Photo: Composite by Danielle Cheesman/REVOLT // Google (Labeled for Reuse)
  /  09.21.2018

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.

Contemporary rap beefs just aren’t seasoned like they used to be. Tupac and Biggie’s clashes were spiced with habanero peppers, as disrespectful as they could be. JAY-Z and Nas’ battle gave birth to one of the greatest diss records of all time. Gucci Mane and Jeezy’s adversarial relationship extinguished someone’s life. Rap’s past was rife with boiling turmoil that made competition into prey. Emcees that smelled blood in the water swam for their pray, time and time again.

Today’s rap game is getting back to that level of angst; the pants are tighter and the hair is more colorful, is all. Rappers enlisting friends to “put hands” on slick talkers brings to mind Fat Joe and the literal Terror Squad of the early aughts. If you turn your nose to the sky, you can smell the scarlet. 2018’s beefs are bringing back that feeling. No stones left unturned, nothing too personal. There are literal lives at stake here.

Two beefs have transfixed not just rap culture, but the mainstream pop atmosphere, as well. There’s the battle of family ties waged between Pusha T and Drake, and then there’s Machine Gun Kelly and Eminem’s slow-simmering feud over past tweets. Four tracks have come that have made this year one to remember. Out of an OCD-like need to rank any and everything, I’ve ranked them from least to most powerful.

4 | “Killshot,” Eminem

It took Eminem two weeks of deliberation to respond to a shot (well, plethora of them actually); it took Machine Gun Kelly two days. That fortnight, for Eminem, must have been one of intense internal debate. He revealed to Sway Calloway that he didn’t want to make Machine Gun Kelly any bigger by responding to the latter’s diss, “Rap Devil.” If he solved anything with his response, it’s that he made it effortlessly clear that MGK had a better idea of what contemporary rap beef is.

The Drake vs. Meek Mill rap battle made one thing clear and one thing only: modern rap battles aren’t won from skill alone, they’re won by how much dust they kick up in their wakes. Meek Mill thought that rap and rap alone could ground Toronto’s lead crooner. His disses, on and off wax, were centered around a lack of hip-hop credibility. Drake upstaged him by making the diss about his livelihood, painting Meek into a corner because he didn’t know enough about Drake to successfully fire back. The pair are cool now, but the unmistakable stench of defeat will forever waft off of Meek.

Eminem’s approach similarly focused on rap but, instead of MGK’s lack of credibility, he flipped it into establishing himself as a better rapper than his adversary. People didn’t want to hear that. The production was simplistic enough for anyone to carve it up the way that Eminem did; it didn’t help that he didn’t have much in the way of insults other than “you wish you were me / I’m better than you” to say either. The best thing that Eminem said throughout the entire song was that naming yourself after a gun while you have a man bun isn’t what the cool kids are doing. More than anything, Eminem showed his age with “Killshot.” Timing also played a huge factor in the song’s mediocrity. Had he responded sooner and not given the weight of “Rap Devil” the chance to sink in, “Killshot” probably would have been received better.

3 | “Story of Adidon,” Pusha T

Pusha T investigated his way into a Pulitzer prize with “Story of Adidon,” a well put together diss track that makes any career journalist bite their lip. The events leading up to its release played like this — Pusha threw some strays at Drizzy in “Infrared” from his latest album, Daytona. Drake, fed up, responded with “Duppy Freestyle.” After successfully baiting Drake into responding, Pusha went all in with “Story of Adidon” and, in the process, created one of rap’s biggest moments of 2018.

Pusha’s diss met Drake where Meek refused to — at spectacle. It’s no secret that Pusha’s a better rapper than Drake; many are. That alone wouldn’t net him a win. To beat Drake is to embarrass him; assault his character and free any bottled secrets from their jars. “Story of Adidon” did just that, poking fun at the camp surrounding Drake, as well as his character. Seeing Drake in blackface will never not be funny.

The lion’s share of the track’s runtime was dedicated to exposing Drake where it hurt — he’d fathered a child that he wanted to reveal on his own time. The debate is still raging on about where Pusha T got his information from, but he assaulted Drake about this, as well as about the lack of a relationship between him and the mother of his child. The track’s one verse made it even more unbearable; each bar felt tailor-made to dig Drake deeper and deeper into a hole that he wouldn’t be able to climb out of.

Drake’s Scorpion came out shortly after, and nearly the entire thing was dedicated to throwing shots, not at Pusha, but at the child’s mother. If it weren’t for video director Karena Evans and Shiggy for taking the spotlight away from his bumbling aloofness in the wake of getting killed on wax, Drake wouldn’t have recovered nearly as gracefully as he did.

2 | “Rap Devil,” Machine Gun Kelly”

When “Wildboy” came out in 2011, Machine Gun Kelly was the star that was on the verge of explosion. He brought a raw, visceral kind of energy that Bone Crusher radiated in the mid-2000s, yet his raps were mechanically sound. He never quite capitalized on that prodigious initial level of success, instead bouncing around the outskirts of mainstream prominence. He became a household name, but his potential never felt realized.

Eminem decided to mention MGK’s name on Revival’s “Not Alike,” not realizing the can of worms that he was about to open. MGK calling his daughter Hallie “hot” in 2012 was enough to anger the stalwart for six years. But MGK wasn’t going to sit around and take shit for something that, according to him, he apologized for that same year. MGK released “Rap Devil,” a play on Eminem’s self-proclaimed status of “Rap God,” and surprised just about everyone who didn’t think he’d be able to keep up with one of rap’s most dominating figures.

In fact, he didn’t just jog alongside him; he, in many ways, jetted past him. “Rap Devil” was constructed out of good song-making mechanics. It was catchy, bouncy, and not too lyrically dense. He called out Eminem and presented facts that many had thought but were too hesitant to voice. MGK won the battle. Now he’s on a victory lap in celebration.

1 | “Duppy Freestyle,” Drake

For my money, Drake’s “Duppy Freestyle” is the year’s most valuable diss track. Pusha T’s “Infrared” released on May 25; Drake released “Duppy Freestyle” that same day. Whereas Pusha’s shots were strays that could be applied if someone really wanted to establish the connections, Drake’s carefully calculated cuts were direct. You know it’s bad when a track starts with a heavy sigh, like the person is too tired to deal with your bullshit, yet they still go through with recording it.

Drake kept the beat nice and simple, something catchy. His rhymes were nothing but sluggers, designed to slice flesh wounds into Pusha T’s tough exterior. He didn’t just go after Pusha or his fiancée (a carefully sounded out “Virginia Williams” is one of the track’s most unintentionally hilarious moments), but also Kanye. Drake made it clear that he was aroused by the possibility of smoke with the entire G.O.O.D. Music roster. It’s a shame that when Pusha responded, he had to hide under his shell.

If “Story of Adidon” hadn’t come out, “Duppy Freestyle” would have been the biggest diss track of the year. It was perfectly executed; an assault on character so exquisite that it’s still being quoted four months later. While “Story of Adidon” melts away with each passing day, the power of “Duppy Freestyle” continues to strengthen in an age of rapping credibility. Drake created a template for how to succeed in modern rap beefs. It’ll undoubtedly serve as the inspiration for countless others.

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