Not Like Us

Unpacking the Kendrick Lamar/Drake beef.

Rollie Pemberton

ROLLIE PEMBERTON is a writer, rapper, producer, poet and activist who performs under the name Cadence Weapon. He won the 2021 Polaris Music Prize for...

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Zoë van Dijk

Welcome to Mind in Bloom, a column deconstructing current events, music and art.

“No way,” I exclaimed to my DJ, Josephine.

It was the morning of Tuesday, April 30th and we had just landed in drizzly Montreal ahead of a few East Coast live performances. After tossing our Rimowas into the trunk of our Uber, I sat in the back seat and loaded up X as we pulled out of the airport.

After more than two weeks of silence, Kendrick Lamar had responded to Drake’s disses on a random Tuesday at 11:24 a.m. ET. I fumbled for my AirPods and crammed them into my ears.  As the song played, I paused occasionally to give a play-by-play to Josephine like we were watching a horror movie and she was covering her eyes.

“Kendrick just called Drake a master manipulator and a habitual liar.”

“He just made a reference to YNW Melly.”

“Oh my God, he’s doing the Toronto accent now!”

“Euphoria” rocked the world, breaking the single day streaming record for a 2024 hip-hop song and eventually hitting number three on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. To the casual observer, this public airing of grievances between megastars seemed as if two random artists from their Spotify playlist had inexplicably gotten into a tiff. But make no mistake, this cold war of words has been simmering in the background for over a decade.

The conflict reached a fever pitch late last year when J. Cole and Drake targeted Kendrick on “First Person Shooter.” Lamar returned fire this March on Future and Metro Boomin’s blistering “Like That,” an extract from their entire album dedicated to Drake’s allegedly mendacious nature entitled WE DON’T TRUST YOU. This was not the first time that Drake’s authenticity had been called into question. Why wouldn’t his former collaborators trust him?

Kendrick Lamar and Drake represent two contrasting paths to stardom befitting their recent references to being the Prince and Michael Jackson of their generation, respectively. One got to the top by pushing the art form of rap in new and unexpected directions, while the other did it by mastering the pop formula and breaking chart records in the process. This is a battle not only between two individuals, but also two divergent musical ideologies.


Aubrey Drake Graham had to endure wave after wave of humiliation on his way to the top. Growing up mixed in Toronto’s affluent Forest Hill neighbourhood with a middle class upbringing, he had success as a Canadian child actor on Degrassi. But as a result, he wasn’t taken seriously when attempting to make the unlikely shift to legitimate hip-hop star. His own country largely ignored him and his mixtapes until he was signed by Lil Wayne in 2009, which brought him instant credibility and sparked his meteoric rise.

Like most young artists, he was derivative at first. His oscillation between punch line raps and melodic singing made him sound like a cross between Little Brother’s Phonte and Kanye West circa 808s & Heartbreak. But as the years went by, he carved out his own sonic formula that he mastered on 2011’s Take Care: an album of claustrophobic studies in longing catering to an audience that mistook a man rapping about his feelings to be a sign of emotional intelligence. This stood out in the macho world of rap.

With his rise came growing pains. He was publicly embarrassed on the night he hosted the Junos in 2011 and didn’t win for any of his six nominations. Drake stopped submitting his albums for Juno consideration after 2016’s Views didn’t win a single award out of five nominations. Despite having sold over 223 million records worldwide over the span of his career, critical appreciation has eluded him.

But with each successive hit album, his outsized influence on Canada and the country’s rap scene grew. I distinctly remember the shift when being a Canadian rapper went from being an oddity to a commodity. After a certain point, every interviewer I spoke to wanted to know my opinion of Drake. His shadow loomed larger and larger until it seemingly blocked the world’s view of the rest of us, like the moon eclipsing the sun. The pioneers who came before him like Maestro Fresh Wes, Michie Mee and Kardinal Offishall suddenly became footnotes in his story. Every rapper in Canada was suddenly judged by how they compared to Drake and his megastardom, even if they weren’t shooting for the same goal.

Through sheer determination, Drake arguably made being Canadian cool. He brought the Toronto accent to the mainstream in a sketch on Saturday Night Live. He sat on the edge of the CN Tower for the cover of Views. His annual OVO Fest became a pilgrimage event for African Americans. Building on decades of foundation developed by Toronto’s Afro-Caribbean diaspora, Drake celebrated the true spirit of a city that famously existed in the cultural memory as a generic stand-in for New York and Chicago in films. Along with The Weeknd and PARTYNEXTDOOR, Drake is chiefly responsible for what has been referred to as the Toronto sound: dark, intimate R&B-inflected rap seemingly designed for driving down the Gardiner at night.

Drake brought the ephemera of Toronto to the masses on an unprecedented scale, making him a local hero in the process. All across the city, he had us proudly screaming “I was running through the 6 with my woes!” Starting with his guest verse on “Versace” by Migos in 2013, Drake went on a run of features that led to a popularity boost for the artists he collaborated with that was dubbed “the Drake effect.” His success, cultural impact and elevated status insulated him to the point that he felt comfortable confronting other rappers, marking a pivotal shift in Drake’s identity.

With 2015’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and his disses to Meek Mill from the same year, Drake presented a more aggressive, angrier approach to rapping that seemed to come out of nowhere. Ghostwriting accusations by Meek poked some holes in Drake’s credibility, but “Back To Back” cemented Drake as a battle rapper to be reckoned with. Drake continued painstakingly constructing a reality where his pop success meant he should be considered the greatest rapper in the game. He continued to shift away from his lovelorn crooning Lothario persona, transforming into the globe-trotting mob boss figure he presents himself as today.

His 2018 battle with Pusha T, spurred by an earlier disagreement between Clipse, The Neptunes and Lil Wayne, resulted in the revelation that Drake was hiding a previously undisclosed child, which damaged his image but had little impact on his commercial success. He followed the conflict with massive hits like “In My Feelings” and “Sicko Mode.” But by the time of 2023’s For All the Dogs, the vulnerability that had made him beloved by women had largely faded into casual misogyny, attracting a new fanbase of angry young men.


Kendrick Lamar was the chosen one from the very beginning. A child prodigy with a rough Compton upbringing who was artistically fostered by Dr. Dre, Kendrick’s place in hip-hop culture has always been secure. In 2011, he symbolically got passed the torch by West Coast hip-hop forefathers Snoop Dogg, Kurupt, Daz, Warren G and The Game onstage at the House of Blues as he cried tears of joy. That same year, Kendrick was brought on tour by an already-ascendant Drake and featured on the latter’s “Buried Alive Interlude” on 2011’s Take Care. His 2012 major label debut good kid, m.A.A.d city was heralded as an instant classic, with Drake stopping by to drop a verse on “Poetic Justice.”

Kendrick’s music received worldwide universal acclaim for its seamless blend of vivid storytelling, conceptual depth and ferocious rapping. It spoke to West Coast street culture effortlessly, tapping into the verbiage and customs of his community. He grew up on welfare and saw someone murdered in a drive-by shooting outside his Section 8 apartment when he was five years old. When he was eight, his father brought him to the Compton Swap Meet so he could watch Tupac and Dr. Dre film the video for “California Love.” This is the duality that informs his music.

But the turning point in his career was his incendiary 2013 verse on Big Sean’s “Control” where he threw down the gauntlet and called out the biggest rappers in the game by name. This was pure hip-hop gamesmanship where to be the best, you have to beat the best. Most of the rappers mentioned took it as a compliment that they were mentioned. But Drake was clearly offended when he responded in a Billboard cover story: “… I know good and well that Kendrick’s not murdering me, at all, in any platform. So when that day presents itself, I guess we can revisit the topic.”

Kendrick followed that salvo up with a dazzling BET cypher verse where he jabbed Drake directly: “Nothing been the same since they dropped ‘Control’ / And tucked a sensitive rapper back in his pajama clothes.” His 2015 effort To Pimp A Butterfly was even more virtuosic; a dizzying, introspective blend of funk and jazz with a recurring motif that eventually leads to him having a full conversation with the ghost of Tupac himself. It featured one of his signature songs, “Alright,” which became a protest anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement.

2017’s DAMN. landed like a thunderbolt and earned Kendrick the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Music and his first solo Billboard #1 single, “HUMBLE.” A swirling religious allegory about damnation, DAMN. swings between being meditative and almost unbearably intense. The record was so painstakingly crafted, it was designed to be played forward and backwards without losing conceptual integrity.

Kendrick has become the flag bearer for lyrical rap, a master of a dying art form. He has cemented his status as one of the greatest rappers of his generation. Despite being a critical darling, Kendrick has always been a knotty, curious artist who has carefully walked the balance between art and commerce, usually landing firmly on the former side of the divide. His most recent release, 2022’s Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, was a challenging listen exploring Kendrick’s infidelity as well as themes of abuse that didn’t initially resonate with a mainstream audience, but helped to cement his status as hip-hop’s moral compass.


In boxing, they say styles make fights. You couldn’t possibly find two rappers who are more diametrically opposed: the pretty boy lower middle class Canadian kid versus the diminutive intellectual scrapper from one of America’s most notorious hoods. For years, they used each other as boogeymen to fuel their writing. Unbeknownst to the majority of listeners, there was a hidden game of one-upsmanship occurring in plain sight between the two of them. And now, here they were face-to-face, no more subliminals, time to go direct.

Wars are often defined by the technology used, and the battle between Kendrick Lamar and Drake has been no different. Arguably the first true rap duel of the internet age, we no longer had to wait months to buy an artist’s next CD to hear the next diss. The memes were just as potent as the music, with Drake rumoured to be buying Twitter bots to disparage his rivals. In a short amount of time, we were treated to a cascading fusillade of diss tracks from both parties.

When “Push Ups,” Drake’s response to “Like That,” leaked online, many initially suspected it was made using AI. The leak seemed to be intentional, a way of testing out public response to the track before officially releasing it, but the rollout felt botched and it dulled  the effectiveness of the strike. “Push Ups” mostly featured jabs speculating about Lamar being exploited by his former record label while making fun of his diminutive height, the title a reference to a viral video of Kendrick working out. The track was unfocused, with attacks on Rick Ross, Future, Metro Boomin and others sprinkled in with the disses to Kendrick. This approach would later prove to be an arrogant, costly mistake.

Released a few days later to goad Kendrick into responding, “Taylor Made Freestyle” featured Drake dissing Kendrick while using AI to mimic Tupac and Snoop Dogg’s voices over a generic West Coast beat. Essentially a futuristic troll job, there was something queasy and distasteful about Drake using Kendrick’s hip-hop heroes against him in this way, especially the late Shakur, who has been a hero to Kendrick since he was a child. Tupac’s estate sent a cease and desist to get the song taken down.

The impressions were also clumsy, with Drake’s rhyme patterns obvious underneath the altered voices. One could say this is similar to the various cultural costumes that Drake has readily donned over the span of his career. Caribbean Drake, UK Roadman Drake, Latin Drake, the list goes on. It was as if he tried on so many accents and identities that it became unclear to everyone who Drake was underneath, an actor after all.

On that misty morning when Kendrick reemerged with “euphoria,” I was reminded of the fact that the most intelligent people often have the highest capacity for meanness. This song is a laser-focused deconstruction of Drake’s essence, painting him as racially confused, a degenerate, a scammer, and a bad father. Kendrick questions whether or not Drake should be allowed to say the N-word and says it’s cringeworthy whenever he does. There’s a biblical fury underpinning Kendrick’s bars here, his verses dripping with snarling indignation.

Kendrick does a hilarious impression of the same Toronto accent that Drake brought to the mainstream, cleverly using his own cultural impact against him. Lamar’s name dropping of New Ho King has turned the local Chinese restaurant into an international sensation. His weird emphasis on certain words has helped a few lines turn into instant viral moments. “What is it? The braids?!” became a catchphrase for the rest of our tour.

After landing in Newark ahead of our New York show on the morning of May 3rd, we were surprised to learn that Kendrick had dropped yet another diss track on Instagram, “6:16 in LA,” where he implied that Drake’s label has moles who are leaking information to Kendrick’s team. At this point, it was as if we were manifesting new diss tracks every time we took a flight. It felt fitting to be in the birthplace of hip-hop for this. I couldn’t help but think about what Nas vs Jay-Z would’ve been like in this era. After this, the battle stopped being about who was the best rapper, rapidly devolving into internecine warfare that made me think worse of both parties.

Drake fired back with “Family Matters” later that night, complete with a video where Drake is seen enjoying a private dinner at New Ho King and the minivan that is pictured on the cover of Kendrick’s debut album gets crushed. Alleging that Kendrick’s creative partner Dave Free is the biological father of one of Lamar’s kids and that Kendrick has physically abused the mother of his children, “Family Matters” features some of the most technically accomplished rapping of Drake’s career.

In the second part of the song, he effortlessly glides over a fearsome drill track with serpentine flows while dropping the n-bomb twenty-two times in defiance of Kendrick’s questions about his racial identity. The third section in particular is a showcase for all the hallmarks of what makes Drake such a successful rapper. Drake lands his funniest line of the whole battle with “Kendrick just opened his mouth, someone go hand him a Grammy right now.” A diss track of this magnitude would typically be enough to win a battle, but Kendrick isn’t an ordinary adversary.

Before I was even aware that Drake had released “Family Matters,” I got a text from Josephine saying “KENDRICK DROPPED AGAIN.” Less than an hour after Drake put out his track, Kendrick came back with “meet the grahams.” The effect this had on Drake’s diss was like throwing a wet blanket on a raging fire. I left the club and hailed a cab immediately. When I got to my sister’s place in Harlem, we listened side by side with open-mouthed horror and freaked out after every line. Over a haunting piano beat by the Alchemist, Kendrick calmly addresses every member of Drake’s immediate family about what a horrible person he is, eventually suggesting that Drake is hiding an undisclosed daughter.

The great artists show us things we’ve never seen before, taking us to places that we can’t go ourselves, that maybe we don’t even want to go to. This is often in the service of beauty and joy. But “meet the grahams” is one of the ugliest songs I’ve ever heard. It’s psychological terror. It sounds evil. It reminds me of watching a Faces of Death VHS back when I was a kid, gawking at all the stuff I wasn’t supposed to look at but couldn’t look away from. I can appreciate how unique it is in the canon of music, but it’s not something I’ll go out of my way to hear again. Kendrick accuses Drake of running a sex trafficking ring and being a pedophile. He compares him to Harvey Weinstein and literally thinks he should die.

The next day during our soundcheck in Washington, D.C., Kendrick followed that grim entry up with the ebullient club banger “Not Like Us.” Our sound guy played it over the system and I knew instantly that Kendrick had beaten Drake at his own game by making an inescapable party track that doubled as a diss to an adversary. This was a victory lap. I knew it was going to spread as rapidly as the virus in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening. Videos of it being played in the club that same night proliferated. People filmed themselves crip walking to it on TikTok. This was all being done over a diss song with the lyric, “Certified Lover Boy? Certified pedophiles.”

The title “Not Like Us” is rich with interpretations, referring to authenticity, culture vultures, West Coast pride and Drake’s sexual misconduct allegations. “You not a colleague, you a fucking colonizer” stings Drake in a particularly specific way. Drake literally collects hip-hop memorabilia, some of which used to be the property of his rivals: Pusha T’s microphone, Pharrell’s chains, Tupac’s ring. “The Drake effect” seems to have a vampiric impact on the artists who have featured him. Drake benefits by gaining street credibility while the artists he works with, especially those he signs, tend to fade into obscurity. And the artists who do manage to become successful after working with him, like Kendrick and The Weeknd, often end up souring on him for unknown reasons.

Looking back on this battle, it feels like an example of what can happen when men have unresolved trauma: they inevitably take it out on others. Kendrick may have won the battle in the court of public opinion, but what has he lost by stooping so low? His album about the importance of therapy and dealing with trauma was initially ignored by the masses but now he’s been rewarded with a number one hit in which he gives into his most base impulses.

Both sides weaponized abuse in a post-Me Too world where getting cancelled is the ultimate form of social death. Intimate partner violence, homophobia and pedophilia were played up for yucks and as Gotcha moments in this battle. How much more of an appetite do we as a culture have for rap battles where gay people, women and children are collateral damage?

And where does Drake go from here? I hosted a workshop in Toronto last weekend, and during the Q&A, a Black academic from the States asked me about “Not Like Us” and what Black identity means in Canada. Just like we collectively benefited from Drake’s success, I suspect that Black Canadians will probably now have to dig out from under the tag of being seen as colonizers of African American culture. Americans online are already pretending that there was never a Toronto sound in the first place. The idea that we’re just tourists and fans with a tenuous and precarious position in hip-hop culture will be hard to shake.

How Drake rebounds long term from the damage to his reputation remains to be seen. It hits differently when you hear Drake’s songs in the club now. He just dropped a new single with Sexyy Red where he raps over the “BBL Drizzy” meme popularized by nemesis Metro Boomin. His approach seems to be to laugh it off and keep things moving. Seeing him at the announcement for Toronto’s new WNBA team last week, I couldn’t help hearing Kendrick’s words cycling through my head as I watched him pose for photos with basketball figures: “Keep the family away.”

Rollie Pemberton

ROLLIE PEMBERTON is a writer, rapper, producer, poet and activist who performs under the name Cadence Weapon. He won the 2021 Polaris Music Prize for his album Parallel World. His debut memoir, Bedroom Rapper, was published in 2022. His column Mind In Bloom was nominated for a 2024 National Magazine Award. His writing has been published in Pitchfork, The Guardian, Wired, Toronto Life, The Globe and Mail and Hazlitt. Currently based in Hamilton, Pemberton was a former Poet Laureate in his hometown of Edmonton. His new album Rollercoaster is out now.