In this era of corporate power run amok, there is a strong legal case for breaking up Drake, as I argued last week in The Ringer Law Review. Rather than petitioning the Justice Department to file an antitrust suit, though, Kanye West has boldly decided to battle Drake’s monopoly head-on in the free market. The rapper, Marxist theorist, and sporadic Twitter obsessive announced on Thursday that he will release a seven-song album on June 1, as well as a joint album with Kid Cudi on June 8. This news came just two days after Drake announced his next solo album, Scorpion, will also debut in June.
The confrontation will serve as a kind of stress test of the competitive markets, showing whether any rapper has the ability to impede on Drake’s dominance. Perhaps these two artists were destined for such a clash. Despite being prolific collaborators, the two have never appeared on each other’s albums (though Kanye did pop up on the More Life playlist and there’s both a Kanye-aided version of “Pop Style” and a Drake verse on “All of the Lights” floating around on the internet). They seesaw between trading barbs in the media and making surprise cameos at each other’s concerts. And they’ve had at least one Prince-like bout on the basketball court, with banana pudding serving as the post-game comfort food rather than pancakes.
Kanye needs to best Drake to prove that he’s still superior to his many descendants in modern hip-hop. Drake needs to best Kanye to prove he has surpassed one of his most important artistic inspirations. The world needs a pop music rivalry better than Taylor Swift vs. Katy Perry. But unfortunately for Mr. West, when I take off my Yeezus Tour T-shirt and put on my “did mock trial in 11th grade” spectacles, I see little evidence that he will be able to make inroads against Drake’s monopoly.
Let’s consider the evidence. At this point, both Drake and Kanye are industry veterans with a venerable stable of radio hits and popular albums. But Drake has been winning the sales race nearly since he emerged on the scene. While Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy earned widespread critical acclaim in 2010, it was outsold by Drake’s Thank Me Later, which no one even really liked at the time, if we’re being honest. Similarly, Take Care outsold Watch the Throne in 2011 and Nothing Was the Same trounced Yeezus in 2013. And that was all before streaming had transformed Drake into an omnipotent (six) god who lords over his vassals from atop the charts. All told, Drake has released 23 songs this decade that cracked the Billboard Hot 100’s Top 10. Kanye has released three. West’s celebrity has become completely divorced from his commercial success, making him an unlikely figure to topple Drake.
It’s also key to remember that Kanye and Drake already had a proxy battle for industry supremacy during the Great Streaming Wars of 2016. Think back…[blows dust off old iPhone 6]...to a time when every major album was exclusive to Apple Music or Tidal. Kanye sided with the nascent startup, attempting to use his “evolving art project” The Life of Pablo to keep users glued to Tidal. Drake partnered with Apple Music, making his downtrodden Views a timed exclusive on the streaming service. Today, Apple Music has 40 million subscribers who listen to Drake more than any other artist, Tidal is a $10-per-month Lemonade subscription service, and Drake’s vintage Apple bomber jacket is still cooler than all the Pablo merch. Drake can move markets, but not even Kanye could save Tidal.
Still, Kanye has one distinct advantage over Drake in the way he benefits from network effects. While Drake has an ever-expanding army of casual fans, Kanye has a hypervigilant, hypervocal, hyper-hypebeasty cohort of superfans who will insist that his album is the most important musical project of the year. Observe the differences in the ways the two artists approach Twitter, where people overly obsessed with politics, pop culture, or sports get to pretend they are normal. When Drake tweeted out a link to “Nice for What,” a music video for a No. 1 hit song that features about a dozen A-list celebrities, it earned 31,000 retweets. When Kanye tweeted, “don’t trade your authenticity for approval,” it earned 159,000 retweets. Perhaps Kanye can leverage his intense appeal amongst an increasingly cult-like fanbase to achieve market dominance, using his self-proclaimed genius as a marketing aesthetic to rope in more followers. It worked for Steve Jobs. But Drake is not about to drop the hip-hop equivalent of the Zune or Windows Vista. He’s doing everything right to ensure he never gets disrupted.
That’s the trouble with monopolies—even if a legitimate challenger with an undeniably superior discography attempts to compete, the monopolist’s entrenched power makes him nearly impossible to unseat. The Drake-Kanye battle will no doubt attract legal scrutiny from blogger scholars worldwide. It may even capture the attention of Kanye’s one-time ally in the White House, who has already called for antitrust action against Amazon and AT&T. All eyes will be on this summer matchup, when we’ll find out whether the music industry can escape Drake’s velvet-like grip, or if we’re forever trapped in the twisted fantasy he built on the backs of others.