Drake performs at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto in 2016. (Photo/Flickr-The Come Up Show CC BY-ND 2.0)
Drake performs at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto in 2016. (Photo/Flickr-The Come Up Show CC BY-ND 2.0)

Drake lost the Great Rap War of 2024 — and so did Jews

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It’s been dubbed the Great Rap War.

Over the past few weeks, Drake and Kendrick Lamar have been trading insults on increasingly nasty diss tracks that fans have streamed tens of millions of times.

Last Friday, Lamar ratcheted up the intensity when he called Drake “off-white” — a reference to his being biracial, the son of a Black father and a white Jewish mother — and a “terrible person” on “6:16 in LA.” Drake responded by accusing Lamar of physically abusing his fiancée on “Family Matters.” Lamar then accused Drake of being a sexual predator and of fathering a secret daughter on “Meet the Grahams.” And on “Not Like Us,” Lamar pointedly told Drake: “You not a colleague, you a f— colonizer.”

Drake appeared to bow out of the feud on Sunday evening with “The Heart Part 6,” telling his adversary: “I’m happy I could motivate you, bring you back to the game.”

By Tuesday, Los Angeles Times music critic Mikael Wood declared: “Kendrick Lamar has triumphed over Drake in what many have deemed the most significant rap beef of all time.”

A “beef” is just a mean poetry contest, and it’s a standard part of hip-hop’s hypercompetitive culture. But the stakes of this one felt higher for Jewish fans of hip-hop like me. A loss for Drake, who has celebrated his Jewishness in his art, is a loss for Jews (even if there are many of us who also appreciate Lamar’s music).

I’ve followed the beef obsessively, listening to every song and studying the lyrics and their interpretations on Genius. The online conversations surrounding the beef have been just as compelling and challenging as the music that has come out of it. They’ve touched on Drake’s Jewish heritage and Israel (though neither came up in the diss tracks), race, masculinity, authenticity and cultural competence, that is, the skillset needed to communicate respectfully across cultures.

These conversations left me wondering: How did Drake’s Jewishness impact the way this beef played out? Can white and biracial Jews fully participate in hip-hop, or are there limits? Is it even kosher for me, a white Jew, to write this piece about a competition between two Black artists operating in a historically Black cultural space?

Drake is Israel and Lamar is Hamas?

The seeds of the Great Rap War were planted in 2013, when Lamar identified Drake as one of his main competitors in a guest verse on Big Sean’s song “Control.”

In the years since then, Drake and Lamar have forged very different careers — the former as a global pop superstar, the latter as a Pulitzer Prize–winning lyricist steeped in the African American struggle. They both won legions of fans and Grammys while staying in their own lanes. Then in March, Lamar dismissed J. Cole’s assertion on “First Person Shooter” that he, Drake and Lamar represented hip-hop’s “big three,” the three best rappers of their generation. (They are all in their late 30s.)

“It’s just big me,” Lamar rapped on the Future and Metro Boomin song “Like That,” and the beef was on.

Through April and early May, Drake and Lamar collectively dropped an album’s worth of disses about each other. Given everything that’s happening in the world, including a real war between Israel and Hamas, the beef generated a surprising amount of media coverage. Mainstream news outlets such as the New York Times and the Washington Post ran detailed explainers. The New Yorker published a cartoon about it.

Meanwhile, on social media, rap enthusiasts dissected and discussed every lyric and double (or maybe quintuple?) entendre.

Some of the commentary strayed pretty far from the music. For example, one person compared Drake to Israel and Lamar to Hamas. (I found that especially ironic, since Drake signed the “Artists for Ceasefire” letter in October while Lamar has not taken a public stance on the war.) Another framed the conflict between the men in religious terms, as one between a Jew and a Hebrew Israelite. (On his 2017 album “Damn,” Lamar called himself an “Israelite,” and some Hebrew Israelites — people of color who identify as descendants of the ancient Israelites — scorn Jews for supposedly stealing their identity. Lamar has never made such a claim.)

Predictably, there were also those who viewed the beef through a conspiratorial lens. Jibrial Muhammad, a motivational speaker with nearly 1 million followers on Instagram, shared a post describing Drake as a “half European Jewish rapper” who “goes out of his way to promote indiscriminate sex, drugs and violence in his music.” (The insinuation that Jews corrupt society is deeply antisemitic. Also, lots of rappers make songs about sex, drugs and violence — as do musicians in other genres.)

Someone referenced the trope that Jews control the music industry, writing on X that Lamar “went up against a Jewish corporation and won.” (Jews do not control the industry. The “corporation” in question appears to be Universal Music Group, which distributes Drake’s music and has a Jewish CEO. The X post has been deleted.)

To be sure, the beef also inspired some wholesome responses.

“A literary feud involving two men named Kendrick Lamar Duckworth and Aubrey Drake Graham is giving 19th century [vibes],” critic Andrew Marzoni wrote on X. A poetry professor, Airea D. Matthews, analyzed the rappers’ verses and praised Lamar’s craft. “Kendrick’s rhyme schemes are more complex, as are his sentence, verse, and line structures, which is the mark of an artist and not solely an entertainer,” Matthews wrote on X.

Yet many of Drake’s haters fixated on his proximity to whiteness and Israel, two entities widely viewed as nefarious in the current political climate. Someone joked that he would need to “flee to Israel” for his own safety at the end of the beef. Another wrote that Lamar “should do Netanyahu next.”

One TikTok user found an old clip of Drake talking about his Jewish upbringing and presented it as “proof” that he doesn’t belong in hip-hop.

Drake’s ‘chameleonic minstrelsy’

Jonathan Branfman, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford’s Taube Center for Jewish Studies, argues that Drake finds himself in an “impossible situation” as a rapper because of his multifaceted identity — he’s Black and white, Canadian-born and American, and Jewish on top of that.

“His success depends on trying to make his body make sense to audiences who are raised to consider it nonsensical,” Branfman told J.

In his forthcoming book, “Millennial Jewish Stars: Navigating Racial Antisemitism, Masculinity, & White Supremacy,” Branfman dedicates a chapter to Drake and explores what he calls the rapper’s “chameleonic minstrelsy.” At various points in his career, Drake has experimented with stereotypically African American, Latino, Caribbean and Jewish personas. This chameleon-like quality has opened him up to constant criticism, Branfman said.

“Every single one of his musical performances, social media posts and interviews can be variously read as either offensive minstrelsy, authentic self-expression or a pathetic, failed imitation,” he said. “Different audiences constantly disagree about all of those things.”

Branfman cited the 2014 music video for “Worst Behavior,” where Drake walks around Memphis, Tennessee, wearing gold chains and striking a “tough Black masculinity” pose. Drake’s father Dennis, who appears in the video, is from Memphis, but Drake was raised primarily by his mother in a Jewish neighborhood in Toronto.

“He’s successfully performing this kind of masculinity, but then as Pusha T [who dropped a Drake diss track in 2018] and Kendrick Lamar have implied, that very same performance can come across as an offensive caricature by somebody who doesn’t really belong to that culture,” Branfman said. (“Millennial Jewish Stars” comes out June 18; Branfman will give a book talk at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El on May 16.)

For some Black Jews, the attacks on Drake’s identity have felt personal.

“I really dislike the idea that Drake’s Jewish identity cancels out his Black identity and somehow takes away from his credibility within hip-hop,” Westside Gravy, an Israel-based rapper who has a Black American Jewish mother and a white, Russian American Jewish father, told me over WhatsApp. “Labeling him a ‘white boy’ is kind of an ignorant point if you look at all of the artists in the hip-hop community and Black community at large who come from mixed families.”

Westside Gravy (real name Noah Shufutinsky) said he wished fans would pay more attention to the substance of the beef rather than the backgrounds of the rappers.

“It’s a distraction from the content the actual beef surrounds, which is honestly much more intriguing,” he said.

Cultural competence

Jews have been involved in hip-hop since its earliest days, primarily as managers, record executives and journalists, but also as artists. Drake wasn’t even the only MOT involved in the latest beef. Two Jewish producers made beats for Lamar: Jack Antonoff (“6:16 in LA”) and The Alchemist (“Meet the Grahams”).

Yet many social media users took exception when two prominent white Jews who enjoy at least some credibility in the hip-hop world chimed in about the beef.

Peter Rosenberg, a radio personality at New York’s Hot 97 hip-hop radio station, faced backlash for sharing his thoughts about one of Lamar’s bars on “Not Like Us.”

“You’re not a colleague you’re a colonizer is WILD,” he posted on X on Saturday. A number of people responded along the lines of: Lamar is talking about you too. Sit this one out. (Rosenberg did not respond to a request for comment.)

The same day, Vlad Lyubovny, a Ukrainian-born Jewish hip-hop journalist and Bay Area native, criticized the mix — the balance of instruments and vocals — of “Not Like Us” in a post on X. Morgan Jerkins, a writer and former lecturer at Princeton, shot back: “You are WHITE. This is a BLACK FOLK AFFAIR.”

After a tense back and forth, Lyubovny wrote that he planned to report Jerkins to Princeton’s administration. On Wednesday, he apologized and deleted his posts. But when I had connected with him by email the day before, Lyubovny told me he rejected the notion that white people should withhold their opinions about rap.

“It’s a stupid argument,” said Lyubovny, who grew up in San Mateo and lives in Calabasas. “America is built on free speech. Just like all people are allowed to comment on the Israel-Hamas conflict, even though most of them aren’t tied to either side.”

Jerkins, who did not respond to a request for comment, wrote on X that white commenters like Lyubovny lacked cultural competence. “This conversation … should center Black people, not you,” she wrote.

The Great Rap War may be over, but the conversations it sparked will continue.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.