Fionn McCausland examines whether modern hip-hop is in dire need of battles between artists.
Hip Hop “beefs” existed before the actual genre did. It dates back to African-American slaves engaging in battles of wit in early America. Now it still occurs, but with little to no ramifications for the loser. Gone are the days of careers being stopped dead by fatal punchlines and swift flows. Now is the age of lack-lustre posse tracks, industry bureaucracy and “hold this L” comments.
Nicki Minaj is the most popular female emcee on Earth; this is a fact. By virtue of being an emcee she should be susceptible to the same pressures and potential humiliations as every other rapper then, no? Afraid not. Nicki took the biggest “L” of her career this month, and nothing happened. The same thing happened to Drake with Joe Budden and Meek Mill with seemingly everyone.
When a rapper out-raps you, as a lyricist it should have a profound effect on your career. So as emcees with more pop appeal than Hip Hop fandom, should the Young Money crew still be considered emcees?
We have seen them in cyphers, so we cannot label them as mere popstars. Are the fundamentals of Hip Hop being undercut by contemporary fads? Does lyricism matter like it used to? We as fans need to ask these questions.
Rappers come and go as they always have, although the competitive nature of Hip Hop has become lost in a haze of backwoods and a sea of codeine along the way. There is nothing wrong with writing about sex, drugs and illegality or creating silly dances. This has always been an aspect of what has now become the most influential cultural movement on Earth.
Herein lies the issue. If one superstar is invulnerable to losing a battle, then they all are and a substantial slice of Hip Hop culture is lost. One rapper writes about “purple drank”, every rapper does and kids begin drinking it. Rappers refer to women as bitches, and now women actually call themselves and their friends bitches. This is not to point the finger at rappers entirely, people are, ultimately, responsible for themselves. Though this level of influence can leave a lasting and detrimental effect on the genre.
Lyricism doesn’t dominate the radio, but it never truly has, apart from a handful of exceptions from each era. Biggie and Pac in the 90s, Busta Ryhmes and Eminem in the noughties and Kendrick and Joey Badass now. That isn’t to say it was ever as bad as it has become though.
The stars that now reside permanently in the stratosphere such as Minaj and Drake, began their journey traditionally, with cyphers, mixtapes and battles. Their names clung to wind in their respective cities and drifted to the eager ears of wealthy label executives.
Hip Hop has changed dramatically as new-agers such as Lil Yachty like to remind us “old heads”, but change isn’t always for the better. Redman and Methodman had pop appeal and they battled dozens of strangers backstage after shows, because they were and indeed remain, just that good.
Drake is both a patron and regular attendee of underground battle fixtures such as KOTD and URL, but he lost the only proper battle he’s ever been in and his fans waved it off. This has never been typical of Hip Hop fans, and that could be dangerous for the integrity of something that a lot of people hold dear.
When you claim the crown of world’s greatest emcee, you can’t afford to lose battles. Many would argue that the title of world’s greatest is applicable to the likes of Drake because he sells the most records, streams and put the most behinds in seats.
That is fair, though Hip Hop heads like myself would argue that an emcee must always stay true to the craft. This is not to say one shouldn’t push the proverbial envelope and expand the horizons of Hip Hop. Death Grips, Danny Brown, Shabazz Palaces and Run The Jewels all do this in their own unique way and are widely regarded as some of the most talented in the business.
This being said, with the exception of the somewhat enigmatic Death Grips, they all show love for the sources of their sound. Older rappers have been whinging about younger emcees for years, Ice-T and Soulja Boy, Pete Rock and Lil Yachty etc. There needs to be a common ground somewhere, you shouldn’t call yourself a rapper if just mumble eight bars then ad-lib a song. Though equally, you shouldn’t disregard the encroaching tides of change when you live on the shore.
The onus is ultimately on the fans to put the heat on the artist and make them up their game if they take that dreaded “L”. The fans need to jump-start the old engine that keeps Hip Hop culture vibrant and interesting like they did when Kendrick dropped that fabled Control verse. Don’t let it slide, make memes, write posts and ring in to radio stations to talk about these battles. Start a dialogue, because pressure forges greatness and lord knows Hip Hop needs more of that.