The Rap War in Calabasas

Kanye West’s ugly feud with Drake touches on important topics—but it mostly started as neighborhood drama.

Allison Joyce / Reuters

The feud between Kanye West and Drake, reignited by an Epic of Gilgamesh–length stream of tweets from West on Thursday night that Drake has not yet publicly responded to, involves violence and illness, race and family, music and capitalism. It started, though, with swimming. “Since the pool line he’s been trying to poke at me and fuck with me,” West tweeted, likely referring to these Drake lyrics from 2016: “Now I got a house in L.A., now I got a bigger pool than Ye / And look man, Ye’s pool is nice, mine’s just bigger’s what I’m saying.”

Was that not just a fun boast? What’s Kanye’s problem? That question would take a dissertation to answer. Sure, rap beef is plentiful these days, and West’s status as a public figure worth paying attention to has clearly been on the wane. But this feud is a reminder of his great talent for forcing a conversation. As is way too often the case, a dispute between rich people takes on grander dimensions because of how cannily those people have made their personal life a public concern—one that not only entertains, but that also purports to have social significance.

Drake, arguably the most popular active musician on the planet, arrived in the hip-hop world in 2009 professing a debt to West. On his mixtape So Far Gone, Drake rapped over the beat of “Say You Will” from West’s 808s & Heartbreak, a path-breaking reenvisioning of rap as electronic emo. In a beautiful example of cosmic rhyming, the offense that set off West’s fury this week was Drake requesting that West, almost 10 years after So Far Gone’s debut, sign off on the rights for the sample that Drake had used back then. West took a screenshot of the text message conveying that request and tweeted, “This proves shit faker than wrestling.”

He seemed to be saying that Drake was a hypocrite for acting as though things were cool between them even though they weren’t. Hostilities erupted between the two camps—West and his allies, Drake and his—earlier this year, when Pusha T rapped on a West-made beat about Drake using ghostwriters for his lyrics: an old accusation airing the traditionalist take that Drake is more of a slick pop idol than a true emcee. Drake replied with an exasperated sigh of a freestyle pointing out that West, Pusha T’s boss, is hip-hop’s ultimate user of other people’s talents. Pusha then escalated things with a cruel song revealing that Drake had secretly fathered a 1-year-old son—information that had been only rumored, and that Drake had been set to address on his then-forthcoming album, Scorpion. (West insists that despite Drake’s suspicions to the contrary, he did not leak this intelligence to Pusha.)

Amid all of this, West had been tweeting and making music that reckoned with his own bipolar diagnosis, espoused admiration for Donald Trump, and—most consistently—preached woo-woo love and positivity. Extending the latter theme, he eventually took to Twitter to make amends with Drake, saying that he shouldn’t have ever participated in music that dissed him. “I will be coming to your show within the next seven days to give love and be inspired by the art you have created,” West posted in September. But that peace has proved fragile, and West says it’s because the Toronto rapper has been engaged in behind-the-scenes intimidation and in-public passive aggression.

Serious charges were leveled in Thursday’s tweets. West suggested that Drake hired the person who threw items at Pusha T during a Toronto concert and claimed that Drake—in the middle of West’s tweetstorm—called him and directly threatened West’s family. West’s wife, Kim Kardashian, backed him up, tweeting, “@drake Never threaten my husband or our family. He paved the way for there to be a Drake.”

Kardashian is, of course, the universe’s ultimate commodifier of private lives, and her reality-TV family is intrinsic to this feud. Drake has allegedly been texting with her mom, Kris Jenner, and one of West’s grievances earlier this year was that Drake let rumors of an affair between Kardashian and him go on for too long. On the No. 1 hit “Sicko Mode,” by Travis Scott (the father of Kardashian’s niece Stormi), Drake glowers about creeping around a neighborhood looking to settle a score, and West’s new tweets seem to confirm the fan theory that Drake had literally been talking about the geography of the Los Angeles suburb where both he and Drake have homes. (My mind was melted at this particular detail.)

So: As feuds go, this is about as “family”—incestuous and cloistered—as one can be. But West has insisted on making it about more than that. Drake’s tough talk and alleged brutality are “why black people never get ahead,” he tweeted, while bringing up XXXTentacion and Tupac, two murdered rappers. Another transgression by Drake: disrespecting people with a mental illness, such as West’s buddy Kid Cudi (whom Drake indeed made fun of for admitting to depression) and West himself (who Drake … sent inappropriate emojis to?). This is a classic West maneuver, politicizing the personal, and while in the past it has been effective at kick-starting important discussions, in this case West has mired his larger points in so much gossip bait that it’s hard to imagine anything productive resulting.

Aside from the notion of a direct threat by phone, little of what West has said of Drake is all that shocking. Drake does make vaguely violent warnings in his songs; he does “sneak diss” habitually; he surely toys with minds and meddles in friendships. If he really were a good guy, he’d knock that all off. But it’s hard to escape the feeling that the real war here is about relevance. West’s statements were couched in reminders of his own influence—“I’m the guy with the pink polo that made a way for him”—even though West has not been landing hits the way he used to, and certainly not in the way Drake has been lately. Picking this fight diverts attention from why West has alienated some of his audience—Trump isn’t involved here, for example—while also building chatter when he has sneakers to sell. Peace may only come when he gets a bigger pool.