On Robotics

and Drake.
By    April 8, 2018

Paul Thompson is talking on the hands-free.

I’ve been thinking a lot about robotics, because Cadillac and Amazon and Google and AT&T have decided that it’s time for me to think a lot about robotics. I’m supposed to find it kind of cool that my fridge will be able to auto-restock my milk and that my Cadillac––which I can afford thanks to GM Financial––will be able to Jesus take the wheel from me so I can reply to important work emails or phonebank for Cory Booker or whatever at 55 mph.

A friend invited me to her house in South Minneapolis to play cards with people I haven’t seen since 2011 and spent most of the time lobbing questions to a disembodied voice in a little pod next to her coffee maker.

Aside from the occasional murderous Uber, most of the ways in which literal robots are being woven into our consumer lives are sort of exhilaratingly dull, which makes you sound shrill and vaguely Marxist when you derail hand after poker hand talking about the labor implications of late automation. People can (rightly) laugh and call you paranoid when you recoil from the coffee maker-adjacent pod since, you know, you carry a fully capable listening device in your pocket at all times.

I guess what I resent so deeply about the mundane robot takeover is that there was no town hall about it. All the speculative fiction we have––Asimov’s rules, Will Smith killing androids with a motorcycle––posits the eventual full or near-full robotization of society as the endpoint of violent ethical and political debates. At its core, a lot of the popular art about the far future has been about those ethical and political debates. We have none of that; we’re passengers, and the little automatic vacuums will certainly be hackable the way the self-driving cars will certainly be hackable and so on. All we have now is the disclaimer at the end of commercials that hands-free driving is not yet legal in New York state.

I’ve also become obsessed with those stories about Apple Watches saving peoples’ lives. Can I afford to have a pulmonary embolism offline? At the same time, I’ve been having long conversations with friends about the implications, for example, of the biomonitoring of pro athletes, which is certainly only a few years away and which could have a catastrophic impact on the collective bargaining agreements of the various leagues. Who gets to own that data? Which grandson of an oil magnate (or etc.) gets to sit in a boardroom and explain to a 28-year-old power forward what’s likely going to happen to his heart over the next six years and how that will affect his salary and job security?

This is all about Drake, of course. You can’t opt out of Drake. You can snark and hide and listen to the Sauce Twinz all you want, but you’re going to hear the whole album within a couple of weeks. You are a passenger. Obviously this has always been sort of true with very famous artists, but with Drake it feels a little different––first of all, it’s been like this for a preposterously long time. But more importantly (and more frustratingly, if you’re the type of person who gets frustrated by this), his success has become self-perpetuating and self-evidently justified in a very post-Twitter, post-Get Rich or Die Trying way, where all raps fans are industry watchdogs and all clicks are good clicks.

None of which is to say that Drake is bad; he’s not gaming the system in a bad-faith way like the people advising 6ix9ine are; he has fans––millions of them, maybe––we’re not conflating eyeballs with actual relevance. XXXTentacion (who was livid about Drake lifting flows from him) certainly has some fans, but his rise was undoubtedly aided by the spectacle, heinous crimes keeping his name in Twitter feeds and the hand-wringing simply dissolving into traffic, which again, is agnostic. Drake is a point of cultural curiosity, fodder for think pieces, sure––but that feedback loop is not what created him or what sustains him, it’s just a cottage industry that he prods and pushes back on enough to show he’s paying attention.

When Drake’s music begins to run parallel to the rest of rap, as it did with Views, he circles back and re-entangles himself with whatever new strains he sees as important. (He’s often right on these calls: the ways he’s inserted himself into new scenes have seemed, at times, vampiric, but he tends to have very good taste and/or employ a few dozen faceless people with very good taste. Probably both.) Drake creates a context for himself in which he not only makes sense, but is the only superstar that could credibly exist: a polyglot who dances clumsily and grins, someone who’s been hosting SNL every day for nine years running. He wraps pop culture around himself so tightly that it’s hard to even imagine untangling it. You’re gonna hear this all summer.

There are readings of this that cast Drake as cynical and calculating and monstrous in a steely corporate way––he might be!––but there are also reasonable arguments to be made that the way he’s navigated the pop landscape for a full decade is itself artful, or at least exhibits a sort of mastery that no one else has even approached. There’s an incredibly irritating idea out there that commercial success is, at its core, virtuous, that Billboard charting is a moral good and that the creative work is therefore unassailable. That’s obviously false. But I also find it harder and harder to believe that there’s anything particularly sinister about all these machinations: Drake is bigger, by several orders of magnitude, than nearly all his contemporaries, and is playing within that framework. At this point, Drake simply is.

Anyway, I’m writing about Drake because I think “Nice For What” is the best Drake song. I think the way Freedia’s voice and the “Ex-Factor” sample bleed into one another makes it feels raucous and vulnerable at the same time; I think it’s loose and propulsive and punishing; I think the fact that the song’s coda feels like its own built-in bounce edit is irresistibly fun. I love it and think, for the first time since Take Care, that I’ll be paying rapt attention when the rest of the album drops. But it doesn’t really matter what I think.

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