Is there a limit to what can be deemed suitable for rap disses? Should there be? What, if anything, crosses the line into outright abuse? Recent squabbling between Drake and Kid Cudi has dredged up some talk surrounding mental illness, and has many listeners calling foul.
In a song called Two Birds, One Stone, Drake took aim at longtime foe Pusha T, whose beef is based mostly on residual animosity carried over from a skirmish with Young Money label boss Lil Wayne, and Cudi, who recently questioned Drake’s credibility and top dog status online. The response to Pusha was long overdue, making the Virginia rapper’s long-running coke boy stories out to be exaggerations (“You made a couple chops and now you think you Chapo”), but it’s the Cudi barb that has many fans and critics up in arms: “You were the man on the moon, now you just go through your phases / Life of the angry and famous … You stay xanned and perc’d up, so when reality set in, you don’t gotta face it,” he rapped. “Look what happens soon as you talk to me crazy / Is you crazy?”
In an interview with Billboard magazine in April, Kid Cudi acknowledged an ongoing struggle with drugs and depression, then shaded Drake and Future, saying he’d never listen to their collab mixtape What a Time to Be Alive and implying that their music is mediocre. More recently, he used Twitter to fire more direct shots at Drake and Kanye West. “Everyone thinks they’re soooo great. Talkin top 5 and be having 30 people write songs for them,” he wrote. “My tweets apply to who they apply. Ye, Drake, whoever,” prompting in-concert responsesfrom both, then the Drake diss. Big Sean recently weighed in on the situation in a new song called No More Interviews, where he addresses building animosity with Cudi, his former labelmate at Kanye’s G.O.O.D Music, asking, “What happened to our family ways, though?”
The not-so-subtle shots in Two Birds, One Stone come after Cudi checked himself into rehab for depression and “suicidal urges” in early October, and they seemingly attempt to weaponize his mental illness. The particular nature of this diss, and the scale of its combatants, has raised questions about the rules of engagement for rap beef and whether there’s such a thing as diss etiquette. If rap is bloodsport, is it fair to ask its competitors to pull punches?
Over time, rap has established its own code of conduct for beef that continues to fluctuate as society grows more progressive. Many believed Jay Z and Cam’ron each crossed the line by scapegoating Nas’s daughter for Super Ugly and Hate Me Now Freestyle, respectively. It was deemed way out of bounds when Gucci Mane told Jeezy to go dig up a friend he’d allegedly killed. An immediate parallel can be drawn from Drake-Cudi beef to Troy Ave’s heated war of words with Joey Bada$$. Ave made light of Capital Steez’s suicide before (sort of) apologizing.
As the line continues to move, the new limit seems to be anything that could be deemed hate speech, anything that could disparage someone’s race, gender, sexuality, disability or mental illness. (This isn’t strictly limited to disses, either. Think both Drake and J Cole apologizing for J Cole’s lyric about the autistic reference on Jodeci Freestyle.) Timing and intent also both play a big role. The diss in question is certainly in poor taste, but if Drake released it a year from now he probably wouldn’t be facing the same backlash. But it also wouldn’t have the same sting.
Designating what exactly is “appropriate” for rap beef can be a tricky intersection to navigate, especially since disses are often intimidation tactics by design. Some have argued that rap beef is an anti-PC endeavour because of its raw and vitriolic nature. But as New York magazine pop music critic Craig Jenkins points out, the belief that rap beef has never been regulated is revisionist history. “It’s whitewashing history to forget that most of the dirtiest low blows short-circuited on the perpetrators,” he writes. Few rappers have gone unchecked for getting out of pocket on wax or on the web: Kanye apologized to Wiz Khalifa and Amber Rose more than once, Drake apologized to Vanessa Bryant, and even Eminem apologized to his mom, eventually. Most famously, Jay Z apologized to Nas at the behest of his mother, who was offended.
Em, who has taken more than his fair share of low blows in and outside of the battle arena, even acknowledged that there are boundaries on 2004’s Like Toy Soldiers, rapping: “There’s a certain line you just don’t cross, and he crossed it.” The song was released as an explainer of sorts for battles with Benzino and Ja Rule (by way of 50 Cent). In a 2003 New York story entitled “Got Beef?” about Ja and 50’s storied clash, Ethan Brown explored the medium and whether it required limits. “‘Beef’ is a time-honored hip-hop tradition – as well as a time-honored PR stunt,” he wrote. To that end, the sanctity of rap beef nastiness is only as crucial as its objective.
Rap beef in the modern age is mostly performative; rappers often just parrot the actions of their predecessors, but rap battles on wax are ill-equipped to sustain the same feverish intrigue they once did in our currently ceaseless info cycle; and they are less forums for hashing out bad blood and more exhibitions of pure theatrics. That’s why tactics like displaying memes during a performance of Back to Back or tweeting out a single letter have become even more effective battle strategies than uttering a single harsh lyric. If the arena has grown to include new platforms, then it’s hypocritical to treat a diss on record any differently than an offensive thread of Azealia Banks tweets. As the stage and scope expand, so must the barometer for poor taste.