A Battle of Egos
It’s hard for me to call what Drake and Kanye West have going on a “beef.” It’s just too petulant, too childish in its back and forth name-calling and veiled missives. What we actually have here is simply a tiff amongst wealthy denizens. It is ostensibly about a lot of he-said, he-said speculation, but really it’s about two egos that have gotten too big to occupy the same stratosphere. A fight over relevancy that neither one of them has much a tight grip on.
Let’s start with Kanye:
Last week, after numerous delays, a lot of tinkering, and a residency at multiple NFL stadiums, DONDA finally arrived. The nicest thing I can say about it is that it’s his best since The Life of Pablo, unfortunately that doesn’t mean much of anything. Musically, Kanye has been spiraling into a creative slump for at least half a decade now. It’s as if Yeezus was an exorcism of everything interesting and adventurous he had left inside of him, and ever since he’s steadily gotten more and more boring, with a few flashes of genius to convince you he could still reach those highs again. Truth bbe told though, a big reason for Kanye’s decline is that his interest in music has waned in favor of the true avenue of his artistic creativity: celebrity.
The reason people can’t quit Kanye is because he is still an unreal spectacle. The kind of unchecked id that used to prevalent throughout Hollywood. The last of the “genius” mohicans. The spectacle of DONDA was mostly a success: the listening parties-cum-performance art exhibition turned Kanye’s persecution complex and his religious fanaticism around “God” (really like everything else it’s actually about the religion of the self) made for an impressive show. It was gothic, campy, insane, poignant, narcissistic, and re-ignited “Illuminati” conspiracies like it was 2010 again. A stadium full of people watching Kanye dance around on stage and be swarmed by hooded followers encircling him, watching him float to the top of the Mercedes-Benz dome in Atlanta or set himself on fire in Soldier Field in Chicago. It was all extremely pretentious and ridiculous, and by the time of the third event where DaBaby and Marilyn Manson showed up, it was also plenty antagonistic. A reminder that he’s still the same guy, uninterested in being welcomed back to polite progressive society. The whole thing was such an ordeal, you might be forgiven for not noticing that the music was pretty bland. That almost seemed the point at times.
The album that shares his mother’s name is no more about her than his last one Jesus Is King was about the Lord. Every West project is about West, for better or worse. A man who both feels caged in and driven mad by his success but wants even more. A man who wants God to save him, but after just a little more sin first. There’s a popular idea from people that lie to themselves that something broke inside Kanye when his mother died and he wasn’t figured out how to get back on track since. This is much too pat an excuse (or explanation), it seems to me that the same ego that he credits with getting him to where he is now, can only go unchecked for so long before it becomes too much for a mere mortal to contain. Kanye is looking less for God to save him than he is to become that God himself.
And then we have Drake:
The man who made a career “off reminiscing” is just as insane but it plays out in a much different manner. Drake isn’t the first millennial rapper but he might be the MOST millennial rapper. His music is a narcotized Ambien, full of memories of a fictional better past and a lonely, unfulfilling present regardless of how many vacation photos are being posted. Certified Lover Boy, his latest album, does not try to reinvent the wheel the way Kanye aims to with every release, it’s more of the same and it’s up to you to decide whether this is a good version or a bad one. For all of the animosity Drake receives, he does understand that people want to listen to actual songs: songs for the club, songs to get ready for the club to, songs to drive home from the club to, as opposed to Ye who will make a two-hour exhaustive-gospel-art-musical-performance-set-piece, but have no actual songs to just enjoy out of context. A big reason for Drake’s continued success is as simple as this. Drake is every bit the corporation Kanye is now but he is more interested in being efficient, reliable Microsoft to Ye’s Apple self-aggrandizement. People will buy Drake merch because it’s Drake, the same goes for Kanye, but only Kanye thinks his clothes “mean something.”
Much of Drake’s ego comes from the very fact of his success. It’s like that Mr. Show sketch “more money = better than,” his greatness is stamped in his mind because of how successful and relevant he is and he doesn’t think he needs to be more than that. He sees himself as God’s loneliest man: he wants love but being so successful makes love impossible because he somehow needs to be loved both in spite of who he is and because of it. His relationship problems amount to needing complete fealty and understanding. He might not come out and think of himself as God but he sure wants you to do it for him.
Drake has allowed his narcissism to push away everyone not already in his circle. Further hibernating into his gaudy fortress and resentful of the women he can’t own. Instead of using celebrity as a canvas for artistic expression, he just earnestly leans into being one of the most famous people in the world. The most Michael Jackson aspect of Drake is that he’s like a gleeful child that can’t grow up, behaving like the kid in Big. They also cling to surgery to make themselves into what they think will make them more attractive to the world.
Drake, like Kanye, is a vampire musically. Creatively sucking the life force of much more exciting, young artists like Playboi Carti or Tems for their own survival. While Kanye is Tywin Lannister like in the way he manipulates artists and producers, turning them into tools or pieces on a chessboard to be moved around or discarded however he pleases for the sake of a Steve Jobs-esque vision. Drake is Galactus, eating up cultural styles and regional histories, for his delights. Neither artist seems to fit the box we want for our mega famous elite, which is to be #unproblematic and to “speak to the awful state of the world we’re living in;” truth told they—and we—are better off for it. They continue to be two sides of a similar coin as people but that’s likely why they can’t seem to coexist at the moment. Someone needs to ramp down their pride for the other and that’s an impossible request at this point in their lives.
The reason this is more tiff than beef is evident in how similar the featured artists lists are between the two albums. They’re working in the same swamp and because they like being rich they won’t rock the boat because this is an industry of relationships. They’ll just keep sniping and being passive aggressive like suburban parents are wont to do. I don’t hate CLB, nor do I hate DONDA, they’re ultimately just unsatisfying though. There’s a soullessness to all of it but that has also become pat for the course of major label rap music, as hip-hop is now fully corporatized. To paraphrase Stephen Malkmus: “say goodnight to the Hip-Hop era, cause they don’t need you anymore.” The ones who care about these two the most are probably more excited for the #merch than for any of this music. That’s the thing about Kanye’s obsession with brand and building this idiosyncratic fashion empire, for all the bluster he’ll give you about how in tune he is with what’s hot and new and relevant, his stuff sells out for the reason everyone else’s also sells out: the hype of having a celeb name attached. There’s no discernment anymore, it’s all consumption for the sake of. And watching two rich guys argue over being king of the mindless content is just not worth your energy.