereof, has been rendered irrelevant to who will eventually be claimed the victor in this matter; and if things continue down their current trek (as the “battle” seems to be dying out already), Drake’s win will mark, in my estimation, a turning point in how hip-hop beefs are waged and won. The tough guys will no longer be able to rest on their laurels of being street and think that that will be enough to ensure victory. Fans no longer care about that kind of transparency. Hell, Rick Ross is well-known to have served as a corrections officer, yet he still thrives as an artist because the music speaks for itself.
Even if Drake were to be proven beyond the shadow of a doubt to employ the services of a ghostwriter for his music, he would still win the battle because he has effectively shifted the conversation away from the question of the authenticity of his lyrics and onto the matter of whether Meek could beat his own girlfriend in a beef, let alone him (I honestly don’t know if it’s a world tour or his girl’s tour…). In a time when musical expressiveness and being “emo” is in for rap music, Drake’s skill-set, coupled with his intelligence, is tailor-made for being successful during times of conflict. In rap, there is no more Mr. Tough Guy, and Aubrey Graham is reaping the benefits of this reality tenfold. Maybe Meek should try to scream a little louder.
What are your thoughts? Is the sensitive rapper the new wave while the street image tapers off, or is it simply a matter of Drake just being better than Meek Mill? Interestingly, Meek’s history as an artist is heavily rooted in battle rapping, so one would assume that he was bred for this. Either way, sound off in the comments section to keep the conversation moving back to back, pun intended.
Javis Ogden is a Miami native turned current Tallahassee transplant and the founder and chief contributor to Conscious Approach. He has worked as a creative content specialist since completing his graduate degree in Integrated Marketing at Florida State University, and he aspires to be a cultural critic, screenplay writer, ½ of the ESPN First Take debate panel, author, or whatever his short attention span will allow him to be inspired by at any given moment. When he isn’t pursuing freedom, you may be able to find him on an indoor basketball court. He is always in search of his muse. You can help him find it by following him on Twitter @JavisOgden, Instagram @JVWins, Facebook /JavisOgden, and snapchat JavisOgden.