It goes without saying that the 21st century has been a much mellower one for hip-hop so far, and perhaps that was consciously instituted due to mounting casualties. There’s something to be said for the importance of hostility within the culture, though. While we would never advocate actual physical violence given what we’ve lost—B.I.G., ‘Pac, Big L, Mac Dre, and countless others—bad blood still has its place. Part of the beauty of hip-hop as an art form is the instinctual competitive nature of its combatants. It’s not that that drive no longer exists; we just don’t see it anymore. Over the summer, Oklahoma City Forward, Kevin Durant, came under fire for working out with Miami Heat Forward, LeBron James, so soon after being dominated in the NBA Finals. It was widely agreed that one shouldn’t be so friendly with their greatest rival. The same principle goes for rap. It’s not that we need our greats to hate each other; we need them to revel in competition. We as fans lose in this modern era of safety on wax.
Think of the incredible records beef has spawned: “Ether,” “Takeover,” “Hit Em Up,” “Long Kiss Goodnight,” “What’s Beef,” “No Vaseline,” “The Bitch in Yoo,” “Lost Ones,” “Jack the Ripper,” “Against All Odds,” “2nd Round K.O.,” “(Fuck Wit) Dre Day,” “The Bridge is Over,” and “Nail In The Coffin” are only the top tier. Lyrical combat has always brought the best out of MCs in a way typical verses cannot. The greatest way a rapper can demonstrate his—or her—supremacy is by dissecting a colleague with venomous precision. Additionally, it serves as a great way for an MC to make a name for themselves, staking a claim for respect. The very essence of beef is woven into hip-hop lore and legend, and it is preserved both by the participants themselves and the ravenous fans that pine for more classic showdowns. Like a title fight in any ring, a great rap feud establishes who will be a champion of history.
Take, for example, the greatest rap beef of the century thus far: Nas vs. Jay-Z. The brawl brought the entire culture to a standstill, divided a city and a genre, and inevitably coronated two kings. The beef also brought us an iconic reunion when both famed MCs set their differences aside to squash it, ironically at Hov’s “I Declare War” concert. A mutual respect was constructed as a result of the feud—not only between the two legends, but between their fans as well—and everything that transpired became a cherished piece of rap’s storied narrative. The beef forced Nas to raise his game and restored him to near-Illmatic form. Likewise, Jay’s carefully constructed dissection of Nas’ decline showcased the hunger that still raged in the Brooklyn boy. Both songs are quoted prominently to this day, whether it be by hip-hop heads in barbershops and message boards or by combatants in underground battle leagues King of the Dot and GrindTimeNow. No matter whom you thought won, if you loved rap, the significance of the moment was undeniable.
We are well over a decade removed from that epic melee, and sadly we have yet to see anything like it again. Hip-hop is growing distant from the competitive fire that served as its cornerstone for so many years; the culture is moving towards an era of passive-aggression where rappers ambiguously subtweet their issues into obscurity. Right now, nearly everyone in the spotlight would rather be superficially buddy-buddy than let loose on a raw, honest record.
That’s not to say bad blood isn’t still prevalent. There is more than enough spite and malice in the game to be channeled into at least a few brutally effective records showcasing both real emotion and real craftsmanship. These days, though, artists are content simply to target their enemies subliminally, which gives them complete deniability and requires no moxie whatsoever. Hip-hop was built on rugged, lo-fi, grit and it was built to be brash, often abrasive and anti-establishment, yet rappers have grown weary of getting their hands dirty. In an era where provocative is the norm hip-hop has shriveled into a cesspool of apprehensive marketers looking simply to protect their brands. It’s become shocking to even hear one MC say another’s name on a record.
On the few occasions we have seen beef as of late, there is little more than a Tweet or a fashion choice at stake. We are capable of graduating from the beef we’re seeing now to more clever, more daring records, all without getting violent. Hip-hop is capable of such, and we should hold it to that standard. Shout out to Joey Bada$$ and Lil B who at least held each other accountable for Twitter beef and fired direct lyrical shots.
Rap needs beef: it’s real, unfiltered, and genuine. Beef ensures that we as fans get the best from our genre’s best and it airs out dirty laundry, always producing honest feedback. Battles help determine an MC’s caliber and provide unquantifiable entertainment value. We’re venturing off into dangerously safe territory; beef is quietly fading away. If we don’t stay true to our roots we’ll completely forget what this culture stands for: pure, undiluted self-expression. Sometimes, that self-expression has to come at the expense of someone else’s feelings.
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