It’s barely June, but hip-hop fans are already feeling the heat. Over Memorial Day weekend, rap fans and onlookers saw Drake and Pusha T ignite the powder keg that is their long-brewing feud.
Pusha T, who on Twitter goes by the nickname “Pusha Tea,” released his latest album “DAYTONA” last Friday. Aside from the album’s controversial cover of Whitney Houston’s bathroom, the album was met with acclaim from the hip-hop community and critics alike, thanks to its soul-heavy production and acerbic lyricism.
The final track, “Infrared,” addresses several topics, including the ills of the rap industry. However, that’s not what the Internet heard. Talk on social media focused primarily on his shots at Drake, accusing him of having a ghost writer. Pusha T also asserts on “Infrared” that it is an industry standard for artists to become “gimmicks” or “sock puppets.”
“How could you ever right these wrongs / When you don’t even write your songs?” — Pusha T on Infrared
In a recent interview with hip-hop radio personality Ebro, Pusha T clarified that his riff on Drake was an overdue response to Drake’s record “Two Birds, One Stone” off his 2017 commercial mix tape “More Life.”
“But really it’s you with all the drug dealer stories / That’s gotta stop, though
You made a couple chops, and now you think you Chapo” — Drake on “Two Birds, One Stone”
Drake’s well-timed response to “Infrared” was “Duppy Freestyle,” released just hours after Pusha T’s album was out. On the track, Drake doubles down on questioning Pusha T’s drug-dealing history and even calls out Kanye West, who produced all of “DAYTONA.” Without warning, Pusha T returned fire with “Story of Adidon.” The song not only addresses allegations that Drake has a child with an adult film actress and questions his family’s rocky past, but the track art features a photo of him in blackface.
The photos were part of a shoot Drake did with photographer David Leyes around 2008. Leyes took the photos down from his website shortly after Pusha T premiered Story of Adidon (they’re still visible here.)
Drake responded Wednesday night on Instagram, defending the photo as a critique on how African Americans were “wrongfully portrayed in entertainment.”
Washington Post staffers Nia Decaille and Aaron Williams sat down to discuss Pusha T and Drake’s vitriolic war of words, the culture of rap battles and the use of blackface in African American pop culture.
The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Nia: I am concerned about Drake’s blackface, but I feel like this fade would hit even harder if this was laid out on a Common or Kendrick or somebody who has been actively vocal about standing up in the black community and having something to say about that. Do I think that excuses him? No. But I feel like Pusha T sharing this blackface photo would have had more of an impact on somebody where that’s the crux of their music career.
Aaron: But you could also argue that part of what’s made Drake “Drake” is that because he is Canadian and Jewish and black, he can occupy multiple spaces in a way that Kendrick can’t. Again, we don’t know Drake’s intentions because there are two photos: the one that’s used on the track where he’s smiling and gleeful, and it’s in color, and the one where he’s somber, and he’s not smiling. Eyes closed. Mouth closed. And the photo is black and white.
Nia: If we’re going to get into art and expression and blackness, I also didn’t like watching Donald Glover in “This is America” hold a gun and shoot another black man. And like in the first minute of the video … and the minstrel dance, like, let’s not forget that. So Donald Glover wasn’t wearing blackface in that video, but the critique was how far is too far when a black person creates art about the black community or blackness …
Looking back on the history of rap beef, like what constitutes as going too far? I mean rap has always had kind of an athletic nature. It’s like a competitive sport, but is bringing up Drake’s “secret” child or Pusha T’s significant other too far?
Aaron: It is a competitive sport. A lot of people forget that. Hip-hop is music, but from the early days of the genre, you had KRS One and Boogie Down Productions vs. MC Shan and the Juice Crew. Hip-hop has had beef between rappers on who’s better and who’s borough’s bigger since the jump. It’s part of the culture. … “Ether,” Nas’s iconic diss track toward Jay-Z, was turned into a verb, you know what I mean? That’s how big that diss was. Whenever someone gets dissed, people are like, “oh he got ethered.”
Nia: But you know what else kind of worries me? It’s not only just that Twitter smoke that we create on our timeline. I also wonder how people outside of marginalized communities that don’t necessarily understand the culture around it will interpret what hip-hop is. If they feed into the gimmicks and the rap beef, do they really understand the legacy of hip-hop music, and do they respect it? … My best example of this actually is not this situation but the beef between Rémy Ma and Nicki Minaj. It made me think, “What are we saying if we choose sides?” Are we saying that there can still only be one female rapper at the top? Are we saying in this case that there can only be one kind of rap that’s “real”? You know, it’s a competitive sport. I don’t know, maybe there is such a thing as being a bad sport when it comes to hip-hop.
Aaron: Drake is very much the poster child for the modern era of hip-hop in different ways. He’s been a very effective cultural chameleon, if you will. … But I do think this is an interesting battle of two generations of rap because Pusha T’s latest album, “DAYTONA,” is inspired by albums like Raekwon’s “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx” and N.W.A’s “Straight Outta Compton.” He’s representing a very specific era and style of rap that was about Mafioso crime, incredibly well-produced beats and incredibly well-rapped rhymes. He is trying to make music for people who still like that kind of hip-hop.
Nia: And Drake is able to inhabit both circles. He is white and black. His commercial and musical success, as well as his light-skin privilege, made him palatable in America’s living rooms. But I think what’s interesting about this blackface photo is that it’s now bringing up the “but can he really?” Is it right that he can inhabit both worlds, and is that a privilege of being white? And you know, can we confiscate the black card?
Aaron: On “Diplomatic Immunity,” Drake has this line where he says, “Black excellence, but I guess when it comes to me it’s not the same though, all goodie/That just pushed me to do the things we all couldn’t.” He’s alluded to the fact that when you think of great black artists today, his name doesn’t come to mind. You immediately think of, like, Kendrick or even J. Cole, who’s also biracial.
Nia: This is kind of forcing us to kind of look at his privilege. Because it’s easy. I mean he makes music and he makes great music for women. He just came out with the video with that all-women cast, “Nice for What,” the song of the summer, which is probably still going to bop after all of this is done. But, like, it makes you think, like, no he did not just … He … He wore black face? And he’s half white? It all makes you think, “Wow, you know he has used this to his advantage.” And now people are going to check him on that.
Aaron: Will we look back on this and say that was a really good rap beef, kind of like Jay-Z and Nas?
Nia: I thought about this when I was reading the Rolling Stone’s 10 wildest rap beefs of all time, and I can definitely say that even as a kid, I remember being in Boston on Hot 97 and [SIREN NOISES] I remember that on the radio as you were waiting for the response. It was like, I mean, punch after punch after punch. It was like, oh my gosh, these two guys are, like, really going at it. This is really good.
Aaron: Some people are like, “I can’t believe it is even getting to this.” What Pusha was trying to remind people about is that rap is a competitive sport. It’s always been like this. Like, just because you’re just now kind of getting into this thing … like, look at your history.
Nia: It’s either sink or swim in rap beef. And I’m enjoying the whole thing musically.