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Diss Track Season Was Ultimately Good For Hip-Hop Culture And Business

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At some point, many people lost count of the number of diss tracks that Drake and Kendrick Lamar swapped this spring. J. Cole was involved, and then he wasn’t. Kanye West subsequently popped off on Drake and Cole in his ‘Like That’ remix. At various junctures, Rick Ross, A$AP Rocky, The Weeknd, and Metro Boomin also weighed in through songs directed at Drake. A friend and collaborator of the feuding musicians, 21 Savage effectively told his social media followers to leave him out of the Drake/Metro Boomin mess. The Drake/Kendrick saga seemed to end when ‘Not Like Us’ dropped. Tennis megastar Serena Williams declared the anthem this summer’s hit.

Chris Brown and Quavo also traded diss tracks this spring, one of which necessitated a response from Saweetie. This was just months after Nicki Minaj and Megan Thee Stallion exchanged daggers in their respective songs. It was seemingly the busiest diss track season in music history, but it wasn’t. Rap battles are a longtime, near-everyday cultural tradition in hip-hop. It appeared new and more abundant this year to some due to the fame of the artists involved. But this season was a widely-publicized homage to one of the genre’s most ordinary artforms. It was good for the cultural preservation of hip-hop music.

Toby S. Jenkins opens her newest book, The Hip-Hop Mindset: Success Strategies for Educators and Other Professionals, with what she called “trash talking.” The swapping of diss tracks is one long-honored form of trash talking in hip-hop. “Avid hip-hop fans not only have a list of their top five MCs of all times, but they probably also have a list of top 5 diss tracks,” says Jenkins, a University of South Carolina professor. “From the classic Roxanne’s Revenge (Roxanne Shanté, 1984) to Hit ‘Em Up (2Pac, 1996) to Ether (Nas, 2001), diss tracks have served as the creative coal to keep the fire of competition and ingenuity burning among hip-hop artists.”

When Jay Z and Nas exchanged their classic diss tracks more than two decades ago (which irrefutably remain among the two very best of all time), the business of hip-hop had very much emerged but wasn’t nearly as mainstream and financially lucrative as it is now. The industry’s commercialization profited from all the attention this year’s diss track season brought to it.

Social media buzzed about it for months, including a standout Instagram post in which Questlove criticized Kendrick and Drake for “mudslinging” and declared that “Hip hop is truly dead.” Late night comedians joked about the Drake/Kendrick beef, Saturday Night Live produced a hilarious sketch about it, cable news networks and most major newspapers covered it, and Congresswoman Jasmine Crockett (D-TX) quoted Kendrick Lamar as she excoriated Donald Trump in a live MSNBC interview.

Engagement was high just about everywhere, including in my neighborhood and on my university campus. My pal Justin and I approached the counter at a nearby restaurant to order food and there were two tip jars: one with a picture of Drake taped to it and another with Kendrick Lamar’s photo. Just a few days prior, in a commencement speech that had otherwise gone marvelously, I said out loud which of the two rappers I thought would eventually be declared the winner – shockingly, the audience of doctoral graduates booed me. Because I love hip-hop and appreciate that truly spectacular rap battles often have no clear winners, the graduation clapback tickled me.

A month later, I somehow found myself fiercely debating several college presidents I hosted here about which Drake/Kendrick diss track actually had the best lyrics. It was fun, especially because my friend Frank and I were right, despite being outnumbered. I hosted 18 Nike vice presidents here the week prior – we had a lively lunchtime disagreement about it, too.

Years before joining the Columbia University faculty as the William F. Russell professor, Bettina Love spent a year as the Nasir Jones (Nas) Hiphop Fellow in the Harvard University W. E. B. Du Bois Research Institute. “I’m thoroughly enjoying every track,” Love told me at the height of this most recent diss track season. “It’s the attention to detail for me, especially by Kendrick. Drake and Kendrick are delivering a masterpiece in the artform of diss tracks that will undoubtedly be analyzed by hip-hop heads for years to come.”

The cultural analysis that Love is anticipating will be good for the scholarly preservation of hip-hop history, particularly as historians someday time travel back to this most recent diss track season. Hip-hop experts, music school faculty members, ethnomusicologists, African American Studies professors, men’s studies scholars, and others will theorize, research, write, and teach about this moment and its cultural precursors. Academicians won’t be the only analysts, though. Future spades matches, family reunions, post-funeral repasts, HBCU homecomings, and other Black community gatherings will include heated disputes about the spring 2024 diss track season.

“Battles in hip-hop offer a recalibration,” contends Christopher Emdin, the Maxine Greene Chair for Distinguished Contributions to Education at Columbia University. “A war of words in diss tracks sharpens our skills with words, filters out inauthenticity, and recaptures the attention of purists who often lament where the technical and personal elements of the culture have gone. At the end of this, all the artists engaged become better.”

Rap battles were top of mind for Emdin long before this latest diss track season. He created Science Genius, a program that uses rap battles as a tool to teach youth about science. For students to succeed in battles against other learners, their delivery (or flow) and the creativity of their lyrics must be met with a serious demonstration of their understandings of complex scientific concepts.

Students sometimes lose battles because their science knowledge is not as strong as their competitors’. Emdin and other researchers on his team have found that falling short on the science dimension of the battle criteria almost always motivates students to focus harder on mastering science in preparation for future battles. It’s an effective way to use one of hip-hop’s most highly respected methods to engage youth.

“I love it when a lyrical battle royale commences – it signals that lyrical, poetic, and written genius is on its way,” Jenkins adds. “The competitive spirit during diss track seasons gather the community – everyone is listening, debating, and communing over the tracks. One of the greatest gifts hip-hop culture has bestowed us is the embrace of competition as a healthy form of community building.”

The community of which Jenkins speaks cannot be artificially engineered in pursuit of profits. Though record sales and streaming numbers can skyrocket when two famous rappers exchange hot diss tracks, the finest competitive moments in hip-hop’s future will emerge from creative places of cultural authenticity, not from money-hungry music executives who seek to copy and paste the success of the spring 2024 Drake/Kendrick feud.

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