By KRISTEN WALSH
Tupac vs. Biggie. Meek Mill vs. Drake. Jay-Z vs. Nas. “Beef” has been a prevalent trend in rap history. The notion of “beef” has been a big commercial pull in hip hop; consumers feed on drama. The media loves to cover petty feuds in the industry, but their tendency to highlight fights between rappers obscures discussion of greater issues. In other words, beef is bullshit.
Celebrities’ personal lives are constantly making headlines. Because of that, popular media can sometimes overshadow more salient, controversial issues with gossip. The sociopolitical identities portrayed in hip hop are inconcealable, and from its humble beginnings, hip hop in more recent times has become a voice for social change. As much as we tend to feed on the drama of celebrity lives, drama and feuding among celebrities are trivial matters.
The most famous hip hop beef in history has been about lovers, cities, and talent. Ultimately, these things don’t really speak much to larger issues that many hip hop artists discuss in their music like poverty, discrimination, and crime. Black voices and identity are inseparable from hip hop and rap music. While not every artist focuses on this aspect of identity, the ones that do deserve hype for their message, not their status. The rap industry is largely centered on popularity and media power, and giving so much coverage to shit talk and dirty looks takes away from the more important issues at hand. Even an artist like Kanye West—with all his talent—gets unspeakable coverage for his ongoing feud with Taylor Swift. The strong political messages in Yeezus (2013), however, are overlooked in circles outside of niche music critics. Song titles alone on this album are enough to tip people off at Kanye’s frustration with the often white-centric media. “Black Skinhead” for example is a song about frustration with race relations in pop culture. One exemplary lyric from this song is: “Claiming I’m overreacting/ like them black kids in Chriaq bitch” in a reference to the downplay of youth homicide in Chicago. “New Slaves” is but another song with strong political messages in its discussion of mass incarceration and the stigma against poor black people in contrast to the desire for endorsement of wealthy black people. Kanye is just one of the significant names in the industry that have spoken on social inequality. MF Doom, Mos Def, and Biggie have also been known to release music criticizing the pettiness in the music industry and the media’s insatiable appetite for beef. Popular media doesn’t sell weighted issues the way they do petty drama, so we can’t expect pop media outlets to do much for social change. The sociopolitical climate surrounding hip hop and its rich history offers many more discussions than whether Drake has a ghost writer or not.
“Beef Rapp,” off of MF Doom’s album, Mm…Food, satirizes the claims that rappers often make about being “hard.” Doom made his career off of being a wordsmith and his lyricism shines through in this song. He picks apart the claims made about prison in this song. A big part of the beefy rapper persona is a past prison sentence. Doom calls out all of the fake claims through the lyrics, “They know they wouldn’t be talking that bologna in the bullpen/ So disgusting, pardon self as I discuss this/ They talk a wealth of shit and they ain’t never seen the justice.” Doom claims that those who have been to prison wouldn’t talk to the same degree about it and that taking on a persona that reflects the reality of others is marginalizing. He implies that beef never serves true justice and criticizes it through cleverly pulling in medical and food references to paint beef in a negative light. According to Doom, starting beef is dangerous. It can taint a career by overshadowing past work. Even more insidiously though, Doom could be drawing parallels to gang culture. The song is sprinkled with double entendres that imply violence in beef, and while this violence isn’t usually present for celebrities, if we look at the civilian level, starting beef in gang culture could mean the end of your life.
Another significant artist to discuss the underlying issues in the media portrayal of beef is Mos Def, especially in his song “Beef.” Mos Def addresses the issue of “beef” most explicitly. He expresses his concerns, particularly those surrounding the black community. This is super important—artists can be very impactful on their listeners, and the more issues are talked about, the more people become aware. From mass incarceration, to drug abuse, to health problems, Bey hits it all. Artist voices can touch a lot people, and if media outlets worked on popularizing messages like so, a lot of progress could be made.
As hypocritical as it may seem, Biggie also had instances of advocating against the beef trend. Biggie and Tupac had one of the most notorious hip hop feuds of all time. It was so significant that it is still talked about today. Despite this, Biggie has more than one song discussing the bullshit that is beef. Most of his qualms stem from the fact that many in the rap industry have not experienced the hardships they lay claim to. More than that, Biggie tries to stress that real beef is settled, once again highlighting the misconceptions that the media portray in terms of what beef is.
Beef has commercial value, but the sociopolitical implications of the media’s conception of beef invalidate greater hardships. There is a lot of bullshit in beef, and the artists who highlight this are important components to spread social awareness.