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Drake and DMX: What Type of Games Are Being Played?

Kanye West offered a lot of explanations for that Internet-baiting line from “Famous,” but only one of them — offered during a typical mid-February Twitter spree — rang true in any real way. “Stop trying to compromise art,” he demanded. “That’s why music is so f**king watered down right now I miss that DMX feeling… I miss that feeling so that’s what I want to help restore.”

“That DMX Feeling” would be familiar to anyone listening to popular music around the turn of the century, when the man born Earl Simmons was as powerful a force as anyone in hip-hop. (When a presumably pre-Black Album Jay Z first rapped “Number-one albums, what, I got like four of them?,” X was among the few MCs alive who could match that boast.) DMX was one of the last major rappers to show zero interest in playing politics — he was brash, he was visceral, and he was highly unpredictable. What Kanye meant by bemoaning the loss of That DMX Feeling was to say he longs for the days when artists wouldn’t let anticipation of public reaction determine their course of action — to not worry so much about the consequences of their actions that they second-guess themselves into mediocrity. An admirable instinct, though occasionally it leads to artistic decisions as odious as Yeezy braying sexist choruses at pop peers less in on his joke than he assumes — and, in the case of DMX, it leads to a series of personal decisions that have all but undone his once-stratospheric musical career.

This is one of the reasons why it’s so unnerving to hear Drake lifting the chorus to one of DMX’s early signature hits — the tender, if vulgar “How’s It Goin’ Down” — for the chorus to his recent Views track “U With Me?,” as well as sampling X’s actual voice from the “What These Bitches Want” hook for the intro, and starting the first verse by claiming to be “on some DMX s**t.” Drake, of course, is not the artist to bring back That DMX Feeling: A self-branding wizard, Drizzy is as premeditated and calculating as anyone in contemporary hip-hop, with Views in particular feeling as massaged and carefully plotted as an album that was first announced nearly two years ago should. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that if there’s one artist who exemplifies just how far we’ve come from the DMX era in hip-hop, it’s Drake. And one man who would certainly support that statement is Simmons himself.

To put it plainly, DMX has always hated Drake — unequivocally, and unapologetically. “I don’t like anything about Drake,” he informed Power 105.1’s The Breakfast Club morning show in 2012. “I don’t like his voice. I don’t like what he talks about. I don’t like his face. I don’t like the way he walks. I don’t like his haircut.” The animosity grew even more fervent later in the year, when it was announced that Drake would be executive producing a new posthumous album by Aaliyah (DMX’s Romeo Must Die co-star) without input from close collaborators Timbaland or Missy Elliott. X called Drake a “f**king piece of s**t” on RapFixLive, and returned to The Breakfast Club to say that Drak makes him “wish it was seven years ago, or maybe ten years ago. Where you catch a nigga in the elevator and beat ’em up. And just let him know it’s real, son.” (DMX would later call the beef “not that serious,” but it’s hard to imagine he didn’t offer a chuckle or two of validation upon hearing the Meek Mill allegations against Drizzy last summer.)

With all that water under the bridge, it’s a little tricky to parse the motivations for Drake borrowing from two separate DMX hits in what appears to be a relatively straightforward homage to Simmons. It could be that he’s trolling the Ruff Ryder, laughing at him from his perch on top of the hip-hop world while X is at his lowest point — though given recent news about Simmons’ failing health, that would be uncharacteristically cruel for Drake. It could also be something of an olive branch to the generation-removed star, but Drake has never done anything to draw attention to any bad blood existing between the two stars in the first place, and now would be a strange time to start.

More likely is just that DMX represents a core musical memory for Drake — just like Brandy, Mary J. Blige, or classic Jay Z, all of whom are sampled or alluded to on the heavily nostalgic Views.  As a late-’80s baby, the burgeoning MC would’ve seen his formative teen years overlap almost perfectly with DMX’s glory days, and “How’s It Goin’ Down” and “What These Bitches Want” may have helped form his early vernacular for dealing with romantic entanglements like those of “U With Me?,” before he possessed the language to properly do so himself. And regardless of plausibility, being perceived as “real” has always been of tantamount performance to Drake — even on Views, he’s still chest-puffing, “I make all the players anthems for the real niggas” — so it makes sense that he’d look up to a no-bullsh**ter like DMX as a paragon of such virtue, even if the favor is certainly not returned. (The inclusion of a direct sample does imply some sort of clearance on X’s part, though, so perhaps peace has been restored on both sides — if so, we’ll always wonder how that conversation went.)

Earlier this year, the fiercely cerebral Baltimore rapper JPEGMAFIA released the flame-throwing “Drake Era,” which related the MC’s efforts to move hip-hop out of the titular epoch. He won’t accomplish that anytime soon, and neither will anyone else — the impressive vista of Views will likely only serve to further entrench Drake in rap’s highest tier, to the chagrin of JPEG, X, and perhaps even Kanye himself, whose verse on Drizzy’s “Pop Style” was lopped off of the final LP at the last minute. Drake purported in an OVO Sound Radio interview on Thursday night (to coincide with his album’s unveiling, natch) that he and Kanye were “supposed to do a mixtape or an album together,” but it’s hard not to roll your eyes a little bit at that notion. It’s too unlikely that two of the biggest rappers in the world would agree to such an extended collaboration, when one of them actually is on some DMX s**t, and one only says he is.