Once upon a time, Drake made a vow of silence. “Diss me, you'll never hear a reply for it,” he said on “Successful,” the 2009 song in which the Toronto rapper correctly predicted he’d soon be superwealthy. This week, Drake has broken his vow twice over, a fact about which he seems conflicted. “When I look back,” he says on the new track “Back to Back Freestyle,” “I might be mad that I gave this attention.”
“This” is the beef started by the 28-year-old Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill, who recently tweeted accusations that Drake doesn’t write his own material. Depending on who you talk to or how you look at it, this is either a big deal or no deal at all. On Instagram, Lupe Fiasco had a good take: “Ghostwriting, or borrowing lines, or taking suggestions from the room has always been in rap and will always be in rap. It is nothing to go crazy over or be offended about unless you are someone who postures him or herself on the importance of authenticity and tries to portray that quality to your fans or the public at large. Then we might have a problem.”
Authenticity is, indeed, part of Drake’s shtick (as it is, in one way or another, for just about every major rapper these days). He’s famous for being frank about his feelings; one of his many, many catchphrases is “The real is on the rise.” On some level, fans may realize that popular rappers’ lyrics often result from collaboration, but Drake probably doesn’t want them thinking too hard about it. His hit 2015 mixtape If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late, for example, portrayed his life as full of hard, lonely work: “I could never ever let the streets down / Haven't left the condo for a week now,” he rapped on “10 Bands,” which is one of the songs whose authorship has now been called into question—even though all along its credits listed Quentin Miller, the man that Meek Mill just named as Drake’s ghostwriter.
A certain aloofness has been part of Drake’s act, too. Prior to Mill’s outburst, Drake was already one of the most divisive people in rap, ridiculed for his sentimental songs, his background as a child actor, and, as of recently, his pants. His albums are filled with subtweet-like replies to the snickering; occasionally, he tosses off a line that’s unmistakably targeted toward a particular hater, but for the most part he has kept the backtalk vague.
So it’s remarkable that Mill has triggered a full-on assault from Drake. First came the song “Charged Up,” which included a few fairly gentle jabs at Mill but mostly made fun of the idea of people making fun of Drake; “I’m trying to take the high road,” he said. Mill replied by calling the song “baby lotion soft” and trolling the Internet with a response track that was just 15 seconds of screaming. Four days later, Drake returned with “Back to Back Freestyle,” faster paced and more vicious than what came before, painting Mill as a lightweight leeching off the success of his girlfriend, Nicki Minaj: “Is that a world tour or your girl's tour?”
Judging by the resulting memes and media coverage, a lot of people think that this round of battle, and perhaps the entire war, goes to Drake: When “Back to Back” was released, more than one person had the idea to change Mill’s Wikipedia entry to say that he had died. Mill may yet return with a powerful reply of his own, but already Drake’s accomplished two vital things. One: Assuming he didn’t use a ghostwriter for these songs—which would be very risky given the downside to being found out—he’s reasserted his skill as a rapper; even if these songs aren’t the greatest of all time, they were made very quickly and are at least good enough to put Mill in his place. Two: He’s distracted from the ghostwriting accusations. Nowhere in these songs did Drake say that his lyrics aren’t created by committee, but who cares about that when there are gifs to be made? The dynamic is classic, the narrative easy: Meek Mill talks a big game about Drake’s music; Drake makes music about how all Meek can do is talk game.
But the fact remains that Drake did stoop to replying, which may well be a sign that Mill’s authorship questions could damage his image more concretely than, say, the comparisons to washing machines Drake’s used to receiving. Or Drake’s rationale might even be more personal than that. When I first listened to Meek Mill’s new album, the highly entertaining, now contested Drake verse on “R.I.C.O.” seemed like a gift from a superstar rapper to a less-successful friend. And this is how he’s repaid? The ever-grandiose Drake might well see himself as akin to Shakespeare’s Timon, a wealthy man who showered gifts upon ungrateful friends. The comparison isn’t perfect, but toward the end of Timon of Athens, there’s a verbal battle to rival all hip-hop beefs. “Away thou tedious rogue!” Timon shouts. “I am sorry I shall lose a stone by thee.” Then he throws a stone.