Complex just declared that, in 2015, Drake was the best rapper alive. What a joke. Drake isn’t even the best rapper on What a Time to Be Alive.
Like him or not, Drake is built, packaged, and sold to dominate a conversation like this, as if hip-hop were pop trivia, in which assorted vultures and rubberneckers rework an esoteric genre award like “Best Rapper Alive” to mean “Music Industry’s Most Robust Marketing Campaign of the Previous Fiscal Year.”
In which case, fair enough: If you’re reading the relevant industry stats, there’s no denying Drake’s commercial success and general pop impact in 2015. A few months ago, Drake scored his 100th hit, “Hotline Bling,” on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. He so happens to have five artist credits on the Hot 100 right now. The boy is Rap Game Taylor Swift. He’s a competitive and credible favorite within hip-hop, for sure, but, more importantly, he’s the favorite rapper among listeners who don’t even particularly enjoy rap music, much as Sam Smith is the favorite R&B singer among white people who literally hate music. Drake is popular in the universal sense. He is everywhere he wants to be.
It’s equal parts synergy and coincidence that Future, too, has five artist credits on the Hot 100, including three songs (“Jumpman,” “Where Ya At,” “Big Rings”) that he made with Drake, plus a Ty Dolla $ign feature (“Blasé”), plus Future’s latest solo hit, “Stick Talk,” from DS2. For Future, these more recent songs are something of a victory lap, as they’re not as successful as his street singles, “Commas,” “March Madness,” “Trap Niggas,” “Real Sisters,” “Rich Sex,” and “I Serve the Base,” nor as impressive as certain deeper cuts, “Just Like Bruddas,” “Peacoat,” “Blood on the Money,” “News or Sumthn,” etc.
While Drake dominated the annual commercial metrics, it was Future who truly advanced rap songcraft and best represented the state of the culture.
While Drake dominated the annual commercial metrics, it was Future who truly advanced rap songcraft and best represented the state of the culture. Once a cult favorite and underestimated scion of Atlanta’s Dungeon Family, and then, briefly, a mainstream hopeful, Future is now the most influential rapper of the moment, with traces evident in the styling of young rappers from Chicago, Sacramento, L.A., New York, and, of course, Atlanta. As the Long Beach rapper Vince Staples has noted, contemporary hip-hop has promoted the dope fiend to equal footing with the pusher. Future, with his woozy disaffection and pockets full of spite, is the cold culmination of this “lean-induced self-involvement,” as the music critic Julianne Escobedo Shepherd recently put it.
If there's any one principle that unites Future and Drake in theory, it's self-involvement. Otherwise, the long, fraught kinship between these two rappers yields a few dimensions of contrast. Street rap vs. pop crossover. Real vulnerability and a nice guy's "vulnerability" so-called, and so-propagandized. Raw hostility and meticulous passive-aggression. In 2011, it was Drake who inspired Future in his bid for mainstream success; a bid that ended with Honest sounding rather unlike the artist who made it. In 2015, Future reset, and outdid, himself. Fortunes turned, and so we got to hear Drake stammering about Robitussin over a Metro Boomin beat. There's a clear winner here.
Future is what we briefly pretended the Migos were: a spiritual peak within gangsta rap, whereby a dopeboy renders himself low and, sometimes, indecipherable; yet articulate enough to communicate pain in rich detail. Even in prayer, even in celebration. I don’t mean to suggest that such bold and grotesque expression is unique to Future, when, in fact, it’s hip-hop’s core wonder. And it’s where Drake has always fallen short. For a guy who resonates so acutely with the here and now, Drake’s music is remarkably indifferent to human events and incurious about the world beyond itself. He seems to make music according to the Michael Jordan theory of brand commerce: never let politics or even reality overwhelm your product, which I guess we'll call art.
Drake is hip-hop's continental breakfast; his global appeal is what it is. It's no proof, however, that Drake is the very best that hip-hop has to offer in the way of distinction as of late. Future launched his 2015 mixtape insurgency with abandon, regardless of pop viability, as if compatibility with an incarnate ad campaign like Drake were the very least of his concerns. Erykah Badu once described this sort of coup as an artist's liberation.