Nothing lasts forever, and the salient feature of dynasties is that they come to an end. Kanye West and Drake have been figuratively warring over the airwaves for about a decade now, with neither party—nor their affiliated hip-hop constellations—quite ready to give up the battle for control of the summer. Winning that war means winning the year: Nothing goes quite so well with hot weather as a hot beat, and these two have them in spades. The rivalry came to a head this year with the G.O.O.D. Music release of Pusha T’s sublime Daytona, almost entirely produced by West, and Drake’s messier Scorpion.
On “Infrared,” Daytona’s last track, Pusha makes the rivalry explicit: He follows up on a relatively old beef, accusing Drake of relying on a ghostwriter for some of his lyrics. (It’s important to note that the beef—between Lil Wayne’s Cash Money label, which hosts Drake, and the Clipse, which granted Pusha T his entrée into rap stardom—began, in 2006, over who wore the A Bathing Ape brand first. It’s that old, and that petty.) Drake responded with a couple of anemic diss tracks, “Duppy Freestyle” and “I’m Upset,” in which the pop star variously announces he’s in shock at Pusha’s audacity and is thinking about buying a semiautomatic pistol and a bulletproof vest. As many have noted, “Infrared” was a feint: Pusha fired back with “The Story of Adidon,” which featured a picture of Drake in blackface on the single’s cover, made digs at Drake’s father and mother, and revealed that the rapper was hiding a child. The beef was ultimately quashed by J Prince, the legendary CEO of the equally legendary Rap-A-Lot Records, but it seems that Pusha and Kanye have won the summer again.
The theatrics, which took place in May, may have generated some excitement, but Kanye and Drake share a larger problem: Their time in the spotlight as the kings of rap and pop, respectively, appears to be coming to an end. Even as Kanye attempts to solidify his position as rap’s preeminent auteur with a spate of G.O.O.D. Music albums, and Drake moves to secure his legacy with Scorpion, both seem to have missed their slide into irrelevance. Hip-hop is a young person’s game; so is pop. A new class of unaffiliated artists, working in the shadow of these two giants, have been awaiting their turn in the spotlight; this summer, they might be the real winners.
In an aesthetically savvy move, Kanye announced earlier this year that he’d be releasing five albums by well-known artists in the G.O.O.D. Music stable, all produced by him. They included Nas’s first album in six years, a collaboration with Kid Cudi, a solo outing from Teyana Taylor, and the albums by Pusha T and West himself, though aside from Daytona, the efforts have been mostly unremarkable. Add to this his embrace of Trump and his outrageous tweeting, and it seems that Kanye is grasping at straws. On all of the albums, the production is characteristically his: The samples are heavy and well-chosen, and even where the rapping is weak, they shine. The problem, however, remains: Nearly all of the albums are retreads of ideas that West ran through in the early ’00s. It seems his originality has gone missing.