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I mean, where the fuck should I really even start? Perhaps with a thought experiment: Has any rapper been as popular as Drake for as long as Drake? Has any rapper had such a total and complete grip on the charts the way Drake has, for as long as he has? If you’re generous, Jay-Z’s 2000–2006 run might compare. Eminem, too, circa 1999–2004. But since his third mixtape, 2009’s So Far Gone, Drake has not missed. Even when he faced attacks that would be fatal to another rapper’s career — over the corniness, or the Canadianness, or the identity-hopping — he’s managed to turn all of those into positions of strength. He memed himself before his enemies memed him. When people called him soft, he sang softer (“You gettin’ bodied by a singin’ nigga!” he taunted Meek Mill). Earlier this year, he was given Billboard’s Artist of the Decade award, and you could hardly think of another name on the short list. The list of records he has broken is wild, but let’s perhaps zero in on one: In January 2021, Drake became the first artist to pass 50 billion streams on Spotify.
For a decade, the two men have been jockeying for the top spot in friendly competition, other times having inexplicably petty fights.
If this is upsetting to Drake’s detractors, imagine how infuriating it must be for Kanye West. West is gifted at directing all available eyeballs to him, and, from time to time, his work, too. He’s made a career of extracting attention, often without the permission of the audience. Kanye happens to you; he finds a way to sneak in above the fold of whatever news outlet you’re reading. But over the past decade, West has been forced to repeatedly admit that Drake has outshone him. “Let's be honest — he got last summer,” West told GQ in 2014. In 2015, he admitted Drake might speak to younger people in a more direct way than he does.
From anyone else, these admissions could be seen as matter-of-fact, or even coming to grips with reality. From an artist with an ego like West’s, they are bitter truths admitted reluctantly, made sharper by the fact that Drake has openly talked about how West has been the major influence of his career. “He’s the guy I’ll tell my kids about,” Drake told People magazine in 2010. For a decade, the two men have been orbiting each other, sometimes jockeying for the top spot in friendly competition, other times having inexplicably petty fights.
The two men who helped hip-hop become the dominant form of pop music are at it again, and this time they’re in conflict about where hip-hop goes from here. For Drake, it’s more of the same. For West, it’s time to scale the genre up — way up. With their new albums, Certified Lover Boy and Donda, respectively, they’re making their argument in music but also in melodrama. These albums do not represent the best work these two are capable of, not by a mile. The occasion of new music from West and Drake should be a thrilling and compelling moment. Instead, it’s mostly tiresome, frustrating, and lacking in high stakes.
If Hot 97 radio host Ebro Darden is to be believed, somewhere out there, on someone’s hard drive, there might be a version of Drake’s monster 2018 hit “Nice for What” featuring a West verse. On his radio show back in 2019, Ebro said that “supposedly, Kanye was supposed to be on ‘Nice for What,’ or there’s a version of ‘Nice for What’ with Kanye that we may never hear.”
I wish to convey to you how distressing this is. I try not to think about it often. If I do, I lose sleep. “Nice for What” is the perfect pop song. You can play that song three times in a row in any room, and no one would complain. It is such a colossal banger, such an achievement in hitmaking, that the suggestion of the existence of an even more lit version fills me with the rush of climbing Annapurna.
But we don’t have it. And the reason we don’t have it is also the reason we’re in this mess right now: the feud. West and Drake started as healthy competitors. As far back as 2013, West told a concert crowd that he and Jay-Z “would’ve never made Watch the Throne,” their collaboration album, if Drake “wasn’t putting pressure on [them] like that.”
West and Drake are neighbors. They could presumably have talked all of this out over a swim in one of their large pools. Still, the beef sustains itself.
Over time, it got pettier. Take, for example, 2016’s “Summer Sixteen,” where Drake delivers the relatively anodyne line “Now I got a bigger pool than Ye / And look, man, Ye’s pool is nice / Mine’s just bigger is what I’m sayin.’” Years later, West would mark that line as a turning point in his relationship with Drake. “Since the pool line,” West tweeted in 2018, “he’s been trying to poke at me and fuck with me.” You know. Grown man shit.
It’s unbecoming to recount the tantrums of children, so let’s do this quickly. In November 2016, a few months after the pool line, Kanye ranted onstage that Drake’s collaboration with DJ Khaled, “For Free,” was being played too much on the radio. Drake revealed in an interview in early 2017 that he was upset by West’s rant. “I'm not sure why we’re the target of your choice that you made that night,” Drake wondered passive-aggressively.
Then, the part we all know: In 2018, Pusha T, the president of West’s label, released his third album, Daytona, executive produced by West, which included an overt shot at Drake. The line — “It was written like Nas but it came from Quentin” — references the controversy around Drake’s alleged ghostwriter, Quentin Miller. Drake’s retaliation was swift, in the form of “Duppy Freestyle,” where he came after Pusha (“I had a microphone of yours but then the signature faded”) and pointed out that he had just helped Kanye write songs (“Father had to stretch his hands out and get it from me”). Fair enough. Point: Drake.
On the heels of that response, Pusha responded by going nuclear and publicizing the fact that Drake had a secret son. The track contained the infamous and instantly iconic line “You are hiding a child.” (Presumably, Drake’s son, Adonis, will use the line as a trump card every time he wants a new G-Wagen or something.) Anyway, Kanye apologized and took responsibility for the escalation.
If these theatrics read like a recap of a Real Housewives episode, perhaps that’s because they both have the same engines of intrigue: manufactured stakes, melodramatic plot points and reactions, and a suspension of disbelief that this can be resolved any other way. West and Drake are neighbors. They could presumably have talked all of this out over a swim in one of their large pools. Still, the beef sustains itself. The beef demands spectacle.
After years of relative quiet, the show resumed earlier this summer when West suddenly teased a release date for Donda but pulled it back. The next day, West collaborator Consequence tweeted that they wanted information on Drake’s anticipated drop date. “Move out of the way of my release,” Kanye rapped when he debuted “Junya” at a July live listening event. A few weeks later, Drake hopped on a Trippie Redd song and revealed in his feature that his release date was set in stone, and the pair were on a collision course once again. West raged on Instagram and posted, then deleted, Drake’s home address in Toronto. Drake responded by cackling in his car.
What’s your favorite toxic Drake trait? Mine is his recurrent dunking on the Beatles. In July 2018, Drake landed seven songs in the Hot 100 chart, breaking the Beatles’ record of five. By October, he smashed another Beatles record, this time for most Top 10 songs in a single year. Not one for humility, Drake rapped on a Meek Mill song that he “got more slaps than the Beatles.” He followed that up by getting a tattoo of the legendary Abbey Road album cover, featuring the Beatles on the crosswalk, but with a little addition: Drake, standing ahead of the band, waving and taunting. Naturally, people were upset.
It’s tough enough to hear a 34-year-old man approach love the same way he did when he was 23 without having to contend with a heart shaved into his hair, too.
Perhaps as an olive branch, but more likely as a flex, Certified Lover Boy opens with a sample of the Beatles’ “Michelle.” Or, more precisely, Drake samples a song by Masego that includes an interpolation of the Beatles song. Either way, it’s prominent enough to give Paul McCartney and John Lennon writing credits on the curtain-raiser, a vintage Drake number filled with his trademark one-liners about his influence (“Under a picture lives some of the greatest quotes from me”) and the depression of being at the top of the game (“Under me, I see all the people that claim they over me / And above me I see nobody”).
But by the third track of CLB, “Girls Want Girls,” Drake is indulging his worst instincts, delivering a god-awful hook (“Say that you’re a lesbian / Girl, me too”) with the charm of a middle-aged dad in the club.
That’s the thing about CLB. It regurgitates themes we’ve heard over and over from Drake — about courtship, about fame, about excess, about loneliness — but there is no evidence that the arguments presented are new at all. It’s tough enough to hear a 34-year-old man approach love the same way he did when he was 23 without having to contend with a heart shaved into his hair, too.
But then again, perhaps that’s exactly what people want from Drake. Perhaps Drake is simply a vessel for the will of the people. “Girls Want Girls” had the best debut numbers of any song in Spotify history. It appears that we are eager to forgive Drake. It appears that we get exactly what we deserve.
For a rapper who built his career on sounding professionally cool and nonchalant, it’s a little on the nose that Drake rarely gets out of second gear on CLB. Mostly, he spends time warming over his dual complexes, Peter Pan and oedipal. Grow up, Drake, critics demand. Mostly, he’s exactly the same. Drake is too good to fail. The beats sound good, the flow is always tight, the whole thing is a mood. But CLB proves that he is out of tricks and doesn’t feel compelled to find new ones. Given the album’s streaming numbers, he probably doesn’t feel that this is necessary.
The father-defeating stuff, that’s all over the record, too, at least in the musical sense. Though there are plenty of subliminal shots at West throughout CLB, the song that people noticed immediately is “7am on Bridle Path.” It’s the latest entry in Drake’s “AM/PM series,” which he has historically used as a reflection on where he is in his career. And on this one, his beef with West takes center stage. “You over there in denial, we not neck and neck,” Drake raps. “It’s been a lot of years since we seen you comin’ correct.”
He’s not wrong. Turn to page 15 of your Kanye West appendix. Or is it page 27? Have you taken the prerequisite course to be in this class? It’s hard to start talking about West’s music because it often requires a preamble of context, usually made up of a recounting of the last three to six months of his antics.
Donda was promised as early as last July but finally arrived late last month after West held three theatrical listening events in stadiums in July and August — two in Atlanta and one in Chicago. With time, the production quality increased, and they became more elaborate. During these events, West, in no particular order, lit himself on fire, staged a wedding ceremony involving his estranged wife, Kim Kardashian, built a replica of his childhood home, sat perfectly still and said nothing, and moved around the stage like a dementor.
At each listening event, West introduced new versions of Donda. After the second one, I wrote that he was making his best music he’d made since 2013’s Yeezus and called the stadium events “chaotic theater.” The New York Times called it a “multimedia soap opera.” GQ called it “provocative performance art.” Most people just called it exhausting.
Donda’s highs are astonishing and among West’s career best. Donda’s lows are either offensive or cringeworthy, though a couple manage to achieve both at the same time.
And for all the spectacle-as-album-release that West put on, the version of Donda released to streaming services ultimately doesn’t measure up to what was promised. It is an uneven behemoth, clocking in at 27 songs for a runtime of 1 hour and 49 minutes. Someone noted on Twitter that it is as long as The Boss Baby (in fact, Donda is longer). And as you can imagine, with all that runtime, there’s plenty of room for peaks and valleys: Donda’s highs are astonishing and among West’s career best. Donda’s lows are either offensive or cringeworthy, though a couple manage to achieve both at the same time.
The album opens with “Jail,” which lacks drums but makes up for it in defiance and ballast. “I’ll be honest, we all liars,” West proclaims in a song about redemption. “God gon’ post my bail tonight.” Jay-Z lends credibility, even absolving West of his Trump-supporting years (“Told him. ‘Stop all of that red cap / We goin’ home’”).
The middle of the album offers a potent and coherent run — tracks 6 to 17 are mostly no-skips and come closest to capturing the record’s initial purpose, which is to pay tribute to its namesake, Kanye’s late mother, Donda West.
It is, perhaps, not a coincidence that West is sparsely available during this run. On “Praise God,” he cedes space to his protégé Travis Scott and rising star (and Kendrick Lamar’s cousin) Baby Keem. The gorgeous “Moon” is better understood as a Kid Cudi joint that happens to live on a Kanye album.
West’s talent has always been primarily curatorial. On the highlights of Donda, he marshals a mighty army of talent to create a gripping emotional landscape. Griselda Records’ Conway the Machine and Westside Gunn deliver on “Keep My Spirit Alive.” Roddy Ricch cements the hype around him on “Pure Souls.” But an artist who makes a point of creating through curation is asking to be judged based on whom he cosigns.
Which brings us to Donda’s most frustrating decision. During the third listening event, West appeared onstage with DaBaby and Marilyn Manson. Soon, it was revealed that he had replaced Jay-Z’s verse on “Jail” with a fresh one from DaBaby and added Manson to the hook. (Both versions eventually made it onto the album, though Manson also has a writing credit on the version where he is not featured.) What are we to make of this?
If it’s a comment on “cancel culture,” it is an ugly position for West to take. Manson has been accused of sexual abuse by multiple women, and the accounts are horrific. (Manson has denied the accusations.) The comments that led to DaBaby being pulled off music festivals are summed up as “homophobic,” but they are also grotesque and dangerous. “Jail” is ostensibly a song about why even the most irredeemable can be saved, yet DaBaby rescinded the apology he made. There is nothing to save here. Besides, the point was more elegantly made with Jay-Z’s verse (“Not me with all these sins, casting stones”).
Make no mistake: Donda is as concerned with Drake as CLB is with Kanye. On “Ok Ok,” West borrows a Drake flow to land the blow “You got no real identity / Can’t tell you from you.” But beyond the music, the aesthetic proposition of Donda is scale.
The music has become somewhat secondary for West, who is instead focused on creating a spectacle. It’s an argument that this is where hip-hop must go next if it is to retain its dominance. The available ceiling for rappers of Drake’s generation was to reach Jay-Z’s accomplishments: a label, clothing lines, sponsorship deals. West is expanding the palette here.
This is where Donda and CLB collide. As albums, neither is West’s or Drake’s respective finest work. As statements of ambition, CLB sees Drake resting on his laurels while Donda at least attempts — if not always succeeds at — creating a new finish line for hip-hop. Something grander, something more obscure, and, with luck, something more eternal.
At their best, beefs can be challenging moments that dictate the rhythms of what’s to come. They reinforce the thrilling parts of the art form as people pay close attention. That’s what makes the recent output from both Drake and Kanye so disappointing. Instead, we got a grand display of pettiness.
Kanye and Drake have always used self-awareness as a weapon. You can’t level a critique at them that they haven’t already said about themselves. The trouble is they think self-awareness is the end goal. It is, in fact, the price of entry; you don’t get points for pointing out your own flaws — you’re grown men, and it’s your responsibility to work on them. So it is supremely annoying that Drake introduced CLB on Apple Music as “a combination of toxic masculinity and acceptance of truth which is inevitably heartbreaking” when it is an album entirely unconcerned with disentangling the toxicity from the masculinity, or even engaging in the question of what it means to be a man.
Instead, CLB remains interested in the casual misogyny that has pulsed through much of Drake’s career. There he goes on “TSU,” talkin’ ’bout “Her daddy is not around / Her mama is not around.” The song begins with a sample of OG Ron C speaking over an R. Kelly song, so R. Kelly automatically gets a credit on the song. Drake’s frequent collaborator Noah “40” Shebib attempted to defend the decision by explaining that you can’t even hear R. Kelly, but they were “forced” to license the song. Still, choosing to pay R. Kelly while the singer is on trial for sex trafficking is questionable.
Kanye and Drake have always used self-awareness as a weapon. The trouble is they think self-awareness is the end goal.
For West, the choices are more egregious. In addition to Manson and DaBaby, recent Drake collaborator Chris Brown, who has a history of violence against women, makes an appearance on “New Again.” Buju Banton, whose anti-gay bigotry is well documented, shows up on “Believe What I Say.” Jay Electronica, who features on “Jesus Lord,” shared antisemitic tweets last year.
Twenty-four hours after CLB’s release, Drake leaked a Kanye song on a radio show. “Life of the Party” is, on the face of it, a Drake diss. It explicitly name-checks Drake and the recent feud. But leaking it may have been a miscalculation on Drake’s part. The song is stunning. West’s rapping is emotional, approaching conciliatory. Drake comes off as petty for having leaked it. Pettier still, because “Life of the Party” opens with one of the best verses of the year, a sensitive reflection from Outkast’s André 3000 rapping about the death of his mother.
In a statement, 3 Stacks revealed, “The track I received and wrote to didn’t have the diss verse on it and we were hoping to make a more focused offering for the Donda album but I guess things happen like they are supposed to.” He called the leak “unfortunate.” Given that he poured his heart out for a verse ruined by the enveloping pettiness, one imagines he wanted to use stronger language.
Adding to the tragedy, Tyler, the Creator revealed that he’d heard a different version of “Life of the Party” with its “original verse” from Kanye. It was “so warm and true,” he tweeted. We’re robbed of an opportunity to hear that version. There is an unexplored range here, a confetti of pathos on the cutting-room floor, and we are poorer for it. Toward the end of the song, you hear the voice of DMX comforting his daughter. “Daddy’s right here,” he growls. “I told you I’m not gonna let you go.” André’s verse and the DMX outro are so touching that all you can see is how transcendent the song could’ve been with a more emotional verse from Kanye.
The story of “Life of the Party” is the story of this feud. What could have been a fulfilling and satisfying battle of ideas ended up bogged down by a dull kerfuffle. For a decade, Kanye and Drake have vowed to lead us to compelling places, and they’ve consistently delivered. This time, it seems we might be on our own.●