Kendrick Lamar is the leading light among his generation of hip-hop artists, so when he calls out one of his peers, it's a newsworthy moment.
Particularly when that peer is named Drake.
Lamar dropped the song "The Heart Part 4" on March 24 like a burbling baby abandoned on a doorstep, a single song orphaned from the forthcoming album that may or may not be showing up soon. (Lamar does fit the date April 7 into his verbal cyclone, but it sounds more like a threat than a promise, so we'll see.) Soon after, Twitter was buzzing with conjecture concerning the focal point for the Compton rapper's linguistic fury and verbal ire. Drake's name was one of the first to come up with fans and foes alike suggesting that Lamar rush-released the single a mere week after Drake spat out a 22-song digital mix tape to throw shade at mainstream It-Boy Drake. That Lamar's single song packs more musical muscle and boasts more lyrical creativity than the interminable entirety of Drake's mix tape has to hurt.
But perhaps this is all wishful thinking on my part. I find Drake to be the most overrated rapper since Vanilla Ice. His raps are mushy and incoherent, he refuses to groove and he seems to be completely enthralled with his own musical scribblings and sketches. Drake creates aural monuments to himself. Lamar, by contrast, offers us a badly needed conduit to hip-hop's social consciousness, its heart, its purpose. Lamar is a street poet. Drake is the guy who's at more NBA games than Jack Nicholson and Jay Z combined.
So, yes, I'll own it. I was hoping that Lamar's lyrics like "Tables turned, lessons learned, my best look/You jumped sides on me, now you ’bout to meet Westbrook/Go celebrate with your team and let victory vouch you/Just know the next game played, I might slap the (expletive) out you/Technical foul, I’m flagrant, I’m foul/They throwin’ me out, you throw in the towel" were aimed squarely at Drake, abundant NBA metaphors, Russel Westbrook/Kevin Durant dialectic and all. Perhaps I'm just tired of being one of the few people who does what I do for a living to find nothing of significant value in what Drake has offered across the span of his meteoric rise. I just can’t bring myself to believe the hype.
Apparently, I'm not quite as alone as I might have imagined. I conducted a Facebook poll to accumulate some feedback on the latest diss-debate. Of the 80-plus responses to my Kendrick vs. Drake poll, of those who had an opinion between Kendrick and Drake, only a couple labeled Drake the more relevant of the two.
John Hugar of Buffalo represented the thoughts of many when he said "Drake is one of those guys who's been overrated for so long that he's actually become underrated. Kendrick is vastly superior. Far more complex in terms of both music and lyrical content."
Brad Riter of trendingbuffalo.com, opining in the same poll, nailed it, too. "I have yet to hear anything from Drake that 'cuts through,' whereas every single time I hear Kendrick do anything, it's - at minimum - interesting."
Upon further review, the Drake references in Lamar's "The Heart Part 4" seem to be a bit vague. They could, in a sense, be about almost anyone. That can’t be said for another of Kendrick's targets, Donald Trump, who is called out by name: "Donald Trump is a chump, know how we feel, punk/Tell 'em that God comin'/And Russia need a replay button/ Y'all up to somethin'." Former Kendrick collaborator Big Sean is reportedly on the "naughty list" too, so maybe he's the target.
Maybe Lamar isn't after Drake at all. Reflecting on this possibility actually shamed me, for I realized that I was set to praise Kendrick for doing something I've been highly critical of his peers for doing – engaging in the time-honored (but often, just plain tired) tradition of the hip-hop diss track.
Drake has been coming up with these little revenge ditties all along, as if tearing down others for perceived acts of disrespect is his greatest artistic motivation. But Lamar? His "To Pimp a Butterfly" is one of the greatest hip-hop albums of the past decade, and it focuses on issues much more significant and transcendent than inter-industry spats. On reflection, taking shots at far less worthy rappers seems beneath him. It's like shooting fish in a barrel. And speaking of fish, Lamar has much bigger ones to fry.
"The Heart Part 4" is a fiery piece of work, and if it's a tease for a forthcoming album, well, it's a very successful one. That said, part of me hopes this is the last time Lamar drops a diss track.
That's Drake's game, Kendrick. Let him play it. We need you for the bigger stuff. The three-point buzzer-beaters, not the gratuitous slam dunks.
(Note: This video contains some strong language.)