Fuck that “Abe Beame, you gotta chill” shit.
Sometimes, you can judge an album by its cover. In 1988, Chuck D and Flava Flav defiantly glared through prison bars. It perfectly matched the angry, gritty, militant work contained on the cassette within, lashing out against late term Reaganomics, Ronald Reagan and the country he ran. In 1994, a toddler sat alone in a white void. Ready to Die was bleak and nihilistic, an indictment of the callous and racist society that child would be raised in and the bleak, nihilistic, callous young man that society produced.
In 2011, a half Jewish, Canadian, middle class child actor hunched over a table adorned with gold trinkets. The walls are covered with watercolors in thick, ornate frames. In the center of the composition is Drake, swaddled in black cloth and chunky gold jewelry, looking down, both literally and figuratively. He’s pensive, deep in thought and unhappy, despite the privilege he’s surrounded by and covered in. And the point is where Public Enemy saw a tool for social change and Biggie saw an opportunity to critique society and culture, Drake looked at the rap album and saw a mirror. The point is that album cover, like its accompanying album, and like the entire body of work of its author, has always been about Drake.
That Aubrey Drake Graham opted to put himself front and center in his music is as unlikely as his meteoric rise. Had I been advising his career, I would’ve urged him to scrub the existence of Degrassi from the internet and pass himself off as an up-and-coming Houston rapper under Wayne’s Young Money imprint. At the time, it would’ve made perfect sense. But Drake is shrewder than I am. I’m going to write this once because I think at this point we’re all numb to this and it bears repeating: Drake shattered the concept of what a rapper is and what a rapper can be, but more importantly, who a rapper can be. Drake had the courage to lean into his biography, and his life as a text and he chose the perfect moment in rap to do so. Biggie himself could’ve been born into Drake’s circumstances with the exact same talent and catalogue and if he had emerged in ‘93 we may never have heard of him.
To come from where Drake came from and embrace it, and to be embraced by a majority of rap’s mainstream electorate, is nothing short of a miracle. A few months ago we discussed Rick Ross and how his ability to survive his corrections officer scandal signaled that the way we think about rappers and their rap was changing. If that was a crack in the dam of authenticity, Drake is the 500 foot wall of water breaking through with terrifying force, decimating the valley below.
There is his music. Drake didn’t invent the fluid union between rap and R&B, but he consecrated it and spread it as gospel to the masses. 808s & Heartbreaks was the Old Testament, Drake was the new flesh that smoothed that album’s rough edges and found the root of what made it accessible, the heroin to its fentanyl. You could argue that was a bad thing. 808s was a weird, deeply personal, one-off album. Drake made it a genre. He’s actually a good singer, and a much “better” writer than Kanye [Ed. Note: I don’t know what he’s talking about here but sometimes you have to let Abe Beame Abe Beame] In his hands, the style became more than a string of Disney Princess cliches scored to beautiful arrangements, Drake found a way to animate the post modern, tabloid struggle of a successful rapper, to discuss his life, his pleasure and his pain in a way that kept the culture riveted.
There is a formless, water-like quality to Drake as a persona that people find maddening and I get it. Some have a demand, a need to know what is your sound? What do you represent? What do you care about? What do you stand for? But as a pop artist Drake is polyamorous, doesn’t settle for his own house sound and style. It’s too limiting for an artist with limitless, amorphous talent who will settle for nothing less than hegemonic mainstream dominance. You like Grime? Afrobeat? Reggaeton? Soundcloud rap? Drake has a phase in his career for that. But for many born into the swipe and stream generation this isn’t necessarily a damning quality.
It doesn’t hurt that he’s a pop savant. Drake finds the nimble bounce in the pocket of Future’s menacing bark on “Tony Montana”, the cascading circular perfection of Migos triplets on “Versace”, the ethereal fuzzy sadness in “Tuesday”, the teenage ache at the heart of Romeo Santos’ Latin bubble gum. Drake is like DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can, a fraud and a chameleon that often is more convincing than the text he’s appropriating.
There’s also the performative Drake, the act of Drake being Drake and wondering if he’s aware he’s being V Drake and in on the joke or if he’s oblivious to our laughter (I seriously doubt Drake is oblivious to anything anyone says or does related to Drake, and on that note, thanks for the click Drake!). Because there is so much to laugh at. He portrays himself as fragile, emotional, thin skinned and aggressively uncool on his own shit. Again, this is without precedence.
Drake is arguably the most memeable artist in the history of pop music, and I don’t mean gifs of him dancing in a light box or giving Nick Nurse a back rub. His lyrics seem to be conceived specifically to be lifted from his songs, transposed in dramatic font on a colored background, and screenshot then inserted into my sister’s Facebook stories with a superimposed caption like “Mood,” sandwiched by a number of inscrutable face emojis in response to some guy she’s hooking up with — or a friend who blew off their plans last weekend or both at the same time and both will be confused as to what they’re supposed to take from the implied message.
Drake is the rapper of this moment in American life and culture. His obsession with self image and his obsession with his curated grand narrative is in lockstep with ours. Drake once said he loves to write his lyrics on his phone, that his thumbs were made to compose on a BlackBerry and this feels right. He doesn’t appear to have been born as much as he was shot out of a smart phone like the 2.0 version of Russel Crowe in Virtuosity. Every generation gets the Michael Jackson it deserves and if you were between 10-17 when So Far Gone came out, congratulations. Drake is yours.
But despite his comparable pop prolificacy, Mike is a bad comparison. Drake, the real Drake, the Drake on his albums in between the hits, the persona he communicates to his real fans, is a much more intimate and personable artist than Michael Jackson ever was. His transparent bragging and shit talk is a window into his myriad insecurities. Drake is constantly rebuking haters for things no one has ever accused him of. Have YOU ever thought to yourself, “Drake really isn’t trying hard enough”? And yet it’s his favorite thing to correct his imagined critics on.
On album work like “Keep the Family Close”, Drake is at his melodramatic, operatic weirdest and more reminiscent of albums like Here, my Dear or Confessions or Lemonade. Only Drake didn’t just make one breakup album. He’s made an entire breakup career to mixed results. At his worst and most indulgent, these confessionals are closer to well-produced messy bitch Facebook posts than songs. But at his best, with moments he achieves on songs like “Marvin’s Room” — its absolute masterpieces of millennial ennui.
There are people who love Drake and his music, there are people who hate Drake and his music, there are even people who hate Drake and love his music, but every person in America who cared about music this decade has an opinion on him. Something we don’t discuss enough is that Drake had the ability to tie himself inextricably to his music and place himself in the position where you must form an opinion about him. To put yourself into your rap isn’t a skill everyone has. To achieve a certain interiority, to make yourself knowable, to be able to present yourself as knowable in a way millions and millions of people can relate to or at least comprehend is a pretty extraordinary quality that most music, let alone pop rap music, even when it strives to be personal, doesn’t contain (If you want proof, Drake spawned a legion of shitty rappers that made tell-all sung rap over the last decade you can listen to, but I wouldn’t recommend it). That is to say, feel how you feel about introspective, self-obsessed pop rap music, but Drake doesn’t just write about himself, he’s really good at writing about himself, for whatever that’s worth.
He’s able to do this because he’s quite simply a really good writer. Consider “Child’s Play” off of 2016’s dour Views. Within a few bars, he’s mired in a stupid miserable fight at a Cheesecake Factory (A restaurant he incredibly admits to liking, only adding to the believability of the scenario), accused of acting light skinned, embarrassed as he’s surrounded by upstanding, respectable, awful suburban families. This type of detail rich specificity would make more sense in a New Yorker short story than a random album track on Views.
Drake took the glamorized, glorified escapism of rap and grounded it in the minutiae of everyday life. And what’s more, he showed us that of course, successful rappers have lives full of minutiae and everyday. It’s not Goinesian thrillers about robbing stash houses, it’s about how rich, good looking, successful and wildly famous people also have annoying shitty fights with women in relationships they’re trying to figure out at chain restaurants. This is why millions have followed him on this journey where’s he’s portrayed himself as a generally earnest, decent guy corrupted by fame. From his sad, desperate unfulfilling pursuit of fame and success into his sad, desperate, unfulfilling fame and success. Well, that and 40.
Noah Shebib isn’t the name most would draw first when generating a list of the decade’s most important producers, but he should be. His fealty to a single artist probably didn’t help, but if you look at Drake’s entire body of work as 40’s contribution (be it as the physical producer or the inspiration other Drake producers ape), it’s as significant as anything any one producer has done in the last ten years. When considering Drake’s proclivity for beautiful, eclectic, 80s and 90s R&B it’s impossible to separate it from 40’s, and why would you want to?
Consider who 40 likes to collaborate with when Drake is not involved or tangentially involved: Drake’s own Tammi Terrel, Rihanna (Or is Drake her Tammi Terrel? Discuss.), Beyonce, Jamie Foxx, JoJo, Partynextdoor, Wizkid and Majiid Jordan, among others. While 40’s taste for softness probably ruined Drake for almost all the other people who write for this website and the legion of fans they represent, it’s also what saved him from being another whiny, disposable 2010-era internet rapper. It’s why his emo schtick comes off. 40’s sonic palette hedges closer to the gorgeous R&B he reveres and makes sense of Drakes bleeding heart. Together, they fused rap and R&B into a seamless mutant genre that has quite simply changed pop music irrevocably.
On June 14th of this year, the Toronto Raptors, a team that was born the year the Knicks turned 49, a team that regrettably named their franchise after a trendy dinosaur in a 90s Spielberg Summer blockbuster displaying a stunning lack of foresight, a team that was led in scoring by laughable Italian bust Andrea Bargani just 10 years ago, a team of cobbled together players who were all drafted outside the lottery, including their superstar on rental who may not even be on the team by the time you read this, became one of the 20 teams who have ever won an NBA championship in the 73 year history of the league, by far its all-time least likely champion.
It was an event that was paradigm shattering; that is without precedence. A foreign country, where basketball is the third most popular sport, appropriated what is a distinctly American art form, and without apologies took its highest honor from the Warriors, a team that will probably go down in history as the most dominant squad ever assembled.
On June 17th, in downtown Toronto Canada, the Raptors had a parade to celebrate their historic achievement. Of course, I watched clips of the parade on Instagram, on my phone. Millions turned out to celebrate an unthinkable accomplishment for a fan culture that was created out of thin air in this weird, cold, Canadian city. And as the city partied, in seemingly every clip I watched, Drake was in the center of the composition. He was getting drunk with Marc Gasol, busting balls with Fred VanVleet, and taking selfies with Kawhi Leonard. The half Jewish, Canadian, middle class child actor, the absurd, melodramatic pop icon was on stage with the team, throughout the Raptors entire playoff run he’d been as central to their narrative as the players and the coach.
A week later, he would surpass the fucking Beatles for the second-most top 10 hits of all time, trailing only Madonna now and most likely, at some point in the near future, Drake will hold the record for the most top 10 hits of all time for any artist of any genre, a record he may hold for a very, very long time. But even before that, in those grainy IG videos, in that moment, he was sitting atop his weird, cold, Canadian city on a hill in all his glory. A world champion in every sense of the word. This is not the ending many of us would’ve written for this dark, strange decade in rap. But for once, perhaps, we can agree that this is the ending it wrote for itself.
ROD: Drake- Wild Life
- Karaoke (Thank Me Later 2010)
- Closer (ft. Adreena Mill) (Comeback Season 2007)
- Houstalantavegas (So Far Gone 2009)
- Wu-Tang Forever (Nothing Was the Same 2013)
- Know Yourself (If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late 2015)
- In My Feelings (Scorpion 2018)
- Passionfruit (More Life 2017)
- Childs Play (Views 2016)
- Sooner Than Later (Thank Me Later 2010)
- Jorja Interlude (More Life 2017)
- Don’t Matter to Me (Scorpion 2018)
- Furthest Thing (Nothing Was the Same 2013)
- Work (ft. Rihanna) (Lost Kings Remix) (2016)
- Shut It Down (ft. The Dream) (Thank Me Later 2010)
- Look What You’ve Done (Take Care 2011)
- Fall For Your Type (2010)
- Fire and Desire (Views 2016)
- Marvin’s Room (Take Care 2011)
- Outro (So Far Gone 2010)