Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar
Image: Wikimedia Commons

As the feud between Kendrick Lamar and J Cole took a swift U-turn this week, music's long history of beefs, battles and diss tracks could finally be dying out.

The world of hip-hop has no shortage of feuds. Some last decades – 50 Cent and Ja Rule have been trading insults for 25 years now – while others, like the recent spat involving J Cole and Kendrick Lamar, are over in a comparative flash. Within the space of just a few days, rapper J Cole released a track that took swipes at Kendrick Lamar and then, during a live performance at the Dreamville festival in North Carolina over the weekend, he gave a four-minute speech apologising for what he'd done.

Warning: This article contains language that some may find offensive.

The feud between Cole and Lamar, which also involves Drake, was first triggered late last year. The three stars have traded jibes sporadically over the years – including Lamar calling out Drake as "a sensitive rapper" and a "fake" at the 2013 BET awards – but the bad blood never seemed too serious. Then, in October, Drake and Cole released the track First Person Shooter on which they declared themselves – along with Lamar – hip-hop's "big three". Hardly an insult – but Lamar took offence to being lumped into this group. In March he made a guest appearance on the track Like That by Future and Metro Boomin to point out that, there's no big three, "it's just big me".

Last week, in response to this slight, Cole released the diss track 7 Minute Drill, aimed directly at Lamar, including lines like: "He still doin' shows, but fell off like The Simpsons/Your first shit was classic, your last shit was tragic." Many fans and critics felt the song fell flat. In a review of the track, Rolling Stone said: "Cole may have thought he was doing the sensible thing by being measured on 7 Minute Drill, but rap beef is a toxic, nonsensical arena."

It seems Cole himself ultimately agreed, calling it a "mis-step", promising to update it or remove it from streaming services. The rapper said he'd felt pressured into it because "the world wanted to see blood" and, indeed, some fans on social media seemed disappointed that the "beef" was over so soon. But many others applauded Cole for what they saw as an act of maturity. Charlamagne Tha God said he had "nothing but respect" for Cole, and saluted him for "breaking the cycle".

This latest feud comes just a couple of months after Megan Thee Stallion and Nicki Minaj traded insults on record. The former's track Hiss, referenced Megan's Law, a piece of legislation that requires public disclosure of information about sex offenders. Minaj took this as a reference to her husband Kenneth Petty, who is a registered sex offender following a 1995 attempted rape conviction. She responded with the song Bigfoot, apparently mocking the incident in which Megan was shot in the foot. The track was widely criticised, with Shamira Ibrahim writing in the Guardian that it was "a rare stumble for Minaj" and a "reductive tactic". With Cole regretting – and retracting – his track, and Minaj receiving condemnation for hers, could this be the end of the diss track, as we know it?

A decades-long trend

Diss tracks – songs that intentionally disrespect others, often fellow musicians – have long been associated with the hip-hop genre. A natural progression from battle rap, where musicians trade insults on stage, diss tracks came to prominence in the 1980s, most famously with The Roxanne Wars, an exchange of 50 diss tracks by more than 30 artists.

Over the years, hip-hop feuds have inspired some of the genre's most memorable tracks, including Jay-Z's Takeover (on which he calls Nas "just garbage") and 2Pac's Hit 'Em Up, a furious tirade in response to The Notorious B.I.G's 1995 track, Who Shot Ya?

But while the term itself may have come from hip-hop, the concept of throwing shade at someone via song goes back decades. In the 1950s, R&B star Joe Tex called out his musical and love rival James Brown by name in the song You Keep Her. John Lennon targeted former bandmate Paul McCartney in 1971's How Do You Sleep?. In 1974 Lynyrd Skynyrd took aim at Neil Young in Sweet Home Alabama. 

Familiar themes of diss tracks are questioning someone's credibility or talent, "clapping back" at personal slights (such as Gwen Stefani on Hollaback Girl) or calling out an ex-lover or friend (Miley Cyrus's Flowers). They can be funny or savage. They can also – to the delight of the public and dismay of the subject – reveal intensely personal information. A back and forth between Drake and Pusha T resulted with the latter revealing that Drake had a son in The Story of Adidon.

Sometimes artists are explicit about who they're calling out – like Eminem on one of his many tracks about Mariah Carey (she responded with one of her own: Obsessed). Other times they're more cryptic, leaving the listener to try and identify the subject of their ire, which can add to the appeal. Carly Simon's 1972 track You're So Vain was variously thought to be about David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Cat Stevens and James Taylor until, in 2015 she revealed that – some of the song at least – is about Warren Beatty.

Taylor Swift – a modern-day master of the diss track – rarely identifies her subjects, but leaves enough clues for fans to piece the puzzle together. Fans and the media have speculated that she has taken aim at John Mayer (Dear John), Kanye (This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things), Jake Gyllenhaal (We Are Never Getting Back Together), Scooter Braun (Vigilante Shit) and, most famously, Katy Perry, in the song Bad Blood. When Swift gave an interview to Rolling Stone saying the song was about a fellow pop star, many people assumed it was Kary Perry. Perry herself then tweeted "watch out for the Regina George in sheep's clothing" and later released Swish Swish, her response).

But that supposed feud is now long over – Katy Perry was even seen singing along to Bad Blood on Swift's Eras tour earlier this year. "Got to see an old friend shine tonight," Perry posted later on Instagram. In fact, in an industry in which things are already hard enough for women, fewer stars seem willing to play the game of tearing their peers down anymore. "It's very lucrative for the media and stan culture to pit two women against each other" Swift told Time magazine last year.

Likewise, in hip-hop, some are questioning the value of stoking up rivalries that – at their most extreme – have had tragic consequences. As Charlamagne Tha God also said when praising Cole: "Y'all want a man to attack a man for your entertainment because we are a culture that feeds off conflict."

Yet diss tracks still have the ability to get people talking and create a social media storm, as well as bolster chart success: Metro Boomin and Kendrick Lamar's Like That topped the Billboard Hot 100 after the furore stirred up by Lamar's lyrics. Plus they are the ultimate product of a musician's prerogative to get things off their chest via their art – for those reasons, it's hard to imagine they'll ever go away.