A chronic tension exists between fame and art.
Fame is sometimes the reward of a supremely gifted artist, but at what point does that fame begin to lure the artist away from the essence of what they originally created, resulting in watered down productions created for the accumulation of wealth, rather than carefully curated master pieces?
To understand what befell Drake, someone who was once rap’s most promising young star, it might benefit fans to look to another rap megastar; Jay-Z.
On a 2006 track entitled Lost One, HOV rapped, “….Fame is the worst drug know to man / It’s stronger than heroin / When you could look in the mirror, like, “There I am” And still not see what you’ve become… You lost one”
Drake has been in the limelight longer than most musicians of our era. His introduction came in 2009, when he gave us “Forever”, on which he joined forces with icons Lil Wayne, Kanye West, and Eminem.
He was a young superstar exploding onto the world stage, and the world would have to take note.
Forever, peaked at №42on the charts and spent fifteen weeks there. It was his first song to chart. This was the same time that the Black Eyed Peas were enchanting audiences with their stereo bubble gum “I Gotta Feeling”.
The turn of the decade saw him receiving the torch. The following year, he released Over, Find Your Love, Right Above It, and What’s My Name, all of which which peaked within the top 50.
Without a doubt, Drake’s music was the work of a talented team. Producer Noah Shebib would produce icy, melodic and enchanting tracks that unlocked the sonic richness in Drake’s voice. Boi-1da would create beats that were infectiously rhythmic. This gave way to the masterpiece that would become Drake’s second full length album, Take Care.
Within a decade, Drake broke two of pop music’s biggest records. Today, he claims the title for most hits among a solo artist, and most hits simultaneously on the charts. However, when we observe how this happened, the feat becomes a bit less impressive, and seems to be the work of a marketing behemoth.
SO FAR GONE, THANK ME LATER & TAKE CARE
Comparing Drake’s work from the beginning of his career up until now is a study in contrasts.
On his early EP’s, he was undoubtedly in his rawest form.
Songs like The Calm (So Far Gone), November 18th (So Far Gone), The Resistance (Thank Me Later) and Find Your Love (Thank Me Later) were an introduction to raw emotion in rap in a way that had not been explored in depth prior.
When I first started listening to Drake, I was amazed at how honest he was in his work.
Though these early ouevres were a glimpse into his talent as an artist, Take Care cemented him as a serious contender.
On the opening track of Take Care, he sings about his new found fame and balancing that with the malice he received from others. “Are these people really discussing my career again? / Asking if I’ll be going platinum in a year again?” He wondered out loud.
On “Headlines”, he boasted about expensive dinners and the new found confidence which made him invincible. I had someone tell me I fell off, ooh, I needed that / And they want to see me pick back up, well, where’d I leave it at?.
However, what was really amazing was his ability to be almost hyper emotional in his music. Never before had a rapper been so candid about the romantic aspect of his life. The last track of the album entitled “Hate Sleeping Alone” reads like a late night text message to an ex lover. “Hotel to hotel, girl — I could use your company” Moments like these, drenched in what was almost despair were bountiful on this album. See Practice, Doing it Wrong, or even Look What You’ve Done, in which he samples a voice message from his now deceased grandmother.
All of this orbited around the plot of his budding romance with another up and coming mega star, Rihanna. On the centerpiece song of the album “Take Care”, he declared his love by singing “They told me things, but my mind didn’t change”.
Though the music was different, it was good. The fearlessness of such vulnerability was what drew people to his early music. Take Care spent 276 weeks on the chart. There were no phony Jamaican accents, inauthentic references to London slang, or mega marketing maneuvers to expand an audience base. The writing was honest.
It was refreshing to see such candid self documentation. Pitchfork magazine gave the album an 8.6, and claimed it was some of the best new music of the year. Toronto’s golden child drew comparisons to Marvin Gaye’s, Motown’s hyper-sexual, sensual, sensitive serenader.
The difference was this one could rap and sing.
CRACKS IN THE ARMOR
Take care was followed by Nothing Was the Same, and shortly thereafter by “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late”, a surprise album.
However, the once wide eyes MC was now a jaded star, flaunting his frustration with fame. Nothing Was the Same was the beginning of what was seemingly a cliched recipe. Rolling Stones’s Simon Vozick-Levinson was less than kind, arguing that “After a while, his confessions start to sound like sneaky boasts about all the beautiful hearts he’s broken.”
The sad boy narrative was beginning to seem a bit formulaic and trite.
Soon, however, greater problems started to arise, hinting that Drake’s focus was more on producing hits rather than rap as a form of art.
IYRTITL came out in February of 2015, but not long after its release, Drake was embroiled in a scandal that has plagued his career since. With one tweet, Meek Mill set off a fire storm and introduced the world to Quentin Miller, Drake’s alleged ghostwriter.
“Reference tracks”, which Miller recorded for Drake, who then spun them into songs for his own album, began to pop up around the web.
Notably, for two of his hits at the time 10 Band, and Drake’s verse on Meek Mill’s “Rico”.
Along the rap airwaves, there were whispers of allegations that hip hop’s biggest star didn’t even write his own music.
He was no longer a rapper in the eyes of many, but a pop star disguised as a rapper. A wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Rap heavy weights began to weigh in. On Frank Ocean’s track “Solo”, from Blonde, Andre 3000 rapped “After 20 years in, I’m so naïve / I was under the impression / That everyone wrote they own verses”.
Kendrick Lamar weighed in as well on King Kunta, rapping “I can dig rappin’, but a rapper with a ghost writer? / What the fuck happened? (Oh no!)”.
These allegations have plagued Drake since, and though they weren’t his achilles heel, they highlighted the other issues in his music.
Drake’s 2016 album “Views” was packed with hits, but they all hinged on his new infatuation with Carribean dance hall music. Never before had Drake relied on or even seemed interested in Dance Hall, but now it was the back bone of each and every single.
Drake began to be equated with the term “culture vulture”, meaning he would hop on trends when he knew they were hot, ultimately using their popularity to increase his own levels of fame. If dance hall is globally popular, why not dance hall tracks?
FLIGHT OF THE CULTURE VULTURE
Though the first and most notable instance of Drake’s infatuation with riding popular cultural trends to fame was on his album Views, other instances highlighted the issue.
Aside from the Quentin Miller ghost writing references and the dance hall thievery, there was the casual repurposing of rap flows that were not his own.
Two instances (among several) stick out.
The first occurred in 2015 when Drake was accused by the rap trio Migos of stealing their signature, staccato flow. In an interview with Billboard, Take Off stated, “Drizzy? Drizzy bit the flow.”
Quavo was less diplomatic. “C’mon, Drizzy know he bit the flow! Drizzy got on ‘Versace,’ right? Then when I came on there I did ‘Versace/ Versace/ Medusa head on me like I’m illuminati.’ My boy Drizzy Drake got them bars from me.”
The second instance occurred in February of 2016, when Drake released Hotline Bling. Immediately following the release, people drew similarities between Dram’s song “I like to Cha Cha”. In an interview with Billboard, Dram said “I feel like my record got jacked… And it’s not just me. People been comparing ‘Cha Cha’ and ‘Hotline Bling’ since it came out.” Similarities between the two songs are undeniable; Drake extracted Hotline Bling from I Like To Cha Cha. However, the instance highlighted Drake’s bizarre star power. Drake has a rare ability to take an idea, insert some absurdity, and make it take off. In this instance, it was a nice beat, his dad like dance moves inserted into a music video, and catchy lyrics. Drake’s packaging of music for the masses was beating out smaller artists.
In 2016, The Fader reported on growing sentiments that Drake was no longer a rapper, but the head of a “hit factory” that produced tracks solely so that he could dominate the charts. According to Craig Jenkins, “Drake’s evergreen hunt for new talent is more about self-preservation than the elevation of his art form.”
Other players in the rap game were beginning to catch wind of Drake’s strategy. In an interview, The Weeknd admitted that while he was making “Take Care” with Drake, “I gave up almost half my album,”. The issue was deep enough that the fellow Canadian didn’t even sign with Drake’s record company, opting instead to sign with Universal Republic.
Evidently, this is a sentiment that has followed Drake like a shadow. In 2018, up and coming UK grime artist Octavian was lucky enough to have his song featured in a video of Drake dancing at the club. The young R&B singer’s popularity sky rocketed. The superstar MC was signaling that he was interested in working with Octavian. However, when asked about the moment in an interview with Pitchfork, Octavian said “It proves that it’s all possible…. But I don’t want anything more from him.”
The casualties of Drake’s obsession with hot topics in music are far flung. Tory Lanez, Makonnen, DVSN and Roy Woods to name a few. They all were enticed by Drake, having been spotted by him when they were getting big, only to be tossed aside after making a track or two. Within the hip hop community, resentment towards Drake began to grow from a simmer into a slow boil. On the final track of Drake’s 2017 album “More Life”, he hinted at the tension between him and Toronto MC Tory Lanez, rapping “You overnight celebrity, you one day star /Swear I Told You that I’m in this bitch for eternity /I am a reflection of all of your insecurities”
Drake’s culture vulterism wasn’t confined to the United States. On Drake’s album “More Life”, he featured two of UK Grime’s biggest acts, Skepta and Giggs, seemingly looking for ways to establish greater global appeal.
The move was more than just taste making. It was a form of diplomacy, albeit a form that came off in a bit of a slimy manner to the seasoned listener.
The mental dialogue of fans signaled confusion. Even I asked myself , “On Views, you packed the music with Dancehall. Now, you’ve moved on to Grime. Who even are you?!”
THE CURSE OF THE NOSTALGIC
Today, stars are bigger than ever before. The reach they have is unrivaled, and so are the potential rewards. However, fly too close to the sun, and your wings will burn.
Drake is possibly the first example of someone who might have been famous for way too long, and is now just putting out products, rather than art, seeing how high and far he can ride his supernatural wave of stardom.
And, this hasn’t been without sacrifice. His work is now watered down, created for streaming numbers, rather than fans who would sit down and digest each and every sixteen bar verse.
On his blog, DJ Booth, Yoh Phillips wrote that fans were “desperate to see Aubrey drop the accent, cease the day-drinking anthems, and return to the mood music that struck a chord.”
A track that demonstrated Drake’s new focus on money making hits was his single “Signs”, which was a collaboration with Louis Vuitton. On the dry attempt at a soulful reggae ballad, he sings “Champagne with breakfast while I’m yawning /You can’t drink all day if you don’t start in the morning”
How far Drake was from his original form became apparent when he took a picture of himself at Joso’s, one of his favorite restaurants in Toronto. This also happened to be where he shot the album cover for Take Care. As soon as the photo hit the web, fans were buzzing, imagining how monumental a second “Take Care” would be. Afterall, it was the album that propelled him to stardom.
The question of just how much Drake would do for fame came into question when Pusha T masterfully bated him into one of rap’s most exciting feuds in recent memory.
On his album “Daytona”, the Bronx born rapper sent shots at Drake, arguing that the fact that he was rap’s biggest star was identical to Trump winning.
Someone else was behind the success.
Quentin Miller, the alleged ghost writer from three years prior was proof that Drake was nothing more than a sponge for other’s talent and hard work.
Drake immediately shot back with “Duppy Freestyle”. “I had a microphone of yours, but then the signature faded / I think that pretty much resembles what’s been happenin’ lately”
Drake’s defense was essentially him saying “I’m more famous than you”.
He followed by releasing “I’m Upset”, quickly trying to invalidate the “beef” as nothing more than a fallen rapper’s search for redemption. The New Yorker’s Doreen St. Felix wrote that in I’m Upset, Drake was “barely rapping”, and that the song was supposed to be more of a “flex” signaling that he was no longer producing music, but products which defended his image.
Pusha T validated all of the doubt about the true source of Drake’s stardom when he dropped the atomic bomb that was “The Story of Adidon”. The cover was a picture of Drake in blackface, arms outstretched, and mouth stretched into a wide grin.
Pusha’s message was clear. “The MC isn’t even black. He’s not a rapper; he’s a pop star who doesn’t even write his own music. AND, he’s hiding a baby!”
The real sting in Pusha’s diss track was that he was insinuating Drake an Uncle Tom, one of the worst insults one black man could level against another.
Drake’s response was clumsy and poorly handled. He never responded to the diss track, ripping a page from the playbook of famous politicians. Ignore the scandal, and people will just forget. What was supposed to be one of the best rap battles ever quickly de-escalated into a PR crisis, in which Drake tried to salvage what he could.
His transformation from rapper to pop star was complete.
STARS BURN OUT
Whenever I think of Drake and the arch of his career, I ask myself the same question. Can some people be famous for too long?
Drake is a cautionary tale. Today, there are infinite possibilities and opportunities to cater to a fan base. Streaming music is a gold mine which seemingly never runs dry. However, in Drake’s case, mining this abundant resource lead him to create watered down products that the world essentially got tired of. The fact of the matter is that Drake’s recent music is just not as good as his older hits. Die hard fans believe that Take Care was his best album. But, the allure of making hits has lured him away from making the music that made him special in the first place.
This year, one of Drake’s greatest contemporaries, Kendrick Lamar, won a pulitzer prize for his music, ending the debate of who was the “greatest” rapper, and showing how far you can go if you stay true to a single message rather than profiting off of empty words.
It’s no secret that Drake has been hard at work on Scorpions, what he’s hinted is his final studio album. Will it be an album that seeks to return to the raw honesty that we grew to love, or the empty hits that replaced it? I’m looking forward to finding out.