“I used to practice lookin’ hard, now I practice being solid.” —E-40, “This Shit Pound.”
Drake is the dominant rapper of his era, and his era is right now. This much is indisputable.
He resonates with the zeitgeist, with this time, more than any other current rapper. This, too, seems indisputable. He’s on his Tupac-in-'96 shit, Eminem-in-2000, Jeezy-in-'05. He’s the man of his cultural moment.
He’s a part of a generation whose taste is mediated by the internet. In other words, it’s not just about experiencing the genre through social osmosis, peers, radio, and surroundings. Instead, he also explores the history through impulse and personal branding. J. Cole listens to the Great Albums, a tribute to the canon. Drake chases hot, of-the-moment aesthetics, the scenes that have extra cultural cachet. He seeks cool, from Houston’s Screwed and Chopped DNA (he used to rap over OG Ron C’s “Fuck Action” slowed R&B mixtapes, Ron C once said, and "Connect" from his latest album, Nothing Was The Same, samples Trae) to swiping and mainstreaming Migos (his flow on “Language)” and Lil Reese (“No new friends” being a slightly altered version of a similar Lil Reese lyric). He seeks cultural capital, capital amassed through curation. And he is a very good curator—one more in tune with youth culture than some of the aging greats (say, Kanye or Jay Z).
He’s also one of the only ones to have made his move to their venerated status. With only Kendrick Lamar remotely on his heels, Drake is a crossover star in a time when true crossover is rare. But what has enabled Drake to attain such populist heights?
With only Kendrick Lamar remotely on his heels, Drake is a crossover star in a time when true crossover is rare. But what has enabled Drake to attain such populist heights?
The running theory is that it is Drake’s rap style, his redefinition of “the real,” the way he broadened the scope of hip-hop’s potential subjects by embracing open emotionality on record, admitting to feeling wronged and to being wrong, a willingness to address subjects avoided by his hip-hop forefathers. It’s also easy to argue—and some have done exactly this—that his is the language of a generation raised on Twitter and Facebook. (We’ve made this point before ourselves.) His tendency for “oversharing,” to explain himself in aphorisms (“Mottos”?), platitudes, and verbal subtweets fits into this theory pretty well. Drake, an archetypal Millennial overachiever who awoke at five A.M. to shoot Degrassi on Morningside Avenue in Toronto, has crafted an art out of the internal and intimate.
Some might even call his art narcissistic. That’s a running theme right now, about this generation. Earlier this week, a piece on Huffington Post exploded into viral awareness: “Why Generation Y Yuppies are Unhappy” crystalized an argument that has been brewing for several years as an ugly kind of common sense. It’s taken various forms: Time magazine’s cover story on “The Me Me Me Generation.” Psychologist Jean Twenge’s assertion that the new generation is “narcissistic.” Studies which assert the lyrics of pop music had become more and more “me” and “I” focused. The conclusion is that Millennials are entitled, the blame thrown at boomer-style “everyone is special”/”everyone gets a soccer trophy” parental encouragement, and, of course, social media.
The most obvious critique of this kind of generation-centric writing (one carefully averted by HuffPo with their “yuppy” specificity) is that it is about a very narrow sliver of the generation. Until lined up against another variable (race, economics, gender—some have already made the argument that Drake's male-centric POV eliminates Drake as a generational spokesman) "the millenial generation" too broad of a demographic to be particularly meaningful. Nitsuh Abebe wrote a particularly smart takedown of the study of popular music as well, suggesting that self-affirmation doesn’t particularly mean “narcissism”—think of how the increasing presence of previously marginalized voices on the pop charts might increase the presence of pronouns (“I,” “Me”) of affirmation. (An extreme example, maybe, but someone would look ridiculous suggesting that William H. Borders, Sr.’s “I Am Somebody”—that poem Jesse Jackson often references—is “narcissistic.”)
Yet it’s still a tempting connection to make: Drake is the man for this moment because who better to to articulate a narcissistic time than an artist so focused on interpersonal details and feelings: that’s the cornerstone of Drake as an entertainer, writ large. To not just explore interiority, but to narrate it, to savor its contradictions and ambiguities. It might not be his song, but another of the season's hits, Rich Homie Quan's “Type of Way,” is such a post-Drake idea: a broad brush with which to paint a cocktail of emotions, a vagueness that elides articulation in order to imply much more, letting the margins become the forefront.
The record makes considerably more use of space, sharpening things like the twist of a camera lens, an image coming into focus. Drake’s vocals are more central, the sound of each track crisper, the songs more tightly composed.
In this sense, Drake didn’t so much create a new kind of openness as he did zoom in on a new kind of subterfuge. In the songs about his emotional life, his relations with women and friends, the cards are never all on the table. Not to argue that Drake isn’t being real about his own life—when he raps “I have never lied on a track, only facts,” it’s a believable statement. But his revolutionary narrative approach was less about a new openness, and more about a shifting focus. He zooms in on certain conversational tics, the language of interpersonal relations. It's why people call a guy who ostensibly raps about a relationship with Rihanna, one of the world's biggest sex symbols, "relateable." He uses turns of phrase familiar enough to resonate with any guy who's ever wanted to text his ex, or gotten hung up on someone who was only into him for a moment. But Drake never really reveals much about himself in the process—except a prediliction to indulge in his "worst behavior."
The sound Drake and 40 have cultivated on Nothing Was The Same is slimmed down, as is the running time, relative to Take Care. The thick fog of soft-focus texture that was such a major part of the atmosphere on songs like “Marvins Room” and “Doing It Wrong” is completely absent. Instead, the record makes considerably more use of space, sharpening things like the twist of a camera lens, an image coming into focus. Drake’s vocals are more central, the sound of each track crisper, the songs more tightly composed. All of this helps draw attention to the purposefulness of his delivery. This increase in confidence feels like an improvement. He’s more direct, the smokiness of his earlier work is now the steam from watching your breath on a cold morning.
For those who've bought into Drake's novel narrative approach from day one, Nothing Was The Same might feel slight compared to the omnivorous grandeur of Take Care. It's a narrower, more refined, less experimental record. It is lighter on "the hits." It's also colder. Drake is becoming less conflicted. When he raps on "The Language," he uses a few lyrics that strike very un-Drake notes. Lines like "I just want some head in a comfortable bed/It could all be so simple," and "Hate when they get too attached to me" are unexpected bursts of blunt honesty that suggest, strangely, a rhetorical maturity, if not a personal one. ("I search for something I'm missing and disappear when I'm bored," meanwhile, somehow splits the difference between deceptive and frank—very Drake.)
The most evocative moments are ones when reality intrudes upon the interior narrative, when Drake's abstracted ideas are replaced by concrete details: a description of driving across town means much more than a simple drive across town, as do the particulars of the beer he drinks when talking with his father. Oddly, these moments imply considerably more about Drake's internal world than the narration of his thought processes, and give oxygen to the world outside of his head. The confessional "Too Much," a rare moment of personal honesty about his family, is not unprecedented in Drake's catalog, but it explores a part of his life with a sincerity that is absent elsewhere. These are moments when he is least like a caricature of Drake, and most like a human being.
The most evocative moments are ones when reality intrudes upon the interior narrative, when Drake's abstracted ideas are replaced by concrete details ... These are moments when he is least like a caricature of Drake, and most like a human being.
They are also exceptions. For a guy who's hailed as a voice of emotional openness, Drake is a fairly oblique writer. In the archetypal Drake verse, there's little of the raw excoriation of personal demons that made artists like Ghostface and Scarface feel as if they were opening an emotional vein right in front of you. That Drake chooses to quote Raekwon's "It's Yourz" verse on “Wu-Tang Forever” is instructive; here’s a legendary rapper whose lyrics are all delivered in code. Now, think of Raekwon coming out of the drug game, communicating through cryptic musicality under the watchful eye of law enforcement. Drake isn't of that world, but he is always speaking obliquely: who he's talking about in any given verse is always a mystery, a subliminal description of a love (or lust) life. Or really, anyone's love life, or the love lives of anyone we've seen on TV or in the movies. These things make Drake feel a type of way. You know the type of the way he's talking about, right? If you think so, great. If not, sorry. So much for "openness."
This is where suggesting he's the "voice of a generation" might not even be far from the truth. A recent Pew study on "Teens, Social Media, and Privacy" found that while grown folks stumbled through the process of locking up their Facebook accounts from prying corporate and government eyeballs, teenagers are paying more attention to the more present authority figures in their lives. To quote researcher and professor Danah Boyd, who analyzed the results:
To adults, services like Facebook that may seem “private” because you can use privacy tools, but they don’t feel that way to youth who feel like their privacy is invaded on a daily basis. Most teens aren’t worried about strangers; they’re worried about getting in trouble...Over the last few years, I’ve watched as teens have given up on controlling access to content. It’s too hard, too frustrating, and technology simply can’t fix the power issues. Instead, what they’ve been doing is focusing on controlling access to meaning. A comment might look like it means one thing, when in fact it means something quite different. By cloaking their accessible content, teens reclaim power over those who they know who are surveilling them.
Combine this with the idea of social media and "personal branding," and you've got Drake's approach in a nutshell. His is the discourse of being in the public eye, which, more than ever, relates to the experience of any Millennial with a social media presence (almost all of them, in other words). You can't control being observed, but you can effect how your observers' observations are interpreted. And what better way to represent the "distance" felt through text message exchanges, the ambiguity of subtweets, than with language similarly guarded and subliminal. There's an evasion of accountability.
This also explains the way Drake has transformed the language of personal relationships into a lifestyle, a personal brand. Because hand-in-hand with the subterfuge of social media is the way it enables the creation of identity through curation, a new self that leaves less-pleasant realities behind. (This is the entire premise behind the television show Catfish, which explores the space between people's social media facade and the truth.) And what better way to advertise a new self than to embrace this language, first mocking it, then emulating it affectionately, on Twitter and beyond? Drake feels Conflicted (TM) about relationships—who he wants them with, when, and for how long. We've all felt that way, some more than others, without regard for how our actions might affect other people. And music is particularly good at creating a space where our toxic feelings, once identified, can be expunged from our souls.
But this toxicity isn't something to be particularly proud of. Narcissism in pop music is one thing—as Nitsuh Abebe put it, it might be gauche, but if the culture as a whole is really becoming more narcissistic, we may need narcissistic pop's "poses and costumes to help us navigate it." At the same time, there's a line between self-affirmation and selfishness. As people mature, they typically become more conscientious about treating relationships like a ride on emotional bumper cars. The pose of tumultuous interpersonal strife becomes exhausting. It's not that mature people don't screw up, or act selfishly. "The furthest thing from perfect/Like everyone I know," Drake raps on "Furthest Thing." No one is perfect, and every person on earth is insensitive at some point or another. But.
There is a marked difference between recognizing our imperfections, and reveling in them, wearing them like armor to protect ourselves from having to confront truth.
In an essay called "On Self Respect" (published in 1968, well before the existence of any Millennials), Joan Didion spoke about losing her own innocent narcissism. "I lost the conviction that lights would always turn green for me, the pleasant certainty that those rather passive virtues which had won me approval as a child automatically guaranteed me not only Phi Beta Kappa keys but happiness, honor, and the love of a good man." What she found instead was self-respect.
People with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things. If they choose to commit adultery, they do not then go running, in an access of bad conscience, to receive absolution from the wronged parties; nor do they complain unduly of the unfairness, the undeserved embarrassment, of being named co-respondent. In brief, people with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; they display what was once called character, a quality which, although approved in the abstract, sometimes loses ground to other, more instantly negotiable virtues.
There is a marked difference between recognizing our imperfections, and reveling in them, wearing them like armor to protect ourselves from having to confront truth. It is the difference between calling out our flaws as a kind of cathartic cleansing, and indulging in our worst impulses, as if recognizing them as a problem is enough.
While his lyrics might reflect the chosen medium (social media) of the Millennial generation, narcissism itself isn't a characteristic of the Millennial generation. Narcissism is a reflection of general immaturity, and has been throughout history. Immaturity isn't owned by any single generation. It's only recognized in youth by generations once they age out of it. (And, conveniently, forget their own moments of narcissism.) Nothing Was The Same feels like Drake's most honest record to date, and a step toward emotional responsibility. Drake has been derided as "soft" for so long that it's managed to obscure the ways that he was practicing looking hard. Recognizing your imperfections is one step. But we should aspire to more.
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