I was in a club in Spain this summer and in the few hours I was there I heard six different Drake songs. Every person in this club, Spanish, French, or American, knew the words and went wild. It then hit me that Drake, an artist that I don’t believe has ever made a great album, is the defining artist of my generation. Halfway across the globe from where he makes music everyone still knew each song.
With Drake’s debut 2009 mixtape finally hitting streaming services, it seems like the time to examine how this became the case. Drake’s origins are pretty well-known for how they differ from many in the hip-hop scene. Raised Jewish in Toronto, Drake worked on Degrassi to bring money back home and then began rapping on mixtapes. One of these featured a Lil Wayne sample, who heard it when he was contacted to gift the song. Instead he invited the 20-year old on tour.
So Far Gone was not only notable for being an unsigned mixtape that featured a Lil Wayne verse. It was notable for being a blueprint of the shape of hip-hop to come in the next decade. Wayne heard something special on this project and helped Drake to craft a mixtape that would lead to a historical bidding war.
To understand what exactly he was doing differently on this release, one has to examine his primary influence: Kanye West. While Drake and Kanye seem to engage in monthly Twitter wars now and Kanye even nearly withheld sample clearance of a song on this project, there was a time when Kanye was Drake’s idol.
By the time So Far Gone was released, Kanye had released four albums, but for as revered they were even then, no one saw it as true hip-hop. Kanye’s shift in hip-hop as a musical tool to discuss any topic and not just notoriety or violence was particularly influential to Drake, who was more interested in R&B than gangster rap and who named the mixtape So Far Gone as an ode to his worry that he was becoming “[like] the men our mothers divorced.”
The album with the most influence on Drake was the messy, misunderstood 808s and Heartbreaks, one of Kanye’s least consistent projects, but arguably the most influential album of the 2000s. Its ideas of incorporating R&B-style vocals with rap, 1980s-influenced beats, and lyrics about struggles were all new, yet would define hip-hop in the coming decade. And, of course, Drake was at the forefront of it.
So where does that leave Drake? Is he simply a populariser of sounds or a truly dynamic force? In some ways, he’s both. While So Far Gone is overlong and does not subtly blend its samples, it’s a damn good mixtape and way more focused and punchy with its ideas than 808s is. Tinkering with a sound to make it mainstream is arguably just as innovative as making the sound itself, but even if one is inclined to disagree, Drake is even more relevant a decade later.
Drake is in his 30s. I was nine when this record was released, yet everyone my age would claim he’s our generation. That’s because Drake has traded the ability to perfect a sound and make a great album to remain relevant with whatever is popular. This is not easy. In fact constantly innovating is often the mark of the rare, great artist.
The problem is artists like Kendrick or Bowie took time between these sound changes to make great albums. While Drake’s albums have a great single or two, changing sounds and releasing albums nearly every year has given Drake little time to perfect anything. Even more so, his time as a youth icon might be fading as despite success in 2018, it saw him get attacked by Pusha T on ‘The Story of Adidon’ noting how obsessive Drake is with his image as a relatable fatherless teen, when he’s really a 30-year old absentee father himself.
Drake will be an artist that people my age will fondly remember their youth to, whilst listening to a greatest hits album of his years from now, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But, I implore readers to take the time to listen to So Far Gone all these years later and remember the bidding war for a Canadian actor-turned-rapper’s contract. Whether he’s a great artist or just a pop icon, it’s safe to say the hype around his influence itself was not for nothing.
Image: The Come-Up Show via Wikimedia Commons