Jay Z, Drake & The Greatest Beef That Never Was
How you feel about the end result of Jay Z and Drake's mini-feud may say more about you as a Hip Hop fan than any real or perceived beef between the two of them.
If you’ve been paying attention to the media at all in the last two weeks, you’ve no doubt witnessed the back and forth between Drake and Jay Z. As Hip Hop sparring goes, this ranks somewhere between any given Monday night on the WWE and some good-natured ribbing between frenemies. By now, you most likely know the bullet points of this story. In a February Rolling Stone interview, Drake poked fun at Jay Z’s multiple art references, saying, “It's like Hov can’t drop bars these days without at least four art references! I would love to collect at some point, but I think the whole rap/art world thing is getting kind of corny.”
Jay shot back on Jay Electronica’s “We Made It” by rhyming, “Sorry Mrs. Drizzy for so much art talk / Silly me rappin’ ‘bout shit that I really bought / While these rappers rap about guns they ain’t shot / And a bunch of other silly shit that they ain't got.”
Just for good measure, Drake made the NBA playoff series between the Toronto Raptors and Brooklyn Nets interesting to non-basketball fans by accusing Jay of being “somewhere eating a fondue plate” as Drake popped in during Game 1 between the team Jay used to own a minority stake in and the team which currently employs him as a brand ambassador of sorts.
It’s not so much a beef as it is the soft shit people pass off as a form of beef on hors d’oeuvres. This is more like pâté. Nevertheless it’s making headlines, and maybe it could lead to something more. Or nah? Whatever the case, I enlisted the help of DX’s Editor-In-Chief Justin Hunte to trade some opinions on what a feud between Drizzy and Hov might mean and why (or if) we should care.
Are Drake & Jay Z fighting to legitimize Hip Hop within mainstream society?
Omar: Kind of. I think Drake is fighting for a certain kind of legitimacy on his own. Technically, he’s from another country—even if that’s easily remedied by a ferry ride and having one’s passport in order. And Drake earned a certain amount of fame from his acting career before he was established as a rapper, so regardless of how irrelevant those issues seem, some hardcore Hip Hop fans are always going to look at Drake as a cultural interloper. On a larger scale, I think Drake is fighting to legitimize his particular brand of Hip Hop. As a reluctant fan of some of Drake’s work (I ride with the guy who made “9 AM In Dallas” and “Stay Schemin’,” but he can keep anything that sounds remotely like “Marvin’s Room”), I struggle with the issue of Drake’s place in Hip Hop or if he even has one. And I think a lot of other aficionados of Hip Hop’s Golden Era have similar struggles.
“I caught a lot of scrutiny on the last record because there were distinct singing moments,” Drake explained during a 2013 interview with Jian Ghomeshi. “There were borderline ballad moments. I realized that as important as that was for that period of time for me… I love that music, I love that album and it was important for me to make. What I tried to do with this album was blur the lines…”
I think Drake incorporated elements that are stereotypically associated with effeminate R&B, Emo and Indie Rock into commercially successful Hip Hop albums. I honestly don’t know if that means what he made is still Hip Hop by traditional standards. Is he pushing the art form forward or creating some weird, cross-genre hybrid? However you slice it, I think it definitely creates an environment where Drake has to fight for some form of legitimacy.
I think Jay Z is fighting for legitimacy, but it’s a different battle of sorts. For selfish purposes, it benefits Jay to link himself with the art world and high culture. For someone entering his late 40s, each step further into the art world looks more like the work of a cultural ambassador and less like a cash grab. Look back at the following quotes from his Decoded press junket:
“You never hear rappers being compared for like the greatest Rap writers of all time. You know, you hear Bob Dylan…so is Biggie Smalls, in a Hitchcock way. Some of the things that Biggie wrote… Rakim—listen to some of the things he wrote. If you take those lyrics, and you pull them away from the music, and you put them up on the wall somewhere, and someone had to look at them, they would say, ‘This is genius.’”
Historically, Hip Hop was originally linked with the art world. Guys like Jean Michel Basquiat and “Fab 5” Freddy Brathwaite kept one foot in the art world in a manner similar to what Pharrell Williams is doing today. I assume Jay has linked his own desire to stay relevant and continue boosting his net worth into the hundreds of millions with a genuine aspiration to take Hip Hop back to that place. I think it’s a lot easier to wear a leather snapback in your forties when it’s done under the auspices of being art dealer chic.
Justin: I don’t think Drake and Jay Z are fighting a similar battle to legitimize Hip Hop at all. I don’t know what the idea of legitimizing Hip Hop really means in 2014. I look around and all I see is Hip Hop. I see high top fades and streetwear everywhere. I see corporations enlisting anyone and anything they believe will attract the coveted birth-to-near-death demographic. I see Fallon doing Hip Hop dances on The Tonight Show. The premise of legitimization of Hip Hop feels more a product of the idea that youth culture is more interested in EDM than quintessential boom-bap. Maybe that’s the case, but the premise is nowhere near consensus. The youth are raising questions on their own.
DJ Mustard did an interview with HardKnockTV questioning Hip Hop deejays that feel the need to switch to EDM in order to spin major music festivals. He’s 23-years old.
“I feel like they don’t have to do that,” he says. “I feel like it’s cool because I want to do EDM, too. I think that’s dope, but why can’t a Hip Hop deejay do that? I can. I know it’s possible because I just did it. I just did the Ray-Bans thing, South By Southwest. I’m doing a Brisk Bodega tour. I feel like that’s by being a Hip Hop deejay. I don’t do any EDM records right now. That’s all by being a Hip Hop deejay. A lot of people like Hip Hop. Everybody don’t just like EDM. Make your Hip Hop build up like the EDM.”
Of the two, Jay Z is closest to still fighting a battle for Hip Hop legitimization. He’s negotiating with multi-billion dollar corporations and politicians and tagging #NewRules all over the industry and dropping bars about priceless works of art. The #NewRules branding feels like something a guy worth $550 million yet is still treated like an asterisk creates. Even in his camp, you see the same thing. Kanye West’s Rant World Tour was centered around the idea that there are still places that Hip Hop is not a welcome owner of high fashion. There are still barriers to entry.
When I look at Drake, I see a guy who’s surprisingly one of few undefeated league leaders in Rap history. His approach constantly merges culture, whether nationalistically or artistically—whether it’s R&B or Hip Hop or however you choose to classify “Hold On We’re Going Home.” This guy came up with a target on his back since Degrassi and beefing with Aristo and Big Page in Canada. He came out on top of both. He won the Common battle. So far he’s gotten away with all of the snarky side shots he tossed at Kendrick. He said Macklemore’s apology to Kendrick was wack and said he felt he deserved an apology from Macklemore as well, because of course Kendrick wasn’t the only one in the field who put together a better “Rap” album than The Heist. He feels like he’s putting out Hip Hop’s best music. He talks about how he sees no competition and in the same breath describes his favorite candle on Chelsea Lately. I don’t see him as one who’s trying to “legitimize” Hip Hop. I see him as someone who’s reveling being perched atop Hip Hop. Sure, he has his business endeavors; his festivals and NBA team partnerships and whatnot. He’s more similar to Jay Z in 2001 than arguably any other possible GOAT since. He’s not afraid to ever say exactly how he feels about the gaggle of eventual also-rans, and he does it with an unfamiliar approach. We see him and we think he’s weird or soft or corny. But maybe he’s just Canadian. Maybe we think his outfits or courtside lint brushings are weird, but really that’s just what Canadian style mavens do. I don’t see Drake trying to legitimize Hip Hop at all. I think his success is the biggest example of how legitimized Hip Hop is.
Do Jay Z and Drake need each other to a certain extent?
Omar: I think when Drake rapped about crying if Jay Z died on the song “Fear,” it was a way of showing listeners that just because he was mixing some weird cross-genre shit into his Hip Hop, he still fundamentally understood the principles of Hip Hop. For the times when Drizzy wants to dabble back into Hip Hop’s more masculine, competitive roots, Jay Z is a great ally and/or adversary. When it’s time to flex on people like me who double over in laughter at both “Find Your Love” and the various memes inspired by the Take Care artwork, it’s handy to enlist Jay for a song like “Pound Cake.” If Drake needs to draw a line in the sand, and make the argument that all the boom bap, beef and broccoli Timbs aesthetics are relics best used for ‘70s and ‘80s babies, it’s convenient to fire a shot at Jay as the old guy in front of a fondue plate.
I also feel we’d be remiss to forget that Jay sees himself as a master strategist. Golden Era romanticists like myself would love another Reasonable Doubt (or at least another Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life). But Jay has larger plans, and features from the likes of Rihanna and Drake allow him to simultaneously continue being an arbiter of all things cool, an artistic ambassador of Hip Hop culture and a very rich man. And some friendly fire with Drake keeps Jay Z relevant while he plots on how another multibillion dollar corporation can pay him for yawning through an album. But let’s be clear: I think Jay Z will go down as one of the greatest emcees of all time. So he doesn’t really need drake, but Drake serves a purpose.
Justin: I think Drake needs Jay Z as a pace car. Drizzy’s at a place in his career where he’s exploring new ideas. One of the things people seek out when they’re shedding into a new space is a new level of competition. Drake is super competitive. So when he’s looking at someone worth half a billi and largely self-made, it’s inspiration and a blueprint (pun intended). Some of his recent moves lean in that direction. Last year, he allegedly put his career back into the hands of his family and closest friends because of financial disagreements with Baby and YMCMB. He was the guy everyone questioned his need to sign to a label at all. He was already a when he came in. Other than legitimacy, why would that guy need a record label?
The blueprint Jay Z’s laying is another opportunity for Drake to continue to see the faux ceiling. It’s like what he says on “Thank Me Now”: “And that’s about the time your idols become your rivals.” Post Black Album, Jay and Drake are neck and neck musically, but there’s a lot more that Drake wants to accomplish. He’s throwing festivals now, like Hov (the OVO Festival). He formed a partnership with the Toronto Raptors. He’s expanding his portfolio in a very Jay Z kind of way. I don’t think a Jay Z co-sign makes it any easier for Jigga’s staunchest Golden Era fans to feel Drake. Drake is cool sometimes, and sometimes he’s not cool. That demographic won’t fuck with Drake regardless of how baggy his jeans might be. They’ll never like Drake.
If Jay Z needs Drake, it’s as an added talisman to a historic legacy. Shawn Carter The Hustler is now in his fourth decade. He began rhyming in the mid 1980s. He’s two years younger than Rakim and went to high school with AZ. I don’t remember the last song Hov sounded like he wanted to out-Rap someone, but every time he touches a track with another generation’s new hotness, it’s another totem added to the list of accomplishments. More than that, it’s critical for the narrative that he’s an arbiter of cool. It’s never cool to be the old dude in the club, unless you own the club.
What do either Jay Z or Drake gain from an all-out feud with each other?
Omar: Right now, I think the risk of losing a real beef outweighs the reward for both Jay and Drake. Jay has traded barbs with Nas, Prodigy, Lil Wayne, 50 Cent, Cam’ron, Ma$e and even his former mentor Big Jaz. He doesn’t have anything to prove, and even if he thoroughly demolishes Drake, it doesn’t really matter. Drake and Jay Z aren’t really selling albums to the same crowd, and even if he took a publicity hit from a quarrel with Drake, I think the average person is probably too stupid to realize Jay at least incrementally wins when they support the dozens of celebrities affiliated with Roc Nation.
Drake is still kind of riding high from the whole “Stay Schemin’” thing with Common. And I think there’s a big difference between winning a feud with Jay Z in 2001 versus winning one in 2014. Jay versus Nas was essentially a battle of the last two great Hip Hop titans. Jay versus Drake is a nice headline, but when you’re dealing with two guys damn near 20 years apart in age, you’re also dealing with fanbases that fall along the same lines. Do fellow 40-plus-year-olds really care what Drake thinks about Jay Z? I doubt it. When you have a mortgage, kids in college and whatever else may come at that age, I don’t think you’re really hunched over the laptop waiting to exclaim, “Ooooh…WorldStar!” at the next clever diss Drake throws at Jay Z. Conversely, if I’m in the coveted 18-24-year-old demographic right now, seeing one of the most popular rappers throw shots at Beyonce’s husband isn’t topping my priority list. Ultimately, I think this Jay Z versus Drake thing is going to be forgotten about in the next few weeks.
Justin: Jay Z has nothing to gain by battling Drake. What’s winning a battle with Drake actually look like? I don’t have an example. I don’t even know if the way information moves is set up for Hov to beat Drizzy. What is popular opinion now—a Facebook poll? Hearts on an Instagram meme? How educated is the Hip Hop audience on the tenets of a Rap battle? When I talk to younger artists, they say they love Drake. Artists at every level describe him as a genius. Kids love his music. How much time does Shawn Carter The Hustler really have to engage in a worthy lyrical sparring session with anyone? Have you heard “Holy Grail?” Hov barely has time to think about rhymes. When’s the last time he had a Rap beef people even cared about? Thirteen years ago?
Hov’s awesome at ignoring idol threats. But he snaps back at jabs from the guy that raps about digging through his date’s pocket book? How many cool points does he get to keep if Mr. Marvin’s Room lyrically smacks him around? How many copies does Samsung buy in advance next time if he becomes the latest strikethrough on Canadian Slayer’s list? Will any of this make any difference? Probably not. Is it fun to talk about? Absolutely.
Justin "The Company Man" Hunte is the Editor-in-Chief of HipHopDX. He was the host of The Company Man Show on PNCRadio.fm and has covered music, politics, and culture for numerous publications. He is currently based in Los Angeles, California. Follow him on Twitter @TheCompanyMan.
Omar Burgess is a Long Beach, California native who has contributed to various magazines, newspapers and has been an editor at HipHopDX since 2008. Follow him on Twitter @omarburgess.