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Technology Is Transforming Rap Beef - Best News

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Technology Is Transforming Rap Beef

Like a soap opera, you skip an episode and lose track of the story. For the past month, two of the most successful hip-hop artists of recent times—Kendrick Lamar and Drake—have been embroiled in a back-and-forth rap beef that reached new levels over the weekend as Lamar released “Meet the Grahams” and “Not Like Us,” and Drake dropped “The Heart Part 6.”

The conflict might be the most newsworthy music event of the first half of 2024, as both MCs voiced strong opinions about each other on the diss tracks, leading to secondary discussions fueled by fan hives, trolls, think pieces, and social media threads. And while the early exchanges might have only slightly piqued some listeners’ interest, the stakes went up following the release of Kendrick’s “Euphoria” last Tuesday. At that point, the beef became something bigger, evolving (or devolving) from the standard stuff of rap and into stormier waters. This includes accusations and exchanges around serious topics: racial authenticity, domestic violence, illegitimate fatherhood, moral posturing, grooming, hypocrisy, colorism, and even colonialism.

The conflict is now mature enough to warrant some larger reflection. Specifically, an examination of what this beef tells us about the marriage between hip-hop, conflict, and online culture.

No advertising campaign can generate the anticipation that rap beef creates, sometimes out of thin air. Whether we are enjoying it or not, we all wait for the next iteration. Through Drake and Kendrick Lamar, we are reminded of just how quickly public squabbles can seize attention—and the many ways that the ecology of digital space in 2024 can shape how these conflicts happen.

For one, artists now control the timing and pace of the releases. Unlike years past, when popular DJs often folded diss songs into radio sets, artists today can curate the release of these tracks, going directly to listeners via platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and X.

Second, the war on truth in the age of misinformation now renders fact-checking irrelevant; whatever someone accuses another artist of in a song might be true or false. Whether we believe it is mostly about whether we want to believe it, whether the message aligns with our preexisting views. And while dodgy accusations have always been true in beef raps, the speed through which falsehoods can spread today makes it easier for absurd claims to take on a life of their own.

Finally, there is the specter of fake songs, generated by artificial intelligence. This makes us double-clutch before clicking a link, as we scramble to debate the authenticity of what we’re about to hear. Saying someone employed ghostwriters used to be the most damning accusation in hip-hop. Today there are many more ways to fabricate a song, and fewer ways to tell the difference between us and the robots. This specifically came to the fore in April when Drake released “Taylor Made Freestyle,” a track that seemingly used an AI-generated version of Tupac Shakur’s voice. (The rapper removed the song after Shakur’s estate sent a cease-and-desist.)

Battle rap, whether it takes the form of in-person face-offs or is done via diss tracks, has always been one of hip-hop’s flagship sports, defined by banter between artists, often—but not necessarily—derogatory in tone. It has roots in “the dozens” and related relics in African American culture that thrive on spontaneity, humor, and wit (often at others’ expense). So while “battling” can be strictly done for the sake of competition, “beef” requires some degree of personal animus between the parties. What’s happening in 2024, as artists like Drake and Lamar trade bar(b)s via IG posts and YouTube clips, and their fans debate the merits on social media, marks a new era of rap beef.

Even this summary has some recency bias: Competitive poetry existed in parts of the world centuries before hip-hop did. Yet, there is something special about how conflict happens in hip-hop: Beef has driven some of the most popular songs ever made, and has been linked to real-world violence. It’s an issue that hip-hop reflects on for small windows (often following the loss of a popular figure, like after the deaths of Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. in the mid-'90s), after which it returns to business as usual: Rappers A and B exchange taunts, maybe several times. Sometimes a winner is declared. Sometimes it doesn’t matter. Sometimes there is violence; sometimes there is formal peacemaking, like when Jay-Z and Nas ended their beef onstage during a show in 2005. Often, there is widespread attention: rinse, rap, repeat. In the digital world, the cycle moves at the speed of a click.

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Very early on, hip-hop communities (like many subcultures) found a home on the internet. At first, message boards served as a place for discussion, and shortly thereafter, rap battles: lines exchanged message by message. No physical stage. No hand gestures. Punchlines only traded bit by bit.

YouTube and streaming created the possibility for something different: the propagation of live battles featuring artists skilled at in-person battling. So popular was battling on YouTube that successful rap battle leagues emerged, turning participants into influencers that accumulate large followings.

Woven throughout is the rise of algorithms and social media, which provide not only an ecosystem for viral videos and songs, but also automatic (and unconscious) instruments to curate media for certain audiences.

The hip-hop movement that can be most directly traced to digital space is the rise of “drill rap,” a form born in Chicago during the 2000s. Its catchy minimalist beats and lyrics make it easier to adopt across regions, local dialects, and lifestyles. It has spread nationally, and spawned the careers of dozens of successful artists. Unfortunately, the story of drill is not the innocent tale of another unique subgenre of hip-hop. Its lyrics feature lamentable celebrations of youth violence, and its songs and videos can include taunting and direct mentions of specific murders.

Public conversations around drill have intersected with debates around policing, gun control, and the contagiousness of high-risk behavior in a digital world. As the genre’s popularity grew, a blame game ensued: Mayors declared war on drill, and appointed special units to investigate local acts; award-winning scholars chimed in, joining a chorus of activists who argue that algorithms should share some of the blame.

Whatever one's take, we can agree that the scenes are chilling: A teenager is gunned down on a Monday. By Thursday, the alleged assailants (often members of a group in conflict with the victim) are boasting about their death on a drill song posted on YouTube. By the following Tuesday, affluent teenagers in Beverly Hills are TikTok-dancing to the track. Rinse, rap, repeat. And in this case, another homicide.

What makes drill so unique is in where rapping stands in the structure: Drill can use rap as little more than a messaging canvas for a street conflict. This is unlike the Kendrick-Drake beef. While the conflict may have taken a dark and personal turn, violent threats haven’t (yet) made their way into the barbs. Given the visibility (and maybe ubiquity) of violence in hip-hop conflicts, we should be grateful to the artists for this. And in general, the Kendrick-Drake beef has the ingredients of a classic rap beef: two talented artists, who care about the craft, trying to settle a score over a beat. Yet, it feels so different.

Fans of hip-hop history know the stories of old: That Boogie Down Productions’ “The Bridge Is Over” (1987) was so impactful that, in its aftermath, artists from Queens allegedly had a hard time getting signed. We’ve heard tales of Big Daddy Kane hunting Rakim around New York City in the late 1980s, looking to battle and end the debate around who was the better lyricist. Most of us know the legendary story of a twentysomething Jay-Z battling DMX in the Bronx. The audiences were small, but the stakes were never higher. In those days, many thought hip-hop was just another fad. The artists were battling for their own ego, but also to grow the art form.

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In 2024, we find ourselves at an inflection point. Hip-hop is now as mainstream a form of music as any. Today, narratives live and die on digital timelines, and not in project hallways. The stages are no longer sweatbox nightclubs occupied by dozens (like the ones depicted in 2002’s 8 Mile), but rather online spaces with an audience in the billions. The veracity of claims matters less. And more than ever, the size of the narrative is more important than the quality of the product. “Winning” and “losing” mean everything and nothing, depending on what we care about (e.g., even if Drake is “losing” this beef, it will likely cost him little). This all makes conflict so much more intriguing, and drives a distinct flavor of techno-rap beef—one neither better nor worse than the past, just different.

The manner that technology has already changed rap beef begs the question of where it will go next. One day, the taboo around AI in hip-hop will disappear, and entire battles will be orchestrated by LLM-rappers trained on the raps of individual artists. Quants will develop metrics for who the winners are. If we are offended by a lyric about a member of our family, we’ll blame the machines. It may sound like the stuff of science-fiction, but the gap between this future reality and 2024 might be smaller (in time and manner) than the gap between Canibus vs. LL Cool J (1998) and Kendrick vs. Drake.

The state of things highlights another example of the late MF DOOM’s clairvoyance. The sarcastic lyrics on “Beef Rapp” (the lead song from the acclaimed 2004 album Mm..Food) were not only about the past, but also about a present and future of hip-hop where conflict has life-and-death consequences. Early in the song, DOOM scolds our addiction to rap bloodlust, using beef consumption as a metaphor: “I suggest you change your diet; [beef] can lead to high blood pressure if you fry it.”

The world might agree. Soon, rap beef will cease to exist as we once learned to love it. And that may not be a bad thing.

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