The Higher Ground: Sun Tzu’s The Art of War Applied to the History of Rap Beef

The history of rap beef and principles in Sun Tzu's 'The Art of War' have striking parallels

“What’s beef?” my favorite MC of all-time spit more than 20 years ago, which became an important question for context every time in my community when discussing “beef” (dispute) on a micro level between individuals, macro level between entities and even nations, and beef on a Hip Hop spectrum.

But what really is “rap beef?” It’s a colloquial term used for when rappers are sending subliminal disses or personal statements in public media about their disdain for another rap artist or rap entity. There are so many rap beefs of Hip Hop Culture that have shaped the entire history of rap, being excellent conversations up for debate, while some are more dark or comical than others. As I was talking with a colleague about our favorite rap beefs, I began to recall how the developments and end results of these beefs related to one of the most lauded books of all time that I had read: Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

The book can be very repetitive at times, but otherwise brilliant in the lessons it can teach you for school, business relationships, and beef of any spectrum in your life. Thus this article, taking a few of my favorite rap beefs for analysis, will use The Art of War to elucidate some lessons regarding the proper and improper methods to employ when beefing with another artist or entity.

Let’s Begin.

The Notorious B.I.G (Biggie) vs. Tupac [1990s]:

Although this is the most fatal example of rap beef that has changed how Hip Hop culture addresses it, it is still a notable example. In this time, focus on the smooth style of East Coast Rap switched to a focus of the Gangsta Rap/Hardcore Rap/G-Funk Era of the West Coast. The West Coast had NWA, Ice T, Dr.Dre as one of the greatest Hip Hop producers of all-time, and a roster on Death Row Records that was absolutely legendary for its time. The playful and jovial rhymes of the East Coast were fading out of popularity until then entered Christopher Wallace a.k.a The Notorious B.I.G, one of Bad Boy Record’s flagship artists. With rap versatility on an inhuman level in terms of style, Biggie’s mix between hardcore lyrics and smooth wordplay/storytelling allowed for commercial and underground success. Hailed as one of the best lyricists of all time (save the “girl you so fine-daddy” and “stick your d**k in this” lines), the East Coast was able to have one of its own go up against the leviathan of West Coast Rap while biding enough time for the East Coast up and coming rappers to revamp their brand to throw down. To make it even better, Biggie had forged a friendship with the West Coast’s greatest rising star of that time, Tupac Shakur. Their friendship, as portrayed in many books and even movies like Notorious and All Eyez On Me, was extremely genuine to the point Biggie even wanted Tupac to be his manager at one point. Smooth sailing right? WRONG. A tragic setup, one that Biggie distanced responsibly from by claiming innocence, left Tupac beat up, shot, mentally scarred and betrayed as he attempted to visit Biggie at a recording session in New York. Tupac vowed revenge and total, relentless retaliation and at this time, Biggie made a fatal mistake, ignoring this aspect of the Art of War:

“Be extremely subtle even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate.” 
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

One of his greatest tracks to date, “Who Shot Ya?” debuted. Analyzing the lyrics, it would only take a middle school reading level to see that it looked extremely suspect from a man who claimed innocence from the setup. (Another dialogue for another time). With further confirmation of Biggie’s involvement, Tupac then incorporated this Art of War concept:

“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity” 
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Tupac, striking with a fury quite not seen again in rap beef, released “Hit Em Up;” which is, in actuality, the single greatest rap diss of all time in terms of no wasted bars, execution, and level of aggression/disrespect (debate your thirst trappin’ baby momma on Instagram). The track starts off with the most disrespectful opening statement: “That’s why I f****d your b***h you fat motherf*****r.” After “dumbing down” his lyrics for a while and keeping it simplistic, Tupac let loose his fully powerful lyricism that was precise, simple, but still devastating. His first couple of bars alone were enough to cause a cringe in anyone he was beefing with, especially Biggie: “FIRST OFF, fuck yo’ b***h and the clique you claim/Westside when we ride, come equipped with game/You claim to be a player, but I f****d your wife/We bust on Bad Boys, niggas f****d for life”. He proceeded, with his entire Outlawz team, to do an onslaught against the rest of Junior M.A.F.I.A, Puff Daddy, Bad Boy as a label, and even Mobb Depp by coming at one of their member’s medical condition (pretttttttty savage.)

Unfortunately, the heat was not quelled as individuals on the East and West Coasts began to take sides and matters into their own hands in deciding which coast was better. Eventually, not only did Hip Hop lose two of their greatest rappers and figures of all-time in the crossfire, setting a precedent for the limits to which rap beef could go, but it proved an important lesson from The Art of War as well:

“Anger may in time change to gladness; vexation may be succeeded by content.
But a kingdom that has once been destroyed can never come again into being; nor can the dead ever be brought back to life.” 
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

The disses and beef were spicy entertainment at one point, but never so good that it justified taking lives on either side.

Jay-Z vs. Nas [2000s]

How did this even start? In summary, Biggie’s “King of New York” status was not necessarily a vain proclamation. His death left a hole in New York at the time, leading many of the New York Rap scene wondering who would take his place as many simultaneously vied for the throne. One of the prime prospects for heirs was Nas from Queens, who was coasting off of not only his debut album Illmatic, proclaimed as the greatest rap album of all-time across many debates, but It Was Written as well. His sophomore effort not only contained magnificent tracks full of area radio play, but was argued to be even better than Illmatic.

At the same time, Jay-Z was also vying for the throne, but more arrogantly than other candidates. Even then, Jay-Z had the track record to back it up with a number of dynamic features under his belt, radio singles, and albums that helped get his name in the ring for debate over the true King. Ironically, in this time, Jay-Z was treated like the Sophomore in high school that tried to rule the place once the senior left. He was not treated as well at award shows as compared to Nas and Biggie, and Nas (his actual fault in this situation) essentially ignored practically every attempt Jay-Z made to collaborate. 

It was not until Jay-Z gave subliminal disses on tracks and even Summer Jam that made Nas even give a subliminal response via another track. Jay-Z was tired of the ignoring, and then, he launched into the mainstream what became the Top 2, if not the greatest rap beef of all time.

“Move swift as the Wind and closely-formed as the Wood. Attack like the Fire and be still as the Mountain.” 
― Sun TzuThe Art of War

Jay-Z’s “Takeover” was elemental in its devastation and construction, relating to this rule from The Art of War. Jay-Z had released a track with such mathematical effiency and infectious energy that honestly would have ended any other rapper’s career. Add in Nas’ declining sales and popularity from his Illmatic days and Jay-Z’s rising position in clout and you had an opponent that clearly had the higher ground in the fight. How could you compete with stinging lines such as “So yeah, I sampled your voice, you was usin’ it wrong/You made it a hot line, I made it a hot song,” comments about Nas’ record deal leaving him underpaid, a math equation in the middle of the song, and proof that Jay-Z is a messy b***h that lives for drama like Joanne the Scammer when he finished off the verse with “Because you-know-who did you-know-what/With you-know-who, but let’s keep that between me and you?”

Nas, unlike rappers in beefs nowadays, had the flexibility to bide his time for a response against a career ending diss. He prepared his retaliation quietly, while using his dexterous knowledge to prepare his saving grace and studying his opponent. It was the mightiest mogul vs. the street prophet.

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete.” 
― Sun TzuThe Art of War

Yes, “Takeover” may have been more ear-pleasing in terms of a hook and an addicting instrumental produced by Kanye West, but Nas’ “Ether” was just as relentless, if not more, as Jay-Z’s “Takeover.” Emerging from the depths of defeat after being left for dead by the rap world, Nas stood triumphantly in his confidence to equal the higher ground Jay-Z had established as gunshots raged over the beginning of the track. The spirit of Tupac came through a tone-setting and blatant “F**K JAY-Z” and Nas reminded the world of his power with a globe-stopping “What’s up n****s?” before mercilessly letting loose.

“Engage people with what they expect; it is what they are able to discern and confirms their projections. It settles them into predictable patterns of response, occupying their minds while you wait for the extraordinary moment — that which they cannot anticipate.” 
― Sun TzuThe Art of War

Oh yes, Nas responded as Jay-Z anticipated, but in a way no one expected. The research was done and the esoteric lyricism was not held back not even a bit. He stated his opinion of what it meant to be the best of all-time in the rap realm, then commenced to give accounts of the life he knew of Jay-Z before the flaunting and Mafiaso raps. Jay-Z’s ultimate authority as an innovation was dismantled bar by bar as a convincing narrative of Jay-Z leeching from the greats before him was enough to do the damage and reveal to the culture who was truly the more authentic and not just the King.

“His manuscript just sound stupid/When KRS already made an album called Blueprint!/First Biggie’s your man? Then you got the nerve to say/That you better than B.I.G./D**k-suckin’ lips, why don’t you let the late great veteran live?” More unforgettable rap lyrics were spit that shook the entire game, which ultimately decided the battle, and even had Jay-Z in a sobbing-like state on the radio when the song came out post-interview with Angie Martinez. Jay-Z tried to bust back with Supa Ugly, which was labeled largely as distasteful and unnecessary, but by then, the damage had been done by the unexpected magnitude of the “Ether” counterattack.

“There is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare.” 
― Sun TzuThe Art of War

“Ether” and its execution by Nas incorporated so many elements of The Art of War that it is seen as the template to rap beef diss tracks. No one says “You got Takeover’d” or “You got Supa Ugly’d!” correct? They say you got “Ether’d.” In defense of Jay-Z, many will try and argue that while Nas won the battle, Jay-Z won the war, referencing Jay-Z’s commercial and business success over Nas’ as well as social capital that Jay-Z built (i.e marrying the single biggest superstar of our time). If you are one of the greatest rappers of all time, with 13 platinum albums, Forbes List capital through the roof, a wife who is essentially worshipped as a deity on this Earth, and other aspects of living as a true King. However, if there is that one person who you know you can definitely not go to war with, can you really say you won? I’ll let you tell it.

Drake vs. Meek Mill [2010s]

As a new generation, we do not have the severity of the Tupac vs. Biggie beef, nor the destructively delicious drama of the Jay-Z vs. Nas beef, but the Drake vs. Meek Mill beef in the summer of 2015 nevertheless provided an excellent historical case study for rap beef. A lot of previously established norms of rap beef were thrown out the window with this instance.

“[He] who wishes to fight must first count the cost.” 
― Sun TzuThe Art of War

Enter Meek Mill in 2015: A growing and successful career, his first #1 album with Dreams Worth Than Money, and the top earning and most commercially successful Femcee in her era by his side. With a cosign by Jay-Z himself popping bottles with Meek in celebration of his blessings, the Philly rapper was living his dreams without the nightmares. Who would have known that he would artificially create his own? One ill-fated night, while heavy under the influence of drugs, someone put into Meek Mill’s ears that Drake was having sexual relations of some sort with Nicki Minaj, Meek Mill’s then girlfriend at the time. With his ego on the line, and against the cool-calculated boss persona he attempts to display in his music on a regular basis, Meek waged war with arguably the most infamous tweet of all time without first counting the potential cost of the war.

In Hip Hop culture, authenticity and originality in perfecting one’s truth is paramount down to the DJs, producers, break dancers, and most importantly: the rappers. You cannot claim to be the greatest if you are not writing you own music, period. Hip Hop is more strict of this rule considering its historical past with its origins. Drake’s entire legacy was on the line, even with his massive star power, sales, endorsements and fanbase. Meek arrogantly believed he won because of simply revealing a damaging damaging fact. As with Jay-Z to Nas, Meek commenced to make a sin of The Art of War by underestimating his opponent. To gauge the strength of his opponent, Drake delivered the subtle “Charged Up.” Although light in its attack, “Charged Up” sent a message to Meek that Drake received his message. The discussions around the Hip Hop community began to happen as Meek made a statement, calling the song “Baby lotion soft…,” and by this time, the setup could not have been more perfect for landing an uppercut and knocking Meek off balance.

“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.” 
― Sun TzuThe Art of War

Although not the best diss track of all time, Drake’s follow up, “Back to Back” did the trick quite like what any other rap song did before. The bait was to appear weak as the song began, and then the shots came: “You love her, then you gotta give the world to her/Is that a world tour or YOUR GIRL’S  tour?/I know that you gotta be a thug for her/This ain’t what she meant when she told you to open up more/Yeah, TRIGGER fingers turn to TWITTER fingers/Yeah, you gettin’ bodied by a SINGIN’ N***A/I’m not the type of n***a that’ll type to n****s/And shout-out to all my boss b*****s wifin’ n****s/Make sure you hit him with the prenup!/Then tell that man to ease up”

“So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong, and strike at what is weak.” 
― Sun TzuThe Art of War

Drake himself knew that he was not a better battle rapper than Meek, who was classically trained in the art. However, instead of striking at Meek Mill’s strength, Drake struck at every weak point that Meek Mill would be hurt from despite the thuggish demeanor he tried to represent: confusing Meek’s stability in his own masculinity by stating the obvious that his rich and more commercially successful girlfriend at the time, Nicki Minaj, had more power than the amounts Meek bragged about. The section came about talking about how Meek’s constant tirade of trying to look tough was blowing back in his face all across the board. The Twitter fingers line is now forever a quotable, but the follow up “You getting’ bodied by a singin’ n***a,” an occurrence unique and exclusive to this mainstream rap beef, make a point that was never made before, doing the trick. The next few lines were for reinforcement but the damage was already done.

“Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” 
― Sun TzuThe Art of War

The song, as clever as it was in parts, was not enough to deal a finishing blow, although damaging, as described by connoseiurs of Hip Hop Culture. Then, Drake, in all of his secret tactical genius with his team, orchestrated the finishing blows without even having to make a direct attack. The song was a setup for a classy executed attack. Drake’s words that seemed mundane held true at the beginning of the track. Drake indeed sent six bottles to Charlemagne, one of the leading Hip Hop radio hosts in the nation that dominated the flow of conversation about Hip Hop developments. Drake’s investment and Charlemagne’s thanks displayed not only Drake as a classy brother, but very petty enough as to state “Yes, I did do it.”

Drake, in the song, mentioned AR-Ab, a underground Philly rapper that was popular and that Meek Mill wanted to sign to a record deal, but AR-Ab had beef with Meek. The artwork of the diss track was a picture captured of when the Toronto Raptors (Drake’s hometown team) won “back-to-back” championships. It did not help at all that the same night this track was released, the Philadelphia Phillies (from Meek’s hometown) lost to the Blue Jays. “Back to Back” became the first ever diss nominated for a Grammy Award in 2016, further cementing the songs’ poisonous effects that would make the kill.

When Meek executed his response, the rather lackluster and lyrically sloppy “Wanna Know,” especially considering his battling prowess, Meek’s response was so bad that The Undertaker, who was sampled, threatened to sue.

Lastly, Drake had a secret weapon to deal the final blow that none of his predecessors in rap beefs had: social media. Social media, Twitter primarily because of its updates in real time, archived and commented on the beef from start to finish with reaction tweets, pictures/gifs, videos and most damagingly: memes. It did not matter if “Back to Back” was not an “Ether,” or “Takeover,” or “No Vaseline;” groupthink and the jokes from celebrities, decade-long businesses, politicians, and every type of racial and age demographic all participated in the antics. They already hyped up “Back to Back,” but Meek Mill dug himself in the public coffin with another lackluster response with “Wanna Know,” which made the jokes come even harder. It was not “Back to Back” that ended Meek, it was the Internet.

Drake, in Summer Jam fashion at his OVO Fest later that year, proceeded to show all of the top memes from the beef while performing, as celebrities like Will Smith (a Philly native himself) were invited and caught on camera in groups laughing at Meek. In masterful execution on all fronts, Drake decisively won the battle on world display as Meek would go on to be clowned to this day, regardless of how successful he continues to be. Drake’s credibility damage of not writing his own raps were never forgotten in the Hip Hop community, as rappers and lovers of the culture never stopped discussing the topic in songs and lengthy commentaries after. However, Drake succeeded this with the win and his further success, as the victory over a clearly lyrical opponent further solidified Drake’s spot as one of the top leaders of New Skool Rap. Drake created his own higher ground, and that is the art of war.

Whether you appreciated the way these stories were told or not, or have different opinions on these important parts of rap beef history, there are definitely lessons to be learned from all these battles if you want to beef.

What are your favorite rap beefs that exemplify different tactics of strategic war? Leave your comments below as well as quote and share the article to spark conversation between your other rap connoisseurs and Hip Hop historians.

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