I can’t decide if I hate Drake or not. But Zach Baron at the Village Voice has decided that I probably do, and that I’m wrong about it.
Drake pushes the unconsciously rockist button inside critics–the one that puts an emphasis on authenticity, struggle, and unpolished talent. As Weiner quotes Jay-Z as saying about Kanye: “We all grew up street guys who had to do whatever we had to do to get by. Then there’s Kanye, who to my knowledge has never hustled a day in his life. I didn’t see how it could work.” Neither do a lot of rap fans, who hear a lot of ungrateful talk about the good life and are appalled that someone so lucky could be so ungracious about the whole thing.
Plus Drake’s signature style–he’s a better singer than a rapper, probably, and he does the former as much or more as the latter–signals an old-fashioned showman’s ability (the fact that he was a successful teenage actor doesn’t help with this impression) that jibes real badly with rap values that privilege the raw, the untrained, and the spontaneous (see also: the hue and cry that arose after Drake “freestyled” a verse he cribbed off of his Blackberry). Thus the Clipse can rap with the same singleminded fixation about selling coke that Drake applies to the vagaries of fame, and be lauded by the same audience that criticizes Drake for having only one subject.
Baron is wrong, for one critical reason. I’d say that easily the majority of Drake’s music is about how much being famous sucks. Or how being famous changes his relationships, or him. Or just about being famous and the weird things that happen that he doesn’t know how to handle. And the very reason we know what he thinks, in depth, about fame is because he keeps making songs about it that make him more famous.
Hip hop has become increasingly more meta in the past decade – it’s rare that you pick up an album any more that doesn’t contain at least a dozen references to how much the album’s going to sell, or all the things the artist can afford because they released the album. It’s a frustratingly vapid form of expression, like reading a quarterly report about how fucking awesome your quarterly reports are. Drake has tipped the balance in a lot of ways, choosing from his inception to make a mixtape about how nobody believed that he could make music, a bunch of singles about how great his mixtape was and how weird it was to be famous off of his mixtape, and finally, an album about how all of that made him so famous that it’s no longer really desirable. It’s a short and clear causal chain that makes you realize he wouldn’t have to make whiny music about how hard his life is if he just stopped making whiny music about how hard his life is.
There’s also the simple problem that, as evidence by the above video, Drake’s just…not that good. The fascinating thing about his rise to fame is that every person he surrounds himself with, from the Young Money collaborative to his various guest artists, is more talented and more inventive than he is. Drake’s staccato, sometimes near-monotone raps combined with his soft, breathy singing don’t exactly set the world on fire; his major innovation is the non-simile simile punchline rap (described at We Eat So Many Shrimp). An example:
Makin’ sure the Young Money ship is never sinkin’
‘Bout to set it off, set it off, Jada Pinkett
You see, Jada Pinkett was in the movie Set it Off. So by referencing her, you understand that he’s referencing both the movie and his activity as a rapper. And by removing the word “like”, he saved literally a syllable that can be used in later lyrics.
You too fine to be layin’ down in bed alone
I could teach you how to speak my language, Rosetta Stone
No, you aren’t a Rosetta Stone, he’ll teach you how to speak like he’s using Rosetta Stone! I know, I know.
At the end of the day, what Drake does is take what’s wrong with hip-hop, distill it down to an often-bland style over acceptable to good beats, and leave the listener with the question of why he does something that so often seems to be a terribly painful struggle for him. Unlike the Clipse, who have a similar single-minded topicality, Drake doesn’t seem to be working toward anything (at the very least, your average hustler artist has a narrative arc that’s clear, if trite: I sold drugs, I found music, now I make music about selling drugs, ha ha motherfuckers); he’s achieved what he set out to achieve, and now just needs to constantly vent about it in order to maintain whatever precarious status quo of fortune and fame he finds himself in.
The compelling part about the marked mediocrity of a man who has a lot of money and sex is the ballsy hypocrisy of his making money off of bitching about it ad nauseum, but eventually, that will disappear, Houdini. And then he’ll be left with a lot of shitty albums and people’s vague memory of his former fame, 311.