It can be argued that Drake had this coming. There is no artist who is truly untouchable, and if there’s a flaw in Drake’s approach to conflict, it is that he seems to imagine that there are lengths his opponents simply won’t go to. This — coupled with his immense popularity and immovable fanbase — puts his foes in a difficult position. Beyond that, Drake has also made a career out of subtly making fun of himself in ways that appear genuinely self-effacing, be it SNL skits or the “Hotline Bling” video or Instagram posts poking fun at his past on Degrassi. It is the Eminem-in–8 Mile tactic: Anything you can say about me, I’ve already said about myself. All of this is tactical, too. When an artist lets an audience know that it’s all right to laugh at the obviously comical things about them, it tips the power balance back to the artist and out of the hands of those who might make jokes at their expense.
Drake and Pusha T’s feud has been simmering at varied temperatures since around 2011, when Pusha T sent some thinly veiled shots at Drake on the song “Don’t Fuck With Me,” recorded over an instrumental lifted from Drake’s “Dreams Money Can Buy.” The beef stayed largely in this mode for years, the two trading veiled barbs at each other while the hip-hop fan grew weary of the two circling each other in the schoolyard.
Within the last week, the tiff reached full swing. Pusha T’s album Daytona, released Friday morning, closes with the song “Infrared,” which takes shots at Drake more directly, prompting Drake to respond with “Duppy Freestyle” on Friday evening. Pusha T shot back with “The Story of Adidon” last night. Today, Pusha T doubled down on his claims from last night’s song, insisting that Drake has a new Adidas line coming out soon called Adidon, named after his alleged son, Adonis.
It can be argued that Pusha T is perhaps simply the wrong one to try. Pusha T doesn’t deal in jokes and hyperbole as much as he deals in the stretching out of what he imagines as fact. The two artists are vastly different in approach and ethos, which is what makes their feud so delicious, on paper. They share some fans, but not the same aims. Their public lives and histories are both long-standing fights for authenticity, but from two opposite angles: Drake trying to convince a listener of his present realness, despite his past. And now, Pusha T attempting to convince a listener that he is as real as he was in the past, despite his present.
I do not know if I believe that beef should be particularly kind or nonproblematic. But I do think that it loses some of its creativity, for me, when there are lines crossed which feel a bit disproportionate to the stakes in the battle. My first instinct when listening to Pusha’s response was to cringe at several aspects of it: the shots taken at Drake’s parents, the harsh mention of the health and life expectancy of Drake’s producer Noah “40” Shebib, who has multiple sclerosis. All of this was to get to the heart of the song: the revelation that Drake has been hiding a child he fathered with a woman named Sophie Brussaux.
The argument, stated by Pusha T himself, was that he was in fair territory to cross any lines he saw fit, because Drake mentioned his fiancé’s name in “Duppy Freestyle” — “I told you keep playin' with my name and I'ma let it ring on you / Like Virginia Williams” — though this seems like an intellectually dishonest reading of the situation, stripped of context. Though not clever, Drake using Pusha T’s fiancé’s name to complete a bad ring metaphor isn’t exactly the same as laughing at the demise of a close friend with an illness or using a (potential) child and that child’s life as a tool to gain an upper hand.
People know and understand this, but it seems as though we’ve crafted an idea about rap beef: that it is an arena where all rules and decorum are set aside in the name of harsh and humiliating rebuttals. I am realizing now that my discomfort with “The Story of Adidon” is, in part, rooted in my romanticism of the rap beefs I grew up with, which — of course — crossed lines, but seemed to do it at a much slower pace, after all other avenues had exhausted themselves. I have always imagined a rapper’s reluctance to cross certain lines in the heat of battle not as a question of kindness or tact, but as a question of skill.
When someone crosses a line as early as Pusha T did, it feels like a failure of creativity — throwing wild haymakers in round one as opposed to letting the fight’s tension build organically. When Jay-Z rapped about leaving condoms in the baby seat of Nas’ car on “Super Ugly,” it was the closure point of their beef: the point when Jay-Z was seen by some as defeated, forced to go so low that it would be pointless for Nas to go any lower. I don’t consider a commitment to not crossing certain boundaries during a rap beef as a hard rule for morality. To me, it’s an attempt to make the game more enjoyable and long-lasting before it gets so ugly that nothing can be salvaged from it.
In a moment where rap feuds can be effectively won by which artist gets the cheering throngs of social media on their side, all bets may have to be off.
If rap beef has changed, it is, in part, because of the way that conversation on the internet often can determine a victor. Drake benefitted from this during his beef with Meek Mill, when he fired two back-to-back songs before Meek could even reply with one, while also layering the songs with memes and Instagram jokes. This was enough to kick up internet discourse at a volume so intense that when Meek finally did respond, it was too late. He’d already lost.
When Jay-Z put corny pictures of Mobb Deep’s Prodigy on the 2001 Summer Jam screen when debuting “Takeover,” the moment created a mythology and changed the trajectory of what the stakes could be in a rap feud, but the rapid-fire response time of today’s social media didn’t yet exist to draw it out and expand on it. A joke or notable moment in a diss song can echo through social media for days, even hours. Indeed Twitter remains awash with acerbic commentary, well after “The Story of Adidon” was released.
From one perspective, it is exciting to see Drake in a position he’s never been in before. For the song’s cover, Pusha T chose a photo from 2008 of Drake in blackface. The photo was on the website of photographer David Leyes but had been rarely seen or circulated. The shoot was for a clothing line, and there has been an argument that the photo Pusha used was taken out of context of the original message, but a bad look is a bad look. This, too, is how the internet can control the direction of a rap beef.
Rap beef, in a lot of ways, was always made for the reaction-heavy economy of social media, and to see it play out there is both thrilling and exhausting. I am willing to accept that my initial distaste for “The Story of Adidon” is maybe a failure of what I am willing to give myself over to. The times have changed, and in a moment where rap feuds can be effectively won by which artist gets the cheering throngs of social media on their side, all bets may have to be off when encountering an artist like Drake, who is a master at manipulating the space of the internet and who has molded so many weaknesses into strengths. Pusha T seemed to understand this in a way that no one before him did, and baited Drake repeatedly, waiting for him to lunge.
The rap feud has always been a spectator sport which demands participation from those who are consuming the action. An audience, somewhere, has always played a large part in determining a victor. But when that audience is one of millions shouting into the same void, it takes something equally as loud, shocking, and vicious to mobilize them. Drake has nowhere to go but lower, and I imagine I will watch this continue to spiral, with both excitement and concern. ●
Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. His first collection of poems, The Crown Ain't Worth Much, was released in 2016 and was nominated for the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award. His first collection of essays, They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us, was released in fall 2017 by Two Dollar Radio.