Dr Dre’s “grand finale” dropped at the end of last week - a soundtrack inspired by the NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton that’s “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 claimed last week as subliminal disses toward Canada’s most sweltering hip-hop property, the boy, 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” name-checks “Started From the Bottom” as well as Drake’s upcoming record Views From the 6. At first it 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 - which started when Kendrick dropped the “Control” verse a few years back - then it's clear that a deep-seated beef has come to exist between the two. So let’s trace this 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 performance at OVO Fest - where Papi performed against a back-drop of memes intended to shame Meek for suggesting he uses ghostwriters, and by lieu of those accusations, shutting down any threats that could stop him becoming the greatest rapper of our generation.
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 favour on GKMC; they both went on tour together; they released "Fuckin' Problems". But ever since Kendrick dropped his “Control” verse in 2013 - in which he called out eleven rappers and demanded they “raise the bar high” - Drake has perceived him in the same way as the Meek Mill accusations; a threat against his crown. And in the past year, their relationship 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 now, 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 negated 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 didn’t take lightly to Kendrick’s rise, even though he was a peer and they had come-up together. Instead, he attempted to carefully take him down with manipulative quotes and one subliminal diss - on “The Language” he rapped “Fuck any nigga that’s talking shit just to get a reaction” - positioning himself as 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” - positioning Drake as, well, a man child. I guess 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 took note because a few months later, he switched up. Ever calculated, he knew that upsetting Kendrick more could be detrimental to his career, so, at the OVO Fest, he shouted him 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”.
The truth is, Drake’s praise sounded less genuine than a chat-show presenter introducing a guest; he was attempting to make-up for the past year because he didn’t want Kendrick to jump - and 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 and I guess 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 this line in his verse on Jay Rock’s “Pay For It”.
“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”.
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, when the time came, switching back to lend his support to 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 “King Kunta”, maybe there’s 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. 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”; in opposition, it’s been said 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’s human, makes mistakes, yet creates foolproof rap music that transcends cultures. More than anything though, in the difference 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 the weak (Meek) but cannot do the same with an artist who's on par with him, and instead resorts to calculated power-play tactics.
Kendrick’s verses on Compton are 100% 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, commercialised, 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.