Kendrick Lamar Started a Battle, Won a War, and Lost His Way


Kendrick Lamar Started a Battle, Won a War, and Lost His Way

Grown men with daddy issues

Image from pgLang/Top Dawg Entertainment/Aftermath/Interscope Records

Kendrick Lamar is one of the most insightful, self-aware, and nakedly honest writers in this generation of music. Kendrick is so viscerally cognizant of his most debilitating traumas and toxic insecurities that, two years ago, he unwittingly unpacked the genesis of the savage vitriol at the root of his current scorched earth carpet bombing of Drake.

On 2022’s “Father Time,” Kendrick raps of the Kilimanjaro-sized chip his father pounded onto his shoulder as a defense mechanism against an unsparing world:

Daddy issues made me lеarn losses, I don’t take those well
Mama said, “That boy is exhausted,” he said, “Go f*** yourself
If he give up now, that’s gon’ cost him, life’s a b****
You could be a b**** or step out the margin,” I got up quick
I’m chargin’ baskets and falling backwards, tryna keep balance
Oh, this the part where mental stability meets talent
Oh, this the part, he breaks my humility just for practice
Tactics we learned together, sore losers forever, daddy issues

Thoughout Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers, the magnum opus of personal reckoning from which “Daddy Issues” is drawn, Kendrick grapples doggedly with the demons that both drove him to outsized success and stunted him emotionally. At the album’s end, it feels as though the work, though messy, has begun to bear fruit. Kendrick seems to have come to terms with his shortcoming and their origins. He’s actively working to make amends to those he has wronged and curb his most destructive impulses by addressing his traumas and triggers head-on.

Though the album’s journey feels, at times, like punishing labor, in totality, Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers resonates as a rebirth. That’s precisely why Kendrick’s current barrage of dis tracks feels like a relapse of the most tragic variety.

It didn’t have to go this way. When Kendrick first spit on “Like That” by Future and Metro Boomin’s “f*** the big three, it’s just me,” it felt like a vintage hip-hop jab; a rejection of J. Cole’s recent reference to he, Kendrick, and Drake as the game’s top dogs. Hip-hop has always been a culture of competition. In the words of Nas (himself of a veteran of several high profile rap beefs), “the best supposed to clash at the top.” Kendrick rejecting Cole’s kumbaya overture in favor of competitive sparring to sort out a definitive hierarchy among a generation’s most successful rap artists could have sparked a compelling exhibition of the three MCs’ distinctly different super powers.

The battle got off to a rocky start. Cole dropped and promptly removed a half-hearted shot across Kendrick’s bow. Drake dropped a curious trifle in which A.I. generated voices of Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg were deployed. The track was taken down after Shakur’s estate issued a cease and desist order.

In hindsight, the early missteps were probably a sign that this beef simply wasn’t meant to be. Rap’s greatest battles have generally occurred between a young gun challenging an established crown holder or ascending stars jostling for position on a narrow ladder. The three principles here are all in their mid to late 30s and have been stars for over a decade. All have already reached the top of their respective (and distinctly different) ladders.

Kendrick’s first entry into the fray, however, was so well executed it concealed the battle’s creaky foundation. “Euphoria” is surgical in its dissection of Drake’s musical crutches and meticulously cultivated image. By rapping in four different voices without any virtual assistance, Kendrick makes his rival’s A.I. gambit seem all the more lame. Perhaps most powerfully, Kendrick deploys a tried and true secret weapon of battle, tying the distinction between the two rappers to a larger social or cultural issue.

In “Euphoria”’s closing lap, Kendrick calls out Drake, a Jewish bi-racial Canadian, for his prolific use of “n*gga,” a term born of cultural experiences unique to Black Americans. The critique cuts to the heart of the uncomfortable cultural conundrum represented by Drake, of which fans rarely speak, but is likely at the heart of some Black American fan's tendency to keep him at arm’s length despite respecting his talent.

By closing “Euphoria” on that note, Kendrick essentially played the trump card. There was no way for Drake to effectively respond without diving deeply into a history and sociology fraught with potential landmines, even for the most learned scholars. It’s a conversation loaded with experiences, generational traumas, and raw emotions upon which Drake is simply not in the position to speak. His attempts to respond felt every bit as shallow, awkward, and, at times cringey as you might expect. With every subsequent record Drake released, he simply dug himself a deeper.

Kendrick should have taken his W and walked away.

Alas, those daddy issues and hardwired traumas wouldn’t let him. Kendrick has dropped three more dis tracks since “Euphoria,” each taking the battle further off the rails. Instead of training his razor-sharp observational eye and potent pen on Drake’s limitations as an artist and MC, Kendrick has devoted nearly an EP’s worth of mic time to mocking his rival’s relationships with his son and father and taunting him with unsubstantiated claims of pedophilia.

Kendrick has long displayed a piercing intelligence, both as an artist and a man. Surely the irony isn’t lost on him that he is now using as a cudgel the very same issues upon which he positioned Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers as a moment of communal healing. Per the message of Mr. Morale, Kendrick can surely recognize that through their fraught familial relationships, he and Drake are, as the title of the album’s opening track terms it, “United in Grief.” Is he simply ignoring their shared plight in his unrelenting quest for a win? Or does the rage bred of traumas — clearly not as close to closure as Mr. Morale led us to believe — burn so bright it blinds him to the epiphanies he so eloquently espoused two years ago?

In his rebuttals, Drake sinks just as low. Drake, however, never positioned himself as the voice of a culture or a generation. He’s a masterful hitmaker; a conglomerate built to dominate algorithms, not edify, empower, or heal. Fair or not, the expectations for him are much lower than for Kendrick, so his current floundering is not nearly as uncomfortable to watch as Kendrick’s tailspin. Devoting 25 minutes of mic time to Drake is, frankly, beneath Kendrick. It’s the equivalent of a 1990 Rakim frittering away a hypothetical album side to dis MC Hammer.

Though Kendrick went out of his way on Mr. Morale to let us know that he was “not your savior,” throughout his career, he has been a unifier. In 2014, in the wake of a series of legal and political attacks on Black identity, he delivered an anthem of self love with “I”. In 2020, when a rash of Black lives were publicly taken in the name of “law and order,” his hit “Alright” became both a rallying cry and an emotional salve, soundtracking a summer of protests. Now, at a moment in which civil rights are under the most powerful assault in half a century and Black history is literally being erased from the books, Kendrick’s sole contribution to this most dangerous inflection point is to ravage another Black man by airing dirty laundry for a global audience of voyeurs hungry for drama and caricature.

The Kendrick/Drake beef has been covered on CNN, MSNBC, and ABC News, among countless other news outlets that have never covered hip-hop’s uplifting interest stories like Jay-Z’s philanthropy or Killer Mike’s inner city real estate development. Countless YouTube reactors, mostly non-Black, have racked up views by giggling giddily at the most culturally loaded game of the dozens the digital age has seen. It’s rapidly shaping up to be the hip-hop equivalent of Katt Williams’ internet-breaking Club Shay Shay interview, in which the comedian corralled more than 60 million views by airing 25 years worth of“family business” from within the Black comedy world. Perhaps the attention will ultimately catapult Kendrick to the level of pop culture ubiquity that Drake has long enjoyed, and through the filter of Kendrick’s trauma, he likely processed as a “loss”. But is this really how he wants to achieve victory?

2024 may well be the last year for a long time in which Black Americans enjoy the freedoms, however fraught, for which previous generations suffered, fought, and died. That Kendrick Lamar’s most righteous indignation appears reserved for rap rivals speaks to the corrosive power of the generational trauma from which we were truly rooting for him to break free. It personifies the oppressive weight of the systems upon which should be declaring war instead of firing off weapons of mass distraction that only serve to divert the attention of the very communities upon whom those very systems are preparing to unleash weapons of mass destruction.

Kendrick Lamar is now officially the winner of the 2024 hip-hop hunger games, but to what end?

The culture lost. The community lost. And, in winning the war with Drake, Kendrick Lamar lost his way. He strayed, perhaps irreparably, from the path of healing he so meticulously charted for himself and his peers just two short years ago.

Personal Development

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