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A look at the Kendrick Lamar-Drake feud and its implications


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Amna Nawaz: They are two of the biggest names in hip-hop, Kendrick Lamar and Drake. And they have been locked in a rap battle that's capturing global attention and having a big impact on the music industry.

That is the focus tonight for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Kendrick Lamar is a rapper from Compton who gained notoriety in 2012 with his album "Good Kid, M.A.A.D City." He's since won 17 Grammys and a Pulitzer Prize for his music. And Drake, who was born in Canada, has commercially dominated the U.S. rap market for more than a decade, with 13 number one albums and five Grammys.

The once-collaborators-turned-enemies have been firing at each other through their lyrics in multiple new songs.


Amna Nawaz: Their feud has touched on weighty themes, from racial identity, to their authenticity as artists, to the treatment of women and minors, with some serious allegations about underage relationships and domestic abuse.

And fans have been fascinated by the rap battle. Both artists made the Billboard Top 10 this week, with Kendrick Lamar's "Not Like Us" debuting at number one.

For a closer look at this feud and its implications, I'm joined by Sidney Madden, who covers music for NPR.

Sidney, it's good to see you.

If you can just bring us up to speed, what is behind this beef? How did we get here?

Sidney Madden, NPR Music: This beef between Kendrick and Drake, it's actually been simmering for over a decade. These are two people who are considered at the top of their game in hip-hop. They're considered to be on the Mount Rushmore of hip-hop's current rap acts.

And even though they both came up around the same time in 2011 and 2012, hip-hop fans have noticed that Drake and Kendrick haven't really worked together for that long a time. And even though they're considered to be part of the big three, which is Drake, J. Cole, and Kendrick, Kendrick really brought this long-boiling beef to an overflow when he said in March: "It's not big three. It's really just big me."

And from there, that set everything into motion to the two rappers exchanging diss tracks for the past three weeks. And it's been over 40 minutes of music in total. So it's pretty much an album's worth of tete-a-tete.

Amna Nawaz: And we heard a few lines there from those diss tracks of what we could play. We should say there's a lot we could not play. What they have to say to each other got very personal, very intense, very troubling in some cases.

There was an opinion piece in The Guardian by a writer named Tayo Bero I want to read to you. And she said: "In the course of the nasty back-and-forth, they have made women, women who are possibly survivors of sexual abuse, harassment or domestic violence, the collateral damage of their violent mudslinging."

Sidney, what is that about? And why did it go there?

Sidney Madden: Absolutely.

As I said, this hip-hop beef has been unprecedented in so many ways, two artists at the top of their game. They have also employed social media and technology in new ways. Drake used A.I.-generated lyrics to kind of prod and goad Kendrick into engaging with him. He also used livestreamers to premiere tracks.

And it created a very participatory feedback loop on social media. But even with those changes in the format and the rollout, some things never change. And the hardest hits that they take at each other are the most misogynistic ones.

In his songs, Drake is accusing Kendrick of abusing his longtime fiance named Whitney. And on the other hand, Kendrick is accusing Drake of long term grooming of underage girls and also keeping people in his company, in his camp who've been accused and found guilty of assault of young women.

So this mudslinging is really so much more for bruising of their egos and not much about the accountability of any potential harm that they're doing to women in their lives.

Amna Nawaz: As you mentioned, people have just been flocking to it, following every single new track that comes out. Why? Why do you think it's captured people's attention the way that it has?

Sidney Madden: I think even -- I think it's really enamored a lot of people, because, even if you're not a die hard hip-hop fan, even if you're not a big fan of either one of these artists, you have to admit the speed and the velocity and just the rigor that these two are going at each other is truly something amazing.

Like I said, it's something that doesn't happen very often in the hip-hop arena now. You can think of it as similar to two political foes who've been throwing slights at each other on the campaign trail for a long time, let's say years, and they're finally getting to a podium and going face-to-face, or two teams who are at the top of their game finally facing off for the Super Bowl in a long-awaited battle that's no holds barred.

Amna Nawaz: Knowing what you know about both Drake and Kendrick, would you say that this whole thing is on brand for both of them? Is this the kind of thing you expected to see from them?

And, also, how does this end? Where does it go from here?

Sidney Madden: I think, in terms of it being on brand, they are both people who want to be considered the best.

Hip-hop is about peacocking, but it's also about blood sport. It's about claiming that number one spot, so that everybody wants to be the best. And for a long time, Kendrick and Drake have puffed out their chests in their own respective ways to say, I'm the best. But this was the first time they're going head to head, again, and something that's been so long-simmering and, like, animosity that's been building up.

So the spectacle that came from it is very on brand. I think the long-term legacy is one that is going to question the validity of each one of these rappers and who won and who didn't. And their fan bases are going to have a lot to debate about for a very long time.

Amna Nawaz: That is Sidney Madden, who covers music for NPR.

Sidney, thank you. Always good to talk to you.

Sidney Madden: Thank you.

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