"Woooow," Drake drawls in "Charged Up," and I can almost see the accompanying eye-roll, "I'm honored that you think this is staged." The track serves as his first response to a series of tweets from fellow rapper Meek Mill, who publicly accused Drake of relying on ghostwriters. Featuring a ethereal beat and an intro consisting of a nameless woman voice, the song barely registers as a diss upon first blush.
"Back to Back," Drake's second reply, gets more blatant, with Drake dropping multiple references to Meek's hometown of Philadelphia and mocking his relationship with rapper Nicki Minaj. It feels extra, like when you have an argument with your ex and end it with "OK, I'm done talking to you," and then call back five minutes later because you can't help yourself. Drake acknowledges the corniness, saying, "I might be mad that I gave this attention." But "fuck," he says, "you left a boy no options." If he's corny, it's still all Meek's fault.
When Drake clowns you, it's less of a diss and more of an act of chastising, loaded with the same psychological firebomb as responding to a hostile, multiple-scroll text with the nail-painting emoji: I'm above this, but I'll deign you a response.
Drake's acceptance of his "soft" reputation gives him space to perform masculinity with less vitriol. But women still get the short end of the stick. To chastise is to diss with a certain degree of political correctness, where there aren't any slurs being thrown around, and women aren't being insulted for the grave crime of being women. Overall it's a much stronger indictment of Meek, since the takedown hinges on the two rappers' respective merit as artists.
All of us fans know what's going on. We saw Meek's tweet, the ensuing internet-media frenzy, and then waited with bated breath for Drake to respond. When "Charged Up" dropped, Drake didn't need to open it with an "Ether"-esque "FUCK MEEK MILL" because (1) Drake's character would never say, "FUCK MEEK MILL," and (2) he doesn't have to name Meek explicitly. Instead he raps, "Easter-egg huntin' / they gotta look for somethin'." Drake knows listeners mine his lyrics for clues as to what he's talking about because it makes us feel special and included. His mission is not only to chastise Meek, but to engage with Meek's own fanbase, using his innately Canadian wit and charm to turn them against the guy.
Compare this to some of hip-hop's classic diss tracks, which are peppered with instances of blatant homophobia (Nas claiming that "This Gay-Z and Cock-a-Fella Records wanted beef" in "Ether") and outright sexism (Tupac's prostitution-referencing "Hit Em Up," in which is raps, "Little Kim, don't fuck around with real G's / Quick to snatch your ugly ass off the streets"). When writing from a place of rage, the first thing to do is insult your enemy in the most vicious way you can, pissing them off as much as you yourself are pissed off. Calling a man gay or a woman a slut is easy code for I'm better than you for reasons that go beyond your talent as an artist. And the public repercussions don't matter as much as your target's reaction.
Drake doesn't pose himself as a hard-ass. Rather, the tone is both dismissive and slightly aloof, as if to say, I can't believe you made me drop this effortless, skillful rap. Instead of squaring up against Meek Mill, Drake comes off more like a head-shaking older brother, informing Meek that dealing with one's emotions "could be one of our realest moments," and they shouldn't be fighting each other when "cops are killing people with they arms up." It's a little crass to invoke "Hands Up Don't Shoot" in a diss track, but hey, the tactic suits the holier-than-thou tone.
The references to Nicki Minaj, Meek's girlfriend, are where it gets personal, and the diss becomes ice cold. "Rumor has it, I either fucked her or never could," Drake intones, reducing Nicki to her fuckability, like KRS-One spitting, "Roxanne Shante is only good for steady fucking" on "The Bridge Is Over." We don't know what went on between Drake and Nicki. But it's possible Meek does, and the fact that he now knows that we know that he knows must be a special kind of psychological torture.
But it's the bit in the middle that really sums up Drake's rap beef game. The first move is to emasculate the guy by suggesting that he's less successful than his girlfriend. Deftly, he sandwiches it between emotional statements, "You gotta give the world to her" and "She told you to open up more," drawing attention away from his casual sexism by appearing to be emotionally open and understanding—performing "soft" masculinity. He then shifts his focus to Nicki, telling her that since she makes more money, she is the real masculine one in the relationship: "Make sure you hit him with the prenup / Then tell that man to ease up."
Things are getting better for women in music these days. In 2013, when Rick Ross rapped about using MDMA to rape a woman, he was shamed into publicly apologizing. But women in music aren't allowed to run with the boys unless they make it clear that they're sexually unavailable to all their competitors. When Nicki raps, "I never fucked Wayne, I never fucked Drake," that's her saying her success is from her skills alone.
But because she's with Meek, Drake uses it as an opportunity to use her as an altar on which to emasculate Meek. "Is that a world tour," he asks, "or your girl's tour?" Touted as the "cruelest barbs" in the rap, these lines reveal just how culturally embedded our understanding of masculinity is: The best way to insult a man is to compare him to a woman.
Follow Kate on Twitter.