New money stands out. Take the Twelve Hotel in downtown Atlanta. Everything is modern, angular, all rich wood grains and polished metals. The chairs in the lobby are likely as expensive as they are uncomfortable. It feels like a playground for people comfortable with privilege. So it comes as no surprise that Aubrey “Drake” Graham and his crew are staying here while in ATL, and it’s hard to blame him for feeling entitled: After all, he did help usher in an entirely new sensibility in hip-hop. It’s not the singing that makes him special—MCs have been crooning for years. What puts Drake in a different space than rappers past and present has less to do with his music than how he found himself in a position to make it. He doesn’t represent traditional hip-hop in any form or fashion. There were no obstacles to his success; far from a statistic, he caked off as a child star on a soft-ass show (Degrassi: The Next Generation). He’s Canadian, which as we all know did wonders for the careers of Maestro Fresh Wes and Kardinal Offishall. And he’s Jewish! Scope those stats on paper and rap celebrity seemed destined to elude Drake. Yet, the Toronto kid made it work. But how?
Call it the Kanye plan (at least to an extent—even K. West had more trouble breaking down doors than Drizzy has). Just as the Chicagoan did with the Roc, Drake aligned himself with one of the most prominent rap labels in the game (Cash Money) and absorbed a modicum of street cred in the process. Would DJ Khaled ask him to appear on record if he wasn’t down with Weezy? Probably not. But that’s beside the point. The fact is that a guy who raps—and sings!—about heartache is working with Jeezy; more than anything, that exemplifies the shift in the landscape. Hip-hop has long conflated gangster and authenticity, and Drake has managed to shrug that off without losing face. The question is, how long will his balancing act last? Rap may change, but it also keeps changing; overnight success has no insurance policy. Thinking about it all is enough to make anyone crazy, but sitting down to dinner in the half-empty restaurant on the Twelve’s ground floor, Young Money’s (half-)white knight seems calm and carefree, even as he builds about the year behind him and the one ahead. What’s to worry about? It might be new money, but having it never gets old.
As smooth as your entry to the rap world was, you only stumbled when people questioned your choices, like the video for “Best I Ever Had.”
You can do something you believe in and people will still say, “This shit is terrible!” But I still believe in Kanye’s vision. Maybe we didn’t do a great job with getting the point across—it was supposed to be a humorous video. When I read the comments, I was like, man, I guess no one wants to laugh anymore. Everybody wants the fairy tale, you know?
For an artist who’s perceived to be so multifaceted, it was interesting to see people try to put you in a box: “How could he do this? This is degrading to women!”
If you listen to the lyrics, it’s really not a romantic song. It’s humorous. Yes, it’s great to tell a woman, “You’re the best I ever had.” But the hook was so lovey-dovey that I just wanted to make the verses some fun shit. And that’s how I viewed that song. Like a good time, like a laugh.
"I’m just glad I only tore my ACL and didn’t get shot or stabbed."
Do you think that slowed your momentum?
A lot of people thought it was going to. That’s what happens when you have passionate fans. They feel like they’re a part of your career. So it’s like, “That’s not what I would’ve done for you.” We’re in a day and age when videos are dead. There’s no outlet for them. That video did its job—it was a conversation piece. It has however many million views. It’s great that people love to see you, but videos don’t propel you like they used to. Your video going No. 1 doesn’t really mean much anymore. 'Cause it’s only 106 & Park.
What about when you fell onstage in New Jersey and injured your knee?
That never happened. [Laughs.]
During the recovery phase, what was going through your mind, in terms of your career?
I was going so hard that the only way I could have ever slowed down was for something extremely painful to happen. I’m just glad I only tore my ACL and didn’t get shot or stabbed or anything. It was an injury that allowed me time for discipline. That was somebody watching over me and being like, “Look, you need to slow down.” If that had kept up, and I had done 50 or 60 shows before I tore my ACL, and I was at all these parties...I don’t know, man. I don’t know if I’d be where I’m at right now. As crazy as it may sound, I think that was how it was supposed to go. It was painful.
I can imagine.
Extremely painful. I fought with my managers, like, “You don’t understand, I can’t do this tour.” Then I went and saw a doctor who gave me advice like, “If you don’t move around too much and you wear a brace, you’ll be fine.” But this is what I love to do. So when “Best I Ever Had” comes on, I can’t help but run around. That’s my fuckin’ song! I got 25,000 people that actually want to hear me perform. But it was a reality check: Sit the fuck down. The interesting thing is gonna be my new performance style. It’s not gonna be the same Drake jumping on speakers and running to each side of the stage—well, not for a while. I’m gonna have to get a little Jay Z influence on my performance style; hopefully my records will be powerful enough to carry the show.
To hear the legions of Drake fans tell it, despite not having a full body of original work, he’s an artist whose records can without question carry an entire show...and then some. It’s those fans and that body of work that have well-known artists hopping on the Drake gravy train before it runs dry. And who can blame them? They can feel the tide changing, so instead of being washed ashore, artists like Jamie Foxx and Mary J. Blige—and even Kanye and Jay Z, hip-hop’s shrewdest trend forecasters—chose to sign up before the Drake movement moved without them. Not to say Drake is going to eclipse 'Ye or Jay, but when the younger audience is spending the money in today’s here-this-morning-gone-this-afternoon culture, it’s better to be safe than sorry. However, in order to play nice with everyone... well, you gotta play nice with everyone. Except maybe your fellow rookies.
The first time we ever spoke, you said that you were more in tune with R&B artists than the current new guys rapping.
When you’re coming up, and you’re in competition with somebody, it’s always hard to have a friendship. I think Cudi and I are realizing that we don’t threaten each other. It’s ended up being one of the greatest industry friendships I have.
Around the time that Kanye directed “Best I Ever Had,” it seemed like there was strife between your camp and Cudi’s camp because Kanye was so enamored of you while Cudi’s project was being worked on.
I wasn’t aware of that. Even so, I could understand. If Wayne were to be enamored—which is a great word—of another young artist, I would be like, “Damn, I’m here too!” But at the same time, it happens in more than one situation. It happens with 'Ye, and I have a great relationship with Jay, and Jay’s got Wale and J. Cole, who’s one of my favorite dudes rapping right now. I’ve happened to have had more success. I made the most money, I have No. 1 records, those guys don’t have that shit. And it’s just facts, it’s not even my feelings or that I feel I’m more talented. That’s what the game is about, making great music that earns profit. When it comes to my relationship with the new dudes, I’m just excited for them. I get to sit back in a cool position and be like, “Yo, I’m excited to see you do it now because I know what it’s like, it’s gonna be so much fun for you...”
"I made the most money, I have No. 1 records, those guys don’t have that sh*t."
You feel like you’re at the finish line?
I’m at the starting line. Those guys are at home, putting on their tracksuits, getting ready to make their attack. When J. Cole gets it super-right, I think he’s gonna have a place as a Nas-type character who really stands for hip-hop, but still makes ill records that everybody fucks with.
If J. Cole is Nas, then who are you?
[Laughs.] I’m the young big homie!
Of all your contemporaries, it seems like you want to be famous the most.
That’s gonna change. When Cole’s sound is the new sound that everybody wants to hear, he’s gonna be like, “I wanna be as big as possible with this shit.” I didn’t jeopardize anything to be in the position I’m in. You’re listening to the shit that I believe in, not some shit I did because I needed to get here. People just happen to embrace my shit. That’s very rare—but I also think the younger generation appreciates that brand of music, so I think it’s possible for one of these guys to emerge and do exactly what I’m doing.
What Drake is doing is appealing to the widest array of fans possible. Yeah, girls love him the way they used to love LL Cool J, thanks to his melodic love raps. But it’s dudes, even those considered to be “true heads,” who have really hoisted Drake to his current level. Why? Some say it’s his affiliation with Cash Money Records that allows him to play in both sandboxes, that because he’s backed by Birdman and Lil Wayne, he seems to belong on a track with Gucci Mane and Young Jeezy as much as he does on a song with Mary J. Blige. And what’s wrong with that? Nothing, especially considering that Mr. Carter is slated to serve up to a year in prison for weapons possession charges stemming from a gun found when the NYPD raided his tour bus in 2007. With Cash Money/Young Money’s primary breadwinner behind bars, someone’s going to have to fill his Supras....
How’s the atmosphere at Young Money now that Wayne is about to go to jail?
We don’t really talk about it. It’s surreal to me still. I guess on the day that it really happens, I’ll start thinking about what I gotta do. I wanna have a talk with Wayne and ask him what he needs from me.
You and Wayne share an ability to cross over to diverse groups. What do you think it is that attracts polar-opposite groups to enjoy your music? Is it the Young Money affiliation alone?
I’m not talking about a thousand rounds in a chopper or payin’ 24, 23. It’s just delivery. One of my favorite rappers in the world, Jeezy, is somebody who loves my music. For him to not only co-sign what I’m doing but also to want to make music with me is crazy. Wayne had this conversation with me like, “You’re in a position where you could be a star. Not just a rapper star. A true star.” Me being biracial, me being from Canada but having success in the States, I have all these moments in my life where I’m jumping roof to roof. Black to white. Singing and rapping. My mom’s friends listen to my music and don’t feel weird about it. They feel weird listening to Wayne.
Does anybody in your extended team ever push you to be more...anything, I guess?
Never. Nobody’s ever come to me and said, “Yo, you need to start rapping about this.” Not Sylvia [Rhone, president of Motown/executive VP of Universal], Wayne, Doug Morris [CEO of Universal]. Nobody’s ever said that to me in my life. I don’t think anybody could ever do that. I talk about my real life. That’s undeniable shit.
I think it’s just that you were so far from what people expected when they thought “Young Money.”
Everyone seems to have a comment for me about Young Money, “Fuck Young Money” or “Why are you with them?” But what people have to understand is maybe there was a way for me to be successful without Young Money. But we’ll never know. My loyalty is to Wayne, and that goes for anybody who genuinely believes in me. We don’t have the most personal relationship where we hang out every day or we talk that much, but Wayne’s admiration and respect goes without being verbally said. He put his neck out there for me at a very early stage, and those actions tell me everything I need to know about how he feels about me as an artist.
Take me through your songwriting process.
With R&B, I know my sound. I know I make records to fuck to. [Laughs.] The way Jay and Wayne write rap, I write R&B. I don’t write lyrics down on paper. The other day, I was in the studio with Alicia Keys, and I wrote two songs just speaking to her. I wish I could write that way for rap. With my rap songs, there’s so much of me I have to give that I don’t know if I could ever just flow. The thing is, I’m a great rapper. There’s two elements to rap: having the thoughts, and then being a great rapper. I can really rap the shit that I write. My tone, my inflection. When I listen to myself on records, I don’t feel like I don’t belong there. When I listen to “Forever,” with three of my heroes, I fit right in.
Are there other rappers you bounce ideas off of that may give you a line?
I’ve done it with three people. You don’t want to have clowns in the studio being like, “You should do it like this!” That shit’ll get annoying. But when you have a valid opinion around, it takes a lot of the pressure off.
Is one of those “valid opinions” from a rapper named Nickelus F.?
Not really. Me and F worked together at a younger stage in my life, but I can’t really say that I all-the-way utilized Nickelus for anything on So Far Gone. F’s one of the most gifted people I know at finding flows. I like to write for myself, though. He’s helped me before, just not on a consistent basis. But yeah, F is dope.
At the moment, you’re in Atlanta working on Thank Me Later, but mentioned you still need to get in the studio with Wayne.
Me and Wayne have done so much already, but if anybody has a repeat feature on this album, it’d probably be Wayne. We have a formula, a musical bond that works when we come together. I just wanna do it super-big—bigger than “Every Girl,” bigger than “Best I Ever Had.” I’d love to have a No. 1 record with Wayne. That’s the only record on the album that I think that way about.
Do you know what you want it to sound like?
Yes and no. We tried to go into it with a song called “My Darling Baby,” but it leaked. It was me and Wayne using our wit to entertain women, alternating mini-verses. They’re all cool punchlines and nothing sounds repetitive. When I think of a record for me and Wayne, I want to do something that’s sexy. Something that still has us rapping, but for women to enjoy.
Would that song have made the album?
Definitely. I write best about two things, which is evident from the cover of So Far Gone: the constant quest to understand love and money. I want it and I want to understand it.
Where does that need come from?
The relationship I was in before So Far Gone influenced a lot of lyrics. A lot, a lot of the lyrics. The first five records on the mixtape are sort of like a timeline of that relationship, you know?
You wouldn’t know her. She’s great; I was able to walk away with moments, which I guess is better than walking away with nothing. But ultimately, I’m still trying to figure it out. I come up with the answers, about myself and my own thought process when it comes to love, as I’m writing. That’s when my realest thoughts manage to make their way out.
So we’re going to hear that on Thank Me Later?
This album is me trying to catch my footing again because everything’s changed. It’s a beautiful thing, 'cause I’ve just been waving, like, “Hold on, stop.” Part of being able to make a new album is taking things day to day, being observant, being able to write about the shit that’s going on.
"Some people want me to make an R&B album. Some people want me to never sing again."
How much will it have in common with So Far Gone?
I’m not really worried—there’s no, “This has to fuckin’ change the industry.” Six months is the most you can ask of any fan in this day and age, with the Internet and all these new artists. I understand that my music is in a lot of mediums. It’s in clubs, it’s on the radio, it’s at basketball games, it’s the theme song when girls wanna get naked on WorldStarHipHop. Some people want me to make an R&B album. Some people want me to never sing again. I just don’t want people to be able to draw comparisons between my old songs and my new ones.
So what differentiates them?
I always view my music like a city at night, like Atlanta. I view my music in lights.
What kind of lights was So Far Gone?
So Far Gone would be my experiences in Toronto at night. Houston really inspired me, and a little bit of L.A. Whereas with this album I wanna do it like L.A. at night, New York at night, Atlanta at night.
So it’s more major this time around?
I don’t want to lose the other people in the cities I mentioned, but it’s more major.
Our very first interview, which was just about a year ago, I remember you saying that when you did an album, it would keep the mixtape feel. What’s changed?
Just because I had a winner, it doesn’t mean I’m gonna be like, “OK, I need a new ‘Successful.’” That’s silly. I just don’t want anything to sound like anything else, which I hope is everybody’s vision.
This story was originally published in the February/March 2010 issue of COMPLEX.