Kendrick Lamar 2018
KENDRICK LAMAR / Photo: Fuzheado, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

War & Peace: The Cultural Meaning of Kendrick Lamar vs. Drake

The Kendrick Lamar vs. Drake feud is serious, but it is the claim to and manipulation of culture that may have the greatest consequences for all of us.

It may be years until we get a true perspective on the significance of the feud, but despite the cacophonous noise of social media and the deluge of accusations within the music, the Drake vs. Kendrick Lamar “beef” has had moments of insight. Many criticisms with personal, legal, and cultural implications are embedded in both party’s work. The personal attacks are nothing new in these sorts of creative clashes, from Drake questioning the earnestness of Lamar’s activism on “Family Matters” to Lamar asserting that Drake must be “a terrible person” on “6:16 in LA“, personal and even familial attacks are par for the course.

The legal accusations having to do with Lamar’s alleged domestic violence and Drake’s and his entourage’s alleged sexually predatory behavior are, indeed, serious, though there do not seem to be actual legal ramifications in sight. Both the attacks with personal and legal dimensions are scathing and may alter if and how we listen to these artists individually, but the cultural question, the one aspect of this feud that is uniquely positioned for public debate, has implications for how we listen to popular music and engage with popular culture more broadly. 

What cultural critique is being put forth? Well, Drake does not appear to have one. His attack on Kendrick Lamar has more to do with what Drake sees as the falseness of his character and that he is 5’5” tall, but his rapping abilities and his place in the culture are left unbothered. Lamar, on the other hand, attacks Drake’s character from all sides, including calling into question the validity of his presence in rap music.

The debate over whether Drake is a rap or pop artist has been going on since the start of his career, and of course, if the definition of rap is songs that feature the aesthetics of traditional rap with breakbeats and rhythmic speech, then this is a silly debate. But if there is an ethos in this music, a way of seeing, and a cultural trajectory within rap, then it is fair to question which side Drake is on.

While many have criticized Drake’s utilization of myriad musical styles over the course of his career, from southern rap to Jamaican Dance Hall to Afrobeat, Drill, and so on, these sorts of criticisms don’t lend themselves to the pop-sphere. A catchy melody can make us forget that a middle-class suburban Canadian man is telling us about beating cases in a fluctuating Jamaican accent while simultaneously affecting a Black southern accent and proclaiming his love of Texas. To some, this appears as creative breadth; to others, it is bold-faced appropriation.

Kendrick Lamar ends his song “Euphoria” – an allusion to the television show of the same name of which Drake is an executive producer – with an interpolation of Ye’s College Dropout song “Get Em’ High” where “we don’t wanna hear that weak shit no more” is replaced with “we don’t wanna hear you say nigga no more”. Drake would respond to Lamar’s dictate with the opening bars of “Family Matters” by saying, “nigga I said it, I know that you mad”. But why would Lamar question Drake’s usage of the “N-word”? Because he is mixed?

J. Cole’s mother is white, and Cardi B is Dominican, and she uses the term often. What is it about this word in Drake’s mouth that is so distasteful to Lamar? There is footage of a much younger Drake using the term with a hard “er”, which is puzzling. His father is from Memphis, and he has been criticized for playing that up to fortify his legitimacy. Attacking Drake’s use of the “N-word” is not the same as attacking his blackness, but rather, it’s a way of questioning his allegiance. As Drake proudly proclaimed in his 2017 hit “I’m On One“, “All I care about is money and the city that I’m from.” For Lamar, someone whose music is often concerned with the plight of the oppressed, a seemingly self-absorbed Canadian who cherry-picks Black musical styles for his own gain is anathema to him and his relationship to the form.

There are many digs at Drake and his claim to rap throughout the five diss tracks that have been released by Lamar thus far, but his last verse on “Not Like Us” is the most comprehensive and poignant part of this entire feud to date. In a moment of uncharacteristic miscalculation, Drake ran headfirst into Kendrick Lamar’s fist. On “Family Matters”, Drake flippantly accuses Lamar of “always rappin’ like you ’bout to get the slaves freed“. If Drake attempted to poke fun at Lamar’s holier-than-thou aura, this was not the way to do it. In the concluding verse of “Not Like Us”, Lamar raps, “Once upon a time, all of us was in chains / Homie still doubled down callin’ us some slaves.” He then goes on to state how Drake has exploited various aspects of Atlanta’s thriving rap scene in a comparable way to how white enslavers exploited Black labor. He concludes this verse with the summation of his cultural critique, “No, you not a colleague, you a fuckin’ colonizer“.

Aspects of this critique have been addressed in previous releases, but not with so much clarity and historical context. Drake’s proximity to power and ability to move through different cultural landscapes is remarkable, but Lamar raises the obvious and troubling question: where is Drake’s allegiance? He then posits that Drake is on the side of structural power and oppression and not the side of the people. J. Cole, on the song that arguably put this feud into orbit, “First Person Shooter“, raps that he “feel[s] like Mohamed Ali”.

Cole, a model of self-care and self-preservation, apologized for his Kendrick Lamar diss song “7 Minute Drill“, but at this juncture, it is Lamar who looks like Mohamed Ali and Drake, a confused Gerogre Forman. None of the allegations against either artist is new, but it is extraordinary that they have been distilled into affecting art and infectious pop. It is not simply that Lamar criticizes Drake for being a cultural vulture; it is that he does it while making us dance. 

Ultimately, this feud has revealed what we have known all along: Kendrick Lamar and Drake have radically different creative objectives. This feud hasn’t been about two similar rappers battling one another like we have seen in the past. This is a feud between a pop mega star (Drake) and a Pulitzer Prize winner (Lamar). The stature of both artists in their respective capacities is staggering but highly distinct. One is easily programmable and obscures structures of power; the other does not. One allows the listener to forget that they are in a white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy; the other does not. One appears to strive towards breaking new creative ground; the other does not. One has a specific cultural heritage that he draws from; the other takes from what is most culturally relevant at the moment. These two phenomena can exist in parallel but should not be conflated. Judging either by the other’s criteria will result in the maelstrom that has been social media in the wake of this battle. 

The question is not necessarily who is better but our values as listeners and consumers of art, culture, and entertainment. Drake is a single artist; his relationship to power and culture is of real importance. If Drake wanes in popularity, the structural power would remain intact. Lamar appears to be committed to Black people and Black music and is critical of systemic oppression. Drake appears to be committed to Drake.

Returning to the question of what constitutes rap is entirely up to us as a culture. Is it something that works well with Zara’s playlist, or is it more dangerous than that? Who is the “us” in Lamar’s “Not Like Us”? I argue that the “us” are members of the counter-culture, the ones that subvert and do not support systemic oppression, and the “them” are those who are willfully complicit in supporting systems of power that further marginalize the people.  Of course, this black-and-white dichotomy also obscures how Lamar and others benefit from the status quo. But his invitation to question structures of power feels almost novel. It’s been 24 years since Dead Prez proclaimed that “it’s bigger than hip-hop”. The personal and legal attacks between Lamar and Drake are serious, but it is the claim to and manipulation of culture that may have the greatest consequences, not merely for these artists but for all of us engaged in the ebb and flow of popular culture. 

Like many others, I have returned to Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, Kendrick Lamar’s 2022 release that was initially met with mixed reviews. It seems this feud has shed new light on the project. But the record that I have been going back to most often, the one that has proven to be a real refuge, is André 3000’s instrumental opus, New Blue Sun. I deeply enjoyed this record when it was released in 2023, but its expansive sense of time and joyous aimlessness have provided a much-needed world to exist within. Yes, André 3000’s album is an escape from the Kendrick Lamar vs. Drake feud, but more than anything, it’s an invitation to a sweet solitude. Whoever is victorious in this battle, we, as listeners, will still need our capacity to engage with the art meaningfully.