Comparing the ongoing competition for rap prominence between Drake and Kendrick Lamar to Jay Z and Nas' late-'90s/early-aughts quests for the same has always seemed to be a foolish argument, at best. On the the surface—especially to the older heads who lived through Jay and Nas' rise and heydays—it's an incredibly lazy analogy: Jay is not Drake and Kendrick is not Nas, for so many reasons.
Firstly—and perhaps most importantly—Jay Z and Nas' rivalry was damn-near a direct descendent of golden age rap's great clash of the titans—Big Daddy Kane vs. Rakim. If Jay was Kane's heir (which he was) and Nas was Rakim reincarnated (which he was), there's no way that the Drake and Kendrick dichotomy falls within that lineage. Jay Z and Nas weren't only fighting for something as intangible as the top spot in hip-hop, they were fighting for the King of New York—a title that meant nothing and everything, but just about everything of that nothing could be agreed upon by the people it mattered to. Who ran the city could be decided by the city, in the city—on the airwaves, in the clubs, on the Summer Jam screen, in the streets and proverbial barbershops. It was messy and silly, but—in a time where things like album streams didn't yet count for chart position; where Taylor Swift's fanbase didn't have a vote in the matter— there was a method to the madness.
By these measures, Drake vs. Kendrick makes no sense. For chrissakes, Drake is from Toronto. But looking for perfect analogies is lazy and foolish. And the truth is that this particular false binary of heroes may be primal and archetypal, the tao of a yin and yang that's been playing out since Kool Moe Dee asked Busy Bee Starski to "put that 'ba di di ba' bullshit on hold” in 1981. From those days, it's always been about things like the soul of hip-hop as an art, the trajectory of the culture, and the values and purpose of lyrics in rap. Almost exclusively, these conflicts have resulted in a refocus on how words are used and the meanings they transmit in hip-hop. And it almost always features a man proclaiming to be a king, with another asking "what's a king to a god?" It's a conflict that's all about rap, but bigger than hip-hop, all at once. And, loathe as many may be to admit it, the 6 God's If You're Reading This It's Too Late and King Kunta's To Pimp a Butterfly tell a tale of two albums that fall almost perfectly in line with this continuing narrative.
First off, there are the tones of the albums. Kendrick recently told Hot 97 that his focus has never been on creating bangers. "If my music was made to grab you immediately, I would have thousands of hit singles on the radio," he said. "I've decided I'm not that type of artist." And he's not. His music—like Nas' and Rakim's before it—is the kind that's adored by critics and shifts the genre in fundamental ways. TPAB is novelistic and incredibly epic—its 16 tracks can, without any serious strain, be interpreted via the 17 steps of Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey. It's every bit of a monomyth as Star Wars or The Matrix, but it feels more important. Like 12 Years a Slave or Selma, it's saying something important first—the accolades and rewards that follow feel like an inevitable afterthought, not a target.
If it's funny how one verse can fuck up the game, it's undeniable how a critical smash makes everyone in the arena push their release dates back. A critic's darling of a project is not necessarily the kind to throw off the bell curve, commercially speaking—but sometimes it is. TPAB was streamed 9.6 million times during its first 24 hours of release on Spotify, breaking the previous record, 6.8 million records, which was, tellingly, set by Drake's IYRTITL. And from there, the statistical yardsticks for both albums provide serious bragging rights—they've both debuted at the top spot on the Billboard 200, they've both sold quite well, both created firsts, etc. In February, Drake became the first rapper to top Billboard's Artist 100 chart; the next month, Kendrick became the second. Every song from Drake's project made the Billboard charts; six of Kendrick's did. For an album that almost seems to go out of its way to be confrontational and inaccessible, Butterfly's marketplace impact is staggering. Still, this King of Hip-Hop thing has never been a battle about sales or chart dominance—if so, the greatest rap group of all time would be the Beastie Boys, and the battle for the top solo slot would be between Eminem and MC Hammer.
Where Butterfly is Oscar-bait, Too Late is a tentpole blockbuster, packed with action sequence after action sequence.
Where Butterfly is Oscar-bait, Too Late is a tentpole blockbuster, packed with action sequence after action sequence. That Drake doesn't aim for any deep or large statements outside of himself is not a hindrance. Drake's true and overlooked talent has always been his ability to wrap the middle class annoyances in the language and vestiges of the struggle. He's christened his home as "The 6," and reimagining Toronto—long considered to be one of North America's safest big cities—as some sort of treacherous stomping ground. His starting from the bottom meant that he had to deal with his uncle asking for his car back; he has rap n-words that he has to act like he likes and b-words asking him about the code for the wi-fi so they can talk about their timeline. It's #DrakeWorldProblems, and it's perfect popcorn fare. On Too Late, Drake is preoccupied with all things Drake—but mostly just Drake. The project is a relentless self-centered exercise in unblinking navel gazing. On his short film Jungle, he confessed: "I'm not, like, worried or nothing. It's already too late for these guys—trust me. I'm just more worried about myself." The first cohesive statement on the album is "If I die, I'm a legend"; his first mention of money is how "it taught me Spanish—make it andale." Conversely, Kendrick starts off Butterfly with the inclusive statement ("every nigger is a star"), a question from George Clinton ("Are you really how they idolize?"), and a tortured and naive relationship with finances—"remember you ain't pass economics in school/And everything you buy, taxes will deny/I'll Wesley Snipes your ass before 35."
The inversions are almost staggering. Drake has n-words that can never leave Canada (which can mean anything, considering that a DUI conviction can keep you out of Canada for five years); but Kendrick can't even take his homies to award shows because "Somebody told me you thinkin' 'bout snatchin' jewelry." And Kendrick's homies are important to him—they're on his album cover with him—and he considers himself the "heritage of a small village." Drake, on the other hand, continues to push the myth of himself as self-made and self-contained: "I don't need no-fuckin'-body/I run my own shit." While Butterfly was created via inclusive, hours-long jam sessions with jazz musicians and singers, Too Late was created with Drake in the house with the phones off, taking no calls, with the drapes closed, leaning heavily on his trusted OVO crew—Boi-1da, Noah "40" Shebib and PARTYNEXTDOOR. It's no wonder Too Late is so insular, focusing largely on obtaining money and discarding women while chasing music industry goals and snidely dismissing them. The subjects may not be bigger than life, but the beats are louder than your speakers and the flows harder than bars.
Still, where Drake is the big fish eating off of big hooks, Kendrick is tilapia—African and adaptable, and pimped because of that. He's not concerned with the "haters" who seem to preoccupy Drake's studio process; he's focused on generational hatred; it's bigger than him. And race—yes, race—plays a huge part in both records, even when by exclusion. Butterfly is black as the heart of an Aryan and wrestles with the usage of the n-word. Drake—biracial and never hesitant to play his Jewish card for career gain—on the other hand uses the n-word without pause and laments that "I used to be teased for being black/And now I'm here and I'm not black enough." Still it's undeniable that Kendrick is making music about the black experience, while Drake is kicking in the door by making black music for white people. He has two mortgages—30 million in total. He's not acting tough or making stories up about where he's actually from—but he self-consciously leans on his dad's jail bid for toughness by genealogy. Kendrick's hood politics have him off-handedly reminiscing that we was 14 in the 'hood with the deuce-deuce and speaking on homies who are never coming home from behind the walls. The block is a place of "highs to lows, to groupies and junkies,"—something Kendrick wants to escape; but it's where Drake wishes to be seen, running through The 6 with his woes.
it's undeniable that Kendrick is making music about the black experience, while Drake is kicking in the door by making black music for white people.
The ties of street cred relate directly to Jay and Nas' beef—Jay showed Nas his first tec; Nas derided Jay for taking the fall for stabbing Lance "Un" Rivera. And, in a not-inconsequential way, these new records by Drake and Kendrick surpass the work of their predecessors—Too Late is more deeply savvy than Jay's poppiest moments; Butterfly is more incisively realized than Nas has ever been. Drake placates listeners and gives them what he thinks they want; Kendrick challenges them and gives them what he thinks they need.
Looking for perfect analogies though is foolish; and seeking absolutes is weak sauce. Just like Jay had insightful story raps and Nas had club hits, Drake has transcendent moments, just as Kendrick has his base whims. Beyond being artists and avatars for arguments, Aubrey Drake Graham and Kendrick Lamar Duckworth are human beings making music. And maybe they're vessels for an eternal binary in the human mind. If they didn't exist, we'd have created them, just like we've done with kings and gods since we've had kings and gods. That the rivalry exists almost solely via subliminal jabs, also hearkens back to Jay and Nas; Kane and Rakim. Kendrick was going to kill a couple of rappers, but they did it to themselves—because he's slick enough to twist Jay's lines and send them back at everyone else; Drake took the summer off to give his foes a shot and they failed, but he still takes a shot at Jay with D'usse on his lips.
But on a certain level, these artists realize that they need their purported opposites to succeed. To Pimp a Butterfly is being hailed as the album of the year, but it's possible that it would not be so with out If You're Reading This It's Too Late. Without Too Late, Butterfly would be too serious and oppressive; without Butterfly, Too Late is vapid and self-serving. Together, they not only promote arguments, they balance the tao de hip-hop in the mainstream. Down to their titles' meanings they're about what they're about: Kendrick speaking on oppression and struggles with celebrity; Drake celebrating celebrity and speaking obliquely on his issues with his record label. Drake takes the personal and presents it as universal; Kendrick takes the universal and makes it personal. Either way, they're both personal, universal, and necessary. It's only fitting that the competition has outgrown New York City to become truly international. Los Angeles and Toronto being the epicenters of the battle and possible capitals of hip-hop makes sense in a world that allows Taylor Swift's fanbase to vote in the matter.
So what's a god to a king? To King Kunta, he's a homeless person smelling of "grandpa's old medicine reeking from your skin—moonshine and gin." As for what King Kunta is to the 6 God, ain't no telling until Drake replies, via his still forthcoming Views From the 6. And, even if he doesn't, we'll say he did. Not to be foolish or lazy, but because it's what we've always done, ever since we created kings and gods.
kris ex is a writer living in L.A. Follow him @fullmetallotus.