There was this. Then there was this. Thankfully, the always excellent Eric Harvey wrote this — sparing me the need to exonerate myself by pointing out that some of my best friends are weekend vampires.
I understand why people like Drake’s music. It’s slick, simple, and boasts the best guest appearances that Young Money can buy. It’s professional, polished, and repeatedly taste-tested (Bourdain.) Millions of people also adored Phil Collins, Mase, and The Backstreet Boys — Drake’s closest nodes of comparison who don’t involve some iteration of the last name “eezy.” Nor is this necessarily damning. The Mase of ’97 swaggered with a class clown smirk and what he lacked in skills, he made up for in charisma and Kool & the Gang samples. No Way Out is a masterpiece of big-budget hubris, as insipid and ingratiating as Avatar. Plus, BIG rapping on half the tracks never hurts. Hell, I (to a significantly lesser degree) dug parts of Adventures of Bobby Ray. The point isn’t to innoculate myself against charges of popism, rockism, or rickets, but merely to point out that whether they tapped into disco, emo, or soft-rock, the aforementioned records are unabashedly pop. And like all pop music, they were intended to be fun — excluding Phil Collins, whose popularity will eternally mystify me (except for “Invisible Touch,” that song is pretty awesome).
But unlike most other forms of art, music has an obvious utility, and pop has always represented the most dumb and danceable wing of the party. Again, not a bad thing. I don’t want to hear Sunset Rubdown in Macy’s, and for all of my Flying Lotus fandom, his music rarely sustains a steady groove. What’s unfathomable to me is how people actively enjoy listening to Drake. This is an artist so bereft of joy that he complains that his friends get to be out partying, while he he has to create the music they’re partying to. Even the very act of creation sucks. Partying sucks. Money sucks. Drake is the guy who spends an hour trying to convince you to go to the club, finds a girl upon entering, leaves without saying goodbye, and calls you the next morning to see if you can pick him up from her place before she wakes up and he has to buy her a Grand Slam breakfast. Then he spends the car ride home complaining about how he can never meet a nice Jewish girl (Yenta).
Like his most indulgent peers, Drake conflates emotions with sensitivity — mistaking his ability to feel things that can be expressed via emoticon, for a profound depth. The problem isn’t a willingness to allow for vulnerability. 808s & Heartbreak found a resonance through its bizarre blend of self-pity, arrogance, and sonic innovation. While Atmosphere’s Lucy Ford EP remains the standard-bearer of dolorous break-up rap. But Drake consciously avoids specificity — his heroines are faceless, floating apparitions. Even on “Cece’s Interlude,” he refers to a nebulous “shorty.” The nameless girls always want what Drake can’t give them or vice versa. It’s a sexualized version of Twilight, playing upon the eternal teenaged condition of irrational emotional volatility and unrequited love. Or as venerable Irish harpy, Sinead O’ Connor once put it, “I Do Not Want, What I Haven’t Got.”
To his credit, Drake conveys a sincerity often lacking in major label rap music. There’s none of the contrivances that often belabor rappers forced to write a “for the ladies” ballad. The pain is real, it’s just poorly expressed and plagued by platitudes about flowers in concrete, fireworks, and shooting stars. The sort of awkward frosh-soph poetry and emotional undulations felt by someone wrongly convinced that no one’s ever been through this before, maaann. But it wouldn’t be that irritating if Drake was content to define himself on pop terms, rather than demand recognition as a top-tier lyricist and MC. As Chris Lee’s LA Times feature points out, he considers himself a “backpack rapper” made good. “Coin me as mainstream or pop…I make real hip-hop records.” Unfortunately, Drake writes the same song over and over again. More than one reliable source has told me in confidence that he’s ghost-written for both Wayne and Kanye — which would explain the obvious similarities. I don’t know if that’s true or not and I really don’t care. I care about having to turn on my radio and hear identical patterns, complete with bad similes at the end of every bar (“Ima’ set it off…Jada Pinkett) — the fill-in-the-blank lyrics that made for an ideal Twitter trending topic last month.
On Thank Me Later, Drake flips lines from Dead Prez’s “Hip-Hop,” he name-drops Dilla, but he ignores the unhinged rage of the former and the restless eclecticism of the latter. Moreover, the big-name guest stars he enlists (T.I., Jay-Z, Jeezy, Wayne) stuff him into a locker (Screech) as does the equally vacuous Nicki Minaj, who redeems her Lil Kim-lite schtick by always rapping like she’s having the time of her life (Bluth). This isn’t the equivalent of watching a reality show as some have claimed, but rather the effect that they’ve wrought on North American culture — the everyone-gets-a-trophy indulgences and lust for the lowest common denominator that leads kids to crave fame regardless of the consequences (Montag).
Apart from his saturnine sensibility, Drake’has estimable pop gifts. Despite his over-reliance on auto-tune, he’s a capable hook-man and has a nice ear for beats — even though Thank Me Later sulks with a monochromatic palette between late-period Kanye (he has two beats) and the Godzilla 808 stomp of contemporary southern rap. It’s a dazzling but synthetic glow — so overly polished it begins to abrade. It’s a cavernous and empty sound that blends well with the lack of self-awareness at the core of the record. If that’s what you’re looking for in music, more power to you. Personally, I’d rather put on the xx record (who get thanked in the liner notes) if I wanted to hear young kids whine about problems I could care less about. At least they understand the value of restraint. Drake seems like a likable enough fellow. He probably listens to good music and can get you into all the right parties. Which is why it’s weird how witless and bland he is on record. It’s like his hit single “Over” goes, “What am I doing? What am I doing? Oh, that’s right I’m doing me.” And that’s the problem.
MP3: Drake ft. Jay-Z & Lil Wayne – “Light Up (Riker’s Remix)”