The last day of November was one of the most prolific days of the year for album releases, with new records from marquee artists of all genres and statures: The 1975, Earl Sweatshirt, Tekashi 6ix9ine, Jeff Tweedy and Meek Mill. And yet, it was a short Jay-Z verse — on the Meek Mill song “What’s Free?” — that dominated headlines and social media chatter.
You’ve probably heard the verse by now. Or at least, you’ve probably heard about the verse by now. Over a sample of the 1997 Notorious B.I.G. song “What’s Beef?”, Hov seemed to take a shot at Kanye West for his support of Donald Trump. “No red hat, don’t Michael and Prince me and ‘Ye/ They separate you when you got Michael and Prince’s DNA, uh,” he rapped, adding later: “Enjoy your chains, what’s your employer name with the hairpiece?”
By Friday afternoon, Jay-Z clarified that he was not attempting to knock West; to the contrary, he was trying to express solidarity. “The line clearly meant don’t pit me against my brothers no matter what our differences are (red hat),” he tweeted that afternoon. It was a paradoxical turn of events, if not a particularly surprising one. The sequence fit a familiar mold: An allusion to a notable peer led the internet to read deeply into cryptic lines, resulting in a viral controversy. As much as rap beef in 2018 can be its own kind of art, it can just as often seem like an accident.
Which explains, in part, why 2018 was such turbulent year in hip-hop — what with the thrown shoes, vicious barbs, and digging up of embarrassing photos. While on the surface the year’s feuds resembled old ones (touching on women, family, the use of ghostwriters, and artistic superiority), look closer and you’ll find mutations. The dramatic apexes came after long, confusing periods of festering tension. Social media was not merely a battleground and a tool, as it was for, say, Kanye airing grievances against Drake this week on Twitter. It was also an instigator.
Take, for instance, the feud between Nicki Minaj and Cardi B. The two MCs’ simmering animosity towards one another reached a boil this October when Cardi attempted to physically attack Minaj at the Harper’s Bazaar Icons party. Though rumors of their ill will toward each other weren’t exactly news, the Harper’s outburst raised an important question: How exactly did they get there?
The warring between hip-hop’s top ladies began with a series of vague transgressions. First, in March of 2017, a fan posted a screenshot to Instagram of Nicki Minaj allegedly liking a comment insulting Cardi’s bars. (The photo may have been faked.) From there, Nicki and Cardi traded veiled digs at nameless targets, which fans interpreted to be attacks on one another. (Both denied doing so.) By the time of the Harper’s incident, Cardi claimed that Nicki was deliberately sabotaging her in order to block her ascension within the industry, as well as dissing her and her abilities as a mother. Nicki and Cardi may have provided the kindling for the ensuing flames, but fans on the internet certainly helped rubbed the sticks together.
The feud between Cardi and Nicki fits into a long pattern of hip-hop’s top women being pitted against one another. But in this case, the way Nicki and Cardi’s antagonism swelled also resembles feuds between their male peers.
One of the year’s weirder hip-hop beefs was between Eminem and Machine Gun Kelly. Weird because it began in 2012, when MGK tweeted that Shady’s then 16-year-old daughter, Hailie, was “hot as fuck,” and was mostly dormant until earlier this year when Eminem dissed MGK on his album, Kamikaze. (All of which eventually led MGK to get in a brawl with the actor G-Rod). Why exactly would a rap legend dredge up six-year-old beef with a less accomplished rapper?
It wasn’t the tweet itself that set him off. “The thing that was going on, that [MGK] was saying about my daughter, I didn’t know about that until literally a year and a half later,” Eminem told Sway in an interview this September. “You know, you go through the fucking wormhole of YouTube and whatever.”
Hilariously, what actually provoked Eminem to diss MGK was a fairly ambiguous reference the rapper made in a verse on Tech N9ne’s 2018 album, Planet. “People start hitting me up, ‘Yo, Machine Gun dissed you, he dissed you,’” Eminem said. “I listened to it and I’m like, ‘Did he really diss me though?’ I kept listening to it. ‘Y’all just rap, you ain’t gods,’ [goes the line]. And then somebody sends me a screenshot of [MGK’s] twitter and it says, ‘You just rap. You not god. Had some shit to get off my chest.’ … Now I’m in this weird thing where I’m like, ‘I gotta answer this motherfucker.’”
Beefing in hip-hop, of course, predates the internet, and it’s possible that these feuds would exist in an internet-less alternate reality. But the obsessive tracking of transgressions online highlights and amplifies perceived tension between artists. The year’s most notable feud — that between Drake and Pusha-T — escalated to the point where Pusha spilled Drake’s familial secrets and leaked an old photo of him in black face in part because of online sleuths and backdoor betrayals. The internet gave Pusha a treasure trove of sensitive material to work with, and once he put that material out into the world through a rap diss and a mixtape cover, it all went viral.
And again, what was Pusha and Drake’s beef actually about? Ostensibly, traditionalism (Drake’s reliance on ghost writers vs. Pusha’s street bona fides) and allegiances (G.O.O.D. Music vs. OVO). But those notions were lost in the fray. Really, in 2018 rap feuds are not so much about principles, factions, or physical turf; they’re vortexes that rappers get sucked into. The truth is, they separate you whether or not you have Michael and Prince’s DNA.