Friday Night Smackdown

Thoughts on the weekend's big rap beef. +reviews of the latest from Hua Li 化力 + NAHreally & The Expert.

Friday Night Smackdown

I was on a train to Philadelphia when the earthquake hit New York. By the tectonic standards of discerning West Coast aces, us Mid-Atlantic amateurs remarking on a 4.8 Richter rumble probably felt like stolen valor. Admittedly, I hadn't even noticed the apparent rattle amid the rickety comforts of Amtrak's Northeast Regional speeding down the New Jersey rails. Call me selfish, but I was more focused on dismantling J. Cole's "7 Minute Drill" than heeding the latest warning sign of environmental collapse.

Overnight, the North Carolina rapper surprise-dropped the curiously, perhaps presciently titled Might Delete Later. Though well within the track count and time constraints of KOD and The Off-Season, this 12-song non-album arrived with an oxymoronic mix of fanfare and slack, his first substantive body of new work in two years sans the formalized pressure of a proper full-length from one of hip-hop's biggest stars. Given the slightness of much of its contents, that's probably for the best.

While far from Cole's worst, the lumpen Might Delete Later raises concerns as to whether or not he can still credibly claim the "Big Three" boast he made on Drake's For All The Dogs standout "First Person Shooter" back in the fall. With its feeding frenzy of producer credits, a Ye-esque contributor infodump that includes both Boi-1da and Tay Keith, that late 2023 track was an instant hit, cruising to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart off the strengths of their united stan bases. But as real heads know, the third rapper mentioned in Cole's theoretical triad hadn't consented to such a positioning, leading the absent Kendrick Lamar to respond on the back half of Future’s “Like That.”

This initial attack by the Pulitzer Prize winner seemed, to some, unprompted, though none of us truly know what goes on behind the scenes for mainstream rap's elite mega-millionaires. That said, the best if perhaps shallowest explanation based in known fact originates in Cole’s clumsy attempt to reframe the cyclical and stagnant GOAT debate on that "First Person Shooter" verse. And if we've learned anything from Lamar's discography to date, comfortable compromise simply isn’t in the cards for Kung Fu Kenny. Striking the other two down with great vengeance and furious anger, Lamar's "Like That" feature addressed the slights in dramatic fashion. Still, it was merely a warning shot–not a double-barreled diss track, a distinction Drake seems to have noticed, having experienced firsthand the utter boondoggle of beefing with Pusha T. Cole, tragically, failed to catch the subtle social cues.

Upon its release, listeners leapt to the end of Might Delete Later, its closing number marking the first formal response to Lamar’s "Like That" rebuke from a few weeks prior. Already dubious given that the song's actual length runs a mere 50% of its titular promise, "7 Minute Drill" splits itself further into halves, the first produced by seasoned hitmaker T-Minus and the second by Drake's current go-to beatsmith Conductor Williams. The subdivision does Cole no favors, bisecting his blustery mic-as-gun metaphors from his perilously thin dismissal of Lamar's discography. Beyond the arguably intentional and audacious choice to diss Lamar over an instrumental by the guy who made "Swimming Pools (Drank)," his "7 Minute Drill" has more in common with Meek Mill's "Wanna Know" than, say, Nas' "Ether."

By the time I arrived in Philly, the earthquake and the Cole project were both under the meme microscope of social media. Hot takes flew, as did jokes both text and visual, with the apparent consensus being that neither event was all that much of an event. Assuredly, Might Delete Later would chart at Billboard, as would "7 Minute Drill," but that seemed like a small, fleeting victory. Fast forward to Sunday night, where Cole would take the stage at his hometown Dreamville Festival to disavow the contents of his two-day-old diss track, dubbing it "the lamest shit I did in my fuckin' life," Despite what appeared to be good intentions on Cole's part, that public display of humility/humiliation justifiably sent fans who'd valiantly defended the track online into apoplectic fits and revisionist histrionics. The backtracking was Olympian in scope.

Even before Cole's retraction of "7 Minute Drill," which came with a verbalized intent on removing it entirely from Might Delete Later and thus fulfilling the prophecy, I knew the song was doomed by Friday night.

This weekend, for only the second time in WWE history, WrestleMania came to Philadelphia. Among those in town for the festivities was Westside Gunn, who'd planned a few events of his own, and he was the reason I'd traveled down from NYC in the first place. On Friday night, he hosted what at any other time would have been called a Griselda Records showcase, yet in the wrestling context he dubbed it Heels Have Eyes. Ostensibly an in-person launch for his burgeoning Fourth Rope brand, the late night gathering at Theatre of Living Arts featured waves of artists signed to or otherwise affiliated with his label. In addition to surprise performances by the likes of Benny The Butcher and Rome Streetz, the flyer had promised music by Daringer, The Alchemist, Conductor Williams, and DJ Drama, the latter two proving the most momentous of the night's non-rapper sets.

As Gunn introduced Williams, Cole's "7 Minute Drill" was front of mind for most people in the room. “He's been busy all day,” the Griselda leader slyly announced before letting his producer cook, and I wondered whether his set would include this newly minted Might Delete Later cut. Whether for time, diplomacy, or simply lack of interest on Williams' part, the setlist ultimately didn't include Cole's verse, though if it had it would've resonated throughout the sold out venue.

Later in the night, as the clock lurched closer to the city's curfew, DJ Drama took the stage. Resurgent in recent years thanks to the trajectory from narrating Tyler, The Creator's Call Me If You Get Lost, he played a relatively short set that covered multiple eras in his career including seminal tracks with Jeezy and Weezy. And then, at the peak hour, he dropped "Like That," unapologetically playing the track in full–all the way through Lamar's verse. Even for the Cole stans in the audience, it was pretty damn obvious who'd won.

Flyer courtesy Westside Gunn Instagram

Hua Li 化力, ripe fruit falls but not in your mouth (buy it / stream it)

Those who caught Dynasty, the 2019 debut from the sublime Hua Li 化力, know just how intimate and personal her music can get. Nearly five years later, her commitment to that aesthetic has strengthened considerably. Produced by prior collaborator Alexander Thibault and mixed by TNGHT’s own Lunice, the Montreal-centric ripe fruit falls but not in your mouth converts her deeply felt thoughts and lived-in experiences into a relationship confessional. Her self-described crying-in-the-club vibe is evident on “In The Fall” and “Peonies,” but it also manifests in subtler forms. She deftly subverts the lofi-beats-to-study-to aesthetic behind “Sanctions Of The Heart” to reveal complexities and depth. Similarly, she makes a Mustard reminiscent “Cherrier” into an emotional baggage bop. The two-hander “Whip Around” adds local rapper Darkus Millon to its bittersweet symphony, while Ambrose Getz amplifies the hard truths of “Feed Me Petals.”

NAHreally & The Expert, BLIP (buy it / stream it)

Jersey City rapper NAHreally may have a few releases under his belt already, yet this collaboration with producer The Expert finally gives him the coveted if lonely glow of the spotlight. Eyes bleary but with ambition in his heart, he delivers his rhymes throughout BLIP with the cadence of an observational comic doing a freeform late night stand-up set to a near empty bar room. He ruminates over new bap beats on topics acute and mundane with a casual, off-the-cuff energy, steadily unraveling his existential relationship with boredom on "These Days" and self-consciously dissecting live performance quirks on "Rapper Hands." Though he often focuses inwards, moments like "All At Once" show a sensibility beyond the self. His guest list impresses too, vividly expressing his cosmic (in)significance alongside Hemlock Ernst on "Movement & Light" and carefully measuring the toll of existence with Open Mike Eagle on "Breaking Down In Real Time."

Three new tracks for you to snack on...

D.R.O., "Shame"

60 East, "Soul Fly (feat. Sa-Roc, Blu & Stephanie Soul)"


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