The Feeling Is Back

The Feeling Is Back

Drake doesn’t sound like he’s having fun anymore. In a different world, Aubrey Drake Graham might come off as Keyser Söze on “The Heart Part 6,” the most recent volley (at least for now) in the extremely busy, extremely fun Drake/Kendrick Lamar feud. “The Heart Part 6” is the song where Drake says that he planted a fake story about having a secret 11-year-old daughter and says that Kendrick’s “Meet The Grahams” cover art was a setup, a way to reel Kendrick in. But Drake doesn’t sound like the master manipulator that he claims to be. Instead, he’s beat-up, surly, tired. “The Heart Part 6” is a Band-Aid, a chance for any remaining Drake partisans to claim that he’s really the winner of this past week’s events. We know better.

Zack Fox might’ve said it best: “somebody say you a sex criminal what you gon say ‘nuh uh’ ?” A whole lot of “The Heart Part 6” is “nuh uh.” Against Kendrick Lamar’s gleeful, persistent claims that Drake is a predator, Drake’s response is to half-heartedly claim that there’s nothing to “the Epstein angle” and that he’s too successful to be a sex offender: “I’m too respected/ If I was fucking young girls, I promise I’d have been arrested/ I’m way too famous for this shit you just suggested.” As if that’s how it works! As if we haven’t seen case after case of famous, successful people doing foul shit! Drake also says that Kendrick “got molested” and that that’s “why these pedophile raps is shit you so obsessed with.” If this is the final chapter, then it’s a sad little denouement to a story that’s kept the whole rap world enraptured.

“The Heart Part 6” could be the final chapter, or there could be another song that comes out seconds after I hit publish on this story. We don’t know. That’s why it’s been so great. I fell asleep early on Friday night and woke up with absolutely ferocious new tracks from both Kendrick Lamar and Drake. The dust never gets a chance to settle. Since Kendrick started throwing explicit shots on Future and Metro Boomin’s “Like That” a little more than a month ago, we’ve gotten a solid album’s worth of material from two of rap’s biggest names, both of them throwing constant toxic haymakers at one another. If you’re the type of person who pays attention to rap’s ongoing soap operas, then this is the type of shit that you live for. It’s been way too much fun.

On the outro to “The Heart Part 6,” Drake is almost muttering to himself, but he hits on one reason that this feud has captivated so many: “At least your fans are getting some raps out of you. I’m happy I could motivate you, bring you back to the game.” Drake doesn’t sound happy, but what he’s saying is true. A couple of months ago, Kendrick Lamar was nowhere near the center of any conversation. In 2022, Kendrick ended a long absence with Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers With A Size 7 Men’s On, an impressive but thorny and unfun album about self-discovering and morality and therapy. It had some powerful moments, but it wasn’t the grand return that the world wanted from one of the best ever to do it. Kendrick couldn’t bring that out of himself. Drake had to bring it out. Actually, J. Cole had to bring it out. People rightfully clowned Cole for dropping a halfhearted diss track and then immediately apologizing, but it’s already clear that he made the right decision. He’s much better off on the sidelines here.

Rumor has it that Drake tried to get Kendrick Lamar on “First Person Shooter.” Kendrick himself alludes to that rumor on “Euphoria“: “Surprised you wanted that feature request/ You know that we got some shit to address.” I believe those rumors. A Drake/Cole/Kendrick collab would’ve made sense. All three are massive stars and generational talents. They’ve collaborated. They’ve shared stages. If you were looking to make a giant event record, a “Swagga Like Us” for 2023, then they’re arguably the three guys you’d want to round up. But Drake and Kendrick don’t like each other, and they haven’t liked each other for a long time. That might not matter to Drake, but it matters to Kendrick. Kendrick’s issues with Drake aren’t just personal. They’re philosophical, too.

The line that stung hardest on “Like That” was “Prince outlived Mike Jack.” You could infer a whole lot from it. Drake had just been crowing about catching up to Michael Jackson on the all-time list of artists with the most crossover chart-toppers, and Kendrick was disgusted. Prince and Michael Jackson were both artists and pop stars, but the mythology surrounding them was very different. In making that claim, Kendrick positioned himself as an artist to Drake’s pop star. That’s not exactly a destructo-ray of a line, and Drake could’ve just shook it off and returned to the business of throwing oblique shots at Kendrick once or twice on every album, as he’s been doing for years. Instead, that Kendrick verse apparently gave a whole lot of other rappers and singers the signal that it was open season on Drake, a guy who’s been on top for way too long and who’s pissed a whole lot of people off along the way. In response, Drake did what he always does in situations like this. He taunted.

Most of the time, Drake’s taunting is extremely effective. When Meek Mill tried to take it to Drake years ago, he responded with “Back To Back” a taunting session so catchy and merciless that it ended the conversation. Drake went into that mode on “Push Ups,” and it worked pretty well. “Push Ups” isn’t a devastating diss record or anything. It’s too playful, too unfocused. Drake spends half of the track smacking down Future, Metro Boomin, Rick Ross, the Weeknd, anyone else having problems with him. His Kendrick lines mostly revolve around contract splits, verses on pop records, and height jokes, and some of those lines are good. Drake went into weirder territory on “Taylor Made Freestyle,” with the AI voice-filter hijinks and the Taylor Swift praise, but he still sounded brash and energetic. This was the old Drake, confident that Kendrick didn’t really want any part of a real feud and that he was already cruising to victory. That’s not how things worked out.

The moment that the first “Euphoria” beat switch kicked in, we had a battle on our hands. “Euphoria” is a miracle, a six-minute structure-free rap attack that’s already become a huge hit. Mostly, it’s a miracle because it gives us a version of Kendrick Lamar that really, really likes rapping. Kendrick brings his full arsenal to “Euphoria” — the weird voices, the layered references, the way he lets his flow dissipate and then suddenly snaps back into focus. He attacks Drake passionately, from every angle, like Nas on “Ether.” Unlike Nas, though, Kendrick never sounds angry — not even on the instantly famous “I hate the way that you walk, the way that you talk, I hate the way that you dress” bit. Instead, Kendrick is having fun. He’s saying the shit that he’s been wanting to say for a decade-plus, and he’s savoring every moment.

There’s plenty of strategy at work on “Euphoria.” Kendrick pokes at sensitive spots, hints at information that isn’t public yet, and sets the framework for the ugliness to come. He insists that he wishes Drake all the success in the world, that he likes Drake with the melodies, but he makes it clear that this isn’t how he really feels. Finally, the planets aligned in a way that allowed Kendrick to take Drake down, and wasn’t going to waste it. He sounds unencumbered, free. The song picks up steam over its six minutes, and by the time the track ends, he’s deep in the blackout zone. Nobody is upset that Kendrick got Joel Osteen and Haley Joel Osment confused because that’s funny and also because Kendrick was just rolling by then. “Euphoria” is the great unburdening. Kendrick saved most of the strategy for the next record.

6:16 In LA” showed up on Kendrick Lamar’s Instagram three days later, when the world was still waiting on Drake’s response. Kendrick pulled straight from Drake’s own playbook, going back-to-back before Drake’s response was ready. Tellingly, “6:16 In LA” is the only one of Kendrick’s four diss tracks that hasn’t yet appeared on streaming services. It’s not as purposeful as his other songs, nor as fun. Instead, it’s Kendrick in taunt mode, letting Drake know that even the people in his own circle can’t stand him. The subtext is just as important as the text — a title that flips Drake’s timestamp series, the sample of an Al Green song that featured Drake’s uncle on guitar. Right after Drake said all that stuff about Taylor Swift, it was a mindfuck to learn that Kendrick got Jack Antonoff, Swift’s main collaborator, to produce a diss track. The whole thing was set up to make Drake feel insecure, and only Drake can say whether it worked.

It might’ve worked. “Family Matters” is, quite simply, an excellent Drake diss track, one that would’ve sent most rappers into the Shadow Realm. Drake moonwalks all over this thing, handling three different beats with steely arrogance. It’s not perfect. Drake devotes the middle of the three-part structure to attacking various peripheral figures. He scores some real points on them; the A$AP Rocky stuff is cold-blooded. Still, those asides make the whole thing sound less focused, as if Drake is being distracted from the real main event — so consumed fighting off the Usos and Solo Sikoa that he doesn’t see Roman Reigns ready to hit the spear. The homophobia is dumb, but that unfortunately goes for both sides here. The way that Drake tries to score points through mock concern for the woman in Kendrick’s life is gross, but Kendrick, if anything, goes even further on that tactic. Drake really shouldn’t have said that Kendrick raps like he’s trying to free the slaves. But as a pure work of disrespectful art, “Family Matters” is heavy.

On “Family Matters,” Drake hits tons of catchy flows and melodies, and he gets ugly and personal in ways that Kendrick hadn’t quite done yet. He tells Kendrick that one of his kids isn’t really his, that his fiancée wants nothing to do with him, and that he hired a crisis management team to clean up the fact — he calls it a fact — that Kendrick beats on his queen. This goes beyond anything in the Jay/Nas feud, into the land of “I fucked your bitch, you fat motherfucker.” It’s the best pure rapping that I’ve heard from Drake in a long time. He sounds unstoppable. He’s not.

There’s a lot of stuff in “Family Matters” that never even got a chance to resonate. The video for the track — the subtitles, the Good Kid m.A.A.d. City van getting crushed up, the scenes in the Chinese restaurant that Kendrick just namechecked — are all excellent rap gamesmanship. Other than Drake, almost nobody has addressed the allegations of domestic abuse. I think there’s so much goodwill toward Kendrick that people don’t even want to consider the possibility that it might be true. That, more than anything that Drake actually says on “Family Matters,” gets at the heart of this feud. People love Kendrick Lamar. Drake has had a world-historical career and done everything that a rapper could do. He’s made a ton of great music, and he’s been around forever. But most people just don’t love him like that. It makes a difference.

The turnaround between “Family Matters” and “Meet The Grahams” was just ridiculous. Most people didn’t even get a chance to hear “Family Matters” before Kendrick’s rebuttal arrived. Drake’s nastiest, most personal insults run up against Kendrick lines that are even nastier and more personal. It’s masterful condescension — Kendrick speaking to all the different people in Drake’s family before turning his attention to the man himself. The revelation about Drake’s possibly-fake daughter arrives like a Shyamalan plot-twist. If Drake really did plant that story with Kendrick’s camp, then his four-dimensional chess game backfired on him. Even if that little bit of information isn’t true, it still seems like some shit that he would’ve done. Objective reality cannot take away from how it felt to hear Kendrick accuse Drake of hiding another child.

Here’s what Drake doesn’t seem to understand: It’s not just the allegations. It’s the performance, too — Kendrick hitting a theatrically sinister register that’s far beyond anything that he could do. It’s also the disdain that accompanies the revelations. Even if Drake doesn’t have other kids running around out there, he’s still got a long history of using women as props, acting aggrieved all the time, and attempting to turn his insecurities into flexes. And Kendrick didn’t let that stuff linger long before going back-to-back again.

If Drake ever had any hope at recovering and resetting the narrative, it disappeared when Kendrick dropped “Not Like Us” on Saturday night. What a joyous song. Kendrick rolls out more attacks on that one. Drake and Kendrick spent plenty of time calling each other’s Blackness into question during the feud, and I’m not in any position to comment on that, but Kendrick is truly in his element when he calls Drake a colonizer and ties that to Atlanta history. The DJ Mustard beat is easily the funkiest thing to come out of the back-and-forth, and Kendrick’s use of Drakeo-type flows is a clear sign that he’s tapped into the music coming out of his own city, ready to claim it for his own. (Nobody’s trying to call Kendrick a colonizer, and he knows that.) By the end of the song, Kendrick is just dancing on Drake’s grave.

Drake is a student of the game. It’s one of the things that’s kept him on top for so long, and it’s one of the weapons that Kendrick uses against him. Drake is a fan. He’s a fan of battle rap, the nerdiest version of rap that exists. (I say this with love because I’m a fan, too.) You can go back to old King Of The Dot videos and watch Drake reacting to the Pat Stay/Math Hoffa battle. The man booked Loaded Lux vs. Geechi Gotti for his own birthday party. So Drake understands exactly how it looks when a battler knows he’s losing, when all of his rebuttals are falling flat. Drake only took a day to respond to “Not Like Us,” but he did it in the weakest ways, trying to flip Kendrick’s “A minor” punchline into weak-ass puns. Right now, I expect Drake to claim victory and walk away. That’s probably for the best. This fight has gotten very personal, and if it gets even more intense, then people might have trouble walking away. Nobody wants to see this turn into something else.

For now, what a show. What a time to be alive. The entire episode reminds me of Kanye West’s GOOD Fridays — one of the all-too-brief moments when a new song stops the world and forces everyone to react before they can resume their days. People will try to tell you that the Kendrick/Drake feud is overhyped or that it’s too regressive or that the negativity of rap beef is played out. They’ll tell you that the whole thing was set up to get attention from jump, that it’s pro wrestling tactics in action. Fuck all that. This is what it’s about. It’s why we tune in. It’s an event that’s been building for years, and it hasn’t been a disappointment.

Over the weekend, the feud was the only thing that mattered in all of popular culture, at least on a frivolous level. Pity the new Dua Lipa album and The Fall Guy and anything else trying to gin up attention and cut through the noise. Right now, the noise is too much fun.

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