Turn on the radio in any city in America for a length of time and you are likely to hear a Drake song. Perhaps it will be “Hotline Bling,” which not only soared to No. 2 on the Billboard charts this fall, but also inspired an Internet meme based on its video, and Erykah Badu’s critically acclaimed homage, But You Caint Use My Phone. Or maybe it will be a track from What a Time to Be Alive, his so-called “mixtape” with Future which sold over 300,000 copies in its first week of release. Drake has sold more music than any other rapper this year. Among musicians in 2015, only Taylor Swift and Adele were more successful.
While Drake commands the pop charts, Kendrick Lamar’s work rings in the streets. His “Alright” has become an unofficial anthem for #BlackLivesMatter and activist groups demonstrating against racial inequality. And Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is arguably the most acclaimed album of 2015.
When the Grammy Foundation announcednominations for its 2016 awards, Lamar earned 11 nods, including one for To Pimp a Butterfly as album of the year, and President Obama has said Lamar’s “How Much a Dollar Cost” is his favorite song of the year.
If you want to locate the latest crosscurrents within rap — a tension that has been present ever since Bronx pioneers Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five called themselves the first “real” hip-hop group to make a recording with “Superappin,” challenging New Jersey insurgents The Sugarhill Gang who claimed the same thing with their “Rapper’s Delight” — then follow the opposing paths of Lamar and Drake.
The two have history together. Drake was upset when Lamar challenged him and other top rappers like J Cole and Big K.R.I.T. during a guest verse on Big Sean’s “,” a 2013 Internet-only track that now stands as a culture-shifting moment from chumminess at the top of the food chain to a haughty wariness of peers and frenemies. Lamar’s provocation ended a series of collaborations with Drake that includes the former’s “Poetic Justice,” Drake’s “Buried Alive” and [A$AP Rocky](http://www.rhapsody.com/artist/asap-rocky/album/long-live-love-asap?ocode=social_user&pcode=social_user&cpath=Link&rsrc=album">Control’s “Fckin’ Problems.” During a cameo appearance on Dr. Dre’s Compton*, Lamar appeared to lodge “subliminals” at Drake – rap terminology for criticism of his former friend.
Lamar is clearly a superior lyricist than Drake, but the latter has shown he’s not a pushover. Ever since Drake’s 2013 album Nothing Was the Same, he has grown increasingly boisterous and insistent that he belongs alongside icons that are financially successful and widely respected. Seeking to disprove the notion that he’s more than just a crooner and a hook man, he delivered If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, a collection of unprocessed rhymes with few choruses. Its songs are akin to demos that simply feature him spitting hard over beats quantized by longtime engineer Noah “40” Shebib.
In July, Meek Mill claimed Drake employed a ghostwriter for his lyrics. We don’t have the space here to get into the politics surrounding ghostwriters, but it’s a taboo industry practice, and alleging that someone uses them is tantamount to calling someone a fraud. Drake didn’t necessarily deny the charge. However, he responded to Meek Mill with impressive swiftness by releasing four digital singles in a week, one of which was “Hotline Bling.” Then there was “Charged Up” and “Back to Back,” the latter on which Drake rapped, “You gettin’ bodied by a singing n*gga.”
In the past, beefs unfolded over years: Think of the back-and-forth between Jay Z and Nas in 2001 and 2002, or the struggle between 2Pac and The Notorious B.I.G. in 1995 and 1996. We no longer have that kind of patience. Within hours of Drake’s “Back to Back,” Twitter pundits were mocking Meek Mill for not dropping an immediate response. Meek Mill’s eventual diss, “Wanna Know,” was roundly dismissed as a sloppy and irrelevant freestyle. Drake earned a TKO even though “Back to Back” isn’t much better than Meek’s track — it sounds like a rehash of “Energy” from If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late.
No one else better utilizes rap culture in the social media age better than Drake. He’s often quick to leap on bubbling regional cuts and place his stamp of approval, like his cameos on ILoveMakonnen’s “Tuesday” and Migos’ “Versace.” However, he may have overstepped with “Hotline Bling,” which drew noticeable inspiration from D.R.A.M.’s viral hit “Cha Cha.” Drake compared it to versioning, the practice by which dancehall vocalists appropriate popular riddims. Others accused him of vampirism, and sucking the life out of lesser-known acts for his benefit, especially when the success of “Hotline Bling” far exceeded “Cha Cha.” D.R.A.M. claimed Drake “jacked” his song, and Earl Sweatshirt memorably tweeted that Drake “can be a bit of a vulture.”
If Drake’s success seems built on absorbing trends at the Internet’s pace, then we don’t know if his work will have lasting value beyond the here and now. Only a pure hater would claim he hasn’t released quality music; or memorable suites such as his 2010 album Thank Me Later and its 2011 follow-up, Take Care. Cumulatively, his recordings don’t seem to have the same resonance as Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, which is the aural equivalent of the Great American Novel.
Lamar’s third album is dense in narratives. It is a spiritual complaint against celebrity decadence, and an assertion of Christian values. It is a meditation on what it means to be black in America. It is a revival of gangsta rap as proletarian poetry, and a foray into L.A. alternative culture. Its thematic threads are readily apparent yet complex, and countless think pieces, essays and paeans have been written about it.
Due to its unwieldiness, Lamar’s label Top Dawg Entertainment has struggled to market To Pimp a Butterfly in the form of digestible singles that casual listeners can sample. Even “Alright,” which is arguably the best rap single of the year, barely scratched the Top 50 of the Billboard charts, perhaps due to protest lyrics like, “We hate po-po/Wanna kill us dead in the street for sure,” that referenced several highly-publicized instances of law enforcement gunning down black youth with little provocation. A few commentators have written the album may be great, but it isn’t enjoyable to listen to repeatedly.
These stray critiques often generate angry denunciations from his stans. For them, Lamar is a man who is the sum of hip-hop’s best qualities. Older listeners who decry how no one really “raps” anymore, but just harmonize and sing a few off-key bars like Future, valorize Lamar as hip-hop’s surviving Jedi, the one who can save the genre.
Yet it’s clear Lamar sacrificed career momentum to make To Pimp a Butterfly. He tried to take the audience he built with his platinum-certified good kid, m.A.A.d city into deeper conceptual waters. His most loyal fans followed, but the pop crowd that enjoyed earlier Top 40 smashes such as “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe,” “Poetic Justice” and “Swimming Pools (Drank)” did not. Commercial success shouldn’t matter when it comes to art. But mainstream rap is a corporate octagon, a Thunderdome-like world where we judge and rank artists based on their ability to do “numbers” and sell product. Ignore that criteria, and you become an underground rapper that nobody tweets about.
Lamar’s crusade could have used the kind of effortless songs that Drake makes so easily. Alternatively, Drake has yet to make his version of Jay Z’s The Blueprint, an album that silences doubters and assures his place among the GOATs. The ensuing years will bring more twists to Drake and Lamar’s progress. For now, their paths appear headed in conflicting directions, challenging us to reconcile them both.