Abe Beame wrote this because he refuses to adhere to party lines.
About a month ago, Drake released Views from the 6. It’s either his fourth or sixth album depending on how you feel about a mixtape that debuted at number one on the Billboard charts and a mailed-in collaboration project with Future. The album has been fairly criticized as a step backwards. Sure, there are the hits that will keep you company through the end of the year, but this time the punchlines lack punch, the obsession with the perils of fame feels rote.
Somehow he’s become worse at making the same points. The album finally gives the rabid hoards of Drake detractors red meat to sink their teeth into. A failure that even his apologists have to acknowledge. But what better time than now to look back and consider what makes his perspective so palatable to a mainstream audience? How did this most unlikely fixture of pop culture become worthy of such extreme amounts of love and hate?
Drake is the rap superstar our gluten free, trigger-warned, hash-tagged era of hip-hop deserves. From his teen soap pedigree, to his biracial parentage, to his Judaism, to his Canadaism, he was seemingly engineered in a lab to serve as a thumb in the eye of the conservative hip hop establishment. But beyond the shallow signifiers that conflict with a rap student’s conventional understanding of authenticity and masculinity, it’s Drake’s subject matter that has always made him a threat to the classic institution of hip-hop.
Drake replaced our cornerstone struggle narrative with something else. He never tried to be a rich and comfortable rapper rapping about grappling with poverty. He asked us to consider the struggle of the rich and comfortable rapper.
This is of course anathema to a culture that values grit and grime in its bars, hunger in its artists. He injected a level of introspection. He pushes past the material wealth and power that has always served as the end of the rainbow in our great struggle narratives and says, “Well ok, I’m here, now what?” This upends the rules that were set by Rakim and Kool G Rap. It takes rap out of a boom box in a park and puts it in ear buds. But it didn’t start with Drake.
Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreaks has always served as a formative text for Drake. From Drake’s decision to rap over “Say you Will” on his breakthrough mixtape, to his fusion of R&B and hip hop, to the subject matter that drove his early work, the album serves as a kind of Rosetta Stone for understanding the ideas Drake tackles. For Kanye, 808s was a step in an entirely new direction but of a piece with his catalogue: formally daring music paired with half-baked songwriting.
Kanye was always comfortable breaking molds, discussing the racial politics of materialism and religion vs. modernity over soul loops. But on 808s there was a newfound darkness in the material. On “Welcome to Heartbreak” Kanye poses this question: “Dad cracked a joke, all the kids laughed. But I couldn’t hear him all the way in first class. Chased the good life my whole life long. Look back on my life and my life gone. Where did I go wrong?”
West poses this fairly basic dichotomy with the depth of thought and language of a third grader, but by introducing it through the medium of rap he changed everything. He’s setting up meaning in life through Disney logic, a tension between what we’ve been trained to understand are the temporal pleasures of material wealth, fame and its trappings, versus the “meaningful” “real” wealth offered by family, monogamy and a moral code. Kanye went on to choose wealth, fame, and Kim Kardashian on his nihilistic masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. And now, one wonders what he’ll bring to what he established as a paradise of meaning and virtue with his own wife and family.
But this was essentially taking your ball and going home based on the rules the rap game had previously established. He opened the door to an entire new range of emotional and thematic subject matter previously thought too fey for popular black male rappers to engage in. This is why that song and album is practically Drake’s origin story.
When you can have whatever you want, what do you want, why do you want it, and how does getting it make you feel? This is everything: It’s David Byrne, it’s Orson Welles, it’s Fitzgerald, it is the dark matter at the core of the American dream. It’s what Drake dedicated his first few albums to and continues to discuss when he’s not making shimmery disposable pop: I did everything I was supposed to do, so why is none of this making me happy? He’s attacked the question from a number of angles, but his most brilliant assault came with the best song on his best album, “Marvin’s Room” off 2011’s Take Care.
Without its content, “Marvin’s Room” is incredibly daring as a pop song in its form. It’s so many things: A suicide note, a humble brag, a short story, but more than anything else it’s a slice of life and the slice of life, presumably is this: Drake is at Marvin’s Room studio (a recording studio once owned by Marvin Gaye on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles) late one night and needs to decide what to do with the rest of his evening. He’s drunk off rosé, Henny, and codeine cocktails and decides to call an ex. And that’s it. That’s the plot of the lead song off Drake’s second album, a certified gold single.
Of course, it’s much more than a fly on the wall as Drake drunk dials. It’s an examination of an impulse. Drake is asking several questions of us and himself: Why is he doing this and what is he hoping to accomplish by calling this woman? It’s incredibly bold in its vulnerability.
Drake is often presenting himself throughout the song as unlikable and even loathsome. When he infamously whines that he had sex four times this week, it’s meant to inspire pity. But you also get the sense he’s kind of bragging and knows what an asshole that makes him. He’s laying his weakness bare and relating the ego to self-loathing. It’s a commercial single about human selfishness.
Sonically, 40s composition makes it an equally unlikely smash hit. The song floats in on a bed of Percocets. It’s an elegiac, low-BPM underwater nightmare that communicates a restless sadness. It begins with Drake inviting us into his thought process as he tries to figure out what he should do with the rest of his night. The angels of his better nature suggest calling one of the young women he presumably has in rotation in L.A., taking her home and getting what’s left of a night’s sleep.
His inhibitions have been sufficiently lowered by the rosé so instead he chooses to give into his urge to call the one that got away. The refrain he dives into is presumably the meat of the phone call: “Fuck that n***** that you love so bad. I know you still think about the times we had. I say fuck that n***** that you think you found. And since you picked up I know he’s not around.”
It’s a juvenile come on punctuated by the grainy voice on the other end of the conversation with concern in her voice asking Drake if he’s drunk, a subtle wink and nod that Drake is in on the joke here. On the surface Drake is telling his ex who has found happiness elsewhere to come back, but he isn’t. There is a futility hanging over the entire song. Drake knows that the ex is not going to respond to his imploring by giving in, and what’s more he knows she shouldn’t. Not just because she has found happiness, but because he has none to offer. They’ve been down that road and while the immediate pleasure of the booty call would be gratifying, the next morning would inevitably come and they’d be left with the same issues they walked away from. So what’s the point?
Towards the end of the song Drake sings, “Sprite and that mixed up, I’ve been talking crazy girl I’m lucky that you picked up. Lucky that you stayed on, I need someone to put this weight on.” It becomes clear that this is a confessional. Drake needs someone to make his cry for help to, under the guise of lust he’s chosen an ex who he knows won’t give him what he’s claiming to want. The second half of the refrain is Drake insisting his ex can do better. It appears he’s telling her she can do better with him, but what he’s telling us is that he can do better. Better than this phone call, and better than the decisions he’s made that have lead to this unhappiness.
But what of that unhappiness? In the third rapped verse Drake paints a stark picture: “I think I’m addicted to naked pictures and sittin talkin bout bitches that we almost had. I don’t think I’m conscious of makin monsters out of the women I sponsor till it all goes bad.” He sets up a vicious cycle of lust and human usury that he’s to blame for. He leverages sex with money and status, creating empty one- sided relationships he finds no pleasure in, but he can’t seem to stop engaging.
Drake and his friends spend their time thinking and discussing the girls they almost had because they know the reality of a person never lives up to the idea of a person. He’s calling his ex, not for her qualities as a human being, but because she’s unattainable. What Drake seems to realize is not just the easy shallowness of his pursuit of women, but the meaninglessness of his entire life, of his pursuit and the ideas it was founded on.
One of the best episodes of the Twilight Zone is about a gambling addict who dies and goes to a casino where he can’t lose. At first he thinks he’s in heaven, but without the stakes, without the chance, he realizes a world in which you never lose is hell. What Drake is actually calling his ex for is the one thing he can’t seem to find in his life, the one thing you get for the man who can get whatever he wants: rejection. This is taking Kanye’s dichotomy to graduate school.
“Marvin’s Room” isn’t a song about robbing a stash house or struggling through extreme poverty, it’s about mundanity. It’s about a quiet moment alone when you give into an impulse you almost immediately regret. He’s consciously choosing Alice Munro over Donald Goines.
“Marvin’s Room” ends somewhat enigmatically with total disregard for context. Suddenly, it appears Drake is speaking to someone else. He says: “Just throw up while I hold your hair back. Your white friend said you n***** crazy I hope no one heard that.” It appears we are left with the aftermath of the phone call. With a startling economy of word, Drake has managed to communicate that he ended up going out with a crew that drank too much, got sick and yelled out racist shit. It’s a worst-case nightmare of a night at the club.
In giving us this epilogue Drake leaves us with no easy answers or happy endings. The fact that he seems to have more or less found the bottom of his problem doesn’t seem to help him, at least in his art. Just as Kanye turned into the skid of his worst urges with MBDTF, Drake ends up self-perpetuating the behavior that instigated the phone call in the first place. He’s a prisoner of his own weakness. What Drake is telling us is that he could do better, but he won’t.