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What to know about the ongoing feud in rap involving Drake, Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

A hip-hop song called "Like That" has led the Billboard Hot 100 for the past few weeks. In it, Kendrick Lamar called out two of his peers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKE THAT")

KENDRICK LAMAR: (Rapping) It's up. Lost too many soldiers not to play it safe. If he walk around with that stick, it ain't Andre 3K. Think I won't drop the location? I still got PTSD. [Expletive] the big three [expletive]. It's just big me. [Expletive] bum. What? I'm really like that. And your best work is a light pack. [Expletive] Prince outlived Mike Jack'. [Expletive] bum.

RASCOE: That big three he's talking about? - it's him, Drake and J. Cole. Clearly, there's tension. And according to my next guest, it's turned 2024 into a giant beef barbecue for rappers.

TIRHAKAH LOVE: Beef is a conflict between two or more rappers.

RASCOE: Tirhakah Love writes for New York magazine and joins me now. Welcome to the program.

LOVE: Thank you for having me, Ayesha. Good to be here.

RASCOE: Help me get up to speed 'cause I've been a little confused. Now, Kendrick Lamar - he mentions the big three in that song. Now, why are these rappers - Drake, J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar - called the big three?

LOVE: Well, they are the big three most influential male rappers of the millennial generation. So in the past 10 to 15 years, these three guys - they all sort of came up around the same time, dropping mixtapes in the late 2000s - 2008, 2009 - dropping albums in 2011, 2012. That really pushed the hip-hop sound, the rap sound, forward into the blog era, into the mainstream and that sort of way. And these guys sell the most albums. And so as they started to grow, their fan bases grew. Their fan bases started to speak on them as if they were some of the greatest rappers to ever do it in their own particular lane. So Drake would be considered one of the best in terms of selling records.

RASCOE: Just he's a pop star.

LOVE: He's a pop star. He's a pop - as Yasiin Bey would say, he's mall music.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

LOVE: You know, and, you know, Kendrick has done it in a different way. He's a - he's still a pop star, too. But he's the most critically acclaimed of the three stars. Like, this is the guy who's won the Pulitzer Prize for an album. And then J. Cole is, like, somewhere in the middle of that. He is what people consider a lyricist in the vein of Kendrick Lamar, but he's also someone who has sponsorships, does the whole thing.

RASCOE: Now, how did we get here? They hadn't always been feuding.

LOVE: The direct stuff started last year in October off Drake's album "For All the Dogs." And both Drake and Cole are rapping about the modern GOAT conversation. Who's the greatest of all time in the modern era? Drake says, it's just him and Cole up there at the top, and he refers to himself as pretty much the Michael Jackson of all of this. And then J. Cole raps about something similar, saying that there is a big three, and he feels like he's the Muhammad Ali of the whole thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIRST PERSON SHOOTER")

J COLE: (Rapping) Love when they argue the hardest MC. Is it K-Dot? Is it Aubrey? Or me? We the big three like we started a league. But right now, I feel like Muhammad Ali. Yeah. Muhammad Ali, the one that they call when they ain't connecting no more. Feel like I got a job in IT. Rhyming with me is the biggest mistake.

LOVE: He adds a couple subliminal shots that sound like disses of Kendrick's latest record, "Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers." And in response, you know, Kendrick - he basically says, listen, y'all cliqued up. Y'all can't be the greatest if y'all coming together, and y'all coming after me.

RASCOE: That's what he said. So his enemies were linking up.

LOVE: Yeah.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

LOVE: Yeah. Y'all can't be called the greatest. Y'all bums. Y'all bums. And that took off. It just took off everywhere.

RASCOE: Beefing or this sort of battle rap is obviously, like, a big part in the genre for better or - and for worse 'cause we've had some really bad things happen out of that. Do you feel like this feud is an outgrowth of that and is a part of the culture?

LOVE: Yeah, this is absolutely just a part of the culture. I want to be careful about talking about beef in this context, especially when it comes to physical, corporeal violence. We are not there (laughter). This is not that type of beef. We are not there. Like, no one says this when Eminem has beefed out with Elton John.

RASCOE: Yeah. Or Taylor Swift had beef with Katy Perry.

LOVE: Katy Perry, Damon Albarn, Demi Lovato - like, all of these people...

(LAUGHTER)

LOVE: No one's worried Taylor Swift is going to bash Demi Lovato's head in with her guitar. You know what I mean? Like, no one's saying that. So this is just competitive rap stuff that, yes, goes back to the very start of hip-hop.

RASCOE: Well, you know, fans are following along closely, and you do have all of these, like, stan cultures, which is, like, the deep, deep fans who - like, their whole personality is being a Drake fan or being a Kendrick fan.

LOVE: Yeah.

RASCOE: They amp these up in a way on social media that I think you - that you just didn't have back in, like, the '90s or early 2000s.

LOVE: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, what's fascinating to me in this particular rap beef is that you see the divergent priorities of not just the rappers themselves, but the fans that they represent. It's like - before, rappers weren't going to be beefing about who has the most No. 1 albums. We didn't care. Like, whoever Billboard prioritizes in that way, whoever white people are ascribing greatness to, we didn't really care because it's about who is the better rapper.

And this beef speaks to the evolution that hip-hop has sort of gone through in the last, I would say, 30 years. And so you see this divergence. Kendrick - he's after respect. He's after the influence that he can have on a culture. And honestly, he's speaking to a very Black experience. And what Drake is talking about is money, productivity, selling out arena tours, that type of thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRAKE SONG, "HEADLINES")

RASCOE: What are you looking for next? Do you think that it's kind of going to be one of those things where what's been said has been said and just it's going to kind of fizzle out? Or should we see more? Are we going to see more and more tracks on this?

LOVE: I don't think this is going to stop anytime soon, and I'm geeked for it.

(LAUGHTER)

LOVE: I'm excited. I want to see THEM go back and forth. And to be frank, this is something that backpack rapper fans like myself growing up in high school have always wanted to see.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEADLINES")

DRAKE: (Rapping) I know I exaggerated things. Now I got it like that. Tuck my napkin in my shirt 'cause I'm just mobbing like that. You know good and well that you don't want a problem like that. You going to make someone around...

RASCOE: That's Tirhakah Love. They're a writer for New York magazine. Thank you so much for joining us.

LOVE: Thank you, Ayesha. I really appreciate it. This was fun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.