Last week in this space, I wrote that I wanted Drake to lose his current feud with Meek Mill. In fact, I didn’t just want to see him lose. I wanted to see him get his ass beat. I wanted to see him humiliated. That wasn’t because I have any sort of ill will toward Drake or because of any sense in schadenfreude in hypothetically seeing the tough-talking former child star finally brought down. I wanted to see Drake lose because I thought it would make him better. Drake is already one of the most interesting and influential rap stars we’ve had in years, and rap is in a better place with him around. But he’s been able to enjoy an uninterrupted sprint to the top of the rap pyramid. He’s never really been tested, and he’s never tasted failure. The closest thing he’d had was Kendrick Lamar mentioning his name in a song once, something he was still publicly sulking about before this whole Meek thing suddenly broke open. My thinking was that a rap-feud beatdown would force Drake to look inward and regroup, and that maybe getting knocked back on his ankles would bring out the best in him. But that didn’t happen. Holy motherfucking fuck, did that ever not happen. Drake won, and he won easily. He looked like he was having fun winning. And now the only real question is whether Meek will be able to save any kind of face at all, how he’ll recover from getting his ass kicked.
I was in the crowd at Coachella this year when Drake had his weird makeout moment onstage with Madonna. The set itself was electrifying: One guy in front of tens of thousands, running through his bottomless barrel of hits and just generally being the man. When he finished, I had to do the cattle-herding trudge-march back to my rental car, along with all those other tens of thousands of people, and then I had to wait in the rental car for all the cars to do that same equivalent thing. I had time to kill, so I looked at Twitter, and people were already making memes out of the Madonna-makeout thing that had happened maybe an hour and a half before. In the context of the show itself, it wasn’t that big of a moment: “Whoa, that’s Madonna!” “Well, that looked awkward!” And then it was over, and we all moved on to bellowing along with “Energy.” For the people watching the stream online at home, though, the Madonna moment was the one part where things actually happened. The context was different, and it stood out. On Monday night, Drake played probably his most important set since that first Coachella weekend at his own OVO Fest in Toronto. He opened with “Charged Up” and “Back To Back,” his two Meek dis tracks, and he took control of the meme narrative while he was doing it. As he rapped, the screen behind him showed images of the different Twitter and Instagram memes that people had made over the past week. I wasn’t in the crowd this time, and you probably weren’t either. Instead, we experienced those moments on our phones or our laptops, hearing grainy and distorted versions of those Drake performances and looking at grainy and distorted images of those rear-projected memes. The performance pretty much became a meme of a meme. And for someone who won his feud by social-media strategizing as much as he did by rapping, it was a fitting victory lap.
“Charged Up” and “Back To Back” are good songs, and they’ve held up after a week better than I would’ve expected. But they’re not dis songs for the ages. “Charged Up” has all those lines about Nicki Minaj, but it’s slow and measured, almost conversational. Drake sounds disappointed in Meek, and annoyed that this is something he has to address. On a great dis track, you’ll hear the rapper rubbing his hands together, pulling out all these lines he had in his back pocket and just couldn’t wait to use. This wasn’t that. “Back To Back” is tougher, but it wasn’t that, either. Drake puffs out his chest a little more and speaks with conviction, but you never get the sense that he wants to consume Meek’s soul. He never sounds angry, never comes off like a warrior. And as it turns out, that wasn’t something he needed to do. Those songs were good enough. They did their job. Drake got the two songs out before Meek managed one, and that mattered. And he played it just right, timing out the releases so that the news would dominate websites like this one at the right moments. He said nothing on social media, the place where Meek started the entire thing, until Meek finally released his response song. And when he did post something, the Drake-laughing photo above, it was immediately after Meek released a song weak enough to justify that response. Drake did every little thing in this feud right, even the minor-as-hell moment he sent six bottles of Dom Perignon to Charlemagne, the New York DJ who’d clowned Funkmaster Flex for his role in the thing.
But Drake wasn’t able to win this just based on pretty-good records and social-media mastery. Meek had to lose it, too. And Meek really did. For way too long, I tried to convince myself that Meek’s response song “Wanna Know” was even remotely redeemable, and I failed. There are good things about it: The urgency in Meek’s voice, the offhanded line about someone pissing on Drake in a movie theater, the use of the Undertaker’s theme music. But it’s a mess, a weird and disjointed and slapped-together thing that doesn’t work as a song and doesn’t go hard enough to function as an “Ether”-style mouth-foaming lashout. As an apologist for rappers who yell in near-incomprehensible regional accents, I think Meek should’ve really tried a whole lot harder to make sure people could hear what the fuck he was saying on the song. He sounds like he’s yelling it from the opposite end of an echoey hallway. And even for someone like me, a person who grew up an 80-minute drive from Philadelphia, the Philly accent is heavy enough to garble half the things he says, especially on that opening. (Thus far, Meek’s only post-“Wanna Know” move has been a live freestyle at last night’s Charlotte show, and it’s not going to change the narrative. One of Meek’s bars was “Tyga don’t fuck with you.” Aren’t we more likely to like someone if Tyga doesn’t fuck with him? Meek should maybe keep workshopping that response.) Listening to “Wanna Know” today, less than a week later, I still get a weird anxiety. I still wonder what Meek thought he was doing. I still wonder if he felt so pressed to get the record out that he didn’t allow for a proper mastering job, or whether he just thought the ghostwriting evidence was so devastating that he could just ride that to an easy victory. If that’s what he thought, he was so, so wrong.
But I think that’s the problem. Meek thought that the ghostwriting allegation, the thing that caused him to ride off into battle in the first place, would be enough to knock Drake out by itself. In his mind, the public outcry over the idea that Drake didn’t write all his own lines would be enough to knock Drake down from rap’s kingly summit and open up space for a real writer like Meek, a guy who couldn’t imagine accepting another rapper’s lyrics. Meek was wrong. As 50 Cent learned when he tried to take down Rick Ross six years ago, nobody cares about realness anymore. If people cared about realness, a Canadian child actor wouldn’t have gotten a chance to become a rap star in the first place. Ross was an actual former correctional officer who portrayed himself as a larger-than-life Florida kingpin, while 50 was a real-world goon with nine actual bullet wounds in his body, and people still got behind Ross because he was making better songs at that particular moment. And now 50 has to pay millions of dollars to Ross’ baby’s mother because he posted an old sex tape of her, revenge-porn style, in an early and clumsy attempt at a social-media victory. I’ve noticed even staunch rap traditionalists saying that Drake really shouldn’t be using ghostwriters, but oh well. And Quentin Miller, the person who allegedly wrote Drake’s verse on Meek’s track “R.I.C.O.,” isn’t a credited songwriter on the song, even though he is on some Drake songs. That means that Miller may be an actual ghostwriter, a contributor whose input is kept secret. Meek is an old-school ’90s-style street-rapper, and that offended his sensibilities. But he was in a tiny minority. Drake has spent years winning over people like me, listeners who were deeply suspicious of him when he first showed up.
Meek was never going to win this thing simply by showing up and accusing him of not being real enough. He would’ve probably done better if he’d built the entire song around that line about T.I.’s friend pissing on Drake in a movie theater. I want to know more about that! Did someone just piss on Drake’s shoes in the bathroom? Or did they, like, piss off the balcony and it landed on Drake? And which of T.I.’s friends was it? Young Dro? Big Kuntry? Iggy Azalea? Could it have been Alfamega? Being pissed on by Alfamega would be rough. (I realize that there’s a more complete version of this story online, but it’s not that interesting. This is a case where the questions are a whole lot more fun than the answers.)
A lot of this is timing, and in retrospect, Meek couldn’t have timed all this worse. He brought no strategy to it at all. It feels like the original Tweet that started this was just something he did without thinking it through. He did this when he was just about to head out on a huge tour and when he wouldn’t really have time to go into a studio and record a proper song, while Drake had plenty of time to say whatever the hell he wanted. And he did it shortly before Drake’s OVO Fest, the one moment every year when he addresses his faithful and makes his clearest statement of dominance. Everything about this played right into Drake’s hands. Meek didn’t take him seriously enough, and he paid for it. He started a fight he wasn’t ready to finish. And he’s still not taking it seriously enough. While Drake was taking the stage in Toronto on Monday, Meek was Instagramming a picture of himself with some weird toothbrushing laser in his mouth.
I’ve seen people claiming that Drake ended Meek’s career over the last two weeks. That’s not the case. Meek is a ferociously gifted rapper capable of making deeply meaningful songs, as this great David Turner piece on his catalog shows. He has an instinctive connection with the people who love his records, and he just needs to make one more great mixtape to get his momentum back. When this whole feud started out, I basically figured that he was 1998 DMX. He wasn’t that, but he’s got enough of that in him that he’s not going to roll over and disappear. It’s been widely rumored that he and Nicki Minaj broke up in the wake of all of this, but there doesn’t seem to be any concrete evidence of that. Meek’s still on an arena tour, and he still has a very good and very big album. He’ll be fine. But he’ll also regret the moment he came after rap’s reigning overlord. Drake is on top for a reason.
1. Chief Keef – “I Just Wanna” (Feat. Mac Miller)
I came very close to writing this week’s column about the strange exiled existence of Chief Keef, a man who can’t even return to his Chicago hometown in hologram form. Keef’s new Bang 3 is a strange, sad, vaguely beautiful mixtape, a drowning-in-death portrait of a lost soul. Keef lives in Los Angeles now, and it’s fascinating to hear him alongside Miller, another L.A. transplant, albeit one who sounds like he was always meant to call California home. And so we switch from Keef’s bottomlessly empty Auto-Tuned pleas to Miller’s good-natured drug talk. I hope Keef joins Miller’s extended friend crew and starts hanging out at his pool-house studio with Earl Sweatshirt. He needs something to do.
2. Gangrene – “Reversals”
One of the things I really like about Gangrene, the duo of Alchemist and Oh No, is the way they push each other to sound as nasty and raw as possible. Oh No’s “Reversals” beat is a psych-rock guitar sample that’s been stripped and corroded and beaten into dust. Over top of it, Alc and Oh No are in strictly boom-bap head-nod tough-talk mode, but it all sounds a whole lot interesting because the instrumental is so bugged-out and broken.
3. D.R.A.M. – “$” (Feat. Donnie Trumpet)
As a Central Virginia resident, I should be all-in on D.R.A.M.’s “Cha Cha,” the out-of-nowhere hit that Drake just absorbed into his hitstream with “Hotline Bling.” But “Cha Cha” has always sounded tinny and annoying to me. So it’s great to hear that D.R.A.M. is capable of something as light and breezy as this, a months-old EP track that’s just gotten a makeover from Chance The Rapper’s primary collaborator. We should just let Donnie Trumpet loose on all of rap — just let him turn everything into triumphant symphonic soul.
4. Warren G – “Keep On Hustlin'” (Feat. Young Jeezy, Bun B & Nate Dogg)
There are lots of reasons to be excited about Dr. Dre’s new album Compton, but there is at least one reason to be very sad about it: It doesn’t have any Nate Dogg on it. But the late Nate does show up on his old collaborator Warren G’s new Regulate… G Funk Era Part II EP. “Keep On Hustlin'” marks a virtuosic return to Warren’s old slick, cinematic sound, and Southerners Jeezy and Bun sound completely at home on that smooth, gliding West Coast sound. Between this, Compton, and YG’s “Twist My Fingaz,” we could be looking at a full-on G-funk revival. I am ready.
5. CBM Perry Boi – “Act Right”
This is just hard as fuck. Some days, I think Alabama makes better Atlanta rap than Atlanta does.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
@Drake not in our theatre tho, right?
— Cineplex (@CineplexMovies) July 31, 2015