The picture of Drake above is our contemporary existence captured in a single image. Note the perfectly off-kilter snapback hat, the obscure hand gesturing in a middle finger to society/haters/everyone doubling as a mysterious gang sign, his blue Solo cup containing codeine or booze or both and the camouflage sweater recalling the endless Canadian forest juxtaposed against a crude cut-out of Cash Money artists Birdman and the Hot Boy$. Drake is the idea of Drake, a postmodern pop culture icon at once hyper-aware and completely delusional. His props are the most important signification of Drakedom. He is both a product of the culture and an important barometer that gives some indication of where our generation is going. Here are some thoughts on his new album, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late.
First, some notes on the album title, of which immediacy and realness is its chiefest concern. As you’re reading this, Drake is, much to all of our amazement, Drake. He of the Dom Perignon-splashed paradise lifestyle. The best you can hope for is to live vicariously through his new album, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. It’s too damn late for much else. I’ve always been a fan of hip-hop, even finding myself concerned with it’s “realness” in middle school, when conscious rappers where much more prescient. Since the early 2000’s, I’ve listened to a lot of rap, sometimes guiltily, sometimes like a badge. I can recite “Gimme the Loot”, “California Love”, and “C.R.E.A.M.” verbatim, much to the dismay of everyone- but come on. Inspectah Deck’s bars in C.R.E.A.M.? “We got stickup kids, corrupt cops, and crack rocks and/Stray shots, all on the block that stays hot”. It’s a perfect song. I’m such a cool hip-hop head!
It’s been hard to rationalize my love for hip-hop against a super white, upper-middle class suburban upbringing. A solid education and very linear path to college were essential truths for nearly everyone I grew up with. The cops in my town were either breaking up overcrowded and sloppy-drunk house parties or making sure that no one was smoking weed in a facsimile of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond. Concord, Massachusetts is the polar opposite of the inner city. I mention this only because it all comes back to Drake. It always comes back to Drake. He’s the first mainstream “gangsta” rapper that can’t legitimately claim any real hardship growing up. His is another suburban bildungsroman, smoking weed and bugging out to rap videos on TV. His music is liberated hip-hop, free from the confines of gangsta rap and/or the Golden Era. Unfortunately, his art is still confined by a matrix of commercialism.
Drake’s album begins with “Legend”, where he declares that when he dies, he’ll be remembered forever, because he’s a motherfucking legend. We’ll see. Hip-hop is still a relatively new genre of music, so most of its originators are still alive. It’s a fickle culture, too, obsessed as it is with shiny newness. Drake is enjoying unprecedented fame and wealth in 2015, where he has “shit mapped out strong”, but in the rapid culture that he so willfully embodies, our attention spans are basically nil. The key element to his public persona is a sense that we all are able to partake in his debauchery and epicurean pleasure-seeking, but at the same time we are complicit in the creation of the Legend of Drake. One of the great, cathartic aspects of hip-hop is that it just throws the rapper’s ego up on the side of a skyscraper- he straight up says that he’s a legend. He needs us though.
Acting out the Legend of Drake is no easy task either. On the lead single “Energy”, he takes on an accusatory disposition- everyone else is just sapping him of his energy: “I got enemies, got a lot of enemies/gotta lotta people tryna drain me of my energy”. I get a sense that Drake is becoming somewhat exhausted with the business of being Drake. The song marks a particularly negative alienation and paranoia that I can’t recall in any of his previous songs. Hip-hop has always embodied an intense alienation, but here, it’s a fatigue due to the constant onslaught of women and haters, and he takes a more aggressive tone, threatening, “I’ve got real ones living past Kennedy Rd./I got real ones with me everywhere that I go”. During an interview with Joni Gnomeshi, he explained his aggressive lyrics “kind of come with the territory”, so as to say, the mainstream rap genre has distinct codes (violence) that he is obligated to embody. Still, the song remains firmly coded in the context of his oeuvre. His aggression is an intentional departure from his “nice guy” image, though just so. He retains his lyrical clarity throughout.
Adam Krims, a noted music theorist described rap lyrics to require a “symbolic collapsing” of the artist onto the performer- i.e., Drake’s lyrics are, within the context of rap, taken to be true. Krims evokes Phillipe Lejeune’s “autobiographical pact” in his analysis of rap lyrics as the poetics of identification, stating that we interpret the work in a completely different way when listening to lyrics if we believe them to be autobiographical. That autobiographical pact has remained one of the single most important elements of rap, and particularly gangster rap, of which Drake has always straddled the line. If you don’t buy what a rapper is saying, that rapper is fucking wack. Hip-hop is a genre that gains its strength from authenticity. It’s also the most important element of Drake’s appeal. That’s why his self-representation on IYRTITL is a really important indicator not just of rap, but of contemporary ideas of the good life, success and authenticity.
Self-identity and authenticity are major themes on track 4, “Know Yourself”. Drake seeks to establish “realness” by injecting obscure references and codes. Even for the experienced rap listener, it can be virtually impossible to make out exactly what he’s saying, but that’s kind of the point. He borrows the slang of other street rappers and Jamaican patois to construct an authentic persona. He begins the song with a string of code-names- “that Oliver, 40, Niko shit man, 15 Fort York shit ya know Boi-1da, what’s poppin’?” and continues that in the main chorus, where he’s “riding through the 6 with my woes”. In appropriating cultural signifiers, he’s once again asserting his hip-hop authenticity. That the song is called “Know Yourself” is a curious irony. It’s posturing, but like most music Drake makes, it sounds cool.
“Yeah, I stay up late at night, thinkin’ ’bout my life
Want a lot, will I get it all? Ain’t no tellin’.”
I have a hard time believing that Drake receives his checks in the mail, as he claims on “No Tellin'”. He’s all but rapped his Hidden Hills street address in other songs, so I can’t imagine he’d be receiving seven and eight-figure checks by snail mail- he’s probably on that direct deposit tip. Drake seems to gain a sense of himself, and plays with the autobiographical nature of rap lyricism, through the mention of seemingly mundane details into what are otherwise contextual raps. On “No Tellin'”, he raps about eating Alfredo pasta in the kitchen, which, regardless of context, is an image that’s not usually associated with a global hip-hop star. It matches another line of his, from a guest spot on Rick Ross’s “Stay Schemin'”: “Spaghetti bolognese in the Polo Lounge/me and my G from DC that’s how we roll around”. Of course, in both instances, his eating pasta is a display of wealth and luxury, but even the mentioning of food brings Drake down to a more human level.
Where his pasta references resonate, Drake’s treatment of women is a cloying kind of objectification. While not as graphic as Lil Wayne’s bars, Drake’s lyrics- “I saw potential in you from the go, you know that I did/I don’t know if you know, but I know who you are”- place him firmly in the realm of misogynistic rappers. In their paper “Woman of Color in Hip-Hop: The Pornographic Gaze”, Margaret Hunter and Kathleen Soto write that there are two categories of women depicted in hip-hop- the “video hoe” and the “loyal girlfriend” (i.e. the “ride or die”). They connect the proliferation and popularity of porn to increasingly misogynistic and pornographic hip-hop lyrics- a interrelationship that Drake’s lyrics and music videos are definitely indicative of. Considering that the Alfredo pasta in “No Tellin'” is eaten at V-Live, a popular strip club in Houston, it’s pretty clear that Drake isn’t moving the dial forward at all on this album in regards to his treatment and depiction of women. He’s always struggled to consolidate his “nice guy” image with a persistent misogyny. In an interview with Katie Couric, who presses him about it, he tells her candidly, “sometimes you just gotta chalk it up to hip-hop”. He doesn’t own his words but instead blames his misogyny on the essential culture codes of rap. It’s a cop out.
The significance of Toronto in Drake’s life is essential to the album, and remains a central element in rap music in general. For IYRTITL, he’s adopted a new moniker, 6 God, in reference to Toronto and his god-like status within the city. On several tracks- “6 God”, “6 Man”, “You & the 6”- he juggles fame and wealth with his personal desire to stay true to his roots and rep the 6. Like a handful of tracks on Nothing Was the Same, he emphasizes that fame hasn’t changed him, but it’s changed the way people treat him. Fame is pretty complicated terrain to navigate, especially in the context of rap music, and Drake has openly grappled with its trappings, rather unsuccessfully. His subject “I” becomes conflated, both the Drake of humble origins and niceness and the rich Drake clutching bands and spending $100,000 in one night at the strip club.
“Preach” is primarily concerned with Drake’s fast-paced and consumptive lifestyle. He’s always been emblematic of a gross conspicuous consumption that has been a blight on rap, but his is a newer, sharper form. “Glo’d up off a gate way, man, you can’t afford me”. The freedom that immense wealth offers is, for many twentysomethings, the goal. The best symbol for it is the private jet. It’s a common theme cropping up in mainstream, luxury hip-hop. My favorite lines about the enviable wealth of rappers come from Jay-Z and Kanye on “Otis”: “Can’t you see we getting money up under you/Can’t you see the private jets flying over you?” There’s a new sense that these rapper-kings are winning and untouchable, having tapped into a career above wage labor- as Krims puts it, “like professional sports, a way to preserve individual integrity while still making money through legal means”. Drake is no office worker, strumming on a computer keyboard in a cubicle. He is a business in himself, flying high above. Preach.
On “Used To”, he raps, “Only see the truth when I’m staring in the mirror/Lookin’ at myself like, there it is there/yeah, like there it is there,”. That ethos is pretty clear in every single moment of Drake’s album, if not his whole career. His particular brand of self-actualization is a natural endpoint for commercial rap music. By the late 90’s, rap had already become an unprecedented global phenomenon. The genre’s popularity has risen parallel to an overall process of globalization, led by the rush of technology and rise of international and infinitely profitable media conglomerates in the last 30 years. S. Craig Watkins writes, “hip hop matters, quite simply, because it is the voice of the streets.” Drake’s chief concern on “Used To” is to “make sure the plane have a phone now/so when we bout to land I can call to tell the wolves I’m home now”. When you erase community and connection and replace it with empty capital-collecting gestures and private jets, the “movement”, an amorphous and difficult-to-place political and social movement called “hip-hop”, is flushed down the Gulfstream V’s toilet.
The debate over “real” and “fake” has always been a huge point of contention in the game. When I was in middle school in the early 2000’s, I loved listening to Outkast and Mos Def, both of whose CD’s I actually purchased from actual stores. Drake was not much different in his hip-hop education. He didn’t learn the culture from the streets. He downloaded mp3’s, traded CD’s, and watched music videos on TV. Bred not from a real urban environment but from a Baudrillardian simulacrum, “the product of an irradiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere”, he consumed hip-hop while generating his own image of authenticity. That he was on television for years before his rap career is no accident. Drake is a new breed of fiercely capitalistic, confessional rappers that must generate meaning in an increasingly vast and cold world of late capitalism. On “6 Man”, Drake owns the means of production, which is himself: “no ho shit/I don’t need no fucking body, I run my own shit”. Rather than defying the confines of the inner-city, however, Drake’s rapping breaks the shackles of a larger, more life-threateningly boring system of wage labor.
On IYRTITL, he continues furthering the sonic world that he’s already established. Keeping true to a long tradition of rap about the trappings of wealth and the necessity to stay true to to where you’re from, Drake name-drops his hometown of Toronto- “I’m managed by the people I grew up with/I’d rather give that 15% to people I fuck with”. On “Energy” he raps, “I got two mortgages 30 million in total/I got niggas that’ll still try fuckin’ me over”. The career that Drake has built, and strengthens with the release of IYRTITL, is one that deals chiefly with authenticity and authorship. Drake is a real individual living his life on this planet. His commercial and critical success speak to the resonance that his music has with people across the world. Yet still, as if beating his hands against an invisible wall, he hasn’t truly broken free from a larger, limiting context of commercial rap. Drake’s freedom is merely an economic one.