If you’ve been following our breathless coverage of all things Drake in recent weeks, then you probably know the Toronto rapper closed his sixth annual OVO Fest Monday with a thunderous headlining performance. He brought out a wide array of guests — Kanye West, Pharrell, Future, Skepta, Big Sean, and Travi$ Scott, but who’s counting — and ripped through almost all of his best recent tracks and features, from "Energy" to "Tuesday."
But Monday night’s show isn’t going to be remembered for its slate of surprise cameos, and it’s not going to be remembered for its dense setlist. It’s going to be remembered for Drake’s Philadelphian contemporary, Meek Mill, and the way the festival’s host stomped all over their nascent spat like a high school prom king shoving a teenage pleb into an empty locker.
Drake was juvenile, petty, malicious, and undeniably thorough
It was that kind of humiliation: juvenile, petty, malicious, but undeniably comprehensive. There’s no need for a roundtable anymore; Drake has emerged from this challenge triumphant. But there are some questions that warrant answers: Why did Drake feel the need to respond with such force? What skills gave him a decisive edge over Meek when it came to capturing the court of public opinion? And what, if anything, did this cost him?
A brief recap, for those of you who’ve managed to make it this far without a clue what’s going on: about two weeks ago, Meek lit into Drake on Twitter and accused him of using a ghostwriter, a volatile assertion given the importance hip-hop places on authorial intent. (Meek’s tirade came after Drake failed to promote his new album Dreams Worth More Than Money, which happens to include a Drake feature on the song "R.I.C.O.") Drake responded with a warped, oblique diss track, "Charged Up," which premiered during his OVO Sound radio show on Beats 1 on July 25th. A few days passed without word from Meek, enough time to Drake to jab again with the pugnacious "Back to Back" on July 29th. By the time Meek cobbled together and released "Wanna Know" on the night of July 30th, Drake had accrued enough momentum to mute the song’s impact. (It didn’t help that it was terrible.)
That brings us to OVO Fest, where Drake sealed in a decisive victory. He performed "Charged Up" and "Back to Back" to a sea of adoring fans in front of a slideshow of fan-made Meek Mill memes. He teased a third diss track, "3Peat," that probably doesn’t need to see the light of day unless he wants a victory lap. He wore a "Free Meek Mill" T-shirt, a reference to Meek’s prison stint in 2014. He had Kanye and Will Smith (!) howling at a few more Meek jokes backstage. Meek came back with… tooth whitener promotion on Instagram.
Drake has been working on sonic and personal calcification
Meek’s initial challenge gave Drake an opportunity to put a cap on a sonic and personal calcification project, one he’s been working on ever since releasing Take Care in 2011. That album, his second, was baroque, open, and generous, and it took every criticism levied at Drake to that point — his lack of technical skill, his surface-level introspection, his general corniness — and turned them into strengths. It was confident and even conceited at times, but its confidence didn’t have much to do with Drake’s position relative to his contemporaries. Instead, it was the work of a rising star, one looking back on his relatively humble beginnings and surveying what would become a kingdom. It wasn’t anywhere close to being called "tough."
Drake’s music began to change after Take Care, and it’s hard to separate the organic developments from the conscious choices. Released two years later, Nothing Was the Same found him hardened by fame and the pressure of sitting at a genre’s vanguard; with a few exceptions, it was colder, more paranoid, more insular. If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late retreated even further into his mind, with icy, hookless composition and the most ferocious, cutting rapping of his career. He was choosing to pursue the darkest parts of his celebrity, and that choice manifested itself in his music. And when Meek decided to come at him, it gave him a chance to reinforce his musical message with some action: mess with me, and you’ll end up a laughingstock.
He was able to push Meek into the realm of online infamy because he understands how the internet works. That sounds flippant, but it’s not: Drake’s grasp of the internet’s speed and language is almost unparalleled among other public figures, let alone rapping contemporaries. He understood the importance of striking quickly after Meek’s initial comments, putting a track together in just a few days — and when Meek failed to deliver a comeback with the same speed, he seized the floor again, rapping with sharpness and good humor. His choice to rap in front of a meme slideshow was laughable considering he rapped "Fuck goin’ online, that ain’t part of my day" earlier this year, but it was indicative of his intelligence; it was the best way to harness the sense of public "participation" in the feud. And like any veteran troll, he combined diversionary tactics and outsized reaction to great effect. After two full diss tracks, plenty of pithy social media maneuvers, and a whole festival's worth of trolling, Drake still hasn't directly responded to Meek's initial attack. (It's worth noting that Meek brought the receipts, too: "Wanna Know" may be terrible, but it's studded with reference tracks Quentin Miller ostensibly recorded for Drake.)
His use of Nicki's career and prominence has been distasteful and retrograde
Drake may have earned a consensus victory in this little tussle, but a new problem has emerged: he now risks becoming a out-and-out villain, a role he has yet to play. In pursuing flintiness and undertaking a controlled demolition of Meek’s career, he’s had to mortgage the "nice Drake" that’s more familiar to fans and onlookers: the genial ESPY host; the SNL star; the finely bearded, eager Wimbledon fan tailing after Serena Williams like a puppy. He needs to be vicious in self-defense, sure — but give it a week, and he’ll be back to posting goofy Instagram videos and rolling lint off of an argyle cardigan at various sporting events. I’m not sure people are going to forget this display so easily: the ad hominem attacks on Meek’s character, success, and especially his girlfriend; the palpable malice; the fact that he’s opting for obliteration when he could’ve dismissed this with a royal wave. (His use of Nicki’s career, her prominence, and their friendship as a base for shots at Meek has been particularly distasteful and retrograde.) If anything’s become clear in the last two weeks, it’s that this whole ordeal has been unnecessary. Drake’s writing is just one piece of his appeal and influence, and there’s enough ambiguity surrounding the ghostwriting accusations for most people to dismiss them.
It’s hard to imagine the Drake of five (or even two) years ago coming off this spiteful, this vindictive, this mean. A response like "Charged Up" would've sat within the realm of possibility; the addition of "Back to Back" and all of his OVO stunting pushed him into new territory. (Based on his choices over that period of time, that might be exactly what he wants to hear.) There may be a few more parting shots from either side, but Drake and Meek’s beef is over — and with it, so is a major transitional phase in Drake’s career. Say goodbye to that Drake from four years ago. All that’s left is learning which Drake comes next.
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