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The Kendrick Lamar, Drake, J. Cole — and A$AP Rocky! — beef, explained

Competition is a firm pillar of hip-hop. Years before Tupac and Biggie or Jay-Z and Nas ever traded lyrical blows on iconic diss tracks, DJs squared off at legendary block parties. Break dancers battled out in competitive cyphers. MCs exchanged fiery bars in battle raps onstage. Those traditions laid the cornerstone for a genre that continues to evolve, propelling hip-hop into a global phenomenon and elevating rap artistry.

So last month, when beef started to broil between the industry’s purported “big three” — Kendrick Lamar, Drake and J. Cole — after Lamar took direct aim at Drake and Cole in a guest verse on “Like That,” a track on the new Future and Metro Boomin album, “We Don’t Trust You,” fans eagerly awaited a rap battle for the ages.

A potential faceoff between Lamar, Drake and Cole could be a culmination for three rap heavyweights who have dominated their genre — generating numerous accolades, critical acclaim and fierce debates among fans engaging in endless discussion of the genre’s greatest artists.

“The past couple of weeks have been the most exciting time in hip-hop we’ve had in a long time,” said Sowmya Krishnamurthy, a music journalist and author. “It’s the first time that we’ve seen three artists at the top of their game, really going after the crown.”

But what followed Lamar’s verses hasn’t quite been a classic hip-hop beef, with J. Cole retracting a response and Drake limiting himself to veiled allusions so far. And now Rihanna’s partner, A$AP Rocky, has taken his own shots at Drake. Here’s how to make sense of it all.

Lamar’s verse on “Like That” references Drake and Cole’s 2023 song “First Person Shooter,” in which Cole dubbed the three rappers the industry’s greatest. “We the big three like we started a league, but right now, I feel like Muhammad Ali,” Cole rapped.

Lamar profanely dismissed that notion, concluding, “It’s just big me.”

But he saved most of his venom for Drake, seemingly comparing himself to Prince and Drake to Michael Jackson, noting that “Prince outlived Mike Jack” and referencing Drake’s latest album “For All the Dogs” with the lines: “’fore all your dogs gettin’ buried/ That’s a K with all these nines, he gon’ see ‘Pet Sematary.’”

Lamar was drawing a line in the sand, said Rob Markman, a music journalist and vice president of content strategy at Genius, a service that annotates song lyrics. “Kendrick is the aggressor here. [His] stance, so it seems, is you can’t just say you’re the greatest. You’re going to have to prove that. We’re not in a world where you can just say anything. This is hip-hop.”

On April 5, Cole dropped the surprise album “Might Delete Later,” including the song “7 Minute Drill,” in which the North Carolina native implies that Lamar only averages “one good rap verse” every 30 months, and that he disses other artists in his music for attention. Cole also criticized Lamar’s acclaimed albums “To Pimp a Butterfly” and “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers,” calling the first boring and overrated and the second “tragic.”

Many listeners viewed that angle as a major misfire.

“The problem with that [verse] is Kendrick has a stellar discography,” said Markman. “The whole thing about battle rap: … It doesn’t all have to be true. But when you’re most successful is when you take a bit of the truth and twist it in your favor, and you get the public on your side. I think that’s what Cole tried to do here,” Markman said. “I think it was a swing and a miss.”

Cole seemed to agree. While onstage at his Dreamville Festival in Raleigh, N.C., on Sunday, the rapper walked back what he said on the track, explaining that the response he saw to the song didn’t “sit right with my spirit,” disrupting his sleep and peace of mind.

“That was the lamest, goofiest s—,” Cole said. He also told fans that he would update the song or remove it from streaming services (as of this writing, it remains available).

“J. Cole famously said he let Nas down in a song many years ago, and with this move he’s let hip-hop down.” said Krishnamurthy. “It’s disappointing to see that somebody who, as an athlete himself, understands healthy competition and sportsmanship and also is a true lover of the art form of hip-hop, would come out with a diss record and then 48 hours later, rescind it.”

Drake has yet to release a song in response to Lamar, but many fans speculate that comments he’s made onstage and on social media were directed at the “Compton” rapper. “I got my … head up high, my back straight, I’m 10 … toes down,” Drake told the crowd during a stop on his tour in Sunrise, Fla., on March 23. “There’s [nobody] on this Earth that could ever [mess] with me in my life.” (Naturally, he used more profane terms.)

Days later, he shared an Instagram post with the caption: “They rather go to war with me than admit they are their own worst enemy.”

Drake is no stranger to rap feuds, having previously mixed it up with big names like Meek Mill, Pusha T and Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West.

“Drake is battle-tested. Drake is very strategic,” Markman said. “He’s not going to just come out with anything.”

But he’s also been known to play the sidelines, Krishnamurthy said. “There’s quite a few high-profile beefs, most notably Pusha T, that we’re still waiting on that response.”

Rumors are swirling about when we’ll hear from Drake. “I have it on good information that both sides went in the booth and came out,” Joe Budden, the media personality and former rapper, shared on his podcast Wednesday. “And what I’m hearing from both sides is that it’s nuclear.”

Alliances may be forming on both sides across hip-hop. Lamar’s diss came on a record with Metro Boomin, who has beefed with Drake and Future, a frequent collaborator of Drake’s. And some fans suggested that Rick Ross shaded Drake after he posted a video of himself listening to Lamar’s verse while smoking a cigar.

“It’s almost like Marvel’s ‘Captain America: Civil War,’” said Markman, “where you got superheroes on one side, superheroes on another side, and it’s about to be a clash going on.

Friday another big name joined forces against Drake: A$AP Rocky, who appears on the track “Show of Hands” on Future and Metro Boomin’s second album in three weeks, “We Still Don’t Trust You.”

Drake and Rihanna, with whom Rocky has two children, once dated, and Rocky’s lyrics appear to reference that history (men “in their feelings over women, what, you hurt or somethin’?”) as well as Drake’s son (“I smash before you birthed, son, Flacko hit it first, son.”), whose existence only came to light during Drake’s highly personal 2018 showdown with Pusha T.

What is everyone else saying?

Cole’s apology speech was met on social media with an explosion of jokes, memes and hot takes from fans who felt robbed of a huge matchup. Even brands like Spotify have waded into the feud, posting billboards across New York City that read: “Hip-Hop is a competitive sport.”

Fans say Cole’s retraction moves against that idea. “What happened to hip-hop,” many users lamented on X, formerly Twitter. “I hope J Cole is happy knowing the irreversible damage he did to hip-hop this past weekend….” another user wrote.

Some commenters are still hopeful for a response from Drake.

During a live stream on Monday, DJ Akademiks said his exchange with Drake seemed to confirm that the rapper would not take the same route as Cole. “Please, don’t apologize and do no weird s—,” Akademiks said he messaged to Drake. The rapper allegedly responded: “I can’t believe you would pull up and say some s— like that to me. You must not know me.”

Other voices across the hip-hop world have weighed in.

Charlamagne tha God, host of the syndicated radio show “The Breakfast Club,” said he respected Cole’s decision to bow out of the feud.

“The rap fan in me understands the disappointment many of you feel in Cole,” he said. “But the man in me, who understands that I’m a spiritual being living a human existence, has nothing but respect for what J. Cole did. So many of us lead with pride and ego nowadays and we let these idiots on social media, who we don’t even know, peer pressure us to say things and do things that we don’t even wanna do.”

Meanwhile, gangster rap mogul Marion “Suge” Knight, who is serving a 28-year prison sentence for manslaughter, slammed Cole on a recent episode of his podcast, “Collect Call.”

“J. Cole, you supposed to say what you mean and mean what you say,” Knight said. “To be the best, you gotta beat the best. This is a contact sport. As we used to say back in the day, if you don’t wanna be a gangsta rapper, go be R&B. West Coast, stand up. It’s a victory.”

Knight’s comments call back to a more vicious era in rap beefs between East Coast and West Coast artists in the mid-’90s. The tension centered on the feud between superstar rappers Christopher Wallace, known as Biggie Smalls, who was signed to Puff Daddy’s New York City label Bad Boy Records, and Tupac Shakur from Knight’s Los Angeles-based label Death Row Records.

Songs like Biggie’s “Who Shot Ya?” and Shakur’s “Hit ’Em Up” are classic diss tracks. But that feud famously ended with the killings of both rappers in drive-by shootings within six months of each other.

These days, beef doesn’t get that far. “As long as it fuels the art, as long as it stays on record, as long as nobody gets hurt in real life, as long as you don’t end up with a Biggie and Pac situation, I think the competition is good for us,” Markman said.

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