Why the Sneak Diss?
Why use the sneak diss? Rap is a contact sport. It’s often in your face, up close and personal; much to the chagrin of its critics and the adulation of its fans. In fact, one of the ways that rap music diverges from other genres is that people rapping are usually direct. Their language may be poetic but one, for the most part, can discern the artist’s intent.
So why then does a genre like rap, full of bravado and bluster, carry with it a cadre of artists who insist on encoding veiled messages to injure their perceived opponents?
Indeed there is an art to the “sneak diss”. In common parlance also known as the “sub”. A sneak diss is as the name suggests, an attack on someone’s character through indirect lines that carry insinuations and connotations not easily perceived at a cursory glance. Like a well placed metaphor, it carries that extra – oomph to a song.
Unlike the crassness of direct disses that go for hard punches, a sneak diss is a steady jab. In a competitive artistic endeavor like hip hop, a sneak diss isn’t just an offensive move but a defensive one too.
Damn, Sean, what happened to the humble attitude?
I’m like “n**** took the flow but I’m still standing too”
Thought I had the Midas touch
And then I went platinum too
Big Sean on ‘No Favors’
In the quote above, Big Sean is using a sneak diss to address claims that others rappers stole what became known as the #hashtagflow or Supa Dupa Flow (this was somewhat the subject of controversy as many point out that the flow has existed before then).
Often it is the most competitive emcees that will engage in the sneak diss; unless it is a rapper who is in the need to defend their crown.
“If you come at the king, you best not miss” – Omar Little in The Wire
The Kendrick Lamar vs Drake Standoff
I had a hard time myself believing that these two were trading barbs back and forth. But as these two went further in their careers, more evidence arose to support the claim that they were exchanging words for rap supremacy. While Drake and K Dot represent different lanes in rap, they both are notoriously competitive. On ‘ELEMENT’, Kendrick changes stylistically to match the tempos of Drake’s trap mainstream appeal with lines cloaked in subversion.
– Kendrick Lamar on ‘ELEMENT’
Nevermind that stylistically the hook for ‘ELEMENT’ matches Drake’s M.O. or that DAMN. is imbued with the same paranoia of If Your Reading This It’s Too Late Drake. Then there’s this interview where Drake responds to K.dot’s verse on ‘Control’.
Some serious shade being thrown there. For a full break down of the exchanges between Kendrick and Drake, you can click here. But back to the topic at hand.
Watch the Throne
Jay-Z is the king of cryptic messages. So much so that he decided to name his memoir Decoded. Or take, for example, Jay-Z’s verse on ‘Black Republicans’, which is as auto-biographic as it is biting. Jay’s verse is essentially the story of what happened between him and his former drug-dealing partner. It’s all laid out in the verse for the listener but only if they are paying close enough attention.
Jay-Z has always been about the long game. His tactic of releasing barbs in the form of a sneak diss was one that afforded him longevity. In fact, it was one of the key bits of advice Jay-Z gave Drake early on in Drake’s career and became somewhat prophetic in hindsight.
Here is Jay-Z giving a lesson in the sneak diss with a freestyle that would eventually become verses for ‘Dear Summer’ and ‘Kingdom Come’.
That “take off the blazer, loosen up the tie” line would resurface years later when used by Joe Budden on ‘Talk 2 Em’ to send shots to Jay-Z himself.
When the new generation think about Jordan
All they remember is when Iverson crossed him (Talk 2 Em!)
Take off the blazer, loosen up the tie
N**** fell in love and Superman died
– Joe Budden on ‘talk 2 EM’
Heavy is the head that wears the crown. On ‘Dear Summer’, Jay-Z addresses his opponents with hints at ending careers. He speaks on not only defending his position but that he doesn’t respect “subliminal records”. This is a bit of deflection here and a bit of bait for his enemies. He’s forcing their hand to go directly at him, rather than continue on a path of indirectness.
Words Have Meaning (and consequence)
A sneak diss is only as effective as the circumstances surrounding it. There have to be signifiers to latch onto. Hence why the phrase “Checks over Stripes” on Travis Scott’s ‘Sicko Mode’ caused such a fracas. Far from being petty, the subliminal can often be the beginning of a declaration of war.
Meeting with Trav tonight bet it never be a checks over stripes line again on a Trav song on Donda
— ye (@kanyewest) December 15, 2018
Here Kanye West is trying to quell any feelings of animosity. He’s trying to avoid combating both Travis Scott and Drake. The feeling is that the younger artists are out to take his spot.
Hip Hop has always been about this kind of friction. It’s alleged that there are indirect lines aimed at Special Ed on Rakim’s ‘Follow the Leader’. And that too is part of the appeal of the sneak diss. Those who are in the know are a part of music history.
As the dust has settled over the years, new crops of artists have risen to the challenge. The battle for hearts and minds is constantly being waged on. Everyone is looking to be the number one contender.
Before Kendrick, There was Lil Wayne
Before Kendrick dropped the now-notorious ‘Control’ verse, Lil Wayne dropped a song called ‘Best Rapper Alive’. If naming the track that wasn’t an already audacious move, on the song Wayne throws his hat in the ring for the title of “king of the south”. He subliminally disses Chamillionaire multiple times (and a few others too), and the song itself is a callback to Jay-Z’s ‘Dirt Off Your Shoulder’.
That song really kicked off Wayne’s run at his peak. Tha Carter II precipitated Lil Wayne’s mixtape-god success. Wayne set a precedent for the kind of run that a top-tier artist not named Jay-Z could have. If you were into hip hop in the mid-aughts, you remember this bit of hip hop history.
Lil Wayne had subs aimed at him too. There was a moment on T.I’s T.I vs T.I.P album, where Jay-Z volleyed an absolute heater towards Lil Wayne on the beef inspired, ‘Watch What You Say To Me’. The verse shows, how Jay could throw shots, without going direct but still get his point across.
“Sooner or later I take you up on your offer
And put you all in your place like I’m replacin’ your father
You talkin’ to the author, the architect of The Blueprint
My DNA in your music—motherfucker, you stupid?”
– Jay-Z on ‘What You Say To Me’
Most of the greats had to reckon with the occasional “sneak diss” being thrown their way. Whether it was Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, Kendrick, Drake or Kanye; part of their ascendancy was fending off would be competitors. No one gets off easy.
However, the subliminal can be a defensive move rather than a purely offensive move. Or, it can be the beginning of a war of words between peers. The challenge of the sneak diss then is to be an effective communicator. The diss has to be noticeable for the intended target and incisive enough to deny any culpability. There has to be substance behind it for one to find meaning. Some signifier one can cling onto.
A sneak diss is only good if it’s effective. Mastering the sneak diss is to achieve a level of lyrical prowess. For this reason, the subliminal diss song is often a fan favorite. A discerning rap fan has to be able to find these nuggets. To understand the narrative being played out in front of them, not unlike boxing fans watching two heavyweights compete for the championship belt.
Rap is about the sport of competition. While it’s often in your face, it’s considered a bonus when there’s subtext; and the sneak diss or subliminal diss is the evocative script for a well-realized drama. The sneak diss creates a moment in music history. It’s something for music nerds to obsessive over. To decipher codes and unlock understanding. It separates artists that are ready to be champions and those who remain in the sidelines.