Hip-Hop: Where’s the Beef?

The mainstreaming of hip-hop culture ruined one of the genre's defining traditions: the battle.

Jay-Z and Kanye West (Getty Images)

After Jay-Z and Nas proved that the animosity didn’t have to spill over into the streets, it gave the rest of the hip-hop nation the all clear to beef at will. No one exploited this opening more than rap’s biggest troublemaker, 50 Cent.

The rapper started his career making enemies with his 1999 record “How to Rob,” in which he named dozens of fellow emcees and detailed how he would go about robbing them. He was forced into a rap sabbatical after being shot nine times in May 2000 but picked up where he left off when he resurfaced in 2002.

His highly publicized but often one-sided feud with chart-topping rapper Ja Rule helped propel 50’s popularity while turning public opinion against Ja Rule and effectively ending his career. But 50 didn’t stop there. In the next few years, he released a dis track for pretty much any rapper with a record deal, his main targets being Nas, Jadakiss, Fat Joe, Cam’Ron and former protégé Game.

It wasn’t just 50 Cent spreading the disharmony, though. From 2002 to 2006, if one were to diagram the known feuds among rappers into a flow chart, it would have been more frustrating than the debt-ceiling debate. Among those involved in notable battles were KRS-One, Nelly, T.I., Ludacris, Lil’ Flip, Freeway, Beanie Sigel, Styles P, Eminem, Jermaine Dupri, Dr. Dre, Jim Jones — and the list goes on.

Everyone was beefing with everyone, and the market became oversaturated with beef. After a while, the fans started to find it petty and little more than a gimmick used to generate buzz when an artist was preparing to release a new project and push sales. Interest in the increasingly mundane spats between rappers waned tremendously. In 2009, when 50 Cent (again) went on the offensive in an attempt to curtail budding star Rick Ross’ appeal, Ross simply ignored his way into a victory.

Newcomers Wale and Kid Cudi got into a war of words that started in the pages of Complex magazine and dissolved within a matter of days. Then late last year and into the beginning of 2011, Lil’ Kim set her sights on the red-hot Nicki Minaj and left everyone within earshot asking, Whats the point?”

Is this a sign of hip-hop “growing up”? Maybe. But it’s more the result of the law of diminishing returns: The more beef consumers are provided, the less appealing it becomes. As hip-hop has become more ingrained in pop culture, it has continued to lose its edge and sense of rebellion. Working together on collaborations yields bigger exposure and profits than releasing dis tracks. The loss of beef is a casualty of hip-hop’s success.

Of course, this could change, as culture is wont to do. This is hip-hop, after all, and as Big Daddy Kane once warned: “Sucka MCs, it’s a must that I dis you.”

Mychal Denzel Smith is a writer, social commentator and mental-health advocate. Follow him on Twitter.

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