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In 2021, It Was Kanye Vs. Drake Once Again

In 2021, Kanye and Drake's decade-long Cold War heated back up. But did anyone really win?

kanye drake 2021
Illustration by Steven Fiche
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    Our 2021 Annual Report continues with an investigation into the never-ending drama surrounding Ye and Drake. As the year winds down, stay tuned for more awards, lists, and articles about the best music, film, and TV of 2021. You can find it all in one place here.


    I don’t pretend to understand Highlander. But the one thing I do get is two Highlanders can’t occupy the same space: There can be only one. One becomes stronger after besting the other in combat, ensuring a life of immortality. Kanye West and Drake are hip-hop Highlanders: They fill the same space with roughly the same fanbase and live parallel to one another.

    In 2021, their decade-long Cold War, littered with slights, sneak disses, and tons of passive-aggressiveness, heated back up. There was a lot of music, even more gossip, and a story that captured hip-hop’s attention for better, worse, and everything in between.

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    Certified Lover Boy and Donda are tied together, now and forever. Drake and Kanye teased their album releases earlier on the calendar and pretty much continued teasing as winter turned to spring, spring gave way to summer, and summer became “just drop the albums already!” Kanye wanted a Clash-of-the-Titans narrative to play out between him and a guy he always saw as exceedingly stiff competition.

    In fact, Kanye has said the only reason Watch the Throne even got made was the pressure he felt from Drake’s dizzying ascent to the top of the game. For those of you just tuning in, that’s a spot Kanye feels — and has always felt — belongs solely to him.

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    The egos, rumors, subliminal disses here and there over the years, plus the elephant in the room that looks a lot like Pusha T, meant two of the most recognizable faces in all of pop culture were sitting on a powder keg. From afar, it looked like Kanye wanted to manage when and how it blew up to make sure everything went in his favor.

    The results weren’t exactly what he planned, which tends to happen when dreams clash with reality.


    Donda first announced its presence to the world in a July ad during the NBA Finals. Kanye told us to expect the album just two days later. This was accompanied by a live listening session on Apple Music. Dope, right? Three listening sessions later and an album promised for the end of July didn’t get its actual release until late August.

    Kanye essentially spent a month finishing the album and figuring out which versions of songs he wanted to keep, what features he wanted, and rushing to a self-imposed finish line.

    More importantly, Kanye was engaged in a game of high-stakes chicken with his Canadian rival. See, before Donda‘s release, CLB had no official date. In fact, it was just a title, a few teases, and hours of social media sleuthing that stoked anticipation. Kanye wanted a redux of history, an echo of September 11th, 2007, when he and 50 Cent dropped their respective third albums on the same day. Drake wasn’t interested, and at this point, he didn’t need to be interested.

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    Drake’s dominance in hip-hop is unparalleled. This isn’t about where he falls on the ever-changing “best rapper alive” rankings. But as a statement of fact, his position as this genre’s top hitmaker and most successful artist is undisputed. Drake put hip-hop in the Cobra clutch ten years ago and shows no signs of relenting. There’s no reason to take Kanye’s bait when his footing is that solid.

    Even when Kanye went to outrageous lengths, like posting Drake’s home address on Instagram, the 35-year-old rapper did what he does best: Be directly indirect about his targets and intentions. Whether through social media or sneak disses on other people’s records, Drake’s ability to throw rocks, hide his hands, and leave the rest of the world guessing is quite the achievement.

    Did he always envision releasing his album on September 3rd, a mere five days after Donda? Or did he switch gears just to mess with the guy he used to idolize?

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    Much like the number of licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop, the world may never know. But despite the somewhat lukewarm responses from critics and the always-scary social media, Certified Lover Boy was another huge commercial success, eclipsing Donda in every measurable way.

    With both albums printing money for their respective artists, they both lived happily ever after, right? You’d think that, but like me trying to wrap Christmas presents, it didn’t end that neatly. Shortly after releasing CLB (very shortly), Drake leaked “Life of the Party,” the Kanye and André 3000 collab that was cut from Donda, but contained disses aimed at Drake.

    The Toronto rapper released it to show his reach extends into Kanye’s camp. Cue evil laugh and mustache twirl. But the song put their entire 2021 indirect slap fighting in perspective thanks to a heartfelt verse from André 3000 dedicated to his deceased mother.

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    Dre’s verse crystalized that Donda was supposed to celebrate Kanye’s deceased mother, not be a vessel for diss records. Andre’s heartfelt introspection also highlighted CLB‘s shallowness and showed a level of perfection, attention to detail, and thoroughness neither man came anywhere close to on their respective projects.

    That a heartbroken André 3000 was caught in the middle of, to quote Okayplayer’s Elijah C. Watson, “one of the most pointless feuds in hip-hop to occur in recent history,” was the icing on top of a very meh cake. The entire ordeal was enough for many who weren’t already bored by this back and forth to thoroughly wash their hands of it.

    Maybe the backlash to Kanye’s verse, coupled with the arrows pointed at Drake for releasing the song, was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Or perhaps it was pressure applied from rap’s Ra’s Al Ghul, J. Prince. Either way, this “beef” was officially well done in early November when Ye extended an olive branch. The two men posed for IG, and performed a whopping 34 songs together at the “Free Larry Hoover” Concert in Los Angeles on December 9th; everyone played nice.

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    Whew, that’s a hell of a year.


    So, what does it all mean? Neither man ruled 2021 the way they wanted. Not even close. CLB didn’t have its expected cultural dominance, despite its initial massive success. After a meteoric rise on the charts, none of CLB’s singles sniffed the year-end Billboard Hot 100’s Top 20, much less its Top 10. And he’s just outside the Top 10 of Billboard’s year-end Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.

    Sure, Drake is Spotify’s most-streamed artist of the year, with Kanye coming in at No. 4, but neither man has an entry on the platform’s top five streamed songs of the year. It’s almost as if after that first burst of curiosity, the music evoked a collective “meh” from the audience and they acted accordingly.

    Drake, like Kanye before him, knows how to speak to his core audience and give them exactly what they want every time. But Drake achieved supernova status making music that even those not among his faithful could deny. CLB didn’t reach those lofty heights, possibly a result of its construction. The album is painfully aware that it serves many masters. The dude has a lot of fans, with each of them liking him for different reasons. Catering an album to the whim of every single one of those fans, casual and hardcore, is a tough task. And he still does that part well.

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    Still, CLB marks the moment where the seams started showing; the music became repetitive, and worse yet, was only a faint shadow of what came before.

    Artists need challenges to channel into a new project. Without those mountains to climb, they start coasting and fail to find new subject matter. Drake’s M.O. hasn’t changed much in 10 years. The only difference is between So Far Gone Drake and the latest incarnation is the amount of commas in his bank account. His fans are growing, the times, they are a-changing, but he keeps fighting the same battles he was way back when.

    Worse, he’s doing it with the same artillery. Even withdrawing from the Grammys race feels like an admission that there are no more worlds to conquer for the OVO leader. CLB is Drake going through the motions, and a lot of the world took notice.

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    Like many big businesses — and Drake is a business — he’s too big to fail. The plaudits will come simply because he exists. The same goes for Kanye, who seemingly got a Grammy nomination just for putting out a piece of music. It’s not worth stopping the digital presses to say Kanye’s star isn’t as high in the sky as it used to be.

    Donda’s lack of cultural staying power (seriously, we talked about it for about five minutes) proves Mr. West is more renowned for the noise he creates outside of the recording booth. The last time a Kanye album truly captured the public’s scattered imagination was 2013, which may as well be another century at this point.

    Ye is pure spectacle now: A living, breathing performance artist living out his life one giant exhibition at a time. Until now, the promise of a new Kanye album was built on fans holding out hope that “the old Kanye” would peek his head out from under the covers. Let’s keep it real though: That’s not happening. Not now, not tomorrow, not ever. If you want the old Kanye, buy his old albums.

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    After Donda, maybe enough people finally got that message. Ye doesn’t move the culture like he used to. If the fact that his release date was dictated by another artist doesn’t prove that point, it’s hard to tell what will.

    In the end, Certified Lover Boy and Donda will go down in history for everything but the music. That’s a bad place to be in for any artist, let alone two of the biggest in the history of the genre. In the end, the two Highlanders cancelled each other out.

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