In popular culture, even vegans like a little “beef” from time to time.
From the playful jabs of Bo Diddley’s Say Man, to The Beatles’ riffing the sound of The Beach Boys on Back in the USSR, many revel in a little bad blood between artists.
But rap is one of the few places in popular culture where beef plays a central role. It’s a quintessential characteristic of the genre, and its consequences can dictate the rise and fall of rappers.
Since June, the rappers Drake and Meek Mill have been engaged in the rap ritual of beef. While the way this beef has played out is a testament to the expansion of rap’s boundaries, it also reveals some of the pitfalls that rappers face in the age of social media.
Where’s the beef?
For those unfamiliar with the controversy, here’s a refresher.
Upset that Drake (who was, at the time, an ally and collaborator) didn’t publicly support his new album, Meek Mill accused Drake of committing one of rap’s cardinal sins: not writing his own lyrics.
Soon, this beef would extend beyond the networked walls of the Twitterverse.
Following rap’s rules of engagement, Drake released the diss record Charged Up on July 25. Conveying subdued annoyance and bravado, its lyrics are spoken sleepily over a dreamy backdrop of synth swirls, belying its title.
In the track, Drake directly addresses Meek Mill:
Done doing favors for people / ‘cause it ain’t like I need the money I make off a feature. / I see you niggas having trouble going gold, turning into some so-and-sos that no one knows / But so it go
Usually, one trades barbs when beefing – goes blow for blow, tit for tat.
In this case, Meek Mill merely tweeted a response.
A few days later, Drake released another diss track titled Back to Back.
With lyrics that refer to Meek Mill’s subordinate position to his (much more) significant other, the rapper Nicki Minaj, it was a spicy, meme-inducing crowd pleaser.
Meek Mill finally countered with a song of his own. Wanna Know samples the entrance song of the professional wrestler The Undertaker, with its characteristic funeral tolls seeming to signify that this beef will be laid to rest.
But the reaction from fans was tepid. They expected more. And after Meek Mill’s weak on-stage apology during his stint on Nicki Minaj’s world tour, it was clear that there was still beef, but it had lost its sizzle.
The many flavors of beef
In broader terms, a beef refers to a conflict between two people. But there’s a difference between beef on the street and the kind that takes its place in music.
Notorious BIG described the former in his 1997 track What’s Beef?:
Beef is when you need two gats to go to sleep / beef is when your moms ain’t safe up in the streets / beef is when I see you, guaranteed to be in ICU.
Given that Biggie’s much-publicized beef with Tupac Shakur set the stage for both of their (actual) deaths, it’s understandable to interpret his lyrics literally, rather than figuratively.
But literally interpreting these lyrics requires looking at them in the context of inequality: through the street ethics of survival forged in the harsh winters of poverty and meager opportunity.
It’s the type of beef that led Mos Def to observe:
Beef is when a gangster ain’t doing it right, another gangster then decided what to do with his life / beef is not what these famous niggas do on the mic, beef is what George Bush would do in a fight
But beef takes on an entirely different meaning in the world of hip-hop culture and rap music. Here, its meaning is rooted more deeply in the tradition of the dozens – or an organized exchange of insults, with a winner and a loser – than in shootouts.
Sweet beef is made of this
Whether it happens through freestyle battles or diss records, beef is fundamental to the genre, as it simultaneously defines and is defined by the boundaries of the rap world.
These boundaries can have actual geographic limits. We saw this with the now-classic beef between South Bronx’s Boogie Down Productions and Queenbridge’s Juice Crew. And we later saw it with the rivalry between Bad Boy Records (East Coast) and Death Row Records (West Coast).
These beefs were nonetheless more symbolic than material. The former concerned the claim to the birthplace of rap music. The latter was about stylistic dominance. In both cases, beef was about staking a claim in the rap world, a declaration of who owns the block.
More often, though, beef is about “juice” – or asserting one’s self as one to be reckoned with in the rap world.
Similar to the blues tradition of “paying dues,” MCs can gain juice (or credibility) by engaging with – whether through provocation or collaboration – the best. Once MCs show their mettle, they gain or lose the respect of the rap world.
Usually, if a beef is prominent enough to make the pop culture headlines, it means that at least one of the MCs involved are well-respected, or have juice. These are MCs who comprise the core of the rap world – and they’re the ones who are capable of inviting in those MCs lingering in the periphery.
In the case of Drake and Meek Mill, both are a part of the rap world. Meek Mill, however, is far less established, so his situation is more tenuous: defeat in battle could sever the very ties that pulled him closer to the core in the first place. While the tie Meek Mill has to his partner, Nicki Minaj, should keep Meek Mill orbiting close to the core, other MCs without such strong ties aren’t so lucky.
Take, for example, 2002’s Ja Rule-50 Cent beef, in which 50 Cent – then a peripheral MC with ties to Dr Dre and Eminem – effectively ended the career of the more established Ja Rule via a number of diss tracks, including what’s commonly considered the final blow: Back Down.
In principle, a rap battle allows for an up-and-comer to take down a more established MC. But rap battles don’t take place on one-way streets. It can also allow prominent rappers to slap fear into the hearts of their less established counterparts, putting them in their place.
Ultimately, beef in rap music is a longing for meritocracy. It’s a way to show that status or money doesn’t supersede skill. It’s an ideal – that once you put on the gloves and step in the ring, nobody (not your friends, not your family, not business associates, not God) can help.
Meek Mill’s beef turns to pink slime
Taking a lyrical swing at another rapper is part and parcel of rap. But Meek Mill accused Drake of ghostwriting, which rap music outsiders may find unconscionable. The rap world took notice. And it wasn’t happy.
In leveling this accusation at one of the genre’s biggest stars, Meek Mill could potentially smear the genre as a whole; ghostwriting is simply not a “good look.”
The role of social media in the unfolding of the Drake and Meek Mill beef is undeniable. Twitter, in its capacity to connect various and previously unrelated worlds, opens the boundaries of rap to the possibility of being overrun by that which lurks outside of it.
This openness has its merits: it allows for the significant participation of younger people, along with black communities, which may not – for various socioeconomic and cultural reasons – be possible through other mediums.
That being said, Twitter can also, under certain circumstances, be the ugliest gossip mill and sheep farm this side of Facebook.
Tweeting, of course, isn’t particular to rap music. And accusing someone of, in essence, cheating isn’t either. But by tweeting the accusation of ghostwriting, Meek Mill was grandstanding, which elicits the responses of those outside the rap world.
That this accusation was met with such surprise is an indicator of this phenomenon: most rappers understand that ghostwriting is a musical convention of sorts within this genre (as well as others).
Rappers of all stripes perform the songs of others, often borrowing from their peers; in fact, a fundamental technique of rap music – sampling – involves taking someone else’s music and repurposing it. Some of rap’s best verses have appeared on unofficial remixes on bootlegged mixtapes.
Seen in this light, Meek Mill’s accusations aren’t intended to elicit the thoughtful responses of rap devotees; they’re appeals for hot takes from Tweeters and internet trolls, who have little understanding of the rap music industry. And once these outsiders start banging on the gates of rap, the insiders are forced to act. Like politicians who appear surprised by graft, the shocked people of the rap world are simply posturing.
What a “rap god” doesn’t do is whine on Twitter, or attempt to promote oneself through PR tactics. By airing out dirty laundry over Twitter, the whole city (not just the neighborhood of rap) knows something stinks; so when people from all around the city come by to see what the stink is about – well, it better be a heap of something big.
It’s no surprise, then, that people of and beyond the rap world went after Meek Mill – a rebuke that could only be described as a hailstorm of expletive-filled Tweets, suggestive Instagram images (GIFs of Nicki Minaj lapdancing for Drake are especially popular) and other forms of user-generated comeuppance.
How fitting, then, that Meek Mill ended up ranting at the very tweeters he’d courted: