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Beats, blood, and blackness

The Kendrick v Drake beef is over. Kendrick won, handily. So why am I still thinking about it?

It seems that everyone I talk to is either really invested, or not invested at all. To those of you who can’t stop thinking about this (like me): why is that? Are we complicit in the very things that Kendrick (and other artists) has been pointing to?And to those of you who aren't invested at all: you should be.

The people in the “not invested” camp would retort that this is just another petty feud between two celebrities. It is almost reminiscent of the “shut up and dance” or “shut up and dribble” attitude that we give celebrities. You are there to entertain us, we don’t care about your pride or your politics.

But do we really want them to go back to making algorithmically-compliant music that people can dance to, and make more money for the record labels? This is exactly what the feud is about. Among many things, Kendrick accuses Drake of making pop music; Drake accuses Kendrick of being exploited by his record label ("drop and give me 50" from Push Ups refers to the 50% take on his contract).

The holier-than-thou attitude from the naysayers is ironic. This is a cultural reckoning, and we're ignoring what's at stake by giving our attention to their dance hits more than their voices. Is there anything more frivolous than to produce algorithmically-compliant music that people can dance to, and so that we can make more money for record labels?

Andre 3000 snuck this line into Outkast’s knee-slapping dance hit, “Hey Ya!”, and while we were shaking it like a Polaroid picture, we overlooked a deeper message when he says: “You don’t want to hear me, you just want to dance.” To denigrate this moment is to be complicit.

What motivates these diss tracks is partially pride and honor, which I would argue is much more interesting purpose for music, than to to serve some booty-shaking. This is an honest feud rendered in a musical number. There is nothing else in real life that remotely resembles the gang fight scene in West Side Story. This is as close as it gets, folks.

One of the shots fired by Drake was that Kendrick’s latest album, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, didn’t hit big numbers on the charts. “SZA got you wiped down/Travis got you wiped down, Savage got you wiped down.” But Kendrick’s position has always been that he doesn’t care about the “pop” numbers, he cares only about pushing the rap genre beyond just sex, drugs, and violence, and he’ll do it unapologetically, as repeated in the chorus of Crown, “I can’t please everybody.” And he does it again in one of his diss tracks, specifically in contrast to Drake’s pursuit of hitting numbers, “I'm allergic to the lame shit, only you like bein' famous.”

For context, Mr. Morale is his most vulnerable and self-reflective album to date, with songs about the acceptance of his transgender family members, his grappling with infidelity and sex addiction, and his reflections on toxic masculinity. I've listened to it at least ten times since this battle started, and fell in love with the depth of the album in ways that I hadn't heard before. What other rap album samples quotes from Eckhart Tolle about our conception of a human being?

If you still think that beef is petty nonsense, and I can understand why if maybe all you heard were Drake’s jokes about Kendrick’s height, and marital problems. But look deeper and you'll find Kendrick’s assertion that Drake exploits and profits off of Black culture as an intellectually stimulating topic. It's a beat that Kendrick stomps on repeatedly in both “euphoria” and “Not Like Us.”

In euphoria, Kendrick repeats “I even hate when you say the word n***a." As my friend explains it:

... he's revealing that Drake is inhabiting spaces that he doesn't understand and has no credit to (i.e. African American identity). The fact that Drake turns around and calls Kendrick racist compounds this the idea. By pulling Drake s "N word card" it's like Kendrick is saying you don't have a right to that word not because of his biracial identity but because of his performance of American blackness. That word is distinctly American.

Drake is in a privileged position of being able to occupy both black and white spaces (see Drake’s early career in TV show Degrassi), and being able to reap the benefits of both implies also being disingenuous in both. We see this in Kendrick’s line in euphoria: “I hate when a rapper talk about guns, then somebody die, they turn into nuns,/Then hop online like ‘Pray for my city,’ he fakin' for likes and digital hugs.”

Over the years, Drake has been called a "culture vulture" for good reason. He'll co-sign artists to socially profit by association and to wedge his way into those cultural circles. He'll adopt different accents to change our perception of who he is. Take a look at Vox's explainer of why Drake adopted a Jamaican accent.

In euphoria, Kendrick invokes the authority from the center of the object being appropriated: “notice I said ‘we’/it’s not just me/I’m what the culture’s feeling.” This feud is not about who the best rapper is; it’s about who’s real and who’s fake, and more importantly, a larger question about the extractive nature of capitalism going beyond the exploitation of financial and political resources.

In Kendrick’s Not Like Us, there is an explicit verse here about the exact ways in which Drake has exploited individual people for social profit:

Once upon a time, all of us was in chains
Homie still doubled down callin' us some slaves
Atlanta was the Mecca, buildin' railroads and trains
Bear with me for a second, let me put y'all on game
The settlers was usin' townfolk to make 'em richer
Fast-forward, 2024, you got the same agenda
You run to Atlanta when you need a check balance
Let me break it down for you, this the real n****a challenge
You called Future when you didn't see the club (Ayy, what?)
Lil Baby helped you get your lingo up (What?)
21 gave you false street cred
Thug made you feel like you a slime in your head (Ayy, what?)
Quavo said you can be from Northside (What?)
Chainz say you good, but he lied
You run to Atlanta when you need a few dollars
No, you not a colleague, you a fuckin' colonizer

I can’t write about all the really interesting thought-provoking questions that this feud has produced for me, but this is all to say that it's easy to dismiss as gossip. I was too young and naive to see the Meghan Markel exit from the monarchy as more than just celebrity gossip about rich families, and I admit that I overlooked the more interesting questions about the history of royal families’s relationship with people of color, and the intricacies involved in how monarchies modernize (or fail to, in that matter). There is so much richness that we are dismissing if we only see this feud at face value.

To those who ARE deeply invested in this feud: this is an opportunity for us to see this beyond it being another gladiatorial sport in which entertainers are dehumanized into more entertainment. We have to think more deeply about what our gaze signifies.

J.Cole, who started off in this three-way feud, left the chat really early, and apologized for entering the fray at all, with a prescient warning that we will devolve into further dehumanizing entertainers: “N****s wanna see blood.”

This reminds me of Dave Chappelle stepping away from The Chappelle Show upon seeing the bigger picture, when he realized that he was borderline legitimizing blackface comedy for white people to laugh at. Letterman asks him about the specific sketch in question and what it was about. Chappelle describes it as such:

The sketch wasn't that bad. It's actually funny. It was a pixie. It was me dressed in blackface who'd pop up anytime a person felt the pains of racism, which is a tough trick to pull off. It's not a bad sketch, but hearing the wrong laugh, while you're dressed that way, it makes you feel shame.

His laughter struck Chappelle as wrong, and he wondered if the new season of his show had gone from sending up stereotypes to merely reinforcing them. "When he laughed, it made me uncomfortable," says Chappelle. "As a matter of fact, that was the last thing I shot before I told myself I gotta take f______ time out after this. Because my head almost exploded."

And even more topically, Childish Gambino, released a new music video, Little Foot Big Foot, wherein the crowd isn’t invested in the performers until there was violence (someone from the crowd unintentionally shoots himself), and the crowd goes wild for the performers after that. This is supposed to be interpreted as the commodification of violence and trauma. I’m not sure if it applies to every situation (in the news industry, “if it bleeds, it leads.”), or if it’s specifically about the exploitation of artists, or the lack of attention of black culture specifically until there is violence.

Let's not be here to watch the violence, let's be here to listen to the voices.

I'm not even sure what the call to action would be after paying so much attention to this feud. I'm Team Kendrick, and on top of adding immeasurable album-equivalent units to Kendrick's sales, and over a dozen listens of Mr. Morale, I hope he's hearing that I'm respecting his bodies of work and the more vulnerable topics, not just the dance hits. The last thing I want is for Kendrick to resign to expressing his feelings by flute. I also wrote my feelings in a blog. This is armchair activism at its finest.

So I don't know what comes next. Drake is showing he's not indomitable, and his next hit will be met with more critical audience from me. I'll be quicker to notice other cultural exploitations, and the next time that Drake the Colonizer buys another cultural artifact from rap and hip hop.

Evidently, there's so much fodder for thought, but I think at end of all of this, my biggest takeaway is this: Stop dancing and listen.

(Special thanks to Alex Shiluk for edits and comments)