Hip-hop rivalries aren’t new, but battlefields have changed CRITIC’S NOTEBOOK
Short videos filled up Cardi B’s Instagram feed last week in rapid succession, choking the geometry of her page like a set of bricks. There were 10 clips of Cardi filming herself talking into her phone, each more aggrieved than the one before it. The subject: Nicki Minaj and the long-stewing tensions between them.
They were in response to a disquisition by Nicki on Queen Radio, her Beats 1 radio show, addressing the altercation between the two and their camps at a Harper’s Bazaar party during New York Fashion Week. Cardi, as is her wont, was direct, addressing Nicki with both indignation and exasperation: “Do you want to be the victim or do you want to be the gangster?”
Cardi vs. Nicki went from internet radio to Instagram, and it had echoes of another recent quarrel that unfolded in similar fashion — Drake vs. Pusha T, a long-running battle, the most recent iteration of which went from cable television to podcast.
In these two recent conflicts, you see similar friction — between a character actor and a literalist, between people who understand hip-hop as high theater and those whose celebrity is premised on something far less varnished.
In an earlier era, the tensions between hip-hop’s most prominent figures might have been confined to music, but in the social media era, the terrain of rap beef has expanded, as have the terms. And as these quarrels have moved off record, they’ve landed in formats that favor those whose success isn’t predicated on carefully built character work. Online, straight talk sells. For stars who have been carefully curating their personas for years, these are destabilizing times.
Both Drake and Nicki are performers. Before Drake was Drake, he was an actor, and he still carries himself with the polish and the ambient self-awareness that come with perpetually being observed. Nicki was a drama major at New York’s Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, and while acting has never been her career, she is by far the most accomplished character performer in hip-hop, a fabulist who uses voice and attitude as creative weaponry.
Though they come from extremely different traditions, Pusha and Cardi are plain-spoken literalists. Pusha made his name more than a decade ago as an ice-in-the-veins bard of drugdealer tales. His verses — largely unchanged over the years — have sharp corners and are delivered with a you-weren’t-there sneer. Cardi emerged as an Instagram personality first, an around-the-way truthteller who triumphed over long odds on the strength of her distinctive personality. She quite literally spoke her fame into existence.
For decades, hip-hop strove to be understood as art, rather than merely autobiography to a beat (though it can certainly be that, as well). And in the last decade especially, the genre’s most effective stars have also been its most fan- tastical, a striking turn away from the literalism of the 1980s and 1990s.
Drake and Nicki, both proteges of Lil Wayne, have been extremely well-suited to this era. But as social media has undone these artifices, the type of artist who thrives in these ecosystems has changed, too.
Drake is a social media savant, but he is also hiphop’s alpha figure and throne holder, and keenly aware of how he presents in all circumstances. He is a master of studied transparency, calculation masked as vulnerability.
Choosing LeBron James’ new HBO show “The Shop” to extend his ongoing feud with Pusha and Kanye West was an apt fit — it is a highly stylized and produced representation of casual banter. It scans as off the cuff but feels epic.
Drake discussed his frenemy relationship with Kanye, both working and personal, grinning slickly when describing “helping” Kanye with songwriting. He reiterated that he recorded a song full of damaging information about Kanye and Pusha but decided not to release it because it was too savage: “This is not something I ever want to be remembered for.” He also said that information about his son — which Pusha had revealed on “The Story of Adidon” before Drake had announced that he was a father — came via Kanye.
This engendered a response from Pusha, who about a week later, went on the Joe Budden Podcast, which is available on Spotify, for some air-clearing.
Nicki Minaj, center, performs with members of Little Mix during the European MTV Awards in Bilbao, Spain, on Nov. 4.
Cardi B accepts the award for favorite rap/hip-hop artist at the American Music Awards on Oct. 9 at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles.
Drake performs at the Staples Center on Oct. 12 in Los Angeles.