Feuds in hip hop are nothing new. Before Drake and Meek Mill, there was Jay-Z and Nas, and before that there was Biggie Smalls and 2Pac, and before that there was NWA and Ice Cube. Fights in hip-hop are like competition in free-market capitalism. They can be the stimulus for creative genius and unparalleled success, cause devastating financial gripes, and even lead to unseen tragedy.
But in the last decade, while rap and hip hop have supplanted rock in terms of commercial success, the genre has become an autocracy. After the duopoly and deaths of Biggie and 2Pac in the late 90s, Jay-Z emerged as the heir-apparent. Then came Eminem’s brass and unique image, then Kanye West’s demand for power and attention. Rap only had a one-man throne in the new millennium, causing everyone to either pick a futile fight with the kings, request a collaboration and join their entourage, or submit to their creative forces.
Undeniably, after Kanye West released My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in 2010, his magnum opus, he cemented himself as the epitome of genius in the new decade. But there were two dauphins waiting in the wings to test his power and stake a claim to become new monarchs of rap. That same year, Drake came out with Thank Me Later, his moody but assertive debut. Meanwhile, Kendrick Lamar had just unveiled his fourth mixtape and was working on his debut album Section.80 a bombastic, sprawling, if unorganized collection of songs that would drop the following year.
A few albums, some collaborations, and a slew of dis tracks later, rap finds itself in a wonderful predicament not experienced since the golden age of the 90s: three supremely talented, ambitious, and power-thirsty rappers vying for the crown, and all with a shot at achieving it. What makes the situation unique, however, is the vastly different styles that got each of them here.
Each rapper has assumed a different role in the psychosomatic development of hip hop in the new decade. I’ve labelled each one in terms of where they fall best on Freud’s psychological model as a way to organize, not criticize, each artist.
The id in early development is critical to life as a newborn child. It helps us fulfill our psychical needs and makes sure we survive. Essentially, our id demands what feels good to us at the moment without initially considering any consequence. Drake emulating this concept may seem like a negative interpretation of his work, but it actually addresses a demographic of fans that is crucial to his success.
Fun-loving music listeners, especially in their late teens and early twenties, want to party, express themselves in sometimes ostentatious ways, and use relationships and emotions as an avenue for dramatized actions. There is no tomorrow full of hangovers or responsibilities to think about. Drake summed up this care-free, occasionally reckless attitude best when he introduced “YOLO” into the public lexicon with his song, “The Motto.”
Drake’s lyrics are always introspective. They observe and comment on his problems, his troubles with women, and his ambitions for power and money. The video for “Hold on We’re Going Home” is a perfect example. The song gives us a wonderful display of Drake’s skills as a traditional popular music artist. The lyrics tell a story about the rapper’s infatuation for “that one girl.” In the video, Drake is seen as a dominant force, a respected arriviste, and a hero full of bravura. He saves a captive woman from the clutches of evil. He never weighs the possibilities of facing armed criminals. His only focus is “that one girl,” the girl shone wearing lingerie before being captured. The suggestive allusions are impossible to ignore. Drake can’t hide his carnal needs. His personal problem here is getting “that one girl” to notice him, take her back to his place, and let the subtle themes and sexual innuendos fall where they may. No time to think of anything else.
On the flip side, there is “How About Now.” Here, Drake isn’t pursuing women, he’s ruing them. “That one girl” from the other songs is now a source of ire and annoyance, something the rapper might have considered if he hadn’t exhibited such an overgrown id. His significant other now doesn’t remember what Drake did for her, doesn’t put in an effort, and openly chooses to listen to Ludacris over Drake. The rapper can’t believe this turn of fate, but also doesn’t seem to consider the bigger picture. Maybe he messed up. Maybe he was too much for her. Or maybe there are other issues to write songs about besides his girl troubles.
Another personal trouble Drake gravitates toward is power. He has no time for his enemies and those who stand in his way of the throne. His last name is ever and his first name is greatest, and for those who deny that, prepare to face his wrath. This idea is weaved throughout “Energy.” Drake is done playing nice with his adversaries. He dares someone to try and run up on him. Here, his id-driven problems are the ad hominems flying at him at every angle that he must defend his power from.
This isn’t to say Drake’s music isn’t smart or engaging. He has shown an amazing ability to create interesting and contemporary stories that are relatable in one sense and unachievable in another. Everyone has had relationship problems in the past, but are we all “25 sitting on $25 million?” His beats are consistently superb, his production is fantastic, and he’s found a way to own the id and capitalize on the wants of the most important audience in terms of commercial success: young people. His essence is the essence of his audience, and he walks a perfectly placed line between commoner and king.
Next up is the ego: the jack-of-all-trades, the great compromiser, the stasis between the personalizing id and the moralizing superego. The ego is the part of us that incorporates individualistic thinking with an understanding for larger consequences. Kanye West fits this bill perfectly.
West is known for brandishing his ego ad nauseam almost every time he goes in public. But since this article focuses more on music and less on personality, I’m ignoring the traditional concept of ego for Freud’s definition.
West has songs that could fit in either side of the id-superego complex, so naturally he’s seen as the middle ground. He masterfully hones his struggles with fame, relationships, and being the greatest of all time with his ideas on race, identity, and politics.
Take into account songs like “Jesus Walks.” The opening lyrics to the College Dropout single are a perfect summation of West’s ego. West tells us all “we at war with terrorism, racism/ but most of all, we at war with ourselves.” His first point acts as the superego, or the recognition of larger human problems that the individual has to face. His second declaration might seem like the id, because it is bringing forth a personal struggle. However, the rapper is really looking for compromise, or the ego. West is facing a reality where his individual strife (being racially profiled against, racist comments toward him) is being met in the middle with much bigger cultural issues (institutional racism). He is at war because he can’t think of what to do. So he turns to religion in order to make sense of everything.
“Jesus Walks” is a good example of a song that displays duality of the ego, but West’s larger catalog also has this feature. Songs like “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” and “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” are good contrasts that express the essence of the ego. Even from glancing at the music video for “Diamonds,” the subject matter is intense. While West might be rapping about strippers named Porscha, the video depicts emaciated children mining in caves and the rapper standing alone in a church. Matters of international politics, slavery, and religion are presented, leaving the listener imbued with a contemplative, thought-provoking impression. West’s superego is on full blast here, unlike on “Can’t Tell Me Nothing.” Much of Graduation deals with the rapper’s struggles in the VIP section, a breeding ground for the id. Its first single sticks hard to this theme. On it, West brandishes his fame and power without shame. He doesn’t focus on much besides himself and the video mostly focuses on West and his stern countenance.
There are other prime examples of these conflicting ideas in West’ career, even on the same album. On his most recent LP, Yeezus, Yeezy combines the contextualized racism of “New Slaves” with the brutally honest sexuality of “Bound 2.” Both tracks have phenomenal production value and lyrics, but focus on two drastically different concepts. You can almost picture West with two thought bubbles over his head. If anything, Yeezus lets us know he’s still finding that perfect balance between self-aggrandizement and maturity that results in his emulation of the ego.
That leaves the last and most righteous of the group: Kendrick Lamar. Until recently, Lamar might have challenged Drake for the title of rap’s id. His songs on Section.80 and even some on Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City were more freewheeling and individualistic. But on To Pimp a Butterfly, Lamar preaches, pontificates, and prophesizes his way to the rap crown.
In that respect, the Compton-based artist exhibits most of the characteristics of the superego. He looks at prominent issues, primarily race, and tries to find some sort of morality or hope in dark situations. His music is made to prompt discussions, not necessarily to entertain, much to the chagrin of some of his fans. However, rap, and music in general, need Lamar and his provocative superego.
To Pimp a Butterfly is full of perfect examples to choose from, but we’ll start with what might seem like the least likely: “i.” The song is a blend of jazz-fusion, funk and rock, which surprised fans (for all the wrong reasons). But looking at it closer, it proves to be a triumphant, beautiful message wrapped around a groovy bassline and empowering lyrics. Lamar talks about a very real contemporary issue: self-love, or lack thereof. He sings that “everybody lack confidence, but he insists that he loves himself. And to get others to love you, you have to love yourself first. It almost seems like a sermon the way Lamar threads personal experience with cultural issues. He isn’t only declaring love for himself, he’s asking all of us to love ourselves as well.
Lamar doesn’t just leave the discussion about relatable personal issues though. On “Blacker the Berry,” he attacks institutional and casual racism on one of the most vicious diatribes of the past few years. The last verse rips apart black stereotypes, gang violence, white supremacists, and just about everything else. His superego can’t be restrained here. He’s fed up with the treatment of blacks in almost every cultural sector, be it the police, pop culture, or politics.
There’s a similar feeling on “Alright.” However, here he’s focusing less on the problems and more on how to deal with him. He tries to believe that everything will be alright, that all the issues facing blacks will work themselves out. Yet, he doesn’t seem to believe himself, and isn’t confident in his message enough to even believe he can convince anyone else either. It’s a sad realization, but a true one from Lamar’s superego.
The last single from To Pimp a Butterfly mentioned here is “King Kunta.” Upon first, and superficial, glance, the song displays the ultimate assortment of the id (like “i”). Lamar declares his power and considers running for mayor of Compton. Looking at it further though, it becomes a shrewd attack on society and the rap game. The name, referring to the fictional character Kunta Kinte, is an amalgamation of the highest and lowest points in the social hierarchy: kings and slaves. He recognizes that he could become a “typical rapper” obsessed with women and power (essentially the id). However, this song represents a parody of that archetype, although Kendrick fully believes he is king. He proves there’s room for a superego on the rap throne.
The point of this article was to organize rap’s three-headed monster and explain their content, but this also helps to understand why each artist has had success. The weird thing is, it seems like all three are connected to one another in a commercial and thematic sense. All of them need each other to succeed, Drake to express, West to compromise, and Lamar to moralize. It sells more records and makes rap more popular, but more importantly, it diversifies the genre’s talent pool and gives listeners options. No human is without their id, ego, and superego, and now it seems like rap wouldn’t exist without Drake, West, and Lamar.