Doc Zeus spells worst behavior without the “u.”
Each generation is defined by its artists and their ethos. Golden era rappers were cultural pioneers who codified the language and technique of hip-hop that the culture now takes for granted. 90s hip-hop was about cultural authenticity and the desire to crash pop culture on its own terms. By contrast, the chief characteristic of modern millennial rap leans towards aspirational “personal branding” and a desire to live on your own terms—you are nothing if you aren’t your own boss.
No artist intrinsically understands the generational ethos of millennials better than Aubrey “Drake” Graham. Social media has transformed Drake into an almost-living meme. From his sartorial choices to the way he seemingly invents and popularizes new slang overnight, every move he makes is meticulously curated to maximize the exposure of his personal brand. While Drake’s lovelorn sad-boy persona has been endlessly mocked, meme’d and parodied by fans and other artists, the intense polarization of his fandom only serves to strengthen his grip on the culture. Haters are always gonna hate, so Drake’s harnessed that impulse to exponentially grow in stature since his emergence onto the scene with 2009’s seminal mixtape, So Far Gone. Kanye West might have invented the mold with 808s & Heartbreak but Drake has been the artist that has synthesized the formula—transforming sad-boy ennui into a near-generational defining characteristic.’
Thus, it’s truly ironic that Drake’s music is so dull. His songwriting is emotionally manipulative and defiantly smug. He writes songs from an insular, near-sociopathic, point-of-view unconcerned with the perspective of seemingly anyone besides himself. He sprinkles vague but familiar personal episodes into his songwriting, but the individuals—especially the women—who populate his songs about lost love and broken hearts, are totally without characteristics beyond their physical measurements. He shouts out his boys—but who are the members of his crew that he’s running with, aside from their names? Drake would describe a sunset by telling you it made him feel hungry. Everything is intentionally vague to evoke familiarity in the listener, but ultimately, feels trite and and unimaginative on closer inspection.
His latest, If Youre Reading This Its Too Late (sic), is perhaps the most boilerplate release of his career. Unexpectedly dropped around midnight last Thursday and cautiously branded a “mixtape,” despite the presence of near all-new material, it’s a dual effort to maximize viral exposure and to manage expectations of the hungry listener. Taking a cue from the viral success of recent releases from Beyoncé, D’Angelo and J.Cole, the mixtape almost instantaneously reached 500,000 in digital sales—without any prominent single. The release of the “mixtape” is deeply calculated: focus-tested to capture maximum virality within his target audience. In many ways, it’s emblematic of Drake’s entire persona.
It’s not wholly surprising that If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late (sic) is filled with songs that are redundant of his most popular work. Over the last six years, Drake’s developed a stock blueprint for his brand and its familiar formula is all over the tape. Riding a similar darkly-atmospheric sound since at least 2011’s Take Care, the project strays little from the standardized “Pure Moods production” of Noah “40” Shebib and his usual stable of in-house producers. Songs like “Legend,” “Company” and “Energy” are overtly formulaic and filled with hashtag-ready lyrics for sycophantic retweeting. On “Know Yourself,” Drake chants “running through the Six with my woes” in a self-parodic and naked attempt for viral transmission on social media. It’s the type of dumbly quotable phrase that Drake specializes in, as it seems nearly weaponized for maximum retweets on Twitter.
To his credit, Drake’s rapping has never been sharper. He’s noticeably improved over the years and has become a near-master technician in the way that he writes and delivers his verses. He’s gotten remarkably adept as a shit talker, as “6 P.M. in New York” is a brutally effective diss track, with Kanye, Kendrick, Tyga, and even Childish Gambino taking a stray bullet or two. It’s a shame that his improved rapping is surrounded by such mundane dreck, though. The ugly secret of Drake’s career is that he’s not a particularly compelling personality outside of his focus-tested flash. This Canadian ex child-actor’s tales of romantic struggle are not any more operatic than your average middle schooler, with his trademark sound providing the vast bulk of emotional heft in his songs. On the thoroughly repulsive “You & The Six,” he berates his poor mother in a simulated phone call revealing his model ex-girlfriend doesn’t want him anymore. If this is what Drake is like on wax, I can’t imagine what he’s like in real life. Regardless, Drake seems to be little more than what one once dubbed: “the platonic ideal of the basic bro.”
It seems unlikely that the stranglehold Drake has on pop culture will abate anytime soon. The mixtape went gold. Ultimately, If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late (sic) gives fans exactly what they’ve grown to want. Drake knows his audience better than any of his competitors which is why he’s probably the preeminent voice of millennial rap in 2015. He makes great product but it isn’t great art. If you’re looking for that, you’re wasting your time. But if you’re reading this, you already knew that.
DRAKE ~ JUNGLE from OctobersVeryOwn on Vimeo.