Rap’s Alpha-Dog Race Heats Up Again

Rap’s Alpha-Dog Race Heats Up Again

“This year, the best story in rap — and the best story in music, and maybe the best story in popular culture in general — is the three-way dance that Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and Kanye West have been dancing.” I wrote that in this space in March 2015, more than six years ago. At the time, Drake was right in between If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and What A Time To Be Alive. Kendrick Lamar had just released To Pimp A Butterfly. Kanye West was about a year away from The Life Of Pablo. It was an exciting time for all three of them, and for the idea that all three of them were locked in a cold war for supremacy over a chaotic corner of the pop-music universe. Six years later, all three figures are dancing that same dance, but it’s a whole lot less exciting now.

It’s pro wrestling. We know this. These days, Kanye West and Drake are trolling each other online, and they’re apparently releasing their hyped-up, long-delayed albums less than a week apart from one another. The noise surrounding these album releases, and their proximity to one another, will be good for both of them. Drake and Kanye West have collaborated many, many times over the years. Whenever they’re not enemies, they’re friends. And even if the two of them are annoyed with one another right now — it’s not hard to imagine being annoyed with either one of them — then they’re also projecting and performing that annoyance, using it to generate mutually beneficial attention. Whether or not their actual music is especially exciting, they both need that attention. It’s what drives them, and it’s what keeps them afloat.

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Since March of 2015, plenty of rappers have risen up and become A-listers. But those rappers have not injected themselves into the top-dog competition, possibly because they came up in an era when the rap landscape was deeply fractured and the biggest-rapper-alive title had already been rendered essentially meaningless. Theoretically, Travis Scott or Lil Baby or Roddy Ricch or Cardi B or Lil Uzi Vert or Megan Thee Stallion or Young Thug could attempt to claim a spot in this biggest-rapper conversation. None of them seem interested. (Post Malone, who might be the most popular of then, might not even be interested in being a rapper.) Kendrick Lamar has been mostly silent for years, but Drake and Kanye West keep pulling their would-be successors into their orbit, bringing them in for collaborations while they’re all on the ascent. When called upon, these rappers all seem happy to play supporting roles in the larger Drake and/or Kanye West narratives.

Whether intentional or not, there’s a circle-the-wagons thing happening with Drake and Kanye West’s ongoing issues. In turning their continuous disputes into the big storyline in rap music, they’ve crowded out anyone else who might come along and take their spots. The mere fact that Kanye West can still do this is sort of amazing. West has been on a self-destructive jag for many years, and the chaotic, incoherent, exhausting Donda rollout should’ve killed enthusiasm for the marathon album that followed. But Kanye West, secluded as he may be, still understands hype. His various album-release events, including the loathsome troll move of standing next to Marilyn Manson and DaBaby in Chicago last weekend, have all had the intended effect of getting him out in front of people. And while Donda itself is often a self-obsessed trudge, its stunt-casted guest appearances work to keep the energy up. Donda would probably work better as a Kanye West-curated compilation, rather than a Kanye West album. But in making a whole lot canny personnel decisions, West has once again conquered the zeitgeist.

Drake has made it his business to stay on top of the zeitgeist for the entire time that he’s been famous, and every time we might think his commercial momentum is flagging, he turns around and reminds everyone just how oppressively popular he still is. In March, after Drake released the quickie EP Scary Hours 2, all three of its songs debuted in the top three positions on the Billboard Hot 100 — the first time anything like that has ever happened. One week in 1964, the Beatles took up the entire top five on the Hot 100. Nobody has ever done that since, and chart watchers have long assumed that it would be impossible for anyone else to equal that feat. It’s a bit sobering to realize that Drake could probably do it if he ever just decided to release five songs at once.

Drake’s Certified Lover Boy album is apparently coming on Friday. That album had no proper advance singles, and its own release cycle has been nearly as haphazard and frustrating as the one behind Donda. That cover art — sheesh. But Certified Lover Boy is still going to do ridiculous numbers when it arrives, whether or not it’s any good. That’s just how it goes. One morning, we’ll wake up, and Drake will no longer be the biggest star in music. It happens to everyone eventually. But it hasn’t happened to Drake yet, and it probably won’t happen anytime soon. Somehow, the man has turned sulky inertia into a strength. He won’t go down easy.

Kendrick Lamar, on the other hand, walked away from this conversation years ago. DAMN., the last Kendrick Lamar album, came out in the long-ago spring of 2017. After the release of the Black Panther soundtrack, Kendrick has been radio silent, almost entirely absent from the guest-appearance carousel. Last year, when some activists got upset at the A-list rappers who stayed out of the protest movement, Kendrick remained silent, while his would-be peer J. Cole got defensive and came off looking like an asshole. But now, Kendrick Lamar is once again doing things.

In a statement a week and a half ago, Kendrick wrote expansively about all his time away (“I go months without a phone”) and mentioned, almost offhandedly, that he was working on his “final TDE album.” Then, this past Friday, Kendrick Lamar returned and immediately jumped right back into the conversation. Right now, Kendrick’s 20-year-old cousin Baby Keem is on a fast ascent; he put in impressive work, for instance, on Donda. On Friday, Keem released the hard, messy, triumphant new single “Family Ties.” In the begining, before Kendrick shows up, “Family Ties” is already great. Keem raps in an insistent squeak, pushing hard against the regal horns-blaring beat and bringing a fiery sort of energy. But then the track switches, Kendrick Lamar arrives, and the world flips on its axis.

Kendrick doesn’t say any names on “Family Ties,” the way he once famously did on Big Sean’s “Control.” (Well, Kendrick does say Kanye West’s name, in a vaguely competitive context, though it’s not necessarily a thrown gauntlet.) But Kendrick does make it very clear that he’s back in the race: “Smoking on your top five tonight.” He also makes it clear that he’s doing things on his own timeline and that he’s not interested in whatever’s going on in the outside world: “I been duckin’ the pandemic, I been duckin’ the social gimmicks, I been duckin’ the overnight activists.” But he is interested, and now he’s back in it.

In a long and ferocious rant — something too big to be called a “verse” — Kendrick Lamar announces his intentions: “2021, I ain’t takin’ no prisoner/ Last year, y’all fucked up all the listener/ Who went platinum? I call that a visitor/ Who the fuck backin’ ’em? All been falsified/ The facts mean this a vaccine, and the game need me to survive.” The arrival of “Family Ties” and the reemergence of Kendrick Lamar has been a little lost in all the noise surrounding Donda and Certified Lover Boy. But if Kendrick Lamar is really back in it, then this whole conversation is suddenly a whole lot more exciting.

FURIOUS FIVE

1. Icewear Vezzo – “Know The Difference” (Feat. Lil Baby)
It’s cool hearing Lil Baby cruising over a Detroit-style beat. But it’s even cooler hearing Icewear Vezzo, a product of the Detroit underground, bringing casual melodic confidence and sounding perfectly at home next to Lil Baby. I’ve been wondering whether that Detroit style is scalable, whether it can work outside its own boundaries. This is a good sign that it can.

2. Babyface Ray, Big Sean, & Hit-Boy – “It Ain’t My Fault”
Here’s another good sign. Babyface Ray comes from the same Detroit scene as Icewear Vezzo, and he and Big Sean, a Detroit rapper who’s never been part of that scene, make perfect sense together. They might even make each other better. Also, this is the most urgent Hit-Boy track I’ve heard in a minute.

3. ShooterGang Kony – “Jumpman”
ShooterGang Kony is a strong, adaptable rapper, and he can pull some serious heartstrings when he gets deep. But I like Kony the best when he goes for pure reckless energy, and that’s all he does here.

4. Westside Gunn – “Westheimer” (Feat. Boldy James, Sauce Walka, & Stove God Cooks)
Westside Gunn’s Hitler Wears Hermes mixtape series has a terminally dumb title, and I don’t blame anyone for checking out based on that alone. But for those of us with addictions to hearing great rappers going in over mutant post-boom-bap lopes, sometimes you have to take the plunge anyway. Sauce Walka wins this one: “Lots of cheddar, all types of cheese, swiss, mozzarella/ Shit, I done had so much pepperjack, I should’ve owned the deli.”

5. Sauce Twinz – “On Sauce”
I’m not sure Sauce Walka wins this, when his partner Sancho Saucy brings that hypnotic kingly wheeze thing. But when the Sauce Twinz reassemble, it never really feels like a competition. It feels like the way things should be.

IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO

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