In Dr. Dre’s 1993 tripartite diss track called “Fuck Wit Dre Day,” Dre delivered the ethos of rap beef: “You fucked with me, now it’s a must that I fuck with you.”
Diss tracks historically do not get radio play—partially because of their violent content, and partially because rappers focus on lyrical muscle rather than catchy hooks. However, for Toronto rapper Drake, wit, catchy punchlines, and memes have been his diss weapons of choice. In the past, Drake has shown himself able to step away from the old norms of beef and only engage when he knows the outcome will be in his favour. Yet, on his latest single, “Two Birds One Stone,” Drake makes a move towards force—becoming uncharacteristically aggressive when launching attacks towards Meek Mill, Pusha T, and Kid Cudi.
In “Two Birds One Stone,” Drake finally responds to Pusha T by questioning his well-documented drug-dealing past. Drake also goes after Kid Cudi, labelling him as crazy for starting a Twitter feud in Sept. 2016. Finally, Drake references his past conflict with Meek Mill, a longtime adversary. Mill’s accusation in 2015 that Drake used a ghostwriter was a clear invitation to drop the gloves. We can only guess Meek expected that rap fans would abandon Drake as a fraud, but this didn’t happen. Instead, Drake’s fans turned Meek’s Twitter rant into mocking memes and by the time he could release a proper diss track—“Wanna Know”—Drake had already released two—“Charged Up” and “Back to Back.” Meek vastly overestimated the sway of ghostwriting allegations against Drake, whose audience is largely unconcerned with the rap rules of the past.
Shortly after the release of Drake's ablum Views, Joe Budden and Drake got into a haphazard squabble after Budden called Views “uninspired” in his podcast, I’ll Name this Podcast Later. After that, Budden launched a series of diss tracks aimed at Drake that went unanswered. Although many speculated that Drake’s silence stemmed from a tacit recognition of his lyrical inability to outperform Budden, Drake’s silence only prompted fans to act for him. A few OVO fans took it upon themselves to show up at Budden’s house to harass him in support of Drake. The Twittersphere quickly latched onto to video footage of the exchange, and memes featuring an aggravated Budden exploded. Through memes and snide references to “Pump It Up”—Budden’s most popular and most mocked song—Drake sidestepped Budden’s criticism and won the beef in the court of Twitter opinion.
Drake has survived criticism against his talent as a rapper before. Directly responding would only serve to bring more attention to his weaknesses. Similarly, as rap becomes more commercial, it has moved away from feuds. “You can’t beef with people because it’ll scare money away. In the streets you can strong arm people and take money but you can’t do that in the industry,” French Montana said in a 2012 interview with Complex. For this reason, “Two Birds One Stone” feels like an anomaly in the contemporary rap world.
With Drake dominating the most commercial spot in rap, why did he bother to release a track responding to his critics? The industry may be moving away from the impulsive and violent spats of the 90s, but Drake’s pride is still at stake. His contemporaries are still people who can tarnish his image and prod at his vulnerabilities. Despite his platinum records, Drake still has something to prove. The norms of rap may be shifting, but rap is still a game of egos.