For Music Week, our own Jack Dickey will be defending his seemingly indefensible music tastes.
You could thank me now. Or you could wait until later. Your choice.
Either way, Drake's album, Take Care, drops October 24, and I fear it's going to be the best hip hop album of the year. Watch the Throne brought us beats years ahead of all others, but only to back empty encomia to Hublots and Maybachs. Tha Carter IV sold oodles, but it's well-worn Weezy, with Drake providing one of its best verses (on "It's Good").
There's more. From that throne, Kanye, in "Otis," addresses nameless younger rappers (read: Drake), saying he "adopted these niggas/Phillip Drummond ‘em/now I'm about to make them tuck they whole summer in."
Problem is, for Kanye, Drake didn't tuck anything in: He gave us three inescapable hits this summer, including one ("I'm On One") that takes shots at Jay and Kanye.
You may ask: How dare he? When I first heard that Jimmy from the Canadian high-school soap opera Degrassi: The Next Generation was rapping, I laughed. He wasn't the first cast member to try a recording career, but it wasn't a stretch to think he'd be the worst. Then, I heard him grow and reconsidered.
You have notions about him too. Perhaps you hate his voice. You scoff at his lack of street cred. You think his lyrics are boring.
Drake will flourish. He is not some fleeting apparition. He is real, and he's good. You might as well learn to love him, the way I have. Here's how.
Why Drake Is Great
He sings about real things—girls, mostly, but also about leaving home and finding your way. He's compelling when he talks about them. You can feel his pain, if you're willing. And you can picture the women he loves and the ones he left behind. And he sounds great when singing about them: Drake, unlike a lot of his high profile hip hop competitors, works almost exclusively with two producers, "40" and Boi-1da. They create jazzy, uptempo beats that fit his voice, making a tone that would otherwise sound gruff (if high-pitched) salve-like. His voice soothes, as far as sorrowful tones go. After "Marvin's Room," I feel bad for him. After "Headlines," I do want to know "where he leave it at."
The Background, and Drake's Lack of Street Cred
There are some facts about Drake that one cannot spin. Yes, he is from Canada. Yes, he is Jewish. Yes, his real name is Aubrey Graham, which makes him sound like a Maxim model. And yes, he rose to stardom on Degrassi: The Next Generation. This is all publicly available information, and one or another of these retorts will come quickly from the mouth of a Drake hater should Drake come up.
Do not fret, for this is the rebuttal of a fool. Drake did not grow up on the streets of the South Bronx, but he never claimed to. (Did you know Tupac went to the Baltimore School for the Arts?) Drake doesn't rap about his Tec on the dresser. Even if he did rhyme about crime, his fictions would not necessarily be less evocative than anyone else's truth. Inveterate yarn-spinner Rick Ross has had more critical success rapping about the dope game than 50 Cent.
Moreover, it says something nice about hip hop that a child star can grow into the genre. It speaks to a burgeoning maturity and professionalism within the business, and an absence of pretense, that a gifted performer in one arena can thrive in this one. And what's wrong with being Jewish or from Toronto? The Jews have had their fair share of persecution to rap about, and Toronto's strip clubs are the stuff of pro athlete legend (see here, here, and here, even). Drake knows plenty about the strip clubs, you'll learn if you listen, and they provide human drama on par with the birds and the keys.
Drake is melodramatic. This is unavoidable. The first album, Thank Me Later, was half bombast, half melodrama. Seemingly every recording we've heard since—"Marvin's Room," "Trust Issues," and "Club Paradise" especially—bleeds melodrama. people would have you think there's something wrong with this.
Do not fret, for this is the grousing of a fool. There is nothing wrong with melodrama, especially in service of creating actual drama. Sophocles was melodramatic. Shakespeare was melodramatic. A.J.'s beloved Pearl Jam is melodramatic! So what if Drake—keep in mind this is "Drake," the protagonist of Drake's songs, and not a real person—is in touch with his heart? You wish you were!
The Relatability of Drake's Problems
A lot of people think Drake whines about problems his listeners cannot understand, and, taken out of context, his lines give that impression. On "Marvin's Room," for example, he raps: "I've had sex four times this week I'll explain/having a hard time adjusting to fame." Oh, poor Drakey-Wakey, someone might reply. Yeah, the next guy will say, the rest of us should be so lucky! And then they'll high-five, trying not to spill on one another.
But Drake's problems are our problems, too. He has a drinking problem—sometimes it's syrup, and sometimes it's just booze. When he drinks too much, he gets mopey. (This sounds unusual to you?) He doesn't want to be around anyone except the people he knows from back home, and he doesn't want any of the girls except the ones he had, or almost had, back home. Sometimes he calls them when he's drunk.
Drake, despite his melodrama, doesn't make his girl problems into operas, like Kanye does in "Runaway," say. That makes Drake's seem more mundane, perhaps, but it fits with his mellow keyboard beats. Screaming wouldn't work here.
Drake, His City, and His Boys
Drake gets really effusive about Toronto and his friends there. This might rub you the wrong way, if you're used to the surly lone wolf. But his attitudes represent a new era of male relationships, one which LeBron's Decision showed us last summer. (Yes, they're friends.) LeBron appeared disloyal to his team, but the team that mattered to him wasn't the Cleveland Cavaliers—it was his childhood friends (Maverick Carter, et. al.) and his pro-basketball-playing friends (Dwyane Wade, mostly). The same's true for Drake. He cares about his crew from Toronto first, his record label second, and nothing else.
He's repeated a refrain in several of the songs he's released this summer. In "I'm On One" and "Trust Issues," he raps, "All I care about is money and the city that I'm from." In "Free Spirit," it's "And all I care about is my city, man, I can't say it enough." He loves Toronto, and he can't stop fretting about leaving it behind.
In "Club Paradise":
But I'm just trying to be surrounded by some real shit/Need credentials for every one of these Toronto kids/I promised they'd see it with me, we just trying to live/I told 'em we about to get it and we finally did.
Everyone leaves home and worries about how to deal with it. It's weirder for Drake, because the money enables him to bring parts of home along with him. The sacrifices get harder. And the listener feels for Drake, provided the listener isn't held back by rigid ideas of what sentiments one is allowed express in hip hop.
It buzzes, it hums. Maybe it's scratchy at times. There's not much heft behind it; perhaps it's deep as far as voices of 24-year-old Canadian Jews go. But as Drake's started rapping less and singing more, he's made his tepid instrument work for him. A rapper with more built-in bass or tics or flying spittle wouldn't maneuver so deftly through the breakneck, subtle beat on Headlines, for example. His voice reminds me of what eyewitnesses once said about Ted Bundy's appearance—Bundy was handsome enough that he didn't appear creepy, but not so handsome that people would remember what he looked like. Drake's talented enough to sing and rap well over these beats, but not so flashy that he gets lost in them.
Drake's Lack of Lyrical Cleverness
Well, OK. He can't win at everything.
Is this really a thing that needs addressing? Although he's not gay (and that hasn't stopped whispering), he doesn't wear the pants in his relationships. He makes effeminate hand gestures. How, again, might this make him an ineffective rapper about girl problems?
It seems that all of the debates over Drake boil down to some amorphous concept of "authenticity," a question that will surely undergo heavy exegesis in an upcoming collection of Chuck Klosterman essays. Drake—for some of the reasons chronicled above—doesn't feel like a rapper to some, as though there exists stuff beyond rapping that makes one a rapper, as though hip hop has adopted baseball's craving for "grit" and "hustle." If we like the music—and you should—there's no reason to worry about whether Drake is authentic, whatever that might mean.
It's Drake's unfortunate lot in his career that hip hop, his chosen genre, has certain long-held shibboleths about how to succeed in the business. You have to freestyle on Hot 97 or Power 105, because that's where your predecessors made it big and that's where your successors will make it big. But Drake's skills aren't like most other rappers'—he's not a very good rapper nor does he make beats—so he doesn't easily conform to the mold. At the same time, he's not audacious enough to say hip hop should do away with its mold. He still masquerades as Wayne's little brother, even though he's hungrier and more innovative now than Wayne has been in years.
For shame. On a track with Wayne, Drake rapped last year that he hoped we'd miss him a little when he's gone. You'd regret missing him now, while he's at the top of his game, over some silly concern. Yeah, you should thank me now.