Whatever one thinks about the actual quality of Drake’s recent album, Views, and whatever angle one takes regarding Drake’s character, it’s evident that, in terms of sales and fame, the Toronto superstar is stronger than ever. Thanks to new criteria that incorporate streaming numbers into sales, Views has perched atop the Billboard charts for 11 weeks out of the past 12. Already high off of this commercial success, last week the artist commenced his three-month-long Summer Sixteen tour. In and out of the arena, his crowd of fans promises to be more enormous than ever. Any levelheaded individual, viewing such success, would see himself as blessed: Things are looking farther up for Drake than ever. Size has its own kind of quality, and he is nothing now if not large.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that everyone’s in awe. More and more, professional music writers have turned against him: Views was the first Drake project to be greeted with a disappointed, even scornful critical reception by critics. His long-time haters remain as unmoved as ever; among his fellow star musicians there’s no shortage of bad blood, though precious little of it leaks into the news or onto wax. Drake disses delivered by major artists, at least disses of the more dedicated and explicit kind, seemed to have dried up — even Meek Mill has been silent for months. It very much seems as if, faced with Drake’s ever-larger profile, artists are calculating that it’s far more trouble than it’s worth to take on someone who can deny them major market share and opportunities to collaborate. Not to mention that taking on Drake means taking on an entire organization: As Meek Mill learned too late, OVO has more than enough time, money, writers, producers, and strategy to make open conflict with Drake a protracted and unpleasant affair.
Diss me, you’ll never hear a reply for it — between when Drake launched his major career in 2009 and the present day, the meaning of this line (from So Far Gone’s “Successful”), has changed practically to the point of inversion. In 2009, street rap still dominated charts and street credibility held more weight in popular opinion. As a romantically inclined artist on the rise lacking any semblance of a violent reputation, Drake couldn’t afford to engage in battles with more established hardcore artists. Passing off his powerlessness as indifference was the best and only move available to him. Today, however, with hardcore rap having serious trouble charting, with Drake’s lovesick/normcore/self-absorbed aesthetic having become the new norm in pop, and with Drake safely ensconced among the elite not just in rap but in music and celebrity culture at large, Drake’s reached a point where he doesn’t have to respond to challenges because he possesses too much standing to bother dignifying them with responses. In terms of fan base and industry authority, he’s in a weight class all his own. That doesn’t mean he can simply do away with people with a large enough fan base of their own: Rumors of Meek Mill’s demise have been greatly exaggerated because Meek’s sizable core audience of street-rap aficionados remains loyal to him. But the opposition of Drake, and by extension Drake’s own, more numerous core audience is a rather huge obstacle to achieving mainstream success. For rising artists there’s much to be lost and little to be gained by challenging Drake directly from below; as for the artists already at or near his level, it’s in their best interest to maintain the appearance of warm relations with him even if no such relations exist.
But what about someone personally acquainted with Drake who doesn’t care about rewards and has nothing to lose? Joe Budden is a Jersey City rapper who, when remembered at all, is generally remembered for “Pump It Up,” the successful lead single from his first, self-titled album, released through Def Jam in 2003. Though well-received critically, Joe Budden failed to make a huge impact on the record charts: The amped-up bounce of “Pump It Up” aside, the album was a slow, long, and pensive affair in which the 22-year-old Budden, much like the Drake of So Far Gone and Thank Me Later half a decade later, seemed more suspicious of his newfound success than elated by it: “Guess I ain’t sure how I feel anymore: ever since I got signed I can’t tell what’s real anymore.” Street and hardcore without being gangster, Budden had an uncommon penchant for introspection and retrospection. Instead of celebrating himself and looking to the future, he seemed compelled to dwell on the family unhappiness and substance abuse of his past. Joining this sullen and haunted attitude to formidable technical gifts, he resembled no one so much as Eminem. Yet since he lacked the comic wit, white skin, and gift for pop provocation that enabled Eminem to sell millions of albums, it was all but a foregone conclusion that Joe Budden would flop and that Def Jam executives would seek to steer Budden’s aesthetic in a more marketable direction.
It was also all but guaranteed that the mulishly stubborn Budden would be unable to adjust to their demands and that he would end up being dropped: He exited Def Jam in 2007 amid creative conflicts around a second album that never came out. Thereafter Budden carved out a respectable career on a lesser scale. He released a slew of mixtapes and indie albums. He formed Slaughterhouse, a collective of underground rappers whose verbal ferocity earned the respect of Eminem, who signed them to his Shady Records label in 2012. Budden even ended up on television: In 2013 and 2014 he served as part of the supporting cast on VH1’s Love & Hip Hop. Nevertheless, in terms of fame, it isn’t wrong to view him as subsisting on crumbs, lingering in a space somewhere between has-been, could-have-been, and never-was. Yet Budden doesn’t seem to care. He lives comfortably enough and, habitual grumpiness aside, seems comfortable with his place in the world: He hosts a podcast whose title, I’ll Name This Podcast Later, suggests a somewhat more relaxed attitude.
It was on this podcast in early May that Budden roused the ire of Drake, a friendly acquaintance dating back to 2009. Views had been out for less than a week, but like many critics Budden had already heard enough: The large majority of the hour-long podcast is devoted to Budden’s condemnation of what he perceived as a lack of energy and innovation on Drake’s part. For long sections of the podcast Budden’s voice is quite loud, as if he were attempting to counteract the lethargy of the album he critiqued. His candor wasn’t malicious — he spoke as an ardent and longstanding Drake fan expecting more from Drake than what Drake had delivered — but it couldn’t have been pleasant for Drake to hear such an assessment as harsh as “I think that that kid on that album that I heard sounds real fuckin’ uninspired.” After Drake responded with some vague disses on the non-album single “4PM in Calabasas” (a track reserving most of its indirect insults for Diddy), the beef was on. Beginning on June 30, Budden released a total of four diss tracks in the span of 23 days. Meanwhile, Drake sent some rather less subtle insults, reciting the chorus to “Pump It Up” and the line “I’m not a one-hit wonder, they know all my stuff/ you let me turn into the nigga that you almost was” on his featured verse for French Montana’s single “No Shopping.”
There’s a subtle shift in emphasis at work in Budden’s quartet of tracks. The Drake diss track had become a subgenre of its own, its content predetermined: Whoever the antagonist rapper happened to be, he was all but guaranteed to rhyme about his toughness and street authenticity and to attack Drake for his lack thereof, mixing in accusations of Drake’s thievery of sounds, lingo, and trends from cultures to which he was not native. Integrity is tied to hardness, and Drake, it is claimed, lacks both. Budden’s quartet of diss tracks (“Making a Murderer Part 1,” “Wake,” “Afraid,” and “Just Because”) depart from this standard: Eschewing almost all tough talk, Budden’s verses, intricately rhymed but somewhat dulled by his monotonous delivery, focus mostly on Drake’s cultural vampirism (“You leverage your celeb, taking waves over”) and its relation to his aesthetic ("I can attach different acts to different parts of your style”) and career trajectory ("Now you sound like you use people and love things”). He’s softening the contours of the Drake diss in a manner reminiscent of Drake’s softening of rap at large and, Drake, perhaps less hesitant now that his profile’s larger and the argument no longer centers on toughness, is violating his long-held policy of not responding to disses.
Does any of this matter, though? Maybe. Put on what front he may, Drake is nothing if not sensitive to criticism, and Budden’s criticisms of him are maximally suited to get under his skin, particularly since Joe is positioning himself, not incorrectly, as one of Drake’s aesthetic forebears: In three of his four diss tracks Budden refers to himself as Drake’s father in a way calculated to aggravate Drake’s deep-seated insecurities regarding his real father, comparison to whom, as Drake himself admitted long ago (on “Look What You’ve Done”), was the one way to rile him. Even if Drake were to keep calm and carry on, his hive of fans, created in his image, will do no such thing. As suggested by the incident over the past weekend where a small group of teen Drake fans from New Jersey drove over to Budden’s house and harassed him repeatedly until he ran them them down and forced them to apologize, Drake has no shortage of dedicated disciples willing to risk health and decency to score some choice Twitter or Instagram follows. It just about worked, too: Drake actually followed the Instagram account shouted out by one of the kids during the incident. Meanwhile, also on Instagram, Drake’s been sending Budden angry DMs. So much for being above it all.
Before, Drake’s greatest strength in beefs was that his silence signaled that he didn’t care, or cared less. He was going to keep his head down and trudge onward and upward. But now that he’s at the peak of the culture, any move aside from complete silence necessarily lowers his altitude. Obviously Budden’s disses won’t damage Drake’s career in the slightest; one doesn’t hunt down whales with toothpicks, no matter how finely crafted. But Drake’s disproportionately irritated response indicates that Budden has wounded Drake’s self-image, and nothing matters more to Drake than self-image. Though larger than ever in the world’s eyes, the fact and manner of Drake’s reply suggests that Budden, a sort of proto-Drake lacking the finished product’s career aspirations, middle-class respectability, singing voice, and smooth industry relations, has made him feel diminished in his own.
Of course, Drake will never really crack or fall: For one thing, he’s insulated by a shell of handlers whose mass and density is exceeded only by Taylor Swift’s. Drake will always have more money, power, fans, success, and fame than Joe Budden. But in the process of ceasing to strive after money, power, fans, success, and fame, Budden seems to have come into possession of a mode of self-knowledge that Drake, for all his cleverness, can only dream of. Whether personal, professional, or aesthetic, Drake’s charm has always been rooted in the prospect of self-improvement. But if the only way he knows how to respond to blunt, well-intentioned outside criticism (like all of Drake’s strongest critics, Budden really is aiming to help Drake better himself) is with defensive petulance and pettiness, then eventually there’s going to be a limit to his growth — in fact, it’s possible he may already have reached it.