Aubrey Drake Graham’s first performance for a large and unseen audience took place on a Sunday evening in October 2001. Created in 1979 by a former middle school instructor as an after-school special, The Kids of Degrassi Street appeared intermittently on Canadian television, logging twenty-six episodes total over eight years before being remodeled in 1987 as the teen drama Degrassi Junior High (three seasons, forty-two episodes), which transitioned, as the characters of Junior High entered late adolescence, into Degrassi High (two seasons, twenty-eight episodes); following a ten-year hiatus, the franchise was revived in the new millennium under the title Degrassi: The Next Generation. The characters were once more middle school kids, and Graham had successfully auditioned to play one: as hundreds of thousands of young Canadians would learn over the course of the season, Jimmy Brooks was a talented eighth-grade basketball player. The opening credits show him catching a long pass from the backcourt: he turns, takes a dribble, squares his shoulders, and shoots. The camera pans right rapidly, reducing images to a blur. Things return to focus just in time to see a different ball, its former trajectory untraceable, swish cleanly through the basket.
Jimmy is an agreeable, quiet character. For most of the season, he wears a chronically blank expression. You feel like anyone could play him. He is dating Ashley Kerwin, school president and brunette: though occasionally undermined by a blonde frenemy, responsible Ashley remains the most popular girl at school. But no one’s life is perfect. Ashley lives in a blended household with her mother, stepfather, and stepbrother (a sly, nerdy seventh-grader named Toby), and she’s dismayed to learn, on her handsome father’s return from abroad, that he is gay. She grows frustrated by Jimmy’s persistent, quietly needy presence — at one point, he is eating dinner with her family every night of the week. Feeling “suffocated,” she resolves to break up with him, but not immediately: Jimmy’s 14th birthday is coming up, and it just wouldn’t feel right. She decides to go to dinner with his family at his house that day. The expensive interior of his house is dark when the two of them arrive, though. Jimmy listens to a voice mail from his mother notifying him that neither she nor his father will be home soon: once again, they are both working late. Ashley tries to console him. She invites him to her house for dinner. But, tipped off by Toby as to Ashley’s recent state of mind, Jimmy refuses her offer. He challenges her to break up with him, and when she neither accepts the challenge nor rejects it with sufficient force, he breaks up with her. After she leaves, he picks up the phone to order a medium pepperoni pizza — “the usual,” he says. His posture and his face don’t just sag: they look weighed down by hurt. He delivers his lines (“Mom. Dad. I’m home.” “They’re not like your family, OK?”) forcefully, his disappointment amplified, paradoxically, by his attempt to keep the pain from showing.
We can cheat with him by skipping to the present: Drake has now been famous, stratospherically, for more than half a decade and is still predominantly uncool. It is true that he seems, at certain times and from certain angles, to become cool, but he invariably regresses into something corny or petty. He suits up with top-tier college basketball teams but is filmed shooting an air ball in warm-ups; he makes the cover of Rolling Stone only to diss the magazine for bumping him an issue because of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death. He releases sub-B-side tracks scant months after a year-defining single. He dates the finest single athlete on the planet then jinxes her run at the Grand Slam. It’s as if he approaches coolness only for the sake of sabotaging it more thoroughly.
The unique condition of his fame is this: he is the first rap star who achieved fame not just in spite of his inherent uncoolness but because of it. What defines the Drake fanatic is not color or gender or even class. It’s true that these are relevant, but none are quite as central as the youthful aspiration to belong — an aspiration that, by definition, confesses the lack of its achievement, and is, in its craving after warmth, congenitally uncool. Just another kid going through life so worried that I won’t be accepted. This is what Drake shares with his audience, and it’s remarkable how little the adulation of that audience of millions, and the tens of millions of dollars that audience has shared with him, have changed his mentality: he remains, in his own mind, as unwelcome and as disrespected (and as driven) as ever. He remains, at once, the Zelig and the Dangerfield of rap.
Two months before the debut of Degrassi: The Next Generation, another cultural venue by which the North American middle class normalizes everything beyond its reach introduced a different performer to its audience. “Gettin’ Paid,” the journalist Kelefa Sanneh’s long, insightful profile of a black Brooklyn rapper, marked a watershed moment for the New Yorker. Before, its staff writers had taken on rappers only as oddities: one had profiled Missy Elliott, who was exceptionally female, and another had reported on Tupac Shakur, who was fantastically dead. Yet the New Yorker was not averse to profiling a “standard” rapper so much as waiting for the proper subject to emerge: one composed, like itself, in a calm, cool manner—the antithesis of DMX. Not just a homeboy but un homme d’affaires: Sanneh’s profile is a reading of an artist and a cultural field where verbal excellence and business savvy are designed to fit each other like halves of a rhyming couplet. “The greatest of the corporate rappers is Jay-Z, a thirty-one-year-old tycoon from the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.”
Drake now presides over a domain of lowered expectations.Tweet
To quote Sanneh quoting Beanie Sigel, the Philadelphia rapper and Jay-Z vassal/affiliate, “you have to have a ‘good marketing plan’ when you’re ‘selling your product,’ whether it’s music or crack.” As the profile noted, rap was still made mostly by black men, but the audience for rap was 70 percent white, and the share of women listeners was rising. Jay-Z’s sky-high record sales were rooted in his mastery of tone: he had evolved a voice — sleek, calm, occasionally threatening, and above all confident — that could convey black-male street smarts and black-male street credibility without diminishing his appeal within demographics that were less black, less male, and less urban. The American language had finally come of age: if you could speak, powerfully and convincingly, about making, having, and spending money, you would make, have, and spend a lot of money and become very powerful — and, incidentally, sneak great poetry back into the pages of the New Yorker.
But now the avalanche-like record sales of yesteryear have slowed to a flurry. In 2003, a poor black artist from Queens named 50 Cent (real name Curtis Jackson) released his first gangster-rap album, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, and sold more than eight million copies; 2015’s top rap album, Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, has barely sold one million. The decline in sales has nothing to do with a decline in cultural relevance: hip-hop culture has never loomed larger than it does now. But high-speed internet access, and the music piracy and streaming services it enables, has cut deeply into rap’s revenues.
Drake now presides over a domain of lowered expectations: in rap as much as in writing, the glut of waste and talent enabled by the internet’s combination of low production cost, easy access, and high demand has made it all but impossible to stand out from the competition. In rap as much as in writing, real power in the new era remains firmly housed in the old corporate structures, which, though their tastemaking capacity has eroded, nonetheless retain the publicity budgets, institutional support, and social capital required to forge a star. Drake’s discomfort with human relations, endlessly reiterated in his songs, is matched and exceeded by his extreme facility (also endlessly reiterated in his songs) with the logic of the record industry and the modes of rapid-fire discourse, visual and verbal alike, that the internet requires of its celebrities, large or small. His current hit “Hotline Bling” is perhaps the ideal example: mirroring the quasi-parasitic relation of the record industry to all its artists, Drake takes a regional hit (“Cha Cha”) by rising Virginia rapper/singer D.R.A.M., has it stripped by his production team, then remodels it to suit his interests. His lyrics, sung sweetly over a sweetened, quasi-Caribbean instrumental, exude a sense of awkward, passive-aggressive entitlement: as in many other songs, he sings to a former girlfriend and reasserts his right to her time and attention. The video for “Hotline Bling,” featuring Drake not dancing so much as doing a set of introverted shuffles, set against a spare, darkened, variously monochromatic pastel interior, is designed to spawn remixed viral visuals on Twitter, Instagram, and Vine: Drake swatting tennis balls, Drake sparring with lightsabers, Drake watched warily by the Avengers before being pummeled by the Hulk. He may or may not get her time and attention; if not, another wave of fame and millions will have to do.
How did he get here? Much as the Notorious B.I.G. (who peaked in 1994 with Ready to Die) marks the midpoint between Jay-Z (peaked in 2001 with The Blueprint) and the original generation of rap innovators headed by Rakim (peaked in 1987 with Paid in Full), Kanye West now stands equidistant from Jay-Z, under whom he made a name as a producer, and Drake, whose career, in its origin as much as its trajectory, is difficult to conceive of without the guiding influence of Kanye’s works, in particular the 2008 album 808s & Heartbreak. Though that album, with its passive, etiolated soundscapes and sung lyrics smoothed and deadened by Auto-Tune, could hardly be categorized as rap, West had already proved himself, repeatedly and absolutely, as a rap artist. Popular with millions, broadly if not universally respected, a musical genius of the highest order, West possessed the freedom to venture into territory hitherto poorly charted by rappers: despondency over the loss of a woman untempered by any display of bravado.
Drake was hardly the only aspiring rapper to take the album’s aesthetic, themes, and critical success to heart, but he soon proved to be the artist most capable of adapting the ambience of 808s to forge his own distinctive sound. West had traced the contours of a numbing, forlorn, and insular zone of emotion, a kind of Baffin Island of the soul, but he had no intention of calling it home; even if Drake didn’t quite live there, the same flag flew above both him and it. The album seemed to give him license to present himself as lovelorn, ill at ease, recessive.
Musically speaking, the crucial agent in Drake’s metamorphosis into “Drake” was his sound engineer Noah Shebib (Scotch-Lebanese-Canadian, studio name 40): he became the producer most closely associated with the artist and most deeply involved in the development of the new sound that would define him and propel his rise to fame. Following the template presented in 808s, Shebib’s distinctive production foregrounds unfamiliar motifs as it masks, or abandons, more standard ones. Melodically, his instrumentals are spare. A simple looped piano, or a digitally filtered Wurlitzer, provides a relentless ostinato. Beneath it is airless musical space, the sound of a buried, echo-free chamber. Shebib heavily mutes the bass and filters 808 kicks and toms: along with his preference for a slower tempo, these changes produce a drastic shift in the sonic climate. The looming synthesizers feel both spacious and shut in, as discolored and foreboding as overcast skies; without the liquid of the bass line binding the drums to the treble, the general impression is of dryness, something artificial, inorganic. The rapper generates the only sense of life: his emotions, thoughts, and hesitations proceed at the unhurried pace of a stage soliloquy. 40’s instrumentals weren’t the first to be produced on a high-priced laptop, but they might have been the first to make you feel like, listening, you were on one: the synthesizers sound like pale beams from a monitor while the drums, thin, cycle at the pace of a blinking cursor. This was the “Drake sound,” at once endlessly copied and inimitable, suggestive of, if not coolness or success, a lonesome striving after both that would help make Drake not only the biggest hitmaker of his time but the emblematic artist of his generation.
The lyrics of So Far Gone (2009), Drake’s third, enormously popular mixtape, are undeserving of scrutiny: it’s a necessary fault, given the mixtape’s purpose. His first two mixtapes had proved he could build rhymes and deliver them: So Far Gone was his attempt, a successful one, to prove he could carry a note and create hit songs. Drake and 40 had bonded over, among other things, their fondness for ’90s R&B (Aaliyah especially), and most of the seventeen tracks foreground Drake singing sweetly and smoothly about basic relationship issues over sparse, suggestive production from 40 or others. The most prominent among these songs proved to be “Best I Ever Had.” With its brash, propulsive drum sample punctuated by major chords from a piano, the entire song serves as an extended come-on, a rapid barrage of flattery, promises, and outright lies — you’re all I ever wanted, once I’m rich I’ll come back for you, you look better without your makeup on — topped by an eponymous chorus that delivers precisely what it promises, “the same thing every single time.”
It was an ideal radio hit. The single for the song — a song on a mixtape — went triple platinum, topping Billboard’s rap and R&B charts and reaching number ten on the Top 40; Kanye West directed the music video. Downloaded more than a million times as a free mixtape, So Far Gone, refurbished later in 2009 as an EP with a price tag, would sell more than six hundred thousand copies. The critics were reminded of 808s & Heartbreak: this was a good thing to them. The major labels, now convinced that Drake could be trusted to make them large amounts of money on his own initiative, engaged in a bidding war; he signed with his tourmate Lil Wayne’s Young Money Entertainment (a subsidiary of Cash Money Records) in June. Fame and wealth were no longer in question: the only thing at stake now was their future magnitude. They formed the base; his image was, or would become, the exponent.
Drake’s first three studio albums, Thank Me Later (2010), Take Care (2011), and Nothing Was the Same (2013) constitute a trilogy of youthful aspiration: they narrate, respectively, his first contact with, confusion by, and confidence in fame and wealth. “Is anything I’m doing brand-new?” he had asked wistfully on the final track of So Far Gone, and even though aiming at a vast audience required an emphasis on branding over novelty, there was no doubt, by the time of the release of Take Care, with its ponderous cover photo featuring the artist dressed in mournful black like Hamlet, armored in a blank, glum expression against a dim, sumptuous interior setting, that he could answer his question in the affirmative.
He doesn’t want to dazzle, and he doesn’t have to.Tweet
Having found a formula for success on the mixtape, he proceeded to apply it assiduously: of the fourteen tracks on Thank Me Later, Drake sings lyrics on all but one. Slightly graveled and nasal when rapping, smooth and karaoke-friendly when singing, his voice has settled on a monotony that feels reliable and comforting, though unlikely to leave a strong impression. More than anything, he comes off as wary of the same career success he busies himself narrating. What am I afraid of? This is supposed to be what dreams are made of. He’s trying hard not to try his hardest, declaring nothing so much as the fact that he’s yet to declare himself. Taken as a whole, the album feels as loose, mild, and nervous as the moment after paying off a debt, or before leaving for the first year of college.
As far as his rapping goes, a willful regression has occurred. His elocution is uniform: clean and cautious, uncommitted and prosaic. He doesn’t want to dazzle, and he doesn’t have to: it’s possible, for the moment, to venture little and gain much. It’s his first time on the big stage, and he wants to be sure there will be a second. He cycles through his tropes, mixes in more money talk because he can afford to. He makes small puns and associations that don’t get far and aren’t intended to. “Over,” with its triumphant horns and martial snare beat agitated by a loud, high-pitched binary chime, has a correspondingly baffled/exultant chorus: What am I doing, what am I doing? Oh yeah, that’s right, I’m doing me, I’m living life right now, man, and this is what I’mma do till it’s over. This light, fizzy, stealthily amused tone is typical of the album. It’s left to the guest artists — Alicia Keys, Swizz Beatz, T.I., Nicki Minaj, The-Dream, Young Jeezy, Jay-Z, and Lil Wayne, industry veterans all — to lend the album some temporary weight while they affix their seals of approval. The album topped all the relevant charts, went platinum. It’s hard to hate it or remember it.
If Thank Me Later sounded like it was taking out an insurance policy on its own success, Take Care represented a sort of dare, albeit a self-directed one. Drake had called himself “shallow . . . but deep enough to have gone swimming” on the prior album; the new album would highlight something more serious than his enjoyment of fame, wealth, and women — namely, his inability to enjoy said things. The term “depressive hedonism” has been used, accurately, as a summary of Drake’s entire output; this quality is so pronounced in Take Care as to verge on a velveteen masochism. The potential menace of the tender album title (there’s more than one way to “take care” of someone) and the repeatedly linked images of status, suicide, and burial (track titles include “Buried Alive” and “Underground Kings”) are strong indicators that the album is as much to be survived as enjoyed. Take Care received stellar reviews and is Drake’s best-selling album to date. The majority of the tracks (nine, plus two halves, out of seventeen) can sustain repeated listening: they’re good.
Yet the album lasts seventy-nine minutes and forty-three seconds and feels, because of jerky swings in tempo occasioned by its track arrangement, even longer. Take Care marks both the culmination of 40’s production style and its exhaustion: the sound is purer, clearer, and more expensive than ever, but also icy and removed, like a space-station air lock. Lyrically, the mild, soft touches of So Far Gone and the pep-squad cheeriness of Thank Me Later have been replaced, for the most part, by a glazed and leaden solipsism:
Alicia, Katia, I know that you gon’ hear this: I’m the man,
Yeah, I said it; bitch, I’m the man, don’t you forget it;
The way you walk — that’s me; the way you talk — that’s me;
The way you got your hair up: did you forget, that’s me;
And the voice in your speaker right now, that’s me;
And the voice in your ear — that’s me, can’t you see
That I made it, yeah I made it, first I made you who are
And then I made it; and you’re wasted — with your latest —
Yeah I’m the reason why you always gettin’ faded . . .
(“Shot for Me”)
As countless jingles testify, singing can make just about anything sound normal; laundered through a tune, even the rankest profit-oriented nonsense can come off as inevitable. Yet the narcissism of “Shot for Me” somehow exceeds even what music can justify. Not pride, but preening; not just preening, but preening with the smugness turned way up, poised at the tipping point between sweetness and nausea. Then there’s the hook: hooks are, by definition, repetitive, but Take Care’s Drake is especially fond of repeating phrases, with an uncommitted voice, within the hook itself. Take a shot for me, a shot for me, a shot for me. They know, they know, they know. Are you down, are you down, are you all the way down. I’m so, I’m so, I’m so, I’m so proud of you; I’m so, I’m so, I’m so, I’m so proud of you. But the good ones go, the good ones go. Look what you’ve done, look what you’ve done, look what you’ve done for me. Hell yeah, hell yeah — fuckin’ right, fuckin’ right, all right. This hardly disqualifies the songs in which the hooks are embedded from being of value. But over the course of the album, the sense of repetition without development becomes oppressive. Numbness and fatigue set in as our protagonist continues his prolonged, unfruitful self-examination over tracks that feel like a never-ending tour of luxurious, vacant places, the sonic equivalent of a string of luxury hotels: I guess it really is just me, myself, and all my millions.
The best tracks are those that, through some combination of situational realism, vocal beauty, solidarity with others, and impulsiveness, overcome this intrinsic coldness and distance. “Crew Love” deserves special mention: built on a pressurized, precise instrumental lifted from the rising R&B singer the Weeknd (Ethiopian-Canadian, real name Abel Tesfaye), the song is anchored by Tesfaye’s hook and first verse, which shape an argentine, hazy web of images — a nose on a keyboard, singing, fame, light-skinned girls imported from Poland, the titular love of the crew — that evoke, without specifying, hard-drug usage and group sex. The second and final verse is Drake’s, rapped:
Smoking weed under star projectors;
I guess we’ll never know what Harvard gets us.
But seeing my family have it all
Took the place of that desire for diplomas on the wall
And really [heavier, faster drums kick in] I think I like who I’m becoming . . .
The correspondence of image and sound (the keyboard instrumental, nocturnal, glowing, firmly drifting, matches the weed smoke and star projectors perfectly); a classy disavowal of class distinction (no one will ever really know what Harvard gets them, not even people who went to Harvard); a dual invocation of group and generosity that continues for the rest of the verse; the confident, well-timed, unshowy (“I think I like” instead of “I like”) proclamation and the explosive pace — the confluence of these is glorious and memorable. Had thirty-five minutes of aural dead weight been jettisoned — including the hollow interlude “Good Ones Go,” the pointless juvenile retread “Practice,” and the scumbag Marseillaise “Marvins Room” — Take Care would have been far and away Drake’s best album. As it stands, it’s the album with the most potential and the most wasted potential, a botched deep-space expedition that took up too much mass and not enough fuel.
Compared with its grueling predecessor, Drake’s third album, Nothing Was the Same (2013), is easier to listen to. As the blue sky of its cover art implies, the primary element is air: life-giving, alternating between warm and cool currents, a bit thin at altitude. The tracks no longer feel frozen to one another: it’s easy to sift out the ones that go nowhere and say nothing, and there’s more left over afterward, proportionally speaking. From the first track, “Tuscan Leather,” it’s clear that fame is a given to be treated matter-of-factly. This is nothin’ for the radio, but they’ll still play it though, ’cause it’s that new Drizzy Drake, that’s just the way it go. With status comes confidence. His delivery has grown more forceful, and the near-total absence of guest rappers — there’s only Jay Z, de-hyphenated and disinterested, on the final track — allows him to showcase his improvement without being upstaged. His lines are tougher, capable of bearing more weight. The hit “Started from the Bottom,” constructed around its eponymous hook, balances monotony and memorability expertly, because Drake can now sound committed without raising his voice. His songcraft starts to move from ’90s R&B toward more soulful genres. The plain, compelling ballad “Hold On, We’re Going Home” is modeled on ’80s-era Michael Jackson, and “Tuscan Leather” concludes with a recording of the soul singer/bandleader/legend Curtis Mayfield addressing a live audience. The final track is inaugurated by the sampled voice of the jazz organist Jimmy Smith, while the first half of the album cites, repeatedly and somewhat discordantly, Wu-Tang Clan. Nothing Was the Same is precisely what it seems to be: a successful album by a successful artist. Still, aside from “Started from the Bottom,” the puzzling, fragmentary rager “Worst Behavior” and the insistently bittersweet “Too Much,” the album’s relaxed tension and reduced stakes (“My life’s a completed checklist”) can leave a listener hungry for perspectives more informed by urgency and depth. It’s his best album, and yet the best album of an artist — a great one, anyway — shouldn’t feel like something settled for. One can’t help but muse, as the artist does so often with women, on what might have been if he had taken better care.
February 2015 marked the release of Drake’s mixtape If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. Spare, vague, passive-aggressive, self-reflexive, tinged with loss, the title is classic Drake — the verbal equivalent of a minor chord struck once. The core of the sound lies in the bass, where thick, booming notes pulse over clipped, martial drums. The general effect is dark and claustral, reinforced by lyrics that focus, all but monomaniacally, on isolation (“Drapes closed, I don’t know what time it is”), quasi-paranoid antagonism (“Every time they talkin’ it’s behind your back; gotta learn to line ’em up and then attack”), and departure:
Yeah, I’m leaving, I’m leaving, I’m leaving, I’m gone,
I’m leaving, I’m gone,
I don’t wanna miss the boat, I don’t wanna sit in coach,
I don’t wanna sit at home, I gotta get where I’m going,
I’m afraid that I’mma die before I get where I’m going,
I know I’mma be alone, I know I’m out on my own,
I just gotta hit the road, I just gotta know the road . . .
(“Now & Forever”)
He’s singing at his usual medium pitch to a dark, murmurous instrumental paced by a single metallic percussion note, but the gradually increasing length of his clauses requires him to speed up to maintain the rhythm. The delivery perfectly enacts the hurriedness, the need for release from familiar captivity, that the lyric describes. It doesn’t matter who or what he’s escaping: a girlfriend, a mother, a city, a class, a color, his record company? The point, reiterated repeatedly but somehow not boringly, is that he wants out.
What’s striking is how certain he is of his future isolation. He announces it rapidly and without fanfare, but this understatement amplifies the latent grief more than any deliberate emphasis could: it’s the lyric equivalent of his moment of truth in the empty Brooks residence during Degrassi season one. The entire mixtape isn’t always as strong as that moment, but it partakes of the same sensibility, and possesses a combination of agility and heft that’s new in Drake’s catalog. One often feels as if his words should be transcribed in bold italics.
If If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, then, seemed to indicate that Drake, having started his musical career as a mixtape rapper and grown famous as an artist weaving back and forth between R&B and rap, had renewed his interest in proving himself more with his words than with his melodies, it was still something of a strange career move. Rappers generally do not release three full-length studio albums before announcing their intention to be, or become, the greatest: If I die, I’m a legend. But Drake isn’t like most rappers: to quote an early line from his first mixtape, treating him like the rest is a vital mistake.
Hip-hop originated in the Bronx as simple, semi-improvised spoken-word performances rapped over danceable breakbeats at house parties, then spread to New York’s four other boroughs. Rivalries between crews of rappers from different neighborhoods sparked the development of ever more complex verbal forms. Subsequent evolutions would transform production, content, audience, and tone, but virtually every verbal technique in use today was extant by the late ’80s and early ’90s, an era commonly known as rap’s Golden Age, when artists as various as Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Marley Marl, LL Cool J, Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, De La Soul, Das EFX, Gang Starr, A Tribe Called Quest, and countless others could flourish, commercially and artistically, in peace. The reception of hip-hop, though of course slanted toward black and urban audiences, was not tightly bound to race, class, or gender. To use a literary illustration: when, in this time period, Lola, the Dominican-American elder sister of the protagonist in Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, wears her Tribe Called Quest T-shirt while studying at Rutgers, it’s clearly nothing out of the ordinary, even in a book where the concept of the ordinary is permanently threatened.
But as Díaz’s novel also illustrates, peaceful idylls never end well. The black, urban neighborhoods where hip-hop took deepest root in the ’80s were racked by drug- and gang-related violence. Exacerbated by the exodus of industrial jobs, police brutality, and mass imprisonment, the bleak belligerence of daily life was bound to find expression in the nascent art form—and it did, among artists like Schoolly D in Philadelphia, Scarface in Houston, Kool G Rap and Public Enemy in New York, and Ice-T, N.W.A, and the splinters of N.W.A in Los Angeles. Already a powerful presence in the Golden Age, in the mid-’90s gangster rap took on colossal proportions in both hip-hop culture and American culture as a whole, dominating airwaves and market share to such an extent that it became, as far as the nation was concerned, the entirety of rap music.
The reason Drake has become obscenely rich, the reason you’re reading this, is that he figured out how to make music that aspiring white professionals could not only enjoy but feel at home in.Tweet
The reason was simple: at its best, gangster rap was better than everything else. It was one thing to live for hip-hop, another thing to live and die for it, and it turned out that the latter, epitomized by the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur, was superior in power, technique, and beauty. Death is the mother of beauty, wrote Wallace Stevens, but he was vice president of an insurance company and died at 75; meanwhile, Biggie never saw his 25th birthday and Tupac barely lived past his own. As with all martyrs, their deaths were gruesome; like some martyrs, they helped create a world in which their inheritors could reign. Between 1994 and 2003 popular rap was, primarily and essentially, a space where young black men with nothing to lose and everything to gain by representing violence could excel. Scared off by the violence, or the threat thereof, white rappers migrated underground, or to rock, or to rap-rock: Eminem, protected by Dr. Dre’s support and utterly sincere in his admiration for his black peers and his love of hip-hop culture, was the exception that proved the rule. Female rappers, unable to level the kinds of threats that conferred legitimacy, and confined to a role (“the baddest bitch”) that allowed minimal room to maneuver, could only thrive alongside a more successful male labelmate (Lil’ Kim with the Notorious B.I.G., Foxy Brown with Jay-Z, Eve with DMX, Trina with Trick Daddy). Missy Elliott, an uncategorizable genius, was the sole example to the contrary, going platinum six times, though double platinum only once — such were the times, and the market.
Hardest and longest hit by this climate change were the alternative (Common), political (Dead Prez), and/or middle-class rappers (Talib Kweli), who were largely driven underground as their market share shriveled to subplatinum levels. The exceptions were the Beastie Boys, white and already long established, and Outkast, anomalous as their name implied. Only in 2004 would a new middle-class rapper sell more than a million copies and fundamentally transform the field around him: The fans want the feeling of A Tribe Called Quest, but all they got left is this guy called West. Much as Tribe’s 1993 masterpiece Midnight Marauders marked, inadvertently, the end of the freedoms of the Golden Age, The College Dropout signaled, quite self-consciously, their revival. But as the album’s title suggested—as did the skits that jeered at the value of a college degree, that ultimate certificate of middle-class status—Kanye West was determined to disaffiliate from his own class. He understood that no amount of education could secure a black American even the basic privileges of the middle class, the protection of the state and immunity from harassment and violence. Consequently, though his language was nonviolent, he pinned his hopes on celebrity and wealth as fully as any gangster rapper: I wish I could buy me a spaceship and fly, past the sky. Like Jay-Z, Kanye knew how to finesse a white, suburban audience while remaining credible with his own folk. He crafted instrumentals so gorgeous and absorbing that it was hard for the casual listener to focus on the lyrics, most of which are steeped in the awareness, in equal measure jubilant and bitter, that blackness, in America, is the only class that counts. The experience of the white middle-class Kanye aficionado can be read as a direct inversion of the experience of the black American middle class: frequently comforted, yet, based on what one can’t help but overhear, never truly welcome.
As a sound and a persona, Drake is unimaginable without Kanye West. Yet 808s & Heartbreak, the album that catalyzed Drake’s development, displays West at his most atypical — that is, his most anomic and colorless. If Drake builds on the suburban appeal cultivated by Kanye (and before him, Jay-Z) to propel himself to superstardom, that which animates Kanye at his best, the tremendous racial charge hidden in plain hearing, is altogether absent. Drake has many fans of many shades, and all of them have some right to see themselves in him: there is Drake as habibi for Muslims, Drake as “Champagne Papi” for Hispanics, Drake as light-skinned heartthrob for African Americans — you could even craft an argument, based on his passive-aggressive tendencies and the calculated vagueness of his language, for Aubrey-senpai.
But the reason Drake has become obscenely rich, the reason you’re reading this, is that he figured out how to make music that aspiring white professionals could not only enjoy but feel at home in. It was easy for them to see themselves in him, and he and 40 made it easier still. He was black, but light-skinned and Canadian, bland and pacific; he could use the N-word, but not as an American rapper, or a white supremacist, would. In its language, history, and culture, the United States is a galaxy where conurbations of white light swirl around a massive black hole whose boundary of no return is the N-word. “Shallow nigga but deep enough to have gone swimming”: Drake’s superpower has always been his ability to float across the threshold, rigidly policed from both sides, that defines American being. Black but Canadian, he could keep some measure of coolness while at the same time being resolutely uncool — as uncool, with those sweaters and air balls, as any white person. The countless “Drake the type of nigga” jokes (the type to sing the alphabet and cry when he gets to X, to remind the teacher we had homework, to high-five you with both hands and lock fingers) that used to circulate online can be distilled into a single line: he’s the type of black rapper who poses zero threat to white people. One has to look back all the way to Will Smith to find another persona — try not to confuse it with the real man — so thoroughly unmenacing and broadly appealing: so bankable.
Maybe it’s best to be good at many things but great only at convincing people you’re great at everything.Tweet
The state of mind projected by Drake’s first two albums paralleled that of his generation’s young white middle class: the devotion, muted but earnest, to career success; the belief in romantic fulfillment as the highest good imaginable; the absence of strong political convictions; most definitively, the compulsive, fruitless scrutiny of self under conditions of solitude. 40’s production provided a subtle but crucial assist: his spotlighting of delicate melodies and scaling back of heavy rhythms corresponded perfectly to the inward turn. Identity was now a function of contemplation instead of activity. The pulsing, underclass imperative to stay hustling that corresponded to the force and presence of Golden Age hip-hop and ’90s gangster rap alike had vanished in a bank of foggy synths, and that subset of white professionals who typed up music criticism for a living was not especially sad to see it go. “Drake vies for superstardom while embracing his non-drug-dealing, non-violent, non-dire history — one that connects with most rap fans in a completely reasonable way. And, suddenly, all that ‘I’ turns into a lot of ‘we,’ ” wrote Pitchfork’s Ryan Dombal, stamping an 8.4 on Thank Me Later; “The age of the tough guy is over,” Sasha Frere-Jones pronounced with muted relish in his New Yorker review of Take Care. “How do you even know whether something is hip-hop? Its characteristic rhythms and sounds can be found everywhere in pop these days. We may finally have reached the moment when breaking popular music into genres is pointless.”
This sounds convincing enough — until one recalls that rap is defined not by rhythms or sounds but by the black American speech that flows over them. That this fact escaped a critic as clever as Frere-Jones suggests that something more than music is at stake. It’s not hard to see a convergence between Frere-Jones’s proposal to abolish genres and the conception of the “postracial” occasioned by Obama’s election: if black people, through the presence of the half-black Obama, can take the White House, why shouldn’t white people possess black music in the spirit of the half-white Drake? But the hazy rhetoric (so reminiscent of the foggy synths) declaring a new age masks the persistence of old divisions. White Americans have insisted on the existence of race so long, so profitably, and with such madness that race exists; black Americans have invested too much care, intelligence, and beauty into hip-hop for the genre to be anyone’s but theirs. Over half a decade deep in the Obama/Drake Administration, all postracism seems to have amounted to, in life and music, is a polite euphemism for gentrification. If, on an evening walk through Bedford-Stuyvesant, you hear a car with open windows booming Drake, it’s hard to guess what sort of person is behind the wheel. But, sooner than later, it will be easy.
The true extent of this shift in social capital and popularity grew glaringly apparent during the recent public dispute between Drake and Meek Mill. A rapper from the Philadelphia ghetto, Meek (real name Robert Rihmeek Williams) built his reputation by releasing, between 2008 and 2012, seven free mixtapes, the last of which, Dreamchasers 2, is the most downloaded free mixtape ever. What was distinctive about him was not so much his content, which covered, with consistent competence and frequent excellence, the full spectrum of underclass hip-hop: the party anthem, the tale of a drug dealer’s destiny, the spirited displays of pride and violence, the protest against an evil justice system, the ode to wealth and luxury, the elegy. The novelty of his music came from his production (which maintained the thick bass typical of Southern rap while eliminating the brass, scaling back the hi-hats, and deploying siren sounds and menacing keyboard melodies) and even more from his distinctively loud, powerful delivery.
His relations with Drake were cordial: Drake had even deigned to supply a verse on “R.I.C.O.,” a track from Meek’s most recent album. What Drake had not supplied, as Meek discovered, were the words to the verse. They had been penned and scanned by Quentin Miller, an Atlanta rapper credited on several tracks from If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. Reference tracks existed where Miller’s voice recited rough versions of lyrics from the mixtape’s “10 Bands,” “Used To,” and “Know Yourself,” as well as “R.I.C.O.” — Miller was uncredited on this last track. Drake had used a ghostwriter to write lyrics for a feature on Meek’s album, and Meek was understandably displeased. He fired off a series of tweets exposing the fraud.
The rhetorical war between the Philly emcee and Toronto rapper that took place over the next two weeks is generally, and correctly, held to have ended in defeat for the former. Meek had a fighting chance. But for unknown, likely industry-related reasons, he held back after leveling his initial allegations, giving Drake and his managers time to organize a series of counterattacks whose intensity escalated. First Drake’s Instagram account liked a video of Meek’s recent cover issue of The Fader being covered up by a different artist’s issue. Soon after, 40 went on Twitter and did damage control as best he could. In lieu of addressing the “R.I.C.O.” issue at the core of the controversy, he offered up lavish, completely subjective praise for Drake (no one is as talented, no one is more personal, et cetera) and a flurry of deflective gambits (Drake has ghostwritten for others, Quentin Miller was credited on If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late). Next Drake released “Charged Up,” a dull, sullen diss track that Meek dismissed with a tweet: “I can tell he wrote that 1 tho . . . ” Then Drake released a second diss track, “Back to Back,” which was fast, concentrated, catchy, and stinging, with several bars devoted to mocking Meek for being less famous than his girlfriend, Nicki Minaj. Meek’s diss track, released one day after, might have been bruising, but it was definitely slow, unconcentrated, and uncatchy. He lost.
The following weekend, Drake threatened further escalation while headlining his OVO Fest in Toronto. He performed his two diss tracks and hinted at the existence of a third, all the while filling the onstage screen with anti-Meek internet memes his people had curated. A festival crowd numbering in the tens of thousands chanted “Fuck Meek Mill” until Drake quelled the chant. You can see it happen on YouTube from the perspective of the chant’s originators: it’s dark, but their voices, a mix of male and female, are recognizably white. 40, in his opening remarks for the defense, had tweeted that, “We go beyond the normal boundaries that rappers want to sleep [sic] themselves stuck in,” and it really does seem, in the video, that a boundary is being crossed for the first time: no artist, let alone a rapper, had ever turned rap music — an art form created and sustained largely by black men that, for all its excess, posturing, and exaggeration, tells truths about American society that no other sector of popular culture is able or willing to tell — into an open invitation for whites to, publicly and en masse, denigrate a black man for the crime of honesty.
Pettiness and wealth prevail on What a Time to Be Alive, the mixtape Drake and his current tourmate, the rapper Future (real name Nayvadius Wilburn), released for purchase this fall. With only three good songs out of eleven, the mixtape is basically discordant, and Drake’s failure to cohere with Future seems representative of his strained, unequal relation to black American rappers as a whole: by promising a cut of the profits that stem from his superior market share, Drake can purchase their proximity but not their loyalty or sympathy. “Them niggas ain’t dying for you,” runs the hook on “Exodus 23:1,” a snarling 2012 diss track by Virginia coke dealer/rapper Pusha T, and it was true. But that didn’t mean Drake couldn’t put them to work, whether to boost his street credibility, to sustain his reputation as an innovator, or to ghostwrite for him.
Future’s presence serves, or has served — the hook to “Started from the Bottom” was lifted from him — all these purposes. He has become the hottest (as opposed to the best, or best-selling) rapper of the year, in large part because his producers developed an addictive sound, combining vigorous 808 bass lines with melodies that would work on the sound track to a Japanese role-playing game for the first Sony PlayStation, and supplementing it with various strange noises, chief among them a siren that sounds like a peculiarly relaxed and ecstatic panic attack. Future tends to deliver his lyrics melodically, through an Auto-Tune filter that mirrors his altered consciousness. Alongside his voracious appetite for hard drugs, among them codeine- and promethazine-laced Sprite, he speaks/sings of sex (with multiple women), love (for his music, his friends, his fans, and one woman in particular), and hardship, whether mental or material. Wealth and violence are still factors, but not a priority. Future’s innovations, in short, carry him all the way back to the first black secular music: subtract the space-age instrumentals and references to Instagram and what remains is as much a blues singer as a rapper, trapped in obsessive orbit around the linked themes of heartbreak and substance abuse.
Although Drake and Future both blend singing with rapping, temperamentally they have little overlap. Drake elides the difference between cold and warm, while Future alternates between hot and cool. For the first three tracks of What a Time to Be Alive, the Canadian is in the passenger seat. Future, backed by his wunderkind producer Metro Boomin (real name Leland Wayne) on “Digital Dash,” the mixtape’s first track, opens with forty-eight brisk, confident bars that describe his former and present whereabouts and, to some degree, those of his black audience:
I just took me a trip out to Africa —
See how we came from the mud and the bottom, we did it.
I see how they counted us out but they never gon’ do it again;
You see why these niggas be hating, ignoring, I’m going right in;
I was born to get this money in this life of sin;
I pulled off before they got my dog on murder again.
See the fire come out the ass on the Lamborghini;
When you say you love a nigga do you really mean it?
When I was sleeping on the floor you should see how they treat me —
I pour the Actavis and pop pills so I can fight the demons.
But beginning with the fourth track, “Diamonds Dancing,” with its shared hook and the aural sinkhole of its second half, it becomes clear that Drake is maneuvering to take control. He isn’t comfortable shouting out the Atlanta ghettos, but the city’s strip clubs are another matter: there coolness counts for next to nothing. The only true factor is money, and he has more money. If he bases himself there and gets Future to indulge in more money talk, the advantage will inevitably swing in his favor. Once a trio of stripper anthems levels the playing field and Future grows dazed from an excess of stimuli, Drake can really make his move. The second excellent track is the seventh, “I’m the Plug”: shaped by Southside (real name Joshua Luellen), another one of Future’s key producers, the instrumental is typically somber and driven, but Future’s lyrics now tend toward the slow and surface-oriented. For the first time ever, his trademark siren comes off as a cry for help. Drake’s lines, on the other hand, are fast, ruthless, and compact. He condenses the entire history of his relationship with his female audience into a single line: I gave it to her, then I curved her. The next track, “Change Locations,” another slow stripper anthem, but one with an irresistible Drake hook, confirms that the former interloper now holds the balance of power. After a catchy but empty sneaker jingle, Future is so staggered that he can’t hold serve on his solo track. “You do what you want when you poppin’, ” he says, but he doesn’t say it with energy, nor does he sound like he knows what he wants anymore. It sounds like a resignation.
So, of course, despite contributing less than half the lyrics and not all that much of the production, Drake gets the last word. The final track is his alone, another long, rambling soliloquy over a 40 instrumental. The gentle piano and ambient synthesizers are old touches, but the digitally garbled backing vocals, denatured to the point of lapsing into mere sound — that was unfamiliar, at least to me, listening, adrift in a restless mental haze that the sound of the ex-vocals seemed to actively if subtly thicken, neither warm nor cool nor lukewarm nor not warm nor not cool nor not lukewarm. What did he mean, really? It was impossible to tell. The status-anxious anti sequiturs had gone viral, taken over the entire verse.
It felt as if his solipsism had evolved to the point where soliloquy becomes indistinguishable from addressing others. He sounded kind of cool, but also like an idiot. He was a charming, selfish, unrepentant, and above all unreliable character. Was he a black man with white social capital or a white guy with black cultural capital? I asked, but I didn’t know, and I was too far gone to care. Was rap music only pop music, or was it something more profound — a sublimation of black nationalism, the sole American poetry both alive today and deserving of the name of poetry, the native dialectic in its latest, clearest form? Paralyzed by the reflective sound, I waited for the strength to go to bed, held up like a puppet by the laptop’s tireless beams. Could it be that we were all Drake? A tenuous question. But what is “Drake,” if not a maintenance of tenuous relations? That was the mystery. Driving through the city in my parents’ car in 2011, listening to Drake, Thank Me Later sounded like the passing suburbs looked: spaced out, gently tense, colorful but not really, free of other writers. Maybe it’s best to be good at many things but great only at convincing people you’re great at everything. Being perfect is too stressful; the key is to be exactly as above average as the average person imagines themselves to be. Objectively, you would occupy the seventy-fourth percentile; subjectively, your valuation would be limitless, as infinite and static as the gaze into the mirror.