Unless you live under a rock, on Neptune, or just happen to be one of those people who don’t listen to hip-hop, you’re acutely aware that Drake and Future released a joint project this week. The Internet, of course, exploded, as the Internet tends to do for anything on the scale from mediocre to actually hype worthy. But how did we get here? Why are we here? Welcome to the Cult of Drake. The cookies and Grey Goose are on the table to the left, your overpriced OVO hoodies just slightly past that. Welcome.
– “I can dig rapping, but a rapper with a ghostwriter, what the fuck happened?”
Somewhere along the cultural gaps of the last 5-10 years hip-hop has changed. It, in many ways undergone a cultural transformation alongside its target audience. Picture this ten years ago. Picture Drake being as popular as he is. You can’t. It’s hard.
The hip-hop narrative was different back then. That is not to say that it was all about drug dealing and gang banging (for the most part it was), and that the artists back then were just as hard as their lyrics (some were, but not all). It’s an unreasonable expectation to believe everyone who raps about selling drugs is out there selling drugs, mostly because people who are out there selling drugs are too busy (mostly selling drugs) to rap. Yet, the narrative was about the rise of the underdog and at that time the underdog was the young black male. It was about getting out of your circumstance and getting to a better place. It was part anger, part determination, part street hustle. And that’s what hip-hop was.
That narrative has flipped multiple times. Just around when hip-hop started to grow and figure out that its main audience was not necessarily the hood. It was the suburban middle-class teen who would joke about the ghetto, listen to songs about it, but would wet his breeches within 3 seconds of actually being in one. I’m white, I’m middle-class (lower) and I once accidentally ended up in Chicago’s Southside. That was the day I set the world record for highest speed-walking speed.
First Eminem flipped the race card. He was the hick from Detroit who no one expected to rap, or at least to rap well. Then came the actual drug dealers. Then the artistic creative who just had to hustle out the hood while trying to avoid drugs and gangs (Holla Kanye!). My point here is the hip-hop was never about just one kind of rapper persona. It was a fluid concept. Drake didn’t reinvent the wheel when he flipped it again. He followed the pattern. Much like he has been all of his career: Find what’s warm, make it hot, move on.
Growing up in Canada, in an upper-class neighborhood (albeit in modest housing) was already a detriment to Drizzy’s street cred. Then came the soft Degrassi days and Wheelchair Jimmy. There was no struggle. But the man was smart; he flipped it into a struggle. He was coming from the top trying to break into the bottom so he can make it to the top (weird trajectory, I know) but it worked. He tapped into a “struggle against all odds” hip-hop trope and made it work for him. That’s when we should have started paying attention.
The point is that Aubrey Drake Graham understands the way the modern pop culture machine, and moreso now the internet, work. Sure, there are others out there that could come to that claim, but he is undisputedly on top. And no, it’s not Kanye. Kanye wasn’t even on Twitter when the platform’s popularity was approaching its peak. He posts whenever he wants and what he wants and fucks off for “creative time”. Drake posts strategically, in calculated doses, with a determination of a 16 year-old teenage girl with major FOMO. Just when he thinks you’re about to stop thinking about him here come 15 Instagram pictures, a freestyle snippet, an OVO t-shirt and a public appearance. You don’t just forget about Drake, you have to be constantly thinking about him. Even when you’re not. You know that clingy girl who can’t quite get over the fact that you’re not with her 24/7 and is too afraid you’re forgetting she exists? Yeah.
The best example is the Meek Mill debacle/spectacle (choose whichever you prefer) from this summer: The slow build up, the pause to let us wonder “is this it?” after Charged Up. It wasn’t long, but it was just enough to question what would happen next. The backing of Norm Kelly (whose Twitter I seriously think is run by someone with ties to OVO) and then the booming crescendo of Back to Back. It was the perfect build-up and final boom for pop culture’s short attention span. It lasted a little less than a week and it was forgotten shortly after, which was probably for the best because as an “all-time diss record” that shit was weak (comparing Back to Back to something like Ether is like comparing a picture of his dog my cousin scribbled at recess last week to a Monet painting). It came, it went. It happened. Drake was in the news. Until he wasn’t. And then was again with OVO Fest.
But that was recent. Let us journey back to 2006, when the relationship between internet and music was still in its infancy. We were still figuring out how to use this huge viral machine to push out tracks and acted really surprised that it was good for anything else other than pixelated pornography. The concept of a physical mixtape was being slowly pushed out by the online one. Bloggers started popping up all over the place promoting the then unknown and non-mainstream artists. Joe Budden was on a Mood Muzik roll, Lil’ Wayne was pushing Dedications out of the studio faster than hot-cakes, even the Clipse banged out the Re-Up Gang mixtape (as well as their Play Cloths joint) around that time. As if on cue, here comes Drake with Room for Improvement.
Here you can make an acceptable argument that yes, for an up-and-coming rapper/artist this was the way to go. Indeed, the internet opened up doors to talent that we would never hear from. It is inconceivable that we’d hear of guys like Blu or Mickey Factz before this culture emerged, so why wouldn’t someone like Drake (then an unknown) not use it to his advantage. Fair. Let’s move on.
Then comes the Young Money deal. Lil’ Wayne was the hottest thing out at the time his father’s pedigree notwithstanding, Tha Carter Banged. Tha Carter II banged harder. And Tha Carter III blew the doors of the hinges. Young money was on the rise and escalating in Celsius (or Farenheit for my U.S. brethren) by the minute. Our restless hero actually does quite well to attach himself to the hottest property out there and start pushing out records.
Subsequently, that was also the time of pop-rap. You know, when selling drugs wasn’t cool anymore and little Timmy was getting a little too liberal with the N-word in middle school. We were looking for a more appealing sound. Something that wouldn’t make white fathers flip tables if they found it on their daughters iPod on the way to school (aye, pops, pass the aux cable). But we never quite reached the apex of that sound until Take Care. Sure, So Far Gone touched on it (as well as the whole Houston screw movement) and Thank Me Later established Drake as that dude that will sing softly into your girl’s ear, but Take Care cemented it. It was a very good record that was aware of the times we were in and what the people wanted, it made sense to make it at that point in time. It was taking something that was already rising and pushed it up.
Then came the darker days, the sound was switching up again. Out west, this dude named Kendrick Lamar was eating rappers for breakfast like Froot Loops. Rocafella was fucking with some dude Jermaine who was spitting life-rap bars over low-key productions. Kanye was changing the sound for about the 15th time in his career and going raw with possibly one of the better front-to-back records of the decade in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It wasn’t time for sing rap. No one wanted that shit, and if they did they wanted it with a sprinkle of raw. Dude still listened to Justin Timberlake, but only if it came with some Jay-Z on the side. What’s more, dudes were putting on for their hometowns. Kendrick was rolling with Compton on his back. Cole was not shy to drop Carolina at every chance he got. Wale had Washington. Meek had Philly. Kanye owned Chicago since College Dropout. Heritage was becoming important.
Here comes Nothing Was The Same (my favorite Drake record). Drake switches his sound yet again to a more raw, real rap. The production stays tight (I love the later tracks on both NWTS and IRTITL) but Drake opens up his style and goes in. On top of that, Toronto becomes an issue. Something that has perhaps been overshadowed for a long time suddenly becomes prominent (5AM in Toronto didn’t drop until 2013!). Why? Because that’s what was boiling in the pot at the time. So like a good NOLA grandma, Drizzy was putting seasoning in the gumbo by the minute.
Which brings us here: Beyonce’s “mystery” release; Albums with little features and an even bigger step to a raw sound, which inevitably led us to If Youre Reading This Its Too Late – an aptly named (and poorly spelled) album, released in Navy SEAL-like secrecy under the cover of the night. Let me tell you, the record went in. I like it (my second favorite Drake album), but once again, nothing about the music nor the way it was released was inherently new. It wasn’t pushing it’s own weight, it was just falling into a lane.
But now let me get to the point of why I had to list all of these examples before getting to the meat of my argument. I’m not a college freshman scrambling on that 2000 word essay nor am I your girlfriend’s bra. I don’t need padding. We’re having this conversation because you have to know these things to understand Drake and why the world loves Drake.
As I mentioned about two million paragraphs and one side-note ago, there is currently no one more attuned to the movement of pop culture and the Internet than Drake. Possibly Taylor Swift, but that’s about it (and Jesus can you imagine that horror-movie hybrid). Throughout his career, Drake has taken magic that was already packaged in the bottle, shook it up and took off the cap. He is the street vendor that sells you the shit, not the chemist that laboriously packages it and ensures that you’re addicted to the product. He doesn’t dictate where the culture is going, he just notes it and acts. He’s Google Maps. That’s why the Future collab happened. Future is hot, having birthed copy cats like Rich Homie Quan and Ty Dollar $ign (why do you think PARTYNEXTDOOR is on the roster). He’s warm and getting hotter and it was time to attach some Drake to it.
The truth is, at the end of the day, I also respect this trajectory more than I care to admit. I listen to Drake songs. They’re catchy, some of them are even good, and it does take talent to be able to adapt your style and change it up as frequently as he has done. He works with talented producers and does squeeze the most out of the sound that is currently in. He is able to take the popular stuff and package it just the right way to each of his strength, to make you want it. Then he puts his “marketing” machine behind it to get you there.
Throughout his career Drake has been chasing the high of fame. He wants the spotlight and he will do whatever it takes to get there. He’s been around long enough and gottenn good enough at it that it will be hard to dethrone “the boy” for the time being, but the end of the day, someone who is afraid to be forgotten ends up just that. He stops taking risks. He stops exploring his own sound and understanding his own limitations. He starts taking unnecessary steps back. WATTBA was a step back. He was past this sound and it was done better by Future himself and likes of Young Thug. That tape falls in line with 100% of the Future-sound and Drake trying to co-opt it. Drake was in a different league, but he went back just to get some spotlight (the Meek high was wearing off). He does this all the time. There is a good interview with Four Pins when he feels compelled to mention that Kanye is over at his house all the time when he’s not touring. Who cares about that? We get it, you’re in. You don’t need to remind us you’re part of the cool boys club.
But that’s Drake in his essence. He draws his power from the spotlight and because of that he chases it his entire career. I am not sure if he is one step ahead or just in-line with where it is, but he is definitely not behind. He has taken to pop culture like a moth to a flame, and that kind of understanding of it is admirable. But if he is in fact the student of pop culture, he surely also has to understand that nothing will last and what will he do when it finally burns out? When he no longer can go where the sound or the culture are headed? What then? With Kanye, that’s part of the appeal, the fact that he can just say “fuck it” at any moment and get to working on any other oxygen-fueled fantasy that’s running rampant in his head (#Yeezus2020). With Drake, we don’t know. We don’t know because we haven’t been privy to what’s inside his head. He’s only been privy to what’s in ours and that’s what he keeps delivering to us. And at least for the time being, we keep consuming.