Sometime last year, Eminem, a 47-year-old man, entered a recording booth and went about slandering Nick Cannon over the course of a full verse. He was careful to apply his signature “Ford Taurus” style of vigorous internal rhyme. “Only cap that you pop is the top on the can of your pop,” he taunted. When the verse came out in December, on Fat Joe’s “Lord Above,” it reignited a decade-old beef that no one wanted in the first place.
Four days after “Lord Above” came out, Cannon, 39, issued his rejoinder, “The Invitation,” which featured a recorded voice message from Suge Knight and supporting verses from the Black Squad, a quartet of Wild ’N Out battle rappers. “How the fuck y’all got me battling Elvis Pussly?” Cannon wondered aloud.
The next day, Cannon continued his onslaught with a second diss, “Pray For Him.” “I bet you never thought the kill shot will come from the cannon,” he sneered. Ten days later, he laid down his ace in the hole: “Cancelled: Invitation,” a song organized around a sample of an extremely problematic old Eminem demo featuring the line, “Black girls are bitches, black girls are dumb.” Despite having already “cancelled” Eminem’s chance to respond, Cannon returned in early January with a fourth diss, “Used to Look Up To You.” The following day, he released an EP titled The Miseducation of The Negro You Love to Hate, thus concluding the brutal six-week saga.
A good diss track succeeds on two overlapping levels. It is 1) ruthless and ear-catching enough to make the listener invested in its theatrics, and 2) carries real-life consequences. Think of how the Bridge Wars ultimately lifted KRS-One’s platform at the expense of MC Shan, how Meek Mill briefly became a laughingstock after he failed to produce a timely response to Drake’s “Back to Back,” and how Pusha T shocked the world by revealing that Drake had once donned blackface and fathered a child in secret. Think even of the current beef du jour in the UK between grime pioneer Wiley and modern superstar Stormzy, which Wiley set off last summer by rightfully questioning Stormzy’s alignment with Ed Sheeran; it’s a battle of heavyweights that is as concerned with parsing racial power dynamics in the music industry as it is about ego.
None of Cannon’s recent diss tracks meet these standards. The chorus of “Cancelled: Invitation” makes for an excruciating listen while failing to divulge any new revelations about Eminem’s problematic history. Beyond that, he and Eminem are both established, wealthy, and relatively old. The stakes here are nonexistent.
This embarrassing chapter for Cannon and, to a lesser extent, for Eminem, exemplifies how diss tracks are most often used as cheap ways to manufacture hype, and are seldom good enough to justify their existence on a musical level. Nick Cannon’s use of an SEO tactic — the inclusion of “(Eminem Diss)” in each diss track’s YouTube title — proves what was already obvious: his thirst (for attention) is real. As usual, wealth, fame, and success are more likely to fan the flames of vanity and insecurity than extinguish them. Secondary figures have used the Eminem-Cannon beef as a springboard for their own agendas. In typical fashion, Lord Jamar responded by cranking out a series of interviews with VladTV, and Suge Knight’s son went on Instagram to announce that he couldn’t drop his own diss track because it was “too disrespectful.” In this attention economy, beef is bound to attract vultures.
“Hip-hop is the most modern example, after capoeira and basketball, of African culture’s bent towards aesthetic combat,” the critic Greg Tate wrote in 1988. This truth is deeply embedded in rap’s DNA, and it manifests most literally in battle rap and diss tracks. Battle rap exists in a hyper-masculine vacuum; the only battle rapper to make a dent in the zeitgeist in the last decade was Supa Hot Fire (RIP B-Bone). By contrast, diss tracks have always, by definition, sought or drawn attention. For example, KRS-One and Shan resurrected their legendary beef in 1996 — a full decade after the fact — in a Sprite commercial. In 1984, Roxanne Shante’s “Roxanne’s Revenge,” a scathing response to U.T.F.O.’s “Roxanne, Roxanne,” was such a hit that it sparked an entire musical ecosystem, a network of disses and songs inspired by the original.
In the age of the internet, diss tracks have become even more transparent bids for attention. They excite fans and generate cheap content fodder for online media outlets. Eminem’s 2018 MGK diss “Killshot” set a YouTube record for first-day views (38 million), and MGK furiously milked the beef by granting a flurry of interviews and rushing out his EP.
More than anything, internet mechanics incentivize people who should not be releasing diss tracks — or any music — to dramatically air their grievances, fake or real. These are opportunists – leeches, corporate mascots, vulgar social media personalities, and struggle rappers who hardly attempt to maintain the pretense of artistic intent. I’m talking about Woah Vicky and Stitches. I’m talking about Chester Cheetah coming for Doritos and Blueface’s sister coming for Blueface. I’m talking about DJ Akademiks. I’m talking about Troy Ave. And yes, I’m talking about Nick Cannon.
Perhaps the best indication of a diss track’s worth is if anyone remembers it. Looking back at the last 10 years, you can count the diss tracks worth revisiting on two hands. There’s Pusha T’s “The Story of Adidon,” which was not only a deliciously evil strike against Drake but also a brilliant chess move that he initially set up with Daytona closer “Infrared.” There’s Kendrick Lamar’s verse on “Control,” a swipe at the entire game released at the height of his powers that also upstaged Big Sean on his own song. There’s the second half of “180secs,” in which Reese LaFlare lobbed righteous accusations of swaggerjacking at rising superstar Lil Uzi Vert. There’s Drake’s “Back to Back,” which plays well in the club, the radio, the car, and the gym. There’s Lil B’s “Fuck KD” and Big Shaq’s “Mans Not Hot,” which are tongue-in-cheek comedy rap masterstrokes.
And then, if you extend this window to 2009, there’s Mariah Carey’s “Obsessed,” the culmination of a years-long dispute over her dating history with Eminem (he insists they dated in the early aughts; she denies it). Only the most devoted Eminem fans can recount all of the shots Eminem took at Carey over the years. A few more could tell you about his “Bagpipes From Baghdad” and “The Warning,” his Mariah disses that bookended “Obsessed.” Fewer still would regale you about how her then-husband Cannon jumped to her honor on his first-ever Eminem diss, “I’m a Slick Rick.” The only moment from that whole feud that remains remotely etched in our collective musical memory belongs to Carey, who delivered a more casually devastating sentiment in six words than Eminem could in 1000: “Why you so obsessed with me?”
Diss tracks constitute a rap tradition; they have always been powerful self-marketing tools individuals have used to draw attention to themselves and to advance their career. In an era where social media grants everyone a soapbox, diss tracks are usually used by the wrong people for the wrong reasons, and the current diss track ecosytem is impossible to regulate. The best thing to do when someone like Nick Cannon releases another diss track is to ignore him.