The first time we heard Tupac utter the now-infamous first line of “Hit ‘em Up,” we gasped. We were young, living in a pre-internet world and coming into adulthood the same time Backstreet Boys and the Spice Girls were coming to prominence. Up to that point, familiar insults were of the “you’re a wiener” variety, and never before had we heard someone spit such vitriol at another person, let alone in a song.
“That’s why I fucked your bitch, you fat motherfucker.”
It was horrifying, shocking and cringe-worthy. We listened to it on repeat fifteen times. That air of danger and conflict was intoxicating not only for coming-of-agers, but for fans of the rap music in general. There were real stakes to the music, and maybe — more importantly — listeners had clear teams to cheer for and against: the east coast vs. the west coast. Having identifiable heroes and villains, whoever you were rooting for in the rap war, gave you skin in the game, making investing emotion and energy much easier. (And dollars. Don’t forget the dollars). You backed your hometown hero because that’s what was expected of you.
Some 20 years later, it’s hard to picture this sort of turf war existing in 2016. With the ascendance and widespread reach of the internet, rappers aren’t defined by geography like they once were. A young girl in Florida can discover Vince Staples at the same moment that a grown man in Minnesota listens to Nicki Minaj for the first time. Musicians belong to everyone and anyone now, regardless of where they call home, and this has had a curious influence on how rappers behave.
While hometown loyalty still exists, rappers know their audience isn’t bound by geography the way it was when selling mixtapes out of a car led to fame and recognition. They must appeal to a broader crowd, and you don’t do that by focusing on one small section of a map. At the same time that location has been marginalized, rap has become more insular, focusing on the battle within rather than conflicts with peers. Yes, rap will always feature bravado, disses and shade – these are foundations the genre is built on – but it’s evolving.
Cue Kanye West and Drake, arguably the two biggest rappers in the world. Both men are legendary naval gazers whose art is filtered through their own personal lens. Their struggles are with isolation, public persecution, personal heartbreak and the speediness of croissant delivery.
A few flare-ups not withstanding (RIP Meek Mill), the reigning giants of the genre would rather beef with their personal demons than any rivals. Does Kanye have a bigger nemesis than Kanye? If you asked ‘Ye who his biggest competition was, he’d say himself, no question. Drake’s greatest foil is the part of him that can’t find real, unaffected-by-fame love. Like never before, rappers are peering in instead of looking out.
Let’s compare a few lines from Drake’s Meek Mill diss to Tupac’s assault on Notorious B.I.G and Bad Boy:
Drake, “Back 2 Back”
“When I look back I might be mad that I gave this attention,
Yeah, but it’s weighin’ heavy on my conscience,
Yeah, and fuck you left the boy no options.”
Tupac, “Hit em Up”
“All of y'all motherfuckers, fuck you; die slow, motherfucker,
My .44 make sure all y'all kids don't grow!
You motherfuckers can't be us or see us,
We motherfuckin' Thug Life-riders, Westside til we die!”
Notice anything, besides the much more gun-heavy approach of the latter? Drake’s lines are self-analyzing and focused on his feelings – not only how Meek Mill’s attack has affected him, but also about how he’ll feel about about the incident in the future. Contrasted with Tupac’s lines, which are forcefully projecting his feelings on others, it’s clear there has been a major shift in how rappers deliver their message.
That’s not to say that modern rappers don’t lash out at adversaries or that every song is a deep dive into the artist’s soul. But in 2016, we expect a “realer” experience from the music we listen to. Boats, bling and bitches are still woven into the tapestry of rap music, but they’re no longer the main feature.
And, quite simply, rap is in a more harmonious place than it was during the Bad Boy/Death Row era. Few current events come even close to touching the murders of Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace, which shook the entire world — not just the rap community.
Rivalries have become a retrograde notion, and collaboration is now king. Rappers prefer to join forces, creating a spectacle that draws new fans instead of alienating certain groups. Think of it like when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh joined together in Miami to win the 2012 NBA championship. And from a business perspective, this marriage of talent makes sense — there’s more money to be made in teaming up than there is in tearing down.
Like anything else, music is on a perpetual loop – what once was old is new again. We’re enjoying a fairly peaceful era in rap but we shouldn’t be surprised if an acrimonious tone takes hold down the road. But for the foreseeable future, does geography truly matter in rap? It’s hard to have an east vs. west showdown when the biggest rapper in the game is Canadian.