The art of the competitive, lyrical battle rap has been missing from the mainstream wave for years, maybe decades. Hip-hop has blessed fans with a plethora of beefs that have yielded diss songs, to be sure, but those tracks cannot necessarily be classified as "friendly competition." Diss records such as “Back 2 Back,” “The Story Of Adidon,” “Ether,” or “300 Bars & Runnin’” were not written with any sort of "mutual respect" in mind. Most diss records are meant to destroy the opponent, with truces possibly being formed years later. Possibly. And then there’s the subliminal shots, which again, may spark or fuel beef, but do not necessarily equate to lyrical competition. Competing to have the hottest verse or the most records sales also feels like a cheap way of tallying lyrical greatness. Justin Beiber can sell millions of records, but that doesn’t make him the dopest writer in the game. When factors such as the Grammys, the Billboard charts, and bank account statuses are left out of the conversation, hip-hop is stripped down to its true form: poetry. Who has the most vicious iambic pentameter, or most mind-blowing metaphors? Then, taking it up another level, who can simultaneously uses those poetic skills while ripping their opponent to shreds?
The idea of two rappers battling, and remaining affable afterward, has always existed in the underbelly of hip-hop. Up-and-comers and lyrical tyrants organize their own cyphers, opting to test their skills at open mics and sponsored events. Think of it in the same way NBA players battle with ferocity on the court, but then go out to Drai’s together. They say that steel sharpens steel, meaning competing at a high level will make you more deadly. That competitive spirit, without the presence of actual contempt and malice, is something that hip-hop has been lacking. Tory Lanez brought the culture exactly what it’s been missing. He stirred the pot, possibly more than he intended, back in November of 2018. Lanez boasted that he was better than Joyner Lucas during an Instagram Live session, a claim that reached the “I’m Not Racist” rapper almost immediately. Lucas challenged Lanez to a rap battle, which birthed a number of back and forth diss records such as the “Lucky You Freestyle” and the “ZEZE Freestyle.” During the battle, Lanez entered into online disputes with those who took his opponent's side in the lyrical beef. Royce Da 5’9 is an OG whose opinion holds weight in the culture, and Lanez went after him on social media when the Detroit spitter sided with Lucas. Their online spat ended quickly, but the situation brought newfound energy and excitement to hip-hop in the few days it unfolded. Those who weren’t even involved, and seemingly had no connection to the sparring-- case-in-point, Jag-- threw themselves into the ring to get a piece of the action. While Jag's diss track may have been a lackluster shot in the dark, it's not difficult to understand why he did it: there were millions of fans keeping watch, hoping to see a battle unfold. The opinions of fans can sway the overall competition too, with every comment, like, and share adding fuel to the fire. The competitive yet friendly spirit of hip-hop was awake.
Enter 2019. Lanez started the year off by calling out several artists. His constant competitive energy has been viewed as clout chasing by some, but those who understand the culture view it much differently. This is hip-hop at its roots. Lanez recently declared himself the best rapper alive, a tried and true technique when it comes to eliciting the rap game’s attention. However, he also named a couple of names-- Pusha T and J. Cole. “Don’t tell me nothing about Cole or Pusha T Either,” he tweeted. “I gave them both an equal opportunity to go bar for bar with me. And they weren’t READY.” Lanez didn't stop there. When a brave internet warrior climbed into the comment section of one of our Instagram posts praising Lanez, the Canadian artist responded with equal vigor. Accused by the commenter of being intimidated by Eminem, Lanez responded, “NOONE DUCKING EMINEM. This ain't poppa dock off 8 Mile.” Lanez essentially placed a target on his own back, one that he designed to lure in his opponents. Within days, his adversaries struck back.
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Don Q was first. The New York-bred rapper accused Tory Lanez of stealing his lyrics. Don’s accusations came along with a battle track called "I'm Not Joyner.” Don’s attack was clearly set up by Lanez’s battle cry, with the rapper first replying on twitter, cautioning Tory to “relax,” before taking it to the booth. If not for Lanez attempting to rally opponents for a lyrical competition, Don’s track may have never surfaced. Lanez snapped back at him with “Don Queen,” but was hit with a second track from Don on the same day. Before Lanez and Don’s battle could fully play out, J.I.D then inserted himself into the conversation. The Dreamville artist didn’t appreciate Lanez’s shot at J. Cole, and began to troll the Canadian artist online with balding jokes. Lanez and J.I.D were on tour together in 2016, and a mutual respect appears to have grown from their time together. Still, J.I.D wasn’t backing down. Lanez issued a challenge to the entire Dreamville roster in response, and they responded with excitement. As both Don Q and Dreamville opened the floodgates, Mysonne and Dreamdoll dropped battle records of their own aimed at Lanez. The competition was in full swing.
Oftentimes, if a rapper even mentions another artist in a negative light it can be the cause beef. However, what Lanez has been engineering is an overall shift back to the roots of hip-hop. He’s having fun, and pushing rappers to bring their A-game to the competition. The battles Lanez has engineered are more about proving lyrical talent than they are about utterly destroying an opponent. There are no hard feelings or real grudges here, just like on the basketball court. We’ve watched Steph Curry and Lebron James face off for four finals, their rivalry will become legend. But the two men can still compliment each other when a journalist asks, opting to leave their ferocity on the court. That same mentality is etched into the soul of hip-hop, and Lanez has resurrected the spirit of that competition.