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Kendrick Lamar’s beef with Drake and J Cole explained

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A song on Drake’s latest album has triggered a flurry of back-and-forth insults [Getty Images]

Rappers have been trading insults since the dawn of hip-hop.

It’s part of the culture – a test of lyrical skill and a declaration of superiority that has produced hundreds of classic “diss tracks”, from 2Pac’s Hit ‘Em Up to Jay-Z’s Takeover.

The latest beef has erupted between three of hip-hop’s biggest stars – Drake, Kendrick Lamar and J Cole – and was triggered by a seemingly innocuous lyric praising their respective careers.

Here’s a guide to what’s happened so far.

Who are the main players?

Drake, Kendrick Lamar and J ColeDrake, Kendrick Lamar and J Cole

[Getty Images]

Drake (above left) – the Canadian actor-turned-musician whose vulnerable blend of rap and R&B has made him the most commercially successful hip-hop artist of the 21st Century. Among his multi-platinum hits are tracks like Hotline Bling, One Dance and Hold On We’re Going Home.

Kendrick Lamar (centre)A Compton-born rapper whose compelling rhymes and conceptual vision have seen him named the best rapper of his generation. One of the most inventive lyricists in the game, he tackles big topics like police brutality, black self-worth and his own internal conflicts. In 2018, he became the first hip-hop artist to win the Pulitzer Prize for music.

J Cole (right) – Born in Germany and raised in North Carolina, J Cole was mentored by Jay-Z and went on to score hits with songs like Middle Child and Deja Vu. But he grew disenchanted with the trappings of commercial success and began to forge his own path with more introspective, analytical songs, resulting in some of the most popular and successful music of his career.

How did the beef start?

When Kendrick Lamar was a young up-and-comer, Drake offered him a helping hand by inviting him onto his Take Care album, and giving him an opening spot on his 2012 Club Paradise Tour.

But in 2013, after the success of Lamar’s debut album Good Kid, m.A.A.d City, he made his ambitions clear.

During a guest verse on Big Sean’s Control, he called out Drake, J Cole, Meek Mill, Mac Miller, Pusha T and a host of other rappers, warning them: “I got love for you all, but I’m trying to murder you.”

Asked about the diss, Drake told Billboard Magazine: “I didn’t really have anything to say about it. It just sounded like an ambitious thought to me. That’s all it was.

“I know good and well that [Lamar] ‘s not murdering me, at all, in any platform. So when that day presents itself, I guess we can revisit the topic.”

The rappers traded a few jibes over the next few years (Lamar memorably boasted that he’d “tucked a sensitive rapper back in his pajama clothes” during the BET hip-hop awards) but it never seemed particularly serious.

What triggered the latest escalation?

J ColeJ Cole

J Cole was comparing himself to Drake and Kendrick on the song First Person Shooter [Getty Images]

The initial spark was a gesture towards unity, rather than division.

In October last year, Drake released his eighth album For All The Dogs, which featured a collaboration with J Cole called First Person Shooter.

In one verse, Cole suggested that he, Drake and Kendrick were the “big three” of the current era of hip-hop.

“Love when they argue the hardest MC / Is it K. Dot [Kendrick]? Is it Aubrey [Drake]? Or me? / We the big three, like we started a league.

The song debuted at the top of the US singles chart, becoming Drake’s 13th and Cole’s first number-one song.

The achievement meant Drake tied with Michael Jackson for the most number one singles by a male solo artist.

A week later, Taylor Swift’s Cruel Summer replaced them at number one, and the moment seemed to have passed. But privately, Kendrick had taken note – and he wasn’t happy.

What did Kendrick Lamar say?

Kendrick LamarKendrick Lamar

Kendrick Lamar’s response fuelled the fire [Getty Images]

Earlier this month, producer Metro Boomin’ and rapper Future released a collaborative album called Like That.

Hidden in the tracklisting was an uncredited verse by Kendrick Lamar – and it was explosive.

With a tightly-wound, expletive-laden delivery, he took aim at Cole’s verse, claiming there was no “big three – it’s just big me”.

He went on to call Cole’s best verses insubstantial – “a light pack” – and declared he was the Prince to Drake’s Michael Jackson.

The power of the verse can’t really be conveyed in print, but when it ends with Lamar promising to put all of Drake and J Cole’s “dogs” in the “pet sematary” – the name of a Stephen King 1983 horror novel – you know a fuse has been lit.

(NB: Lamar doesn’t mean literal pet dogs, but the rappers’ nearest and dearest. The lyric doubles up as a reference to Drake’s album title, For All The Dogs)

It’s worth noting that the placement of Lamar’s verse is also significant, as Metro Boomin’ is a former Drake collaborator who fell out with the Canadian star.

Metro, whose real name is Leland Wayne, produced the majority of Drake’s 2015 album What A Time To Be Alive, but a promised sequel never materialised, allegedly leading to bad blood between the pair.

In 2022, the producer removed Drake from a song called Trance, and unfollowed him on Instagram.

Did Drake accept defeat?

Of course not.

Drake appeared to address Kendrick’s verse in a concert in Florida, with a pugnacious message to the crowd.

“A lot of people ask me how I’m feeling,” he said. “I’ma let you know I’m feeling.

“I got my [expletive] head up high, my back straight, I’m 10 [expletive] toes down in Florida and anywhere else I go. And I know that no matter what, it’s not a [person] on this What’s Kendrick Lamar’s beef with Drake and J Cole?earth that could ever [expletive] with me in my life!”

Presumably that was the end of it?

Of course not!

Two weeks later, J Cole offered his own reply to Kendrick’s verse, in a track called 7 Minute Drill on his surprise album Might Delete Later.

I got a phone call, they say that somebody dissing / You want some attention, it come with extensions,” he rapped. “He still doing shows but fell off like The Simpsons.”

He continued by critiquing Kendrick’s discography, calling his debut a “classic”, but his most recent effort – a sprawling double album called Mr Morale and the Big Steppers – “tragic”.

Your third [album] was massive and that was your prime,” he continued, “I was trailing right behind and I just now hit mine.

He finished up by saying he still respected Lamar, but wouldn’t hesitate to destroy him if the insults continued.

Push come to shove on this mic I will humble him.”

Did J Cole stand by his words?

Almost immediately after releasing 7 Minute Drill, Cole realised it had been a huge “mis-step”.

Speaking on stage at the Dreamville Festival in North Carolina, he apologised for the song, praised Lamar’s back catalogue and asked for forgiveness.

“I ain’t gonna lie to y’all the past two days felt terrible,” he told an audience at the Dreamville Festival in North Carolina.

He explained that he’d caved into pressure to respond to Lamar’s diss, but the result was the “lamest, goofiest” thing he’d ever recorded.

Vowing to scrub the song from streaming services, he added that he would “take if on the chin” if Lamar wanted to respond.

As the star rapped on his 2013 track Crunch Time, “Only thing worse than death is a regret-filled coffin”.

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