Drake is rap’s biggest star and probably its most compelling figure, too. He’s effectively remade the whole idea of the rap star, turning the center of the genre away from hungry street-rap and toward this sonically manicured, stylistically cosmopolitan sound that currently dominates. He’s someone who’s constantly thinking about his own persona and about the way rap music operates. He raps with more personal openness than any big rap star this side of Kanye West, and he’s not afraid to come off perilously corny by rapping about his feelings, his past disappointments and his former-child-star struggles. Rap is more interesting with Drake around, and it’s more interesting with him atop the heap. A lot of people were down on his Coachella headlining set this year, but watching that thing out in the crowd, in a sea of stoned and starstruck teenagers, I was pretty much dazzled: So many hits, so much energy, such a willingness to stand out alone onstage in front of tens of thousands of people, with only a weird Madonna cameo to keep him company. Through guest appearances and tour opening-act spots, he’s helped move the careers of many of the best people working right now: Kendrick Lamar, Future, YG, A$AP Rocky, Migos, Meek Mill. He’s like Spike Lee with black actors in the early ’90s: If you came into the game in the last five years or so, Drake very likely had something to do with your success. And so I say this as a fan, as someone who wants to see Drake keep his current winning streak going as long as possible: I hope that, in his current rap feud with Meek Mill, Drake gets his ass kicked. I hope he gets fucking stomped. I hope Meek hits him with some sort of feverish, delirious “Jack The Ripper”/”2nd Round K.O.”/”Takeover” combination. I hope he makes it so rough for Drake that Drake’s embarrassed to leave his house for weeks on end. I hope he makes it so all Drake’s real ones living past Kennedy road snicker behind his back. As long as the whole thing stays on-record, it would be good for Drake, you know? It would build character.
Drake isn’t getting his ass kicked yet. The whole story between Drake and Meek is very much an ongoing issue, and the two have history together. As far as I know, the first time Drake and Meek rapped on a track together was Meek’s 2012 mixtape track “Amen.” In retrospect, Drake’s appearance on that song was fully in keeping with his whole pattern of cosigning every exciting up-and-coming act in rap. In 2012, Meek had frantically rapped his way to the top of his local Philadelphia underground, excelling to the point where rap’s power brokers couldn’t help but take notice. He’d signed on with Rick Ross, who used to be nearly as good at spotting that sort of talent as Drake is now. He’d scored a couple of honest-to-god hits, street bangers that stood out from Ross’ Self Made compilation way more than the compilation’s tracks from Wale and Pill and Ross himself. Meek was on his way to big things, but “Amen” was still something different. It was the biggest hit of Meek’s career at that point, and it might still be. And it was warmer and more thoughtful than most of what we’d heard from Meek, with its warm pianos and its old-soul sense of melody. It showed that a Meek track could do something other than punch you in your shit. Drake did Meek a favor by showing up on that track, and he did him another one by showing up on “R.I.C.O.,” one of the better tracks from Meek’s very good new album Dreams Worth More Than Money. I basically always thought they were friends. They sure seemed cool with each other in the “Amen” video.
And then there’s the whole Nicki Minaj situation. She’s Meek’s girlfriend, and she’s Drake’s labelmate (I guess), friend (I guess), and frequent collaborator. Maybe she’s working behind the scenes to put an end to their whole issue. Maybe she’s the reason they’re beefing. We don’t know. (Meek, who’s on tour with Nicki, did apologize to her onstage for the whole Twitter-rant thing, but that hasn’t stopped him from continuing to needle Drake.) If anything, this whole story shows how rap’s highest level is a weird and interconnected house of cards. We don’t actually know how many of these people like or don’t like each other, and we don’t know how many of these collaborations are marriages of convenience. We don’t know anything. Maybe Drake saw Meek’s Twitter bromide coming a mile off, as he says on “Charged Up.” Maybe he was taken as completely off-guard as the rest of us were. Maybe they don’t hate each other at all and it’s just a publicity stunt. All we know is that we don’t know jack shit. But from the outside, the whole thing looks like Meek just jumped on Twitter one night and got completely out-of-pocket, freaking out over the idea that Drake didn’t write his verse on “R.I.C.O.” If that’s actually what happened, then rap turns out to be a lot like life: One guy’s late-night social-media tirade has the power to make things weird for everyone in his circle.
And things sure have gotten weird. By the time that one night was over, completely unaffiliated D-listers like SpaceGhostPurrp and Kia Shine had thrown themselves into the conversation, picking one side or another. People were actively geeking out about the idea of Drake waking up and jumping on Twitter. (Drake, to his credit, hasn’t yet said a word about this whole story on Twitter. He’s kept it in music.) As I’m writing this, the latest eruption of drama is that Funkmaster Flex, who’d spent all of Monday promising to play Meek’s new dis song about Drake, ended up playing nothing of the sort. Hot 97, Flex’s radio station, explained that the whole thing was Meek’s fault, that he’d promised a new song and hadn’t delivered. But that didn’t deter Power 106, Hot 97’s crosstown rival, from relentlessly clowning Flex for promising something he couldn’t deliver: “Another ’80s icon has let us down.” Right now, there’s a Change.org petition for Flex to step down from Hot 97 because he didn’t play a Meek Mill song. This is all collateral-damage stuff, the sideshows that have sprung up from rap’s biggest story of the moment. And keep in mind that this was only a couple of days removed from Drake’s release of “Charged Up,” the first actual song in this mini-conflict. People are breathlessly anticipating Meek’s response, not even considering the idea that he might want to take a few days to make sure his response song is actually good.
As dis records go, “Charged Up” is a fascinating case. Despite the title, Drake doesn’t sound charged up at all. He sounds bummed-out and disappointed, but also confident. He’s rapping over a beat that sounds like something 40 might’ve made late at night in his bedroom while trying not to wake his mom up. (40 probably doesn’t live with his mom. I’m just saying.) It’s soft and meditative, and it’s easily the best of the three new Drake songs that got play on this week’s OVO Sound Radio, though that’s mostly because the other two are absolute trash. (Drake needs to realize that he doesn’t need to play every goddam thing he makes for the public.) Some of Drake’s lines on “Charged Up” are slick: “Rumor has it I either fucked her or I never could / But ‘rumor has it’ hasn’t done you niggas any good.” Some are outright cold: “I see you niggas having trouble going gold / Turning into some so-and-sos that nobody knows.” Some have a weird disappointed-dad tenor to them: “Done doing favors for people / Cuz it ain’t like I need the money I make off a feature.” Some are just goofy, with no real place in a dis song: “I got me a deal with Apple, and I still feel entitled.” Some disingenuously rope in national tragedy in a lame attempt to shame: “Cops are killing people with they arms up / And your main focus is tryna harm us?” Some make Drake look like a shitty person: “No woman ever had me starstruck / Or was able to tell me to get my bars up.” The song is a profoundly mixed bag, but it also walks a weird line. It’s a rap dis record that never deviates from Drake’s whole fortress-of-solitude aesthetic. On Twitter, Meek called the song “baby lotion soft,” and he’s not wrong, but that’s sort of what’s good about it. Drake makes soft music. It’s what he does. If he suddenly made an “Ether,” he wouldn’t be true to himself.
“Back To Back Freestyle,” the second Meek dis that Drake released, just came out last night, and it’s a way more effective dis song than “Charged Up.” It’s not an “Ether,” but it’s not exactly soft either. Instead, it’s Drake in that same breathlessly confident mode he was in on “0 To 100.” His chest is puffed way up, and he is very into the idea that Meek has taken a few days to come back at him. That’s one of two main lines of reasoning on the song: Meek still hasn’t come back at Drake, and Meek is way less famous than Nicki. The big money-line on the song feels like an example of asshole logic at work: “Is that a world tour or your girl’s tour / I know you gotta be a thug for her / This ain’t what she meant when she told you to open up more.” It’s funnier, though, when Drake raps directly to Nicki: “Shout out to all my boss bitches wifing niggas / Make sure you hit hip with a prenup! / Then tell that man to ease up!” Drake also makes constant mention to hanging out in Philadelphia, Meek’s hometown, which is also pretty funny. Mostly, though, Drake is just overexcited that Meek hasn’t said shit to him yet on record. And that part of the song is great: “I did another one, I did another one! / You still ain’t did shit about the other one!” He’s still not rapping hard, but he is rapping like he already won, and that confidence is infectious. (The part where Drake refers to himself as “very important and very pretentious” is so good.) Meek has to come back at him now, and he can’t waste any time at it.
We might learn more about whatever issues these two have when that inevitable Meek response finally arrives. But right now, the whole episode shows how fundamentally opposed Drake and Meek’s ideas about rap are. Meek is mad that Drake uses ghostwriters, but ghostwriters are so common in rap that very few people even worry about them anymore. Diddy rapped, “Don’t worry if I write rhymes, I write checks” maybe 15 years ago, and that hasn’t stopped Meek from collaborating with Diddy. Kanye West basically workshops all his songs, bringing in entire teams of writers and producers, and he gives them all writing credits. Quentin Miller, the guy who Meek says is Drake’s ghostwriter, gets writing credits on a few Drake tracks; it’s not like anyone is hiding his participation. But Meek is a ’90s-vintage street-rapper, an anomaly in today’s climate, and his set of values reflects his whole anachronistic style. If and when he does come back at Drake on record, it’s going to sound nothing like “Charged Up.” It’s going to be hard and feverish and angry, because that’s how all Meek’s songs sound. And while Drake may be a bigger star and a more compelling public figure than Meek, Meek is a much, much better pure rapper. It’s not even a contest. If he comes full-force at Drake, things are going to get even more interesting. Drake has been involved in low-key rap feuds before, with guys like Kendrick Lamar and Common. But he’s never had to deal with a human hurricane like Meek. If this whole thing keeps ratcheting up, it’s going to test Drake. And maybe it’ll make him better. First, though, Meek has to come back with something.
Or maybe Drake has already won. I’m on record as saying that I thought Lil Flip was going to destroy T.I. when those two went at it, and maybe I’m not the guy when it comes to rap-feud predictions. But Meek can still win this thing, and I hope he does. For everyone’s sake.
1. Fetty Wap – “Why You Mad” (Feat. Shy Glizzy)
At this point, Fetty Wap is a newly minted pop stars. He’s the first rapper in years to have two songs in Billboard top 10 simultaneously. He doesn’t have to be howling gun threats over a tingly Zaytoven beat alongside the great Bugs Bunny-voiced knucklehead Shy Glizzy. But that’s what I like about Fetty: He can make a song every bit as catchy as his recent radio staples, and he can make it grimy as fuck. He’s doing whatever he wants, and it’s all working.
2. Zona Man – “Mean To Me” (Feat. Future & Lil Durk)
On his own, Zona Man doesn’t mean a whole lot; I mostly just know his as the Chicago guy from Future’s Free Bandz crew. But on “Mean To Me,” he shows up alongside two of rap’s great auteurs of hollowed-out, lean-addled desolation, and walks away with something hard and crushing.
3. Keith Ape – “It G Ma (Remix)” (Feat. Waka Flocka Flame, Dumbfoundead, Father & A$AP Ferg)
I have no idea what to even make of it. The original appears to be some sort of South Korean viral-hit thing, a K-pop “U Guessed It,” an amped-up trap banger with as much connection to the genuine article as, say, Yung Lean has. But it has 10 million YouTube views, and so maybe that’s why the remix has this deeply random collection of shameless turnt-up American rappers on it. I still can’t tell if it’s a joke or what, but, I mean, it goes.
4. Da$h, Domo Genesis & Remy Banks – “4:50 AM”
A bicoastal underground summit, with three unshowy and conversational tough guys going in over a hazy little loop, everyone impressing. In a weird way, all these guys feel like heirs to the Cormega/Ras Kass/AZ spot: The rappers who consistently make good music without ever scoring a hit or bashing you over the head with how good they are. (They’re not as good as those guys, but they’re doing similar things.) Da$h is my favorite of the three, and while I’m still getting him confused with fellow generically monikered Jersey rapper RetcH, I’m starting to get to the point where I remember which is which. (RetcH is the one who raps so hard that you can’t understand him; Da$h is the one who raps hard enough that you can just understand him.)
5. DJ Mustard – “Shooters” (Feat. The Game, RJ, Skeme & Joe Moses)
Mustard’s new 10 Summers mixtape isn’t as bulletproof as his older collections, and his whole signature sound is starting to lose a bit of its momentum. But when a track clicks, it clicks. New-to-me California underground guys RJ and Skeme absolutely come off on this, Joe Moses is reliably gutter, and the Game comes with the best verse I’ve heard from him in forever: “I grew up on Bompton, down the street from looters / Grew up with a Mac, I ain’t talking no computers.” Game should do everything he can to get on as many Mustard beats as possible; it’s a great look for him.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
"no woman ever had me starstruck" pt 1 pic.twitter.com/LN4Yp66mC6
— ZESTY DUDE (@meaghan_garvey) July 26, 2015