Self-Titled Eponymous: Why We Watch Drake

Having never seen Degrassi, I don’t know much about Drake, a/k/a Aubrey Graham’s history in portraying Jimmy Brooks on the popular Canadian teenage drama. But there’s no question it represents a weird hip hop origin story. Even more unexpected wasn’t so much the fact that Drake had aspirations to be a rapper; it’s not like that was an unheard of phenomenon in the world of celebrities. The surprising result was that Drake was actually…well, he was really good. So good, he piqued the interest of Lil Wayne, signed a deal, and went on to rap alongside some of the best in the game (Jay-Z, Kanye West, Young Jeezy, et al.). It wasn’t long before the unexpected rap star was being touted as the next big thing, all leading up to the release his official debut LP, Thank Me Later, which was released almost one month ago.

Well, surprise! Thank Me Later isn’t very good, at least in my opinion. The listless and redundant-sounding songs seem to fade in and out of each other, many of which eschew well-crafted hooks for auto-tuned wailings or rambling, overly long choruses over the sparse and mostly unexciting sonic landscapes. In between these hooks, Drake seems to fill in the gaps with his brand of stuttered, moderately off-beat flow, cramming in words to fit rhymes or strike a punchline or lyric that reeks of over-exertion in the attempt to seem “lyrical,” while still being street enough to appeal to the masses.

There’s no question that Graham’s voice is striking in a smooth, warm, and strong manner; and in a way, his earnestness comes across as real and sincere, at times almost making up for the missteps that plague the album as a whole. His commitment, however on or off target it might be, is displayed to great effect in tracks like “Fireworks,” one of the few songs that works with its slow, ambient beat and reflective lyrics. It’s the kind of song that would have worked best as a closing bow, an earned moment after an album that took you somewhere; only Drake chooses to use it as the table setter for the whole effort, further showing how much the album, and maybe Drake, strives to be something that it isn’t. It isn’t 808s and Heartbreaks, as much as songs like “The Resistance” and “Karaoke” wish to exemplify the concept. And it isn’t Tha Carter IV, as much as songs like “Up All Night” or “Fancy” may want to play off the best side of flossy, dumbed down rap. But hey, “Over” is a pretty awesome track, I’ll give it that much.

So the album wasn’t my cup of tea (as I’ll show later, plenty of people loved it, so it’s not like my opinion is definitive). But I’m more interested in what Drake’s initial effort represents: a mainstream “pop-rap” album created by a self-proclaimed “hip hop head — an unreconstructed backpack rapper’” who grew up on Tribe Called Quest and touts his favorite emcee as Phonte, of indie darlings group Little Brother.

Generally, a “backpacker” is a term from the ’80s and early ’90s used to describe NYC urban culture kids who wore backpacks to hold their spray paint cans and other tagging paraphernalia. Sometime in the late ’90s with the rise of the underground movement, it came to be used as a term describing any hip hop fan who only listened to underground hip hop, exemplified by the early fans of acts like Company Flow, Mos Def & Talib Kweli, and the like. Sometime towards the end of the decade, the term began to take a derogatory nature, used to describe fans who ONLY listened to indie acts, refusing to even acknowledge the popular existence of rap; many of whom were white suburbanite kids who grew up during hip hop’s boom in the 1990s.

Drake’s musical pedigree unquestionably falls into this era, born in 1986 and spending his formative years in a period when indie rap was peaking during a time when rap music was always in the popular spotlight. Regarding the racial aspects of the backpacker aesthetic, Drake grew up a half-black/half-Jewish kid, splitting time between two cities: one, Toronto, a city whose underground rap scene developed its own brand of flossy yet lyrically gifted and indie-approved acts like Choclair, Saukrates and Kardinall Offishall, exploded during the same era (Choclair, Saukrates); and two, Memphis, one of the main scenes that helped to formulate the Southern rap blueprint giving way to the Southern rap boom that his eventual benefactor, Lil Wayne, was very much a large part.

All the elements were there for Drake to develop into what he eventually became: an artist with a strong sense of commercial awareness, coupled with a social and self-conscious mindstate. He was both anchored by a dedication to rap’s roots, while also somewhat standing apart from the insular community of rap’s urban culture due to his location, privileged youth, and racial identity. In a way, it makes complete sense for Drake’s Thank Me Later to sound as it does: confused, flickering from club banger to somber, introspective navel-gazing; an effort to create something new, but still shackled to a musical sensibility that rests in the footsteps of those before, sometimes veering into mimickry.

There’s a lot of hate out there for Drake’s new album. Hell, there’s a lot of hate out there for Drake, period; whether it’s the fact that the dude from Degrassi is now rappin’ with Jay-Z and Lil Wayne, or the infamous Blackberry “freestyle” that had Drake reading lyrics off his phone while rhyming at Funkmaster Flex’s Hot 97 show, or from close-minded rap fans who believe that a rapper has to fit a certain mold to be considered true to the game.

And sure, some of the criticism is warranted, but most of it is misdirected negativity rooted in an anachronistic view to what rap music is inevitably going to become. I can’t help but be fascinated by what Drake represents for the future: already christened as one of the avatars of the post-gangster modern emcee image, Drake seems more concerned with creating pop music steeped in rap’s sensibilties; and as much as Thank Me Later may sound like a normal rap album, the place it comes from and the current landscape of popular rap music makes me wonder if this is not so much an album that fails to be a good rap album, but rather strives to be something that’s one step beyond rap, as flawed an effort it might be. You can’t say that Drake didn’t try to create something different with this album; and in an age where pop rap arguably sounds…well, tired, Drake deserves some respect for creating pop music that isn’t simply another obnoxious, forgettable, hook-heavy, mindless rap single about guns, hoes and booze. And just because I don’t like itdoesn’t mean Thank Me Later isn’t getting a lot of love out there either. The LP sold 447K in its first week, and entered Billboard as the number one album on the R&B/HipHop and Rap albums chart. Since then, the album has been certified gold, and has been favorably reviewed by critics at major media sites like The AV Club, Paste Magazine, Village Voice, Spin and Vibe.

Most telling in Drake’s current place in the music scene is the surprisingly positive review Thank Me Later received from Pitchfork, an indie music site notoriously fickle about the hip hop acts it favors. There, Ryan Dombol gave the record a stellar 8.4 rating, praising it with a particularly interesting statement:

As much as rap is built on artful navel-gazing, it’s also founded in struggle. And just as Drake’s dramatically exposed selfishness is unique to hip-hop, so are his adversities. He grew up in an affluent Toronto suburb and was graced with everything but a functional pair of parents, who split when he was three. Like Kanye West before him, Drake vies for superstardom while embracing his non-drug-dealing, non-violent, non-dire history– one that connects with most rap fans in a completely reasonable way.

The backpackers of Drake’s era carried mixtapes and music collections with them everywhere they went, clutching on to these musical artifacts as if their lives depended on it. Now, we live in an age where music is disposable, lost in a cloud marked in mp3s on our laptops and ipods. Music, hip hop in particular, is increasingly antiseptic, even cold or cynical in a way that many of its current fans, having grown up in the ’90s, may not connect with in the way that more personable acts (like A Tribe Called Quest and the like, one of Drake’s major influences) used to be. And there’s something earnest, relatable, and well … real, in Drake’s music, as pop as it may be. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t keep us at an arm’s length, and is unapologetic in making music so influenced by its predecessors to the point where its derivativeness is earnest rather than sinister; so lost in its own sense of personal reflection and misguided drive that we, in our ever-increasingly voyeuristic society, are compelled to watch and engage with.

Say what you will about Thank Me Later; Lord knows I don’t have that much praise to say about it. But I know that I’m willing to give Drake another chance before writing him off as another flossy, boring popular rap industry creation (paging Mims?). He may not make the greatest rap album ever, but I truly believe he’s going to make something special by the time he’s done. It might not be rap as we have known it, but it may be the rap we come to know as we, the casual fans and the backpackers, stride into the future together, intrinsically linked whether we like it or not.

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