Hip-hop is no different from any other ecosystem that recognizes when it’s fighting for a limited resource.
In this case, it’s attention.
There can only be so many streams in a week, so many No. 1 albums in a year, so many concert ticket sales, so many Grammy nominations. Yet almost every second, a new rapper with a new earworm arrives, throwing sharp elbows in a room that’s already crowded with legends.
For every Jay-Z, whose more-than-two-decade run is unparalleled, there’s a J. Cole, who’s made the transition from blog-rap darling in the aughts to a hip-hop tent pole 10 years later. For every Lil Wayne, whose scorched-earth mixtape run seemed improbable when he initially popped up as a “TRL”-era teen rapper with Hot Boyz, there’s a Lil Uzi, who took Wayne’s model and amplified it for the Soundcloud generation.
But attention’s never felt like a problem for Drake. From his breakthrough mixtape “So Far Gone” in 2009 to this year’s double-album opus “Scorpion,” he’s found a way to make sure the hip-hop universe orbits around him.
Records for streaming? He shatters them routinely. No. 1 albums? He’s five for five. Grammys? Thirty-five nominations, three wins. Concerts? He’s doing three shows at TD Garden starting Friday.
He’s become the kind of force that can take up all the air in the room. His peers can choose one of two options: Stand near him to catch a breath or spar with him for their own space.
In May, Drake found himself in a beef with sinister Virginia rapper Pusha T that, for better or worse, set the tone for Drake’s summer.
Pusha T, a long-time, long-distance antagonist to Drake, threw some slight but noticeable jabs on the final track of his near-flawless album “Daytona,” questioning his authenticity and calling into question the authorship of his lyrics. But when Drake responded with his clever and biting diss record “Duppy freestyle,” there was no way for him to see how much the situation would mushroom.
After “Duppy,” Pusha T delivered “The Story of Adidon,” a scathing dissection of Drake’s past, his upbringing, his abandonment issues, his relationship with a former adult-film actress, the child Drake conceived with her, and a cover photo of Drake in blackface.
Suddenly, what started as a bitter back-and-forth escalated into something nuclear. Corporate ties were strained. Street-level relationships were called in. A truce had to be called. Then both rappers had to step back from the rubble and assess the damages.
For his part, Drake has been tight-lipped about it all. He may be the only rapper that attempted to end a feud with a public statement on social media.
But pushing past a lukewarm critical response to “Scorpion,” Drake basked in a project that steamrolled the streaming landscape and continued to produce hits both intentional (“God’s Plan,” “Nice For What”) and accidental (“In My Feelings”).
Pusha T saw his star ascend after the firestorm — headlining his own tour and making late-night appearances — but admitted to Vanity Fair, “I don’t know what was lost or what was gained.”
It couldn’t have been a more valid question at a time when hip-hop values the resource — attention — more than its own ecosystem.
At one point, beef had actual commercial ramifications. One rapper could stop another from actually selling records. Eminem’s war with Ja Rule in the 2000s permanently altered Ja Rule’s trajectory. What LL Cool J took as an affront from fledgling rapper Canibus in the 1990s helped pull the plug on Canibus’s career.
But with the stakes so high, attention snatching comes at all costs.
For a stretch, no one was more adept at pinning your eyeballs open than Eminem. But the same conflict-hungry spirit that drove his early career is a hard sell in 2018. He’s tried repeatedly to reinvent himself — from 2010’s “Recovery” to 2017’s “Revival.” On the latter album, what was intended to be a line drawn in the sand for the part of his fanbase who support President Trump came off as a hamhanded political statement that was easy to skewer.
His response was to internalize the criticism and unload on anyone and everyone who said a bad word about it, in the form of a surprise release last week, “Kamikaze.” Without question, it’s his most focused and targeted album in years. Wielding his singular lyrical wizardry like a weapon, he aims at everyone from Trump (again) to pot-stirring New York radio personality Charlemagne the God. He draws another line in the sand — this time between rap traditionalism and mumble rap, the pejorative umbrella for a younger set (think Lil Yachty or Lil Pump) that puts style on a pedestal over skill. But he also indulges the violence, misogyny, and homophobic slurs that made him so polarizing to begin with. The difference in 2018 is that Eminem is now 45 and wearing his insecurities about his place in hip-hop on his sleeve.
The album does crystallize the frustrations of a genre going through growing pains. If so many artists with so many different outlooks, backgrounds, approaches, and philosophies on hip-hop exist in the same space, they’re not going to agree, and they’re not going to all respect each other. A 38-year Joe Budden isn’t going to see hip-hop the same way 21-year-old Lil Yachty does. Thirty-three-year-old J. Cole didn’t come through the ranks the way 17-year-old Lil Pump did.
The question becomes: How do they all co-exist?
Coincidentally, one night after Eminem dropped “Kamikaze,” effortlessly above-the-fray multi-hyphenate Donald Glover, as Childish Gambino, released a music video that imagined a rap world where everyone did just that. (Childish Gambino plays TD Garden on Sept. 12, just days after Drake’s three-night run.) Of course, this world is a Boondocks/Recess-like cartoon, set to the sounds of “Feels Like Summer.” In it, Glover is illustrated in his trademark grandpa cardigan and hole-spotted T-shirt, walking through an animated idea of what hip-hop might look like if it were an actual community.
Young rappers Trippie Redd and Lil Pump knock on the door to see if Kodak Black can come out to play. Kodak pops out from the window and shakes his head “No.” In reality, Kodak Black spent a year in prison before being released last month. The Migos play basketball in a driveway. Birdman grills burgers for Chance the Rapper and Jaden Smith, while Will Smith waxes his car (a nod to a line from Smith’s timeless hit “Summertime”).
Glover pokes fun at some of the recent rap tiffs, like Nicki Minaj and Travis Scott bickering over album sales. But he also takes pointed looks at some of the more severe issues rap’s faced, from Kid Cudi’s bouts with depression to Kanye West’s spiral into a sunken place. He drifts off into thoughts about legends who had shaped him, like Outkast, Whitney Houston, and Michael Jackson.
He walks down the street, headphones in his ears, lost in his own world, taking the occasional glance, but never breaking stride.
While everyone’s fighting for attention, Glover makes his point without saying anything at all.
At TD Garden Sept. 7-9. Tickets from $55, www.ticketmaster.com
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.