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Steven Louis ghostwrites all of Isaiah Hartenstein’s raps.


Like all good rap battles, this begins with a slightly gratuitous intro from your host. The ongoing Kendrick vs. Drake exchange has been thrilling, but it’s also taken the arena of rap beef to new darkness. Sure, Tupac opens the greatest diss of all time with “that’s why I fucked your bitch, you fat motherfucker,” and ends it cackling about Prodigy’s sickle cell anemia. Jay Z and Nas repeatedly went scorched earth on each other, and Gucci vs. Jeezy resulted in off-wax, real-life bloodshed. But the accusations fueling those fights were deeply, wholly personal – Pac thought Biggie set him up, Jeezy thought Gucci stole his money, and Jay and Nas knew each other as teenagers on the streets of New York. Mainstream rap beef as we’ve known it is repeatedly based in Malthusian Tragedy of competition or intense pride for the home soil.

What’s happening now is not necessarily unique in its raw and uncured hatred, but the punches are the messiest and most morally disorienting witnessed by a commercial audience. This stuff had been previously reserved for the absurdist and scathing multiverse of organized battle rap, and subsequently, watching Kendrick vs. Drake ratchet up to NOME-level battle rap is a bit like MMA bloodsport breaking out at the World Series.

The two biggest rappers in the world are evoking the imagery of mean, complicated and collective failings: organ-slimming diet pills and plastic butt surgeries, but also deadbeats and gambling addictions, artificial intelligence and anti-intellectualism, colorism and sex trafficking, grooming and domestic abuse. Drake sure seems pumped to allege that Kendrick Lamar hit the mother of his children, weird energy for the guy who declared a holiday for Baka. Kendrick has the whole neighborhood stepping to pedophilia charges and warns folks to protect their little sisters, which is also weird energy for the guy who fervently defended R. Kelly. It’s equal parts American snuff and Real Housewives, and I won’t begrudge anyone from getting maximum enjoyment out of it. Cruelty as culture is everywhere, and the world is definitely meaner than it was six years ago, when we at least winced at the promise of a “surgical summer” that never came. Let’s not lie to ourselves about what we’re watching, or our complicity in it.

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Alright. Now, “Not Like Us,” the song. On the merits of beef, this should be the finishing haymaker that incurs a mercy rule. As music, it’s easily the best track to come out of this exchange and should be on the shortlist for song of the year. As theory, it’s a contention for the soul of rap – the way styles become localized and then canonized, the top-down means of extracting authenticity, what precisely gets lost in mass manufacturing and private equity bully-ball. At the apex of a defining cultural moment, one that he eminently sees as a preordained battle for the salvation of our world, Kendrick Lamar went all in riding for California.

Though the previous tracks were compelling to varying degrees, none of what came before this was even moderately fun to listen to. Drake was broadcasting from the dimly-lit penthouse, and Kendrick was sipping ayahuasca over minor chords. “Not Like Us” takes us to the loud and crowded function, because winning a public rap feud means meeting the people where they’re at. Mustard’s beat sounds like “The Watcher” hit the sherm blunt. It recalls The Documentary in the warmest way. Bass thudding and snapping, synth whirring out-of-focus, keys that cuff our khakis for us. It’s unmistakably Los Angeles, tough looks for an opponent who famously adopted a half-dozen different cities.

Drake has a signature, epochal sound for sure, but it’s a delicately-curated fiction. HoustAtlantaVegaMemph-whatever is diverse and clearly quite popular, but it cannot mean what Rosecrans does. Despite all its stylistic iterations – from gangsta revival with Dre & Eiht to Terrace Martin’s astral jazz suites to this very moment – Kendrick Lamar’s output has always been rooted in Compton. It’s a gravity that outsiders simply couldn’t comprehend. It’s the lingering ghosts of Original Gangstas and Black Panthers; the crinkling paranoia of Parliament Funkadelic and sunshine acid. It’s damn near metaphysical when Kendrick says “they not like us.”

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The twangy, strained snarl of LA rap is spiked and laid extra thick here. Tiny Lister’s Deebo and Death Row’s Cell Block 1 are tapped in on the first verse. He lets Oakland set the punishment for disturbing ‘Pac’s spirit, and literally growls out “all eyes on me” like a dispossession. He stamps Serena Williams and DeMar DeRozan. Kendrick also readily adopts a lot of new California flows, making a collective win all the more important. If “Certified boogieman, I’m the one to up the score with ‘em” sounds like an EBK Jaaybo bar, that’s because it basically is. Your host is certainly not the only listener who heard an Awful Lot Of Drakeo in the delivery of “Certified Loverboy? Certified pedophile.” The flow beginning at 2:20 is unmistakably ZayBang. Is it biting or homage? Is he a hypocrite or hype man? That’s up to you and your taste for collectivism. As I see it, Kendrick correctly recognized that the best-selling artist of our lifetime was on 1 percent health, and “city back up, it’s a must, we outside” is like letting the rest of the Coast inflict the final damage.

Friday, May 3rd will long be remembered for its shared intensity. On “Family Matters,” Drake took the iconographic good kid, m.A.A.d. city van to the junkyard, and dropped a ton of yuck to sift through. Kendrick instantaneously came back with “Meet the Grahams,” a historically blistering with even more venom. So much has happened in such a compressed time. As a whole, we must have the same energy for the alleged groomers and domestic abusers that rap well as the alleged ones we don’t like. We can think that Kendrick dropped the guillotine and also feel uncomfortable celebrating him as an unscathed hero, given what he’s saying and what’s being said about him.

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But “Not Like Us” is only nominally about Kendrick Lamar, in my opinion. It will be the enduring song from this extinction-level event in rap music because it had the hottest beat and the most flavor, affirming that what’s happening here still matters so very much. Both artists sourced a vast range of sounds throughout this beef. “Push Ups” is uptempo in-game arena music, and “Family Matters” is pure Tay Keith button-mashing. “euphoria” has the shiny buoyancy of Metro Thuggin, and the “Meet the Grahams” beat sounds like it was originally made for Mach-Hommy. For my money, all that will fade out and become canonical text, while this one will spring eternal in car stereos and club mixes. It’s affirming to know that even in deranged times with such lab-grown content, nothing has the power and potency to knock out the West Coast soul.


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