Drake vs Kanye: The ‘Anxiety of Influence’ in Rap

The Baader–Meinhof phenomenon refers to the experience of being introduced to something new and then noticing it everywhere. I have recently experienced this with Harold Bloom’s theory of poetic influence. After reading Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence, I have come across examples of his theory everywhere (including the study mentioned in my previous post, The Physiological Anxiety of Influence). The basics of this theory are simple: ‘new poems originate mainly from old poems’ (Geddes). The young poet thus struggles against their predecessor in order to establish their distinct identity/ contribution.

Illustration by Edward Sorel

Although this might seem self-evident, Bloom’s theory went against the grain of contemporary literary criticism. (Which is not to say that there were no precursors to Bloom’s theory; T.S. Eliot’s essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ being a conspicuous example.) As Dan Geddes puts it,

Aside from this ‘misreading’, Bloom outlines five other ways (what he calls revisionary ratios) in which the young poet distances themselves from their precursor (but more on that later). Strong poets, for Bloom, are ones that escape the derivative prison of influence — which he describes as a ‘disease of self-consciousness’, an ‘obsessive reasoning and comparing’ that inhibits creativity.

According to Bloom’s theory, the relationship between the poet and the precursor is filial: ‘There is ample evidence from literary history that the greater the poetic magic, the more the question of tradition seems to condense into the relation between a major poet and a major predecessor — a father, so to speak, rather than merely one of a line of teachers’ (Hollander). Borrowing Freud’s concept of the ‘family romance’, Bloom oedipalises the anxiety of influence: the ‘Primal Scene’ is reimagined as the ‘Poetic Father’s coitus with the Muse [Mother]’. But, as Bloom argues, this is not how the poet is begotten. ‘He must be self-begotten, he must engender himself upon the Muse his mother’, or wait for ‘his Son, who will define him even as he has defined his own Poetic Father’.

As mentioned, I see evidence of this ambivalent influence everywhere. But one of the most striking examples stems from an interview between rapper Pusha T and former-rapper-turned-podcaster, Joe Budden.

This discussion, which is centred on the feud between Pusha T and Drake (a proxy for the Drake-Kanye beef), provides useful modern parallels of Bloom’s theory of poetic influence. (In a sense, rap is the inheritor of poetic history, with its own feelings of anxious subordination). For a quick synopsis of this dispute, see Genius’ timeline below:

Before they get into discussing the dispute, the conversation veers into the topic of Pusha T’s career, and what he considers to be the ‘ceiling’ of the type of music he creates. Comparing himself to Jay-Z — widely considered to be the greatest rapper of all time — he says that,

Of all of Bloom’s ‘revisionary ratios’, Pusha-T’s relation to Jay-Z resembles that of ‘kenosis’, which Bloom describes as ‘a movement toward discontinuity with the precursor’. As he explains, the term is taken from St. Paul,

Pusha humbles himself by saying that he probably won’t hit the ‘HOV ceiling’. But by referring to a ceiling that, supposedly, even Jay-Z cannot surpass, he effectively reduces the precursor as well — enough so that there is ‘room for his own voice to be heard’.

The dynamics described by Bloom are particularly applicable to rap due to the explicit competitiveness of its practitioners. The New York slang ‘to son’ or ‘sonning’ — which, according to the Urban Dictionary, means to be ‘completely and utterly defeated’ — is an extremely common rap expression. One of B.I.G.’s most quoted lines is his ‘Kick in the Door’ bars: ‘Ain’t no other kings in this rap thing, they siblings/ Nothing but my children, one shot they disappearing’ — lines that were repeated verbatim by his successor, Jay-Z, in his ‘H.O.V.A.’ freestyle. Moreover, rappers are constantly battling their precursors — as is the case in the Drake-Kanye beef.

In Drake’s Pusha-T/ Kanye diss track, ‘Duppy Freestyle’, Drake plays with the father-son analogy in reference to the songs that he apparently wrote for Kanye (‘Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1’, ’30 Hours’ and ‘Pop Style’):

This is an extreme example of the ‘spectacularly successful’ poet who dwarfs ‘even the precursor’ making us ‘read the precursor in terms of the later poet, rather than vice versa’. Drake’s playful reference to Kanye as the ‘Father’ is a version of what Bloom refers to as ‘apophrades’ — meaning ‘return of the dead’ — which refers to a late-stage revisionary ratio in which the later poet embraces the precursor’s influence (rather than is embraced by it), thereby creating the ‘uncanny effect’ that the ‘later poet himself had written the precursor’s characteristic work’. Of course, in Drake’s case, he actually did write parts of the precursor’s work, but nonetheless, there are countless other examples of this sort of ‘opening up’ in order to overtake. In his song, ‘Summer Sixteen’, he pays homage to Jay-Z, only to claim that he has become him: ‘I used to wanna be on Roc-A-Fella then I turned into Jay’. He then goes on to claim that he has surpassed his other major influence, Kanye West: ‘Now I got a house in LA, now I got a bigger pool than Ye/ And look man, Ye’s pool is nice, mine’s just bigger’s what I’m saying’.

He does something similar in regard to Pusha T; when he was younger, Drake purchased a microphone that was autographed by Pusha:

Rather than shamefully ignoring this fact, he makes reference to it in his ‘Duppy Freestyle’: ‘I had a microphone of yours, but then the signature faded/ I think that pretty much resembles what’s been happenin’ lately’. This would be an example of the revisionary ratio Bloom calls ‘tessera’, which is ‘completion and antithesis’; i.e. implying the precursor was on the right track, but ‘failed to go far enough’.

In his new album, Certified Lover Boy, Drake — who is arguably at the top of his field — continues the long tradition of ‘sonning’ his contemporaries (and perhaps even some of his precursors) in the song ‘Papi’s Home’:

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Eddie Ejjbair

‘Gradually it’s become clear to me what every great philosophy has been: a personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir’