It may sound heavily cliché by now, but all Aubrey "Drake" Graham wants to do is keep it real. The Toronto-bred rapper who gained fame by playing basketball star Jimmy Brooks on the teen TV show Degrassi: The Next Generation has no intentions of fabricating his past or lying about the number of women he's smashed off. He even has no problem talking about how he leased a Rolls Royce Phantom with his TV money just so he could stunt.
On his latest mixtape, So Far Gone, he does just that. The tape has him rapping and singing along with Bun B, Lloyd, Lil Wayne, Trey Songz, and Omarion about any and everything going on in his life, from drama with ex-girls to family problems most would keep under wraps. Complex caught up with Drake right before he left to celebrate the release of his tape with LeBron James, and we spoke to him about So Far Gone, ghostwriting for Weezy and his place amongst the new generation of rappers.
Many people don't know too much about your outside of your role in Degrassi. Were you always into music?
As far as music goes, it's always been a major part of my life. My uncle is Larry Graham [who] played bass for Prince, my father, Dennis Graham, wrote for Al Green. [He helped] write "Let's Stay Together" and "Love and Happiness." My dad drummed for Jerry Lee Lewis. I've always been around great music. My family being from Memphis, Tenn., growing up around all the hip-hop, Three Six Mafia, Kingpin Skinny Pimp, early Yo Gotti, shit like that was kinda what really influenced me.
How I got into rapping was, my dad was in jail for two years and he shared a cell with this dude who didn't really have anyone to speak to. So, he used to share his phone time with this dude and at the time I was probably 16 or 17, this dude was like 20-22, and he would always rap to me over the phone; it was Poverty, that was his rap name. After while I started to get into it and I started to write my own shit down. And after a while, he would call me and we would just rap to each other. And after my dad got out I kept in touch with dude and kept writing my shit down and eventually I learned from meeting people who were into music, too, the art of making a song, and I accepted the fact that I wanted to be in music.
Not too many people know about the rap scene out in Canada. How's the atmosphere out there? Is everyone cool and supportive of each other?
I'm cool with everyone out here. One thing I'll say is, as of late, with everything that's been happening, we've really started to support each other, which is just great. A lot of people have reached out to me and said they're proud of what I'm doing, and I'm proud of what a lot of these guys are doing. I think we do have talent up here. Someone that I idolize and someone who I think is one of the greatest artists period is k-os. That's someone I really look up [to].
"They say [Toronto Is] the city of hate; we've never really had that icon."
So you really feel like you have the entire city behind you?
There's been a certain surge of excitement around my city, it's just crazy man, everything is just overwhelming. One thing I will say is that with a guy like Kardinal [Offishall] or a guy like Socrates, [who've] been around for 10 years, maybe more...a lot of people will tell me, "I've never seen a city really support anyone like this before." And Toronto, they say, is the Screwface capital. They say it's the city of hate; we've never really had that icon. Someone where we can say, "That's our hometown hero." I'm not saying that I am that guy yet, but I think that I'm well on my way.
You mention k-os as someone you look up to, but a lot of people who listen to you say you sound like a mashup of Lil Wayne and Kanye...
You know, those are two guys that I definitely look up to and to be regarded as a mesh between those two guys is definitely a good thing 'cause I love both of their music. When it comes to influencing my music, I'm also influenced by just great writers, all the music that's outside of the rap or R&B genres. People that paint vivid pictures. I like all different kinds of music. I never heavily molded myself after rappers. Sometimes they say when you think something and you go to say it, you lose a lot of color about what you're trying to say, so to me the best rappers are the people that don't lose that color. Like, André 3000, 'Ye, Wayne. So yeah, it's definitely an honor.
Listening to your earlier mixtapes, as well as So Far Gone, a constant theme seems to be the notion that "all that glitters ain't gold." It seems like you try to be honest and downplay the rapper lifestyle, like when you talk about buying a Phantom but regretting it.
Yeah, well, to be even more honest, I leased a Phantom instead of buying one, 'cause I didn't have enough money to buy a Phantom. I leased a Phantom because that's what I thought I needed to do. And I've done a lot of things to just enjoy my nights a little more and to feed my ego. And that's kinda why I rap about it, because a lot of people are like, "If he ever steps out of line, I'm gonna say Drake's wack." So the only choice I have is to be honest with my listeners. And that's not to say it's not a glamorous life and it's not fun, but the reality is it's great for the average person to hear a musician's reality because we all seem so unattainable and so out of reach that when you bring yourself back to eye level with a fan and do it in the right way...
What's the right way?
You don't make stupid Internet videos or show people you have too much free time, you just say the right things and they'll be like, "Damn, this dude's a real person and I can relate to that." That can make somebody's life, that can make somebody's day, that can be a line that they never forget. So I try to have as many of those lines as possible so that fans feel like Drake isn't only one of my favorite artists, I feel like he's one of my friends, he talks to me. That's one of the benefits of being honest with your music. But some people are scared to do that, too, you know. Because some of their images are built off facade and that's OK, as long as you can keep it up. But we've all seen what happens when you slip up, and that's a stressful life, I don't want to live like that. Letting people find out shit about, printing out my documents and putting them up on ThisIs50.com.
Yes, we've all seen how ugly that can get.
Don't take my ex-girlfriend shopping for fur coats, please!
Talk to us about So Far Gone. What was the idea behind it?
It's basically a story. It starts in January 2008 when I was kinda confused like, "What am I really doing?" I gave up acting all together to really do this music thing, and I was really truly confused. It's way different than acting; there aren't people to depend on, you really have to build your own thing basically from the ground up, you know? So in January, not only was I confused about my career, I was also in a very destructive sort of us exhausting relationship with a female and it was just a bad headspace for me to be in. So that's where the tape starts.
It starts with this monologue, "Lust for Life," of me crying out in my head the things that I never say. The things that I was just thinking, that was my mindset. Then it goes to "Houstatlantavegas," which is about what I felt about the girl I was with. I just felt that nothing was ever good enough, and she was always searching for more excitement and then we move into "Successful." I say at the end of the song, "There are so many things I want to say but I just don't know how to say it to you." I know exactly what I want to say, you know, I just want to be successful, but I don't know if I can do it with you. And then it goes into "Let's Call It Off," which is the breakup. And then coincidentally, when I broke up with that girl, a week later I went to Houston and met Lil Wayne and that's where "November 18th" comes from.
How'd exactly did you wind up meeting Weezy?
My friend Jas Prince—J Prince of Rap-A-Lot's son—he played Wayne a couple of my songs and Wayne called me when I was in the barber chair getting a haircut, and he was like, "Dude, I just heard two songs from you and you got a whole CD of shit here, I don't even need to hear anymore, I just need you here right now, can you get to Houston?" So I came out the next night. That was my first time in Houston and the culture and the city was so overwhelming. I felt like I hit Houston and got my swag back. I was single, I was with Wayne and it was Houston, I was going nuts, sipping drank, smoking, it was fun to me. And then you get "Ignant Shit," which is what came out of my meeting with Wayne.
Where did the title come from?
The whole tape extends from one of my closest friends, Oliver [El-Khatib]. One night, we were having a discussion about women and the 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?" That's really where the cover comes from, too. It's just this kid in pursuit of love and money. We're good guys, I'm friends with some real good people and for him to even text me after we got off the phone it just showed we have a conscience. But sometimes you just get so far gone, you get wrapped up in this shit. The title has a lot of meanings; as the way we carry ourselves, the way we dress, the way people view us. Not to sound cocky, it's just that feeling that we're just distanced in a good way. You're just elevating past the bullshit and past all the shit that you used to be a part of and you're not that proud of, you're just so far gone.
You have three of the best young R&B artists in the game on this tape, but fewer up and coming MCs. Are you as cool with the new generation of rappers? Were you upset that you weren't on the XXL Freshman 10 cover?
I'm actually very grateful I wasn't on that cover, to be honest. I feel like everybody that was on there deserved to be on there; I'm a fan of a lot of those guys. I just think I have a different path, a different story to tell. To be put in that group is a like a gift and a curse. So to be the one guy that wasn't on there that everyone talks about or should have been in there is kind of a good thing. It kind of creates a little bit of fun tension. I like getting my own thoughts out right now, I have fans to solidify, so that's why I don't do tracks with too many younger rappers or newer artists. People may consider me to be a music snob or whatever, but I like to preserve what's mine and I also don't just do tracks to do tracks, I make every song with a purpose. But...me and Wale are real close friends, we talk a lot, man. I listen to Kid Cudi's shit all the time. Chuck Inglish from the Cool Kids hit me up and was giving me all the compliments in the world; we're real cool.
One of the main criticisms of this mixtape is that it sounds like 808s & Heartbreak lite.
Right, well, I think any time a rapper sings now, they're going to say that. Just like whenever a rapper uses Auto-Tune, they say that's [T-]Pain. I'll put it this way: Kanye West has an amazing mind, but he always has the means that when he thinks something, he can make it happen right away. But I've been singing way before 808s & Heartbreak. I wrote all the hooks on every song I've done since I did "Replacement Girl" with Trey Songz in 2006. I've been in the R&B world for a long time, writing for artists, writing for myself, playing with different sounds and stuff.
So as far as 808s goes, that was a great album, I tip my hat [to] Kanye for making that major release instead of making it a mixtape. But at the same time, people always need something to compare it to. The other thing is, [So Far Gone] is a lot different; it's real R&B music, that's why I put Omarion and Lloyd and Trey Songz on there. I'm doing duets with these guys. These are real R&B singers, [and] that's what I was going for. Kanye was doing something different...I don't even know how to classify it, I guess he calls it pop art. I love R&B music, man, that's what you gotta understand, I listen to R&B music more than I listen to rap. That's kinda my thing. I just want to make genuinely sexy music for women to listen to and for men to play for women.
Is your major label debut going to sound similar to So Far Gone?
My album is not going to sound like So Far Gone. It's a well-rounded body of work that again people will relate to what I'm saying, but the songs are made obviously to be sold to the public, so this was just my chance to think and write freely. It's a solid hip-hop album. I went left before most go left after my album comes out, so people will be like, "Thank God, I thought he was about to do some weird shit." Some people go left after, when they feel more comfortable, but I feel comfortable with my talent.
Speaking of your debut, what's going on with your label situation? There's been rumors that you're on Young Money and there are some saying you're inked to Interscope. What's good?
I'm not with either of those. I'm finishing up the deal tonight or tomorrow. It's a great situation. My biggest thing that I'm excited about regardless of what label I end up on is my management team: Cortez Bryant who managed Lil Wayne and Gee Roberson who managed Kanye. To be managed by Hip Hop Since 1978, it's a great family to be a part of.
"I listen to R&B music more than I listen to rap. That's kinda my thing."
There was video on YouTube with the Young Money crew backstage at a show, and Nicki Minaj said something to effect of, "Drake gets the most stage time with Wayne." Are you the front-runner in the crew?
I came to Young Money genuinely, meeting Wayne, forming a friendship and making great music. I didn't come into this as a Young Money recruit. I would say Young Money is a great thing to be associated with, it's beneficial to everybody, with Wayne being the number one artist in the world. But Young Money, right now, until Wayne finds the time—because he's very busy and he has a lot of projects in the works—to really get a home for that label and develop that label into a real entity, until then I think it's something to just be associated with. I know Wayne wants to executive produce my album, so the affiliation is there and I rep Young Money. It's the same way I rep October's Own, I rep it because it's people that I care about.
There was also a rumor going around that you ghostwrite for Wayne.
[Laughs.] You know, we're all great artists, great minds, and we all just contribute to each other, there's been times when Wayne has helped me out, and I'm sure, I hope, I've influenced him to do or say things on tracks. We help each other out, that's part of being two artists who respect each others creativity.
We all saw him spit one of your verses at the MTV awards.
Yeah, at the VMAs. That was just a spontaneous decision on his part. He used to always tell me, "I love that verse," and just came out on stage and rapped that verse. [Laughs.] And the wildest part was I was stuck outside of the awards. I couldn't even get into the award show 'cause they didn't give me the right pass, so I was stuck outside listening to my verse. It was my Hilary Swank moment.
You brag a lot about different clothing brands. Which brands are you currently into?
One day to day that I always represent is Ransom. Matt George owns a clothing line along with Oliver, I represent them to the fullest. I love Comme des Garçons; I wear that a lot. Helmut Lang, Nom de Guerre. Public School's dope. I wear a lot of Marc Jacobs stuff. I really just wear whatever; I'm not really a hipster fashion dude, I wear wild shit like Jordan sweats and socks and sandals. I don't get dressed up to get my license renewed, but when I step out I like to look presentable and I like to dress up, I like to wear nice Armani suits. But those are some brands I definitely like.
Where do you like to shop?
My favorite place to go shopping would probably be Barneys. I shop at Nomad here in Toronto. I don't want to start talking too crazy about clothes 'cause I know there are some guys who are super into it and they're going to read this like, "Aw man what the fuck?" I know I rap about that shit, but it's just 'cause at the moment I really might be about to put on a Margiela tux. I like YSL, too, I like YSL a lot. But yeah, I just don't want 'Ye to read this and be like, "What the fuck is this dude talking about?" I like clothes, it's just something to spend your money on like champagne. I have a passion for champagne. I love champagne.
That's what you drink on the regular? What are some favorites?
Krug Rosé, Dom Rose if I had a good week. If I spent too much money at Barneys, we're drinking Veuve. I want to really start a genuine champagne company. Or be a silent partner in one.
What gadgets can't you live without?
BlackBerry is one that I cannot be without. Anything that has to do with Mac; I'm a Mac head. That's it, my BlackBerry and my computer. Navigation in a car is a big one. I'm not really a gadget person.
Which websites do you always check out?
I read NahRight all the time; Kanye's blog. Really one I can credit that I check everyday is NahRight.
Before we go, who has the better groupies, rappers or actors?
[Laughs.] I don't know, I don't talk to the groupies. I talk to nice, upstanding women. The groupies don't get my attention. It's the women that I like.