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WPGM Commentary: Is Hip-Hop Losing Its Competitive Edge To Subliminals

The 55th Annual GRAMMY Awards - Backstage

First it was Common, then Kendrick Lamar, and now Hov? Can Drake catch a break? NO because this is RAP. It is competitive, it’s a battle of skills, a battle of who is the best. A rapper takes a risk, puts a lyrical mark on his back and calls out other rappers, challenging them to step up to the competition. The only way to claim the title of best rapper is to battle the best. And now that your favourite emo rapper Drake is sending out subliminals to Jay Z, there is a new battle on the brew.

Spitting over the bridge of Lauryn Hill’s “Doo-Wop (That Thing)”, Drake headlined “Draft Day” with this line, “just hits, no misses, that’s for the married folk”. Did he come at Jay? It isn’t clear but Hip-Hop heads who have been keeping up, know that Jay Z threw fade at Drake in his remix to Soulja Boy and Drake’s “We Made it”, with Jay Electronica.

Hov was responding to Drake’s interview with Rolling Stone Magazine in their February issue, where he discusses Jay’s art collection. His comments went like this, “it’s like Hov can’t drop bars these days without at least four art references! I would love to collect at some point, but I think the whole rap/art world thing is getting kind of corny“. Then came Jay in “We Made It” with “sorry Miss Drizzy for so much art talk, silly me rapping ’bout shit that I really bought, while these rappers rap ’bout guns they ain’t shot”.

Jay Z – “We Made It”:

Now the discussion starts. Are these ‘side disses’ as legit as name-dropping diss records?

Think about the rap beefs where names have been called like the feud between Eminem and Benzino. First Benzino tried to come at Em, claiming he made racial slurs against Black women. Eminem hit back crushing with “Nail In The Coffin” and “The Sauce”, where he laughed while imagining Benzino being held out of a window. That was a clear name drop, but who can argue that it’s any more legitimate than Memphis Bleek’s diss at Nas on “Mind Right”? Bleek calls no names but his diss is just as direct, we know who the song is directed at.

Today, 50 Cent thinks Rap music isn’t as direct as it used to be. For him, subliminal jabs have made Hip Hop soft, but just because rappers are subliminal in their attacks, does it mean rap has gone soft? Truth be told, this kind of sneak dissing has long been a part of the culture. Let’s admit, even the sneakiest of jabs have made an effect in the rap game.

The likes of Jay Z, Nas, Ja Rule, 50 Cent, the Notorious B.I.G & even Tupac have all taken some cheap shots at their contenders at some points in their careers. Biggie put out “Who Shot Ya” in February 1995 and we pieced that puzzle together quickly, but this is one subliminal diss record gone wrong. Biggie maintained that the song wasn’t aimed at Tupac and was recorded before Pac was shot in New York’s Quad Studios in November 1994, however the song added more fuel to the already lit fire because Tupac believed Biggie and Diddy set him up for the ’94 robbery and shooting. Some of the song’s telling lyrics, like recognize my face, so there won’t be no mistake / so you know where to tell Jake / Lame ni**a, brave ni**a / turn front page, ni**a, and the timing of the song’s release make it an obvious subliminal diss record.

Notorious B.I.G – “Who Shot Ya?”:

The Nicki Minaj and Lil Kim dispute is another founded solely on subliminal messages. Lil Kim has been gunning for Nicki ever since she burst onto the scene, Kim remains mad that Nicki never publicly thanked her for her influence on Nicki’s style and image. Nicki never responded, but it seemed like she was saving her aggression for her Pink Friday debut album, where on “Roman’s Revenge”, she spits “shoulda sent a ‘thank you’ note you lil’ hoe / now I’ma wrap your coffin with a bow / (Nicki she just mad ’cause you took her spot) / word that bi**h mad ’cause I took the spot”. Nicki denied she was aiming for Lil Kim, but the lyrics say it all, she was definitely talking about Kim.

These kinds of ‘subliminals’ are weak, especially when the rapper doesn’t claim to be dissing anyone directly. If you are going to sneak diss, own up to it. If Nicki had, it would have made the diss record that much better. Is Drake going to own up to his? Some would say in order to challenge your competition, you have to be bold and come direct. Cue in Kendrick Lamar’s “Control” verse, and that goes for Jermaine Cole, Big KRIT, Wale / Pusha T, Meek Millz, A$AP Rocky, Drake / Big Sean, Jay Electron’, Tyler, Mac Miller / I got love for you all but I’m tryna murder you n***as / tryna make sure your core fans never heard of you n***as / they don’t wanna hear not one more noun or verb from you n***as.

Kendrick Lamar – “Control”:

What a call to arms! This is how you steer up healthy competition. No subliminal, just straight bars coming straight for you. Some rappers like to take this direct approach, Tupac was one of them. On diss tracks like “Hit Em Up” and “When We Ride On Our Enemies”, he calls out every one of his enemies by name. Given the context of the ‘East Coast versus West Coast’ beef, Tupac’s straight forward manner is the most effective – the disses are never misunderstood.

I’m not saying that you have to name-drop, there are songs where no names have been called but we know who the rappers are talking about. Like the 50 Cent and Ja Rule beef, the songs “Life’s On The Line” and “Wanksta” mentioned no names, but you knew that 50 was talking about Ja. Those songs were just as effective as when he did name drop Ja in “I Smell P***y”. Even when Foxy Brown disses Lil Kim on “Bang Bang“, she doesn’t say Kim’s name but she opens her verse the same way Kim did on “Quiet Storm”, with the lyrics hot damn, ho, here we go again. Foxy’s lines are direct without saying Kim’s name – we all knew who her lyrical tirades were aimed at.

Foxy Brown – “Bang Bang”:

These intricate subliminal lyrics make the listener listen closely and pay attention to what the rapper is saying. This is the significant in-between of Drake’s very subliminal approach and Kendrick’s name dropping verse. Drake’s line can be directed at anybody, but what makes a subliminal diss record strong is when the listener still knows who the diss is directed at, without any doubts or questions. A subliminal can be just as effective as a name-drop but it’s got to be creative. That Drake verse on “Draft Day” lacks creativity… Hip-Hop today lacks creativity.

Words by Chenae Rodrigues // Edited by Ayo Adepoju

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