Ascension in any profession inevitably leads to a moment when idols become rivals. Such is the position Drake’s found himself in relation to his truest competitor: Kanye West. On his debut album, Drake rapped about this predicament and how it’s analogous to that of young NBA stars: “You make friends with Mike but got to A.I. him for your survival.”
The legend of Allen Iverson crossing over Michael Jordan on that fateful March 1997 day is a bit more conclusive than the back-and-forth saga between Drake and Kanye West. Jordan won the championship the same year Iverson put him on skates, and he won it again the next year before retiring in 1999, leaving a void open for Iverson and others to reach their peaks uninterruptedly.
Drake and Kanye West, meanwhile, are still battling in the same arena, and even as Kanye readies the release of his massively anticipated Yeezus (G.O.O.D./Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam) the tide is shifting in Drake’s favor.Kanye’s been around longer than Drake, and thus, accomplished more. His production discography is vast, and his total sales reign supreme courtesy (at least in part) to a slightly healthier music-purchasing climate during the earlier part of his career. But Drake already holds some
achievements over West, notably the record for most No. 1 songs on the Billboard Rap Charts, a sign that the kid from Toronto’s impact on music culture is no fluke. Kanye brings great, groundbreaking ideas to music, like his run of projections for “New Slaves” in the build-up to Yeezus, but statistically speaking, more often than not, people want to hear Drake.
That Kanye and Drake are still very much active throws off the A.I./Jordan analog just a bit, making the subtle tension of their coexistence more in line with, say, America and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Drake’s a post-World War II U.S.A., newly acquainted with the idea of far-reaching power and influence. Kanye West is Communist Russia, the one who got into space first and reigns as a superpower with widespread authority, but a conceivably diminished hold on the masses.
Yeezus raises the question: Is the Berlin Wall fall of ’Ye’s career approaching? After listening to Yeezus, the answer is: Not now. Not yet.
Kanye’s sixth studio album is a daring, phenomenal body of work, and it effectively thwarts challenges from competing records by J. Cole and Mac Miller, even with those albums earning positive feedback. The difference is that no matter how good Cole’s Born Sinner (Roc Nation/Columbia) and Mac’s Watching Movies with the Sound Off (Rostrum), which also drop on June 18, Kanye’s project will dominate the new music conversation by default, especially as he’s already in the headlines for becoming a father.
But by the time Drake releases a record, Yeezus will be old news. Even if Yeezus collects a bunch of great reviews this week, in a few months, people will be looking for something new and Drake will be right there, waiting with a new album. He’s set himself up for total veneration.
Drake and Kanye have only existed in the same field, on the same level, for a short period, and the situation only continues to escalate. ’Ye’s latest attempt at impressing us comes at a time when a lot of people don’t want him to continue winning. Opposition to the praise that’s so routine around his albums has carved a significant place in the discussion surrounding Yeezus. Kanye’s had the top spot for so long, and the greater public is ready to hand the crown to someone else.
Everyone knew that Jordan was better than Iverson, but seeing a talented rookie briefly embarrass a legend generated so much excitement because it was something different than the outright domination fans had grown accustomed to. Dismissive chatter about Yeezus thatregularly invokes Drake’s next move shows that same unseating happening to Kanye right now. Episodes like this reinforce that the beef between Kanye and Drake is mostly silent, but very visible, and as of late Kanye has been openly reacting to it.
Last week, Kanye broke a close to three-year media hiatus and gave an interview to the New York Times in which he appeared to take shots directly at Drake, saying, “There are people who have figured out the exact, you know, Kanye West formula, the mix between Graduation and 808s, and were able to become more successful at it.” It’s a point that can’t be argued.
Drake has always been open about Kanye’s influence on his work. In 2009, he told MTV that Kanye was “the most influential” person in regards to his music. Two years later, he told The Source that Kanye was “who [he] related to most,” but added in the same interview, “I don’t want to be as good as Kanye, I want to be better.”
Better is subjective, but at the moment, mainstream audiences seem to think of Drake as best. Statistics show
that Drake owns radio, and ironically enough, Kanye is coming out and denouncing radio as a place he doesn’t want to be anymore (despite rapping about how he misses hearing himself on the radio on Rihanna’s “Diamonds” remix just seven months ago).
Radio is still an important, telling format, and Drake’s success there has given him the confidence and leverage to attack Kanye, however lightly. The developments of recent years almost make it difficult to remember that Kanye West is the man who directed (and some conspiracists argue, sabotaged) the video for Drake’s breakout single, “Best I Ever Had.” Where Drake was once a loyal, Anakin-like apprentice, he’s now in his Darth Vader phase, on a quest to murder and subjugate Obi-Wan Kanyebi.
The most blatant demonstration of this came on 2011’s summer smash “I’m On One,” when Drake rapped, “They say the throne is for the taking, watch me take it,” as the rollout for Kanye West and Jay-Z’s collaborative album, Watch The Throne (Roc-A-Fella/Roc Nation/Def Jam) was in full swing. A few months prior, Drake had rapped, “My favorite rappers either lost or they ain’t alive.” On Watch The Throne’s “Otis,” Kanye responded, “Niggas talking real reckless, stuntmen / I adopted these niggas.”
Later that year, Drake addressed the jab, telling Complex, “I’m sure people took it that way and that’s good, man. That’s great. Wake the fuck up. I hope it makes you go harder. I hope it makes you get mad at me and write a song with me in mind. I hope Kanye’s verse on ‘Otis’ was with that in mind.”
In 2013, it feels like Drake is still riffing on that, rapping about competitors’ albums selling poorly, and how “those shits would have popped if [he] was willing to help”—a statement that feels targeted and deliberately aimed at Kanye West with the wide sales margin Take Care (Young Money/Cash Money/Republic) has over Watch The Throne in mind.
Kanye once called Drake’s “lesbihonest” lyric on “Every Girl” the line of the year. Drake humbly accepted the honor, telling MTV, “I feel like it’s funny, because that’s something he might have said. It’s an honor that he’s even looking at me as somewhat of an equal, somewhat of a peer. I think he’s one of the greatest to ever do it.”
Drake and Kanye went on to work together on hits like “Forever” and “Find Your Love”—then, nothing. The falloff of their friendship can’t be because of Drake’s short-lived beefs with G.O.O.D. Music artists Common and Pusha T, because Kanye still praises Lil Wayne despite Wayne’s conflicts with Pusha. Instead, if there’s a moment to pinpoint, it seems like everything changed after Kanye dropped Drake from “All of the Lights,” despite adding 11 other featured guests. Maybe by that time, Kanye had grown averse to Drake being “influenced” by him and started to consider it biting.
Around the same time that Drake was dropped from “All of the Lights,” his longtime collaborator Noah “40” Shebib toldVibe, “’Ye cursed me out one day about jacking his sound.” 40 also said he “can’t even be mad” at Kanye for that lashing because 808s & Heartbreak (G.O.O.D./Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 2008) was the last album he listened to before working on Drake’s So Far Gone (Young Money/Cash Money/Universal,
2010) and it did inspire the sound of that project. Another one of Drake’s frequent producers, Boi-1da, took to Twitter after that story surfaced and bashed Kanye for “talking about stealing swag, when he’s made a career out of sampling records.”
A few months later, Drake appeared indifferent towards the minor controversy. He was gracious, telling MTV in December of 2010, he would “always have something positive to say” about Kanye West. “I feel like we can co-exist,” he elaborated, “I might be the only one that feels that way, though.”
By the next month—when Kanye West and Jay-Z announcedWatch The Throne—Drake was less polite, accusing them of stealing the idea from him and Lil Wayne, who had previously revealed plans to release a collaborative album.
“There’s two other rappers coming out with an album together. I don’t know where they got that idea,” he sarcastically told Tim Westwood during a January 2011 interview. By the next year, he was sending thinly-veiled shots like “All you got is some years on me, man, fuck you and your time difference” on French Montana’s “Pop That.”
This tug-of-war can be attributed to a high level of relentless competition, and given both rappers’ themes and emotional transparency, they naturally occupy a comparable space that forces listeners and the artists to pit the two against one another. Regardless, there’s an unspoken, or, no longer spoken, mutual respect that Drake and Kanye West have for each other. Even though Bill Gates and Steve Jobs—who ’Ye recently compared himself to—certainly respected each other, they still had to go on stage at keynote addresses and take shots at each other. That’s what Drake and Kanye are going through right now.
With both artists releasing new material this year, expect
more statements that keep the feud in motion, from the Grammys, to the public and media’s consensus on which album is better, to whatever Drake says during interviews on his promo run. Once we can contrast Yeezus against Nothing Was the Same, the conversation about Kanye’s and Drake’s ranks within hip-hop’s hierarchy will matter more, and if Drake doesn’t miss the mark on the album he promised would be “meaner” on “The Ride,” there’s going to be another regime shift.
That shift is something Drake himself predicts. Just this past weekend, after performing at the Birthday Bash in Atlanta, hetold a reporter, “Right now, music is all about a changeover. It’s always gotta change over. A lot of the people that we looked at as icons for a long time, not to say that they’re falling off, but everything has to change over. That’s where music’s at right now, and all that other shit is about to go away.” There’s an opportunity to overthrow the establishment, and Drake isn’t hesitant about jumping at it.
It’s not a reach to assume that Drake’s attempt at dethroning Kanye will be successful, either. It’s the logical progression of things, and not even Yeezus being a great album can stop it. Drake is younger, and his abject hedonism and Millennial insecurities are relevant to the youth the way Kanye’s struggles with college and retail addiction were 10 years ago. Kanye’s since moved on to being someone who that demographic is always in awe of, but Drake is someone who they can still relate to, and that gives him the edge. It’s the same connection that allowed Kanye to oust 50 Cent, and by and large, gangster rap, from supremacy when he was the underdog.
Even today, the day before Yeezus arrives and as Kanye asserts the relevance of his record with a high profile placement for “Black Skinhead” in the trailer for Martin Scorsese’s new film, The Wolf of Wall Street, the war wages on. Drake marks the occasion with the announcement of a fall tour with Future and Miguel. All of this also comes at a time when Kanye has gone on record to say that he’s retreating from mainstream adulation. Maybe he doesn’t care about it anymore. Maybe he’s giving up. Maybe he’s just laying low (in his own high-profile Kanye way). Regardless, the lane is open and it’s Drake’s for the taking. Kanye West might be a god, but before 2013’s over, a new king will emerge.
By Ernest Baker
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