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  • John Fleming

How Kendrick Lamar Won the Battle (and Drake Didn't Lose)

When the biggest rivalries in the history of popular music are discussed, many of them are strictly creations of media narratives. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones were rivals in the sense that they were the most popular British rock bands of the mid-to-late 1960s, but the members, themselves, were friendly and respectful of one another. While Michael Jackson and Prince had more tension, the Motown-raised pop singer and the Minneapolis funk-rocker were different enough that it would only grow so deep. Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, and Beyoncé and Rihanna followed similar arcs — you could have fun arguments regarding your personal preferences, but it was never actually a real fight.

The most famous feud in the history of hip-hop, one whose tragic non-musical conclusion necessarily colors how it is perceived today, was the one between California’s Tupac Shakur and New York’s The Notorious B.I.G.

There was legitimate tension and the two took musical digs at one another. Similar things could be said about the New York rap battle in the early 2000s between the Brooklyn-raised Jay-Z and the Queens-based Nas. But ultimately, the actual musical impact of the diss tracks was minor — none were chart successes.

Drake and Kendrick Lamar started their Spring 2024 rap battle at a clear advantage in terms of popular success— both artists entered with already having No. 1 pop singles to their name, with Drake sitting at No. 2 behind only Taylor Swift in terms of global Spotify popularity.

The release of new music by either rapper grabs plenty of attention already. But this musical rivalry has reached unprecedented levels, and the popularity of one has only added to the success of the other. In terms of commercial reach, arguably the most apt comparison is a rock rivalry from 29 years ago: the chart battle between Blur and Oasis for the No. 1 song on the U.K. Singles Chart. The tracks are, by the standards of the discography of the artists in hindsight, relatively lesser known (“Country House” and “Roll with It,” respectively), but each sold easily enough copies to top the charts on most weeks. Blur won this particular battle, but over time, the popularity at home and abroad of Oasis would make them champions of the chart war.

But while those two singles were ultimately conventional pop-rock songs squarely within the Britpop sub-genre, Drake and Kendrick Lamar are battling not for chart dominance, but are taking aggressive and seemingly sincere shots at one another.

In the public eye, Kendrick had been declared the champion from most corners before any sort of chart data was available, and on Monday afternoon, the latest Billboard Hot 100 chart revealed Kendrick's disses of Drake hold three of the top six spots.

The first, Kendrick’s formerly No. 1 hit with Future and Metro Boomin, “Like That” (which is only partially about Drake), sits at No. 6. The solo single, which truly took the rivalry aspect to a new level, “Euphoria,” jumped from No. 11 to No. 3 within a week. And at No. 1 is “Not Like Us,” an aggressive, vulgar diss at Drake, which also, improbably, serves as a legitimately danceable track, without taking any edge off the vicious lyrical content.

Editor's note: "Not Like Us," like other songs mentioned in this article, contains aggressively explicit language. While the song's overall lyrical content and the non-musical elements related to Drake and Kendrick Lamar's rivalry deserve further coverage, the purpose of this article is to examine the current state of the top 40, while putting this feud into the context of music history.

It isn’t as though Kendrick Lamar is taking advantage of a weak period for popular music. His latest chart-topper is replacing “Fortnight” — the lead single from Taylor Swift’s typically blockbuster album, “The Tortured Poets Department” — which fell to No. 4. Two weeks ago, Swift was so chart-dominant that she held the top 14 slots on the Hot 100. That level of success was never sustainable, but that Kendrick's two extremely politically incorrect barbs ("Not Like Us" and "Euphoria") at Drake, one of the most popular musical artists alive, were able to supplant Swift feels like a fever dream.

It is only natural to use combat sports terms when referring to a rap feud, and in that sense, Kendrick Lamar has clearly won the fight. But there have been ancillary beneficiaries as well. Two of the biggest sub-winners have been St. Louisans, making this arguably the biggest moment for St. Louis hip-hop since the heyday of Nelly. An indirect winner has been Sexyy Red, the St. Louis-based rapper who collaborated with Drake on 2023’s “Rich Baby Daddy” and was name-dropped (in a manner much more kindly than how Drake was name-dropped) on Kendrick's “Euphoria,” and whose already on-the-rise star has only grown brighter.

More directly involved is super-producer and St. Louis native Metro Boomin, who produced Drake’s 2016 hit “Jumpman,” but he has become even more synonymous with Kendrick, producing “Like That.” That has coincided with Drake directing disses toward his former producer through his two latest hit singles.

Drake — who is the biggest winner of this battle, aside from Kendrick — has received a lot of criticism over the years, particularly from hip-hop purists, over his pop sensibilities. One could easily make the argument that he is less a rap star and more a pop star, who uses hip-hop as a weapon in his arsenal. But while his tracks “Push Ups” and “Family Matters” don’t really reach the depths of what Kendrick Lamar can do, these are not pop songs — they are straight-up hip-hop. These are singles that, in a conventional top-40 landscape, should not be big hits, yet they reached No. 17 and No. 7, respectively.

This is hardly new territory for Drake, who had two number-one hits in 2023 alone. But "Family Matters" allows Drake to offer a credible counterpunch; there is a reason Kendrick released “Meet the Grahams,” probably the darkest and most biting of his latest trio of disses, just 20 minutes after its release. If he hadn’t, Drake would have gained momentum in the battle. As it was, he still gained momentum on the charts.

Ultimately, the two biggest rappers in the world have offered us the greatest musical rivalry since no more recently than Biggie and 2Pac, and as a mere music listener, I feel that I have won every step along the way.


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