Savage! Three rappers who take diss tracks to the next level
Nicki Minaj, Drake and Pusha T prove it's not just what you say, but how you say it, that makes a diss track epic
Hip hop is middle aged! The genre which, according to information and measurement company Nielsen became the most popular in the US in 2017, turned 45 in August.
Hip hop has changed over the decades but if there is one thing that has stayed quintessentially a part of the culture it is the rap battle. These are competitive performances between rappers who want to establish their dominance as the best MCs.
Although live battles are still the norm, recording verses in the form of a diss track has established a new form of duelling. The diss has become an important weapon for throwing verbal jabs at adversaries.
Although many of the songs usually hailed as the best diss tracks are from the 90s, or early 2000s, the last decade has also seen some gems. Nicki Minaj, Drake and Pusha T have demonstrated their ingenuity by showing a diss track need not only criticise a rival but can also be used as a creative tool.
Here's how these rappers took diss tracks to the next level:
THE DISS TRACK: Roman's Revenge ft. Eminem (2010)
THE TARGET: Minaj originally said this track was aimed at all the female MCs criticising her. However, when the song was released, it was generally thought to target Lil’ Kim, who had complained Minaj was a copycat. In November 2010, Minaj released her debut album, featuring Roman’s Revenge.
WHY IT'S NEXT LEVEL: What makes Roman's Revenge interesting and different is Minaj's use of alter egos to create a multilayered narrative. It's not Minaj who is throwing shade in this song, it's her British male alter ego Roman Zolanski (hence the title).
Another of the rapper's alter egos Martha Zolanski makes an appearance at end of the song. Posh British Martha appears as the Fairy Godmother in the music video for Moment 4 Life. She is Roman’s mother and implores her son and his friend Slim Shady (Eminem’s alter ego) to stop getting involved in unsavoury rap battles.
Minaj thus not only disses Lil’ Kim and other MCs, she also reprimands herself and her guest feature in the song using an alter ego. Brilliant!
THE DISS TRACKS: Charged Up and Back to Back (2015)
THE TARGET: On a fateful day in July, Meek Mill angrily tweeted about being compared to Drake. He took offence because he claimed Drake didn’t write his own songs. Many other rappers and producers chimed in, either supporting Meek Mill, or in the case of Lupe Fiasco, explaining the intricacies of the modern music industry in a two-part letter series.
WHY IT'S NEXT LEVEL: The lyrics of a diss track are meant to sting but Drake showed that, by having a strategic battle plan for a track's release, you can rub salt in your rival's wounds too.
Drake took aim at Meek Mill by releasing the song Charged Up, then unexpectedly dropped Back to Back four days later. BOOM!
The choice of cover art for Back to Back was another subtle jab. It shows a Toronto Blue Jays baseball player celebrating after a back-to-back World Series win, having defeated the Philadelphia Phillies. Drake is from Toronto and Meek Mill is from Philadelphia.
The following week, Drake performed both tracks in Toronto at the OVO Fest (which he founded), during which he played a PowerPoint presentation of memes dissing Meek Mill. Even brands got in on the fun and social media declared Meek Mill’s career dead.
Unfortunately, Meek Mill's engagement to Nicki Minaj also came to an end. We hope it wasn’t because of the song, but lines like, “Is that a world tour or your girl’s tour?” probably didn’t help.
THE TRACK: Infrared, The Story of Adidon (2018)
THE TARGET: In 2011, Drake released a song that supposedly dissed Pusha T. Pusha T and Lil Wayne, Drake’s mentor, had been feuding for years. Drake and Pusha T then got locked in a battle with tracks featuring disses aimed at the other.
WHY IT'S NEXT LEVEL: On May 27, Pusha T released DAYTONA, which featured Infrared, a diss track referencing ghostwriting claims against Drake. It seems Pusha T was inspired by Drake himself because after Drake took the bait by responding with a diss track within 24 hours, questioning Pusha T's self-proclaimed criminal past, Pusha T dropped The Story of Adidon on May 29.
He took it to the next level by shaking some serious skeletons out of Drake's closet. Pusha T showed impressive investigative skills when digging up dirt to use in The Story of Adidon.
First, he found an old photo of Drake in blackface to use as the cover art for the track. How this picture only surfaced now is a mystery - not only is it real but Drake had to publicly justify the image. Next, he sampled Jay-Z’s The story of O.J., a song about the complexities of black identity. Together, the photo and the sample implied Drake was going through an identity crisis.
Infrared had clearly been used as bait because with The Story of Adidon, Pusha T argues he doesn’t want to deal with issues of ghostwriting or drug dealing, he only wants to “keep with the facts”. How? By confirming the rumour that Drake had a child and was a “deadbeat” father.
Pusha T even revealed the identity of the child’s mother, her occupation and the child's name in the song. In fact, the title of the track is a portmanteau of Drake’s son’s name, Adonis, and Adidas.
Why Adidas? Drake was rumoured to be ending his relationship with Nike to partner with the rival brand. Apparently his new line was to be called Adidon. Yikes!