For starters, let's think about the album tracks that Cole and Kendrick chose. "A Tale Of Two Citiez" is the most aggressive track on 2014 Forest Hills Drive, and "Alright" is the most chipper on TPAB, but they're linked in their commercial appeal and somewhat disguised political commentary. Cole would sound more at home on "Momma," and Kendrick could've delivered a more thrilling "Fire Squad" remix than everyone else who's attempted one, but it was clear that they both wanted to go for mass appeal after releasing their artsiest full-lengths to date. Cole gets his hands on a track that's done more damage on the radio than anything on his album, and Dot satisfies the TPAB naysayers by setting his paintbrush down and once more going to battle.
Although they both tie in nods to their most recent material, it's immediately clear that while intellectualism won't be sacrificed (duh), shit-talking bravado is the aim here. For these two, that entails just as much community-minded ranting as it does individualistic swagger-- politics, the state of the rap game, and fame-phobia being some of their favorite topics-- but this time around that resembles a passionate protest much more so than a nuanced persuasive essay. The specters of Donald Trump, police profiling and unfair taxation lurk over Lamar and Cole's verses, but both seem to be there more for punchline's sake ("Play with him, bitch you better off voting for Donald Trump," "Got a middle finger for Uncle Sam / I done paid so much taxes I can fund Japan") than provoking deep thought.
The two MCs look down their noses at the rest of the rap game, with Kendrick asking us to abort "baby rappers" and Cole claims that biting his flow will give you Ebola. Search for subliminals aimed at mutual foe Drake all you want, but somewhat surprisingly, it's Cole who has the most apparent one: "If I quote it, n*gga / I wrote it, n*gga." Their disdain continues its common thread in their views on fame and money, each nodding to their personal hypocrisies when it comes to their elevated status. After bragging about his sold-out stadium tour and "cream like a Laker," Cole catches himself with a "But I ain’t coming to talk about all that paper / That’s what they talk about when they ain’t got shit to say"; similarly, Kendrick's claim that he's "rollin' deep in that paper like two Adeles" is countered seconds later with the downside of his flush bank account: "It’s seven figures and retainer for the case nowadays." These are two confident-but-conflicted guys who are equally unafraid of boasting and humbling themselves.
As far as references go, most importantly they both take time to let us know who's responsible for putting this together, with Dreamville president Ibrahim Hamad getting doubly name-checked. They're both well-read, voracious listeners, and that shows with Cole's nod to "Robert's Rules Of Order" and "Ain't No Way Around It," and Kendrick's Tupac-via-Shakespeare quote and allusions to "Belly" and "Friday."