Don't Compare Me To Nobody: When Comparisons Get Under A Musician's Skin
Maybe the heat is getting to everybody, but July has been an especially irritable month in popular music, with several long stewing rivalries finally boiling over. First, Miguel answered a question about fellow R&B innovator Frank Ocean by saying, “I genuinely believe that I make better music.” Then Action Bronson, when asked about frequent comparisons between himself and Ghostface Killah, said “He’s not rapping like this no more” on national television, inspiring a 6-minute scorched earth response video from Ghost. And last week, Meek Mill fired off a Twitter tirade that began with “Stop comparing Drake to me,” before accusing the Toronto rapper of relying on ghostwriters.
Those three stories involve very different sets of artists, who have very different relationships with one another. But the common thread is that in each situation, two men had been linked together in the public mind for years, and one or both of them finally got sick of it and snapped. Miguel and Frank Ocean are two very different artists who’ve individually made enough of an impact on R&B that they don’t need to be asked about each other in interviews. But since Miguel took the bait, you’ll never read another review of his albums that doesn’t mention Ocean for a long time. Frank Ocean hasn’t responded yet, but I think he will – let’s remember, his other big feud, with Chris Brown, started out when Chris tweeted that Frank “reminds me of a young James Fauntleroy or Kevin Cossum” and Frank found the comparisons to be “underhanded.”
Action Bronson spent the last four years diplomatically deflecting questions about his vocal similarity to Ghostface, and it appears he finally felt he’d reached a level of success that he didn’t need to play humble anymore. Within days, he offered a public apology to the furious rap legend. Meek Mill’s tweet came more out of leftfield – he isn’t really compared to Drake any more than all rappers of his generation are. And others, like Kendrick Lamar or J. Cole, are far more frequently seen as direct competition for Drake; Meek Mill was an ally, someone with a very different image and musical approach who nonetheless featured Drake on his biggest radio hit, captioned Instagram pictures with Drake lyrics, and released his own remixes of the Drake songs “Started From The Bottom” and “Energy.” Perhaps Meek Mill was tired of being one of the rappers living in Drake’s shadow, but the abrupt and seemingly unprompted nature of his complaint led many to think that he was upset about some other issue entirely.
In all of these cases, the less successful or established artist broke the polite silence on the issue, in a way that seemed to let on more than a little professional jealousy. This is a pop music story as old as time: every artist wants to be a unique snowflake whose work is taken on its own terms. But fans and writers can’t help but notice similarities and parallels with which to group artists together in scenes, rivalries, and critical narratives. Sometimes this is simply lazy thinking, and sometimes two artists simply coexist in the public eye in a way that people can’t help but notice an influence or shared traits. The easiest way to praise (or trash) an artist is to contrast them with a different artist. There’s a reason that an endless series of greater-than signs (“>>>>>>>>>>>>”) is a daily staple of Twitter discussions about music.
Often, two artists finding major success within the same genre at the same time provide an elemental binary for listeners to wrestle with, from the Beatles vs. the Stones to Michael vs. Prince. Which side you take in these debates helps define your taste, and the artists inevitably have to reckon with the comparisons, sometimes by feeding into the rivalry, and sometimes by defusing tensions with friendship or collaboration. Usually, if both acts are worthy and unique, the public will realize that eventually, and the comparisons will fade from the conversation. And if they’re not, the public will declare a victor through record sales – remember when The Wanted was considered competition for One Direction? Sometimes the goalposts move quickly, putting the same act in different roles – one year Pearl Jam was the industry fabrication to Nirvana’s credible punks, the next year Pearl Jam was the real deal to Stone Temple Pilots’ cheap imitation.
The highly crowded and competitive field of hip hop has escalated the frequency of these kinds of rivalries. Some of them are simply beefs between artists who dislike each other personally, but sometimes there’s a more acute basis of comparison at work: perhaps rappers from the same city who sound alike or occupy a similar lane. DMX and Ja Rule were friends early on, when both made similar music with similarly gravelly voices – it was only after Ja started singing love songs and becoming a major star in his own right that X started calling him out as a biter. D4L and Dem Franchize Boyz were the breakout acts of Atlanta’s 2005 explosion of “snap music,” and the groups beefed with each other about who stole whose sound and dance movies.
Rappers with similar voices or aesthetics are frequently found within the same crew or label roster, and embrace the . When Rich Homie Quan scored his first national hit in 2013, he was dogged by comparisons to a more established Atlanta rapper, Future, and one point things appeared ready to escalate to a beef. But over the past two years, the two have continued to thrive while putting the comparisons behind them. Now you can turn on the radio and hear songs by both of them, but it’s hard to imagine Quan making “Fuck Up Some Commas” or Future making “Flex.” That doesn’t guarantee that they’ll never feud, but it certainly seems like they’ve sidestepped the beef and changed the narrative for the time being.
One of the stranger music rivalries of 2015 came about when a newer artist actively encouraged comparisons to a legend. Young Thug had always been openly influenced by Lil Wayne, and collaborated with his idol last year. But things took a turn when Thug announced that his new albumwould be named Carter 6, and released it with the blessing of Wayne’s mentor Bryan “Birdman” Williams, before Weezy’s own Tha Carter 5. The ensuing feud has left a lot of unanswered questions, but foremost among them is why a rising star like Young Thug would encourage comparisons to Wayne right when he’d started to establish himself as a major artist in his own right.
No musician can ever reinvent the wheel or make something so unique and original that it silences all comparisons. But perhaps it also behooves fans and critics to respect the individuality of that makes worthwhile artists who they are, instead of shoving everyone into false binaries that ignore the differences between musicians and encourage feuds and defensive interviews.
Another musician who raised eyebrows in July was Paul McCartney, in an interview with the U.K. edition of Esquire magazine, speaking on the legacy of John Lennon. The interviewer asked “Does it frustrate you, the constant comparisons between you two?” And in reply, McCartney spoke more bluntly than ever about the “revisionism” that “martyred” his fellow Beatle after his death, and diminished the importance latter half of the Lennon/McCartney partnership. If Paul McCartney, one of the most revered musicians in pop history, can get touchy about being compared to somebody else, then what hope does anyone else have of taking it in stride?