It’s interesting—and somewhat sad—that this decade’s only two meaningful rap beefs have involved attempts to sink the same floating dead body.
It started in 2015, when everyone’s favorite manila-folder-complected, suburban Torontonian, Drake, traded “bars” with the somewhat less-meaningful Philly maestro of shout raps, Meek Mill. Though Meek exposed Drizzy for employing ghostwriters—a damning accusation in the world of real hip-hop—Drake’s legions of postpubescent female fans didn’t seem to care that he’s a bona fide goddamn fraud.
A year later, homie Robert Rihmeek Williams somehow managed to haplessly trip into another beef with the Game, dusty Philly street rapper Beanie Sigel and useless dancehall queen Sean Kingston in a cavalcade of messiness that sounds as if it was cooked up in a game of Cards Against Humanity.
If Drake’s response tracks (one of which was nominated for a Grammy) were physical entities, they’d evaporate upon touching water. But Game curb-stomped Meek so bad that Nicki Minaj is probably having earnest conversations with her mama about how to proceed in this life. All of Meek’s responses have been trash-bag, and his loss in both battles is uncontested by anyone who didn’t carry him in utero.
But at least bars (or things resembling them) were exchanged—a significant occurrence in an age when they seem to matter progressively less.
I’d hate for the younger generation to look at today’s rap “beef” and think that’s what it was always like. Grabbing a notepad and stepping in the studio with bellicose bars of fury has been replaced with bitching via 140 characters on Twitter, which is the rap-beef equivalent of showing your support for a tragedy with a flag filter.
While there are now many who weren’t yet drawing breath when rap beef became a significant part of hip-hop. There have been many throughout the past three-and-a-half decades or so, but these are my favorites:
Jadakiss vs. Beanie Sigel
Thanks to his little tangle with Meek Mill and the Game (not to mention a quasi-coherent appearance in a BET Hip-Hop Awards cypher and squabbling with Charlamagne on The Breakfast Club), One-Lung Beans is kinda, sorta back in the public spotlight now. In the year the towers fell, though, he was an East Coast rap titan who got into a bar-trading beef with peer Jadakiss, thanks to a stupid misunderstanding. I wouldn’t have put one emcee over the other in relation to skills back then, but Kiss caught the L when Beans murdered him on his own beat. Winner: Beanie Sigel.
50 Cent vs. Ja Rule
As much as I loathed 50 Cent in the midaughts for being a power-hungry douche canoe with two overrated albums, it was impressive to see his crushing influence transform grunt-rap-singing progenitor Ja Rule from a multiplatinum artist into a would-be lettuce supervisor at McDowell’s. Ja’s fall from grace included a two-year bid for gun charges and tax evasion, and a post-prison album that went double Kleenex. While neither man really matters as a rapper in late 2016, Curtis is definitely doing better these days. That they picked the beef back up via Twitter last year is simply a reminder of how sad it is when dusty, 40-something rap niggas settle anything using social media. Winner: 50 Cent.
Common vs. Ice Cube
Unless it’s playing at my salon while I‘m getting a pedicure, I’ll probably never watch the most recent Barbershop film. But I know that Common and Cube are buddy-buddy in the film, and most uninitiated viewers were probably like, “Ooh, the guys from Road Trip and Are We There Yet? Awesome sauce!” But heads remember when Rashid suggested in his classic “I Used to Love H.E.R.” that hip-hop fell off when the West Coast went mainstream. Cube’s Westside Connection clapped back with a record that no one remembers, provoking Common’s riposte “The Bitch in Yoo,” a top five GOAT diss record. Both men have had successful careers since 1996, but from a purely rap standpoint, Com takes it. Check out this good retrospective on the beef. Winner: Common.
Boogie Down Productions vs. the Juice Crew
This is for the gray-haired heads too busy driving their children to basketball practice to check for new hip-hop. The battle between KRS-One’s BDP and MC Shan’s Juice Crew was strictly about staking a claim to hip-hop’s origins. When Shan intimated on “The Bridge” that hip-hop started in New York City’s Queensbridge projects, BDP responded with “South Bronx,” letting cats know about the true birth borough of hip-hop. And so on and so forth it went, with a trading of tracks that, let’s be honest, no one is casually listening to in 2016. From a perspective of career longevity, KRS-One has it, but I can’t rightly say there’s a winner here. If you want a less corny peek into the history of hip-hop than Netflix’s The Get Down could muster, read up on this beef. Winner: Draw.
Tupac vs. the Notorious B.I.G.
The genre’s most culturally impactful beef because it defined a generation of hip-hop and (allegedly) resulted in the death of two hip-hop legends. Books and articles (some more credible than others) have been written on the topic of the Pac-Biggie beef and the years long East Coast-West Coast rap war that culminated in their murders. But while Big was the stronger rapper of the two, by far (fight me), Pac issued the strongest salvo with “Hit ’Em Up” and the extremely disrespectful accompanying video. Back when it was OK to rap about banging someone else’s wife and not expect a Salon.com think piece condemning it. Winner: Tupac.
N.W.A vs. Ice Cube
Proof that you don’t alienate the LeBron of your team without negative consequences. Anyone who knows what he’s talking about will tell you that N.W.A would not have been the powerhouse it was without Cube. When O’Shea found out he was getting bent over on royalties (with no Vaseline), he left the group, which in turn took shots at him on wax. Cube ended the bullshit with “No Vaseline,” a scathing indictment of a whole crew of—let’s be honest—fake gangsta-ass niggas. Folks don’t remember what N.W.A said about Cube, but everyone remembers “No Vaseline,” performed to great effect in Straight Outta Compton. Winner: Ice Cube.
Jay Z vs. Nas
The gold standard for rap beef, mainly because the two rappers co-owned New York—and, by extension, hip-hop—in 2001, when they stopped taking little pot shots at each other and went hard body. They are also arguably the two strongest emcees to engage in a war of bars with each other.
“Takeover” is a hot, early-era Kanye West track from Jay’s second-best album, but “Ether” reminded everyone that Nas is the superior rapper. Hov was so butt-hurt over the perceived loss that he crafted “Super Ugly,” a completely outta-line diss track that makes the Drake-Cudi business seem like light work and even provoked Jay’s mama to have him apologize publicly.
Despite squashing their beef, they’ve yet to create the classic joint album we all wanted—something their egos probably won’t abide. It’s been a long time since there were two truly dope mainstream rappers who could craft a meaningful rivalry like this; it would be akin to Kendrick Lamar going to war with … some dude we don’t know exists yet. Winner: Nas.