Drake has a long history of being silly. Remember when he went viral for bringing a lint roller to his courtside seats at a Raptors’ game? And then invented the lint roller dance in the “Hotline Bling” video? Drake is at his most lovable when he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He contains multitudes, though, and right now one of them is: published poet. And, boy, are these poems silly.
Titles Ruin Everything is the new offering from Aubrey Graham and longtime songwriting and composing partner Kenza Samir. It was published by Phaidon Press out of London, and graciously bestowed unto me by Word On Road founder Megan Sumpton, courtesy of Drake Related.
The book opens with a QR code that reveals a statement from The Boy himself: “I made an album to go with the book. They say they miss the old Drake girl don’t tempt me. FOR ALL THE DOGS.”
I’ll admit, back in the “Best I Ever Had” days I used to hate on Drake. Publicly! But Drake and I have the same mentor, Bun B, who was quick to teach me a valuable lesson. One particular night, backstage at a show, I was doing my usual Public Drake Hating – which, as a Real Hip Hop Head, I viewed as my duty – when Bun checked me.
“He’ll never be as good as Mos Def,” I said. I’m cringing now, just thinking about how I really said those words out loud.
“Sama’an,” Bun said to me in a very disappointed, fatherly tone. “Is Drake trying to make the same music as Mos Def?”
I couldn’t believe he was forcing me to think critically about the artform I claimed to love so much. I had to be honest in my reply.
“No,” I said. “He’s not.”
“Then why are you trying to compare them?” Bun said.
I had a whole existential crisis in that moment. Why was I trying to compare them? I didn’t know who I was any more.
It was a valuable lesson that allowed me to much more fully appreciate not just Drake, but the full spectrum of music. Slowly, I began morphing into a Drake fan. Only a few years later, in 2015, in the back of a cab one night in Santiago, Chile, I was singing Drake’s praises to a French woman I’d just met. She said she’d never heard of this Drake character. So I was in the incredible position of getting to play a Drake song for someone who’d never heard his music before.
The song I chose?
“Legend.” Probably still my favorite song from Singing Drake’s catalog, it had only just been released that spring.
“Wow,” she said, her eyes welling up. (I’m not going to do the accent, but you should.) “It’s the first time I heard a flow like that. This way to rap, I didn’t know it exist.” She called out for God in that moment. What I learned from her is that the way words are presented completely alters how we perceive them. That especially goes for poetry.
Not only was that the year I became a full-fledged Drake fan, it was also the year that, after deleting all my public hate tweets, I finally met Mr. Graham. I was completely charmed by this kind and thoughtful and accommodating Canadian man. I wrote about that meeting for Complex; you can read the story here.
“Really, it’s kind of just a book of puns. Silly lil' jokes.” - Hanif Abdurraqib
“Legend” stood as the undisputed greatest Drake album intro (all respect to “Free Smoke”) until 2021’s Certified Lover Boy and its opener: “Champagne Poetry.” Now, “Legend” is still the greatest in my opinion, but “Champagne” gave it a run for its money. More importantly it serves as a good enough segue to talk more directly about this new book, which, yes, is titled Titles Ruin Everything. To me, that means it’s untitled, therefore I personally will be referring to it as Champagne Poetry.
Reading through the sparse 168 pages of Champa—I mean, Titles—with Bun and the French woman’s lessons in mind, I wondered, is Drake modeling his poetry after someone? Mos Def himself was the host of Def Poetry Jam, but these poems don’t really seem to be angling towards “Umi Says.” They mostly alter between bitter, jaded, and braggadocious, and yet they seem to be… funny?
Take this one for example: I’m not four you / really starting to put two and two together.
If that isn’t a dad joke, I don’t know what is. It’s silly! Right?!
There is one poem where he seems to be actually profound: Oh, how smooth life would go / if you knew what you pretend to know.
The way they’re presented—not to spend too much time comparing—feel a little like Rupi Kaur ruminations for straight men who learned about therapy from Instagram memes. Speaking of, in the book, we learn he’s trying to work on processing his emotions.
One entry reads:
My therapist told me I need to stop listening to what people tell me / but if I take her advice wouldn’t I be listening to what people tell me?
None of the poems are specifically attributed to Drake or Kenza, but that one feels like Drake. This next one has to be him, too.
No one is gaslighting you / You’re just so toxic that you’re flammable.
Part of what makes Drake great is that he has, for the most part, done a masterful job of making songs that can either be interpreted as superficial or profound, depending on who the listener is. And even the superficial stuff is often fun because it’s campy. Mos Def has never made music like that.
I mean, who else could get away with rapping, “Got my Spanish ting convinced that I know Spanish / Really when she get to talkin’ I don’t understand it” on a very serious song?
If he’s simply teasing lyrics from his upcoming album, then this book will serve as a cool novelty item for fans to collect, and there’s a good chance that hearing him sing or rap some of these will change the way we feel about them, but if he’s really trying to be taken seriously as a poet with no melody to lean on? Well for that I need to talk with a few experts to better understand how to view the book through that lens.
Over the phone, New York Times best-selling author, MacArthur Fellow, and award-winning poet Hanif Abdurraqib tells me that he’s “not that interested in gatekeeping what is or isn’t ‘poetry,’” but, he says, “None of these strike me as poems, because they’re not even attempting to push against any unknown in order to offer something revelatory or at least somewhat beautiful.” Abdurraqib says the therapist poem is emblematic of his perception of Titles.
“Some of these are so absurd that they’re actually funny,” he says. “But it’s hard to tell if he also understands that they’re bending into absurdist humor, and understands that there will be people who find it profound? Or if he’s convinced himself of the profundity.”
There will undoubtedly be people who share blurry photos to Instagram with Nobu Vegas tagged as the location and a caption unironically from the book: Your taste in men isn’t exactly Michelin star. They might even add their own bar to complete the rhyme.
“Really, it’s kind of just a book of puns. Silly lil’ jokes,” says Abdurraqib. “It is a struggle for me to tell how in on the joke he is… I’m not personally offended by anything that masquerades as poetry, because it happens so often in every possible arena of entertainment and consumption, but this is essentially a coffee table book of one-line jokes.”
The kind of poetry I’d like to see from Drake would be more along the lines of his “30 for 30 Freestyle”; lyrics where he is, sure, doing a little posturing, but is also doing some honest inner reflection and even getting vulnerable. You know, putting some distance between his current self and his younger self, rather than making us feel like that gap is closing. He does something similar on “Too Much,” an all-timer and a meditation on how much he’s grown since his first sold-out show in Houston.
Knowing what Houston means to Drake, I was curious to know what the city’s current poet laureate, Aris Kian, would think of these champagne stanzas. Over email, she tells me that although the “smooth life” poem does in fact hit, the book to her amounts to “a goldmine of mediocre mic drops.” She continues, “Where he could push himself to indulge in the silliness and sentimentality that even the purest of poets would forgive, he disintegrates into petty abstractions and instead gives us lines like, ‘You were in my dream last night / They call that a nightmare, right?’”
So that makes three of us who found these poems to be silly, and two of us are professionals.
Kian, like Abdurraqib, also questions if these qualify as poems, and with regards to the aesthetic of the poems’ presentation, she feels that the book leaves something to be desired, adding, “Drake's poems operate within an excess of white space, a reduced set of images and limited punctuation. The tools of tension, breath and play are only explored through the typical two-line set up/punchline format.”
“Anyway,” Kian concludes. “Clap for the poet, not the scores.”
Much of Drake’s music is best consumed in clubs or house parties with low lighting and a bevy of intoxicants that offer the imbiber a euphoric blurring of the senses. It’s these conditions that can make his lyrics feel so real and serious and relatable and there is truly no one better at it than he. The lyrics from “Legend” on their own might not hit quite as hard if Drake wasn’t singing them so emphatically, and if you weren’t standing on a couch in a reserved section in the club belting them out with intensity to match. But, as a friend mentioned to me over text, subjecting his lyrics to the bright white of a mostly empty book page takes away the crucial context that allows his words to feel profound. Reading this book often gives you the same sensation as when the lights come on at the club. Perhaps if presented with more of an aesthetic, even just some simple Drake and/or Kenza doodles, we would feel as though we were more a part of the world, the same way we do when we listen to his music, but, in its current state, it’s a bit silly isn’t it? Maybe that’s the point; but it’d be smoother if I actually knew, instead of just pretending I do.