Drake inhabits a world of sad-eyed stardom. The stock-in-trade of the Toronto native – born Aubrey Drake Graham – is a mixture of chest-thumping bravado and day-after regret. Over the past few years, he’s come to rest in the upper reaches of the North American urban pop market, where he straddles rap-tinged R&B and pop-sensible hip-hop. By playing off blogs and critical tastemakers that alternate between inflated hype and threadbare trends, he’s elevated his status from regional buzz to the global A-list.
The epicenter of Drake’s hype is a musical identity that is both clearly derived and far removed from mid-90s hip-hop and late-2000s Friday night club fare. On track, he’s referential, even deferential, to his forbears: his up-north roots are often blurred with a distinctly Southern intonation and ambiance on songs like 2009 mixtape track “HoustonLantaVegas.” Yet, at the same time, his sonic persona consciously breaks new ground; on 2011’s “Lord Knows,” he raps –
…take the greats from the past and compare us
I wonder if they’d ever survive in this era
In a time where it’s recreation
To pull all your skeletons out the closet like Halloween decorations
– and the point is well taken. The ascent of Drake is largely built on the recent swell of anti-machismo, where drunk confessions of heartache fit side-by-side with shockingly casual misogyny. It’s a post-genre mash-up that owes as much to Dashboard Confessional and early-2000s emo as it does late-90s Southern hood rap.
The myriad of influences on Drake’s music reflect a sense of culture-as-collage that’s evolved parallel to modern Western identity. In a 2007 interview with blog LateBoots, Drake’s creative director Oliver El-Khatib noted, “Toronto is a special place. We are not melting pot. We are a Mosaic.” Paying attention to Drake’s music – and the public persona that accompanies it – can provide us with insight into the jutting landscape within which he figures with such prominence.
Ethnicity and Post-authenticity
It’s not easy to talk about the shifting face of contemporary ethnicity – and especially Blackness – without making awkward disclaimers or referencing stereotypes that expired along with the Jheri curl (Protip: Observations that start with “I’m not racist, but…” are most likely racist). To say that Drake is a figure without precedent is overly simplistic; it gives no credit to the historical complexity of hip-hop’s self-image and glosses over the ways in which he doesn’t reject, but instead subverts, the thug image so often associated with rappers (and, by broadly and commonly drawn inference, urban Black men). Indeed, since the birth of hip-hop in the ‘70s, performers such as Afrika Bambaataa, De La Soul, Black Star, Kanye West, and Theophilus London have fostered a narrative of hip-hop as alternative to hypermasculinity. Yet, while Drake is far from the first figure to challenge “stereotypes of a black male misunderstood” (as Biggie rapped in ‘94), the testimony he bears is still mesmerizing.
Online and in barbershop talk, Drake is often ridiculed for wearing “Cosby sweaters.” Yet, he’s signed to a record label whose heads – Dwayne “Lil Wayne” Carter and Bryan “Stunna” Williams – publicly affiliate with the notorious Bloods gang. These tangent identities crash together in the video for his 2011 single “Headlines”: in it, the camera flickers between Drake, surrounded by a mob of unsmiling Black men wearing all-black clothing, and Drake, rapping at a table wearing a sweater that wouldn’t be out of place on Cliff Huxtable.
This combination doesn’t go together; but in Drake’s case, it fits. At least, he seems comfortable flitting between the narratives of upper-middle-class half-Jewish ex-child-star and Mafioso-inspired inner city boss. When he raps in “Headlines,” “You gonna hype me up and make me catch a body [note: slang for committing murder] like that,” do we believe him? I don’t, and I hope none of his listeners do. But we’re willing to let him say it. Why?
Rap has traditionally fetishized authenticity – “keeping it real.” But, as hip-hop culture has moved toward a comfortably mainstream center, what does it mean to be for an artist to be authentic? In 2008, rapper Rick Ross (a pseudonym taken from Los Angeles drug king “Freeway” Ricky Ross) was exposed by The Smoking Gun as an ex-prison guard, leading urban purists to predict the demise of his career. After all, his work compulsively focuses on a single narrative – selling drugs, and buying luxury goods with the profits – and this seemed to clash with the image of a correctional officer. But rather than turning their backs on him, Rick Ross’s audience instead shrugged – so what? – and continued to support his music to over a million record sales.
Like Ross, Drake lacks a traditional urban hardness. His on-camera poise and in-studio demeanor have a thoughtful hesitancy to them, born of careful media grooming. Raised in the affluent Forest Hill neighborhood of Toronto, his hometown inner circle includes Lebanese-Canadian production partner Noah “40” Shebib, also a former child actor, and Lebanese-Scandinavian creative director Oliver El-Khatib, a buyer for upper-tier Toronto streetwear stores. In ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and career trajectory, this group is a far cry from, say, the founders of mid-90s dynasty Roc-a-Fella Records: Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, Damon “Dame” Dash, and Kareem “Biggs” Burke, three young Black men with strong ties to the drug game, from bad neighborhoods of New York City.
As with Ross, it seems Drake’s audience couldn’t care less about his background; for them, the appeal lies in his style and relatability, qualities which Drake possesses in abundance. Unlike traditionalist rappers like Jay-Z, whose only melodic flourishes are courtesy of guest singers, Drake seems untroubled by fluid and fluent transitions, even mid-verse, between rap and smoothly crooned R&B. It’s a hybrid with precedent – Andre 3000 and Kanye West among them – but Drake pulls it off with particular ease. All of this – the upper-middle-class upbringing, the pop stylings, the retired-dentist sweaters – earn him derision from some critics, who label him “soft.” And yet, his broad fanbase (Take Care has moved over 1.5 million units) accepts it without question.
This suggests that mainstream-accepted hip-hop – and, by extension, popular perception of Black masculinity – is broadening its scope, though still rooted in the tropes and stereotypes of past generations. After all, if Drake were, say, Asian – or fully Jewish, rather than half – would he still command the same broad appeal that he does? Unlikely. But his popularity bears witness that a model of urban hypermasculinity prominent in the ‘80s and ‘90s has mixed with more traditionally suburban sensitivities; not only coexisting, but intermingling on a fine-grained level.
Objectification and Apology
In a promotional interview with Complex magazine for his 2009 mixtape So Far Gone, Drake mentions the conversation that birthed its title:
“One night [Oliver and I] were having a discussion about women and they way we were talking about them, it was so brazen and so disrespectful. He texted me right after we got off the phone and he was like, ‘Are we becoming the men that our mothers divorced?’”
In his music, Drake is a playboy with a conscience, offering a front of misogyny while seeming to lack the heart for it. This used to deeply confuse me: Drake has a reputation for making music that resonates with female sensitivities, yet he sings choruses like “telling every girl she’s the one for me / and I ain’t even planning to call / I want this sh*t forever, man.”
The more that I’ve familiarized myself with his oeuvre, though, the more I think I understand: Drake appeals to women, not because he doesn’t objectify them, but because he does so well, with a pickup-line wink. The highlight of Take Care is “Marvin’s Room,” a song styled as a drunken late-night call to an ex. It’s gentle and slow, more pop than rap, and it exemplifies this persona in lines like “I’ve had sex four times this week, I’ll explain / I’m having a hard time adjusting to fame.” He’s contrite, but not repentant: he explains his behavior, knowing he shouldn’t be living this way – but while he flirts with it, he never quite commits to changing his ways. It’s textbook-perfect pickup artist material: the bad boy with a heart of gold and iPhone-wallpaper-ready smile.
But it would be a mistake to write Drake off as simply a player; there are many moments of true vulnerability towards women in his music. On “Shot For Me”, a song speaking to his exes (of which there are many – both songs and exes), when he sing-raps “You and the music were the only things that I commit to… / But you believe in everything but me, girl, I don’t get you,” he sounds genuinely upset. And the chorus of “Marvin’s Room” – “F**k that n**** that you love so bad / I know you still think about the times we had” – speaks deeply to the heart of anyone who’s been through a hurtful one-sided breakup.
In sexuality, as with ethnicity, Drake represents a postmodern willingness to accept an identity that lies at odds with itself. He wraps casually offensive boasts – “she know even if I’m f**kin with her / I don’t really need her” – in a soft-spoken meet-the-parents voice, leaving Drake’s “real” message is vague: is he actually a misogynist? Or just playing one in his music? He tantalizes listeners with the possibility of redemption. It’s because I’ve been hurt by other girls, he seems to be hinting, But maybe you’re the one that can help me find love.
But would Drake settle down? The question remains unanswered (my vote: unlikely.), but what we do see is a public willingness to accept and even welcome the man whom these open questions concern.
So. What do we learn from Drake?
Setting out, I said that listening to Drake can provide insight into the soul of a postmodern world. In this culture, expectations often conflict with one another; in the “mosaic” of modern urban diversity, traditional stereotypes – both internally derived and externally imposed – break down. Is Drake an upper middle class suburban entertainment professional? Or is he a rapper – with all the stigmas and stereotypes that go along with it? In a modernist world, we would demand that he choose; but in a postmodern world, we can embrace the decider without rushing to the choice.
In this world, we not only accept our stars’ contradictions, but expect them. Drake isn’t conventionally macho, but his lack of street credibility is given a pass because he rarely brings it up or seems concerned about it – “catch a body” moments aside. When Chicago rap veteran Common started a bizarrely unprovoked feud with Drake last month, calling the Toronto rapper “sweet” (slang for a non-threatening beta male), Drake simply responded by calling the beef “a ploy for attention,” shutting Common down without deigning to respond to his core argument.
It worked, because Common’s beef was premised on an archaic one-dimensional value system, where toughness matters and being soft, sweet, or emotional is the cardinal sin. But in Drake’s world – in our world – the latter traits are virtues, not vices. We want to know that our stars are just like ourselves, that they’re (mis)handling fame just like we would. And if we see hints of that shared humanity, we can forgive confused messages or privileged backgrounds. After all, the more they are like us, the more real our own fantasies of stardom seem.
This willingness to accept contradiction (paradox or mystery, one might even call it) is a distinctive of postmoderns, and it bears both blessing and burden. Contradiction goes hand-in-hand with diversity; and it should be an uncontested point that a unified, but not homogenized, diversity is desirable. Yet, a too-willing embrace of contradiction can reflect a lowering of standards, an expectation of failure or lack of integrity.
It’s fact that our generation is willing to accept contradictions. The question is, what kinds of contradiction should we allow?
I discussed two complexities of Drake’s public persona: his chimeric ethnic and social identity, and his alternating misogyny/vulnerability. Both bear inherent contradictions; but the former is a pairing of value-equal identities, whereas the latter combines a positive identity with a negative.
The acceptance of Drake’s hybrid beta male/hypermasculine social identity is to be viewed as a positive: he fosters a public understanding of sensitive masculinity or refined urbanism. This identity may run the risk of schizophrenia; but, if handled responsibly, contributes to the emerging understanding of what ethnicity and masculinity look like in the globalized 21st century. In this spectrum, Drake’s duality – suburban restraint twinned with urban edginess – both bear something worth taking up. This is the best side of the postmodern willingness: drawing together valuable perspectives previously thought incompatible.
The duality he presents in gender relations is more troubling. In that case, vulnerability (a positive trait, though not so in excess) is paired with misogyny, a highly objectionable stance. What I found in listening to Drake is that I – and, I suspect, much of his audience – tend to let the former positive trait compensate for the latter. Charmed by his general demeanor, we let some of his sayings by; we treat him like that old friend who’s also a closeted racist. In this case, the willingness to accept becomes an unwillingness to judge or hold accountable.
Drake speaks to a postmodern generation burnt out on hedonism and moralism and comfortable with conflicting identities. Jaded by the failures of our celebrities and saints, we are slow to embrace uncomplicated leaders; slow, I suspect, because we’re half-convinced that such leaders can’t exist anymore.
By contouring his image to our cantilevered selves, Drake appeals to our expectations of a public figure: when we want to be naughty, he enables us. And when we’re tired – or scared – of breaking the rules, he soothes us. When it’s time to cut loose, he presents a lifestyle of largesse: $50,000 vacations, “smoking weed under star projectors,” ordering hits on rivals (whether personal or professional, the distinction is tellingly unclear). And when that excess begins to ache, he designated-drives us back home, reassuring “I’m so prooouuud of youuu” (“Make Me Proud”).
This duality is natural: humans are multifaceted, and society needs artists who reflect that tension. But in another sense, this is grace that comes too cheap: Stuart Smalley naïveté that insists that we’re OK just as we are. We’ve grown so used to gaffes that we’ve begun expecting them, pre-loading forgiveness for apologies that may never be uttered. Half-convinced that paragons can’t exist anymore, we stopped looking for them; but maybe their cultural absence is more evidence of our abandoned search than their actual lack.
For those hoping to impact a postmodern West, Drake is an instructive example; this culture doesn’t seek perfection or even resolution. We just want someone who can be with us where we are.