As Drake prepares to release his new album ‘Views From The 6’, we root through the archive to remember what the Toronto Rapper was like four years ago, amidst the success of ‘Take Care’. This article originally appeared in NME on April 21, 2012.
When Sam Wolfson met one of the world’s biggest rap stars, he expected all ego and arrogance. He got that. But he also found Drake obsessing over sadness, alienation and the girls that got away.
A group of truanting school girls gape at the entrance of the five-star Corinthia Hotel in Central London. With each promising spin of the revolving doors, their breath shortens and shrieks crescendo. They’re so pent up with the excitement about the possibility of seeing Drake that there’s audible unclenching every time another pasty business man hobbles out.
Drake, of course, entered through the back door a few hours earlier and is now sitting pretty in room 321. Even here he can’t escape female attention. A journalist sits on the steps outside his room waiting for an interview. “I don’t want to do it”, she whispers to us, her knees clanging together anxiously. “I never normally get nervous, it’s just him, you know?”
“Just him” is one of the most confusing characters in music today. Last year he celebrated his second Number One US album, ‘Take Care’. The night before we meet he played the second of two sold-out nights at The O2, shows which are basically a warm-up for his headline slot in the UK Capitals Hyde Park this summer. On paper, 25-year-old Drake is a transatlantic superstar.
Yet he’s spent the past 24 hours in London acting more like a teenager bedroom-producer from Clapton. “I’ve just been playing FIFA, eating Jamaican Food and listening to dancehall in little basements”, he tells us as we settle in his suite. This morning he was hanging out with 19-year-old Sneakbo, a boxfresh rapper from south London known for his pirate radio smash ‘The Wave’. “That’s just what I do. I don’t wana change just ‘cos I’m in The O2. There’s only about five rappers who could sell out there right now. I just happen to be the young boy; there’s no point me trying to be older than I am.”
It’s not just in snatched moment’s bogling in the nightclubs of Shoreditch – he was spotted ambling out of Dalston slum-trendy club Catch 22 recently – in which Drake eschews rap clichés. ‘Take Care’ is packed with minimal off-kilter production more at home in room two of Fabric than on MTV. Drake’s currently scouting for new producers to join him for album three, with Jamie Smith from The xx, SBTRKT and a number of bashment and dancehall stars in the frame.
“For me the David Guetta stuff just doesn’t work” he says when we ask whether the current LOLPOP infatuation might one day catch up with him. “I don’t really wana go there. There’s other artists, that’s their sound. They feel in order to thrive internationally that they gotta do straightforward, four on the floor, David Guetta, Pitbull music. For me, I’d rather go to somebody like Jamie xx and tell him ‘Look I really wana turn the club upside down, but I wana do it with integrity, with soul'”
So which Drake is the real deal? ‘Take Care’ is littered with references to his gaudy lifestyle: ‘drinking at the Palms’ or blowing ‘50k on a vacation’. His hotel room has the trappings of a rap megastar: an entourage who are never introduced, minibar filled with three-syllable booze. Just before the interview he orders some chicken pasta. When two spectacular plates arrive, one full of pasta and one full of chicken, he sends them back. “I asked for chicken pasta, I don’t know what this is.”
Drake’s been in a difficult relationship with fame for most of his life. He became a teen star at 15, joining the cast of Degrassi (like a Canadian Hollyoaks with Billy Talent on the soundtrack). For the first time, people started to notice who he was. Girls would ask for pictures when went to the mall “but I never really thought I was that big of a deal because there were kids around me whose lights seemed to be shining much brighter than mine”. So he switched tack, releasing three mixtapes, the last of which got him signed to Lil Wayne’s Young Money label.
Things change when you go from actor to rapper, as the fame etiquette shifts from polite modesty to peacocking your new-found wealth and sexual appeal. Bravado and an inflated sense of self-importance tend to follow. But Drake failed to deliver in the self-congratulation stakes. What sets him apart from just about every hip-hop star in the charts is his neurosis: an inability to live in the moment. On his records he flits between self-aggrandisement and self-doubt. But when he’s feeling down, instead of crying in the shower, he throws a party: to feel alienated and alone surrounded by women and fans.
“I hope I don’t come across as being a Debbie Downer!” he exclaims. “It’s just hard for me to paint the façade for you, and be like ‘All my problems are in the past, look at the Rolly, look at the money, I got everything’ because it doesn’t work like that. It’s not all happy, it’s never all good. I live by that saying. That’s how I protect myself in life: ‘It’s never all good.”
His biggest struggle, despite the longing loins of those waiting outside, is being happy with a woman. Although his intimidating dating record is rumoured to include Rihanna, Serena Williams and an endless carousel of the world’s most successful black models, he constantly bemoans being unable to find and maintain a steady relationship. This we struggle to believe. When was the last time he got knocked back? “I fell for somebody I liked so much. So, so much. Not a celebrity, just a normal girl. She was like ‘I won’t be in a relationship with you, you’re a rapper and I think more of myself than go through the bullshit: I can’t read the rumours everyday whether they’re true or not’. That killed me. Damn, it was a lose/lose, a fight I can’t even fight because she’s already bowing out.”
Another of Drake’s lost conquests is the inspiration for ‘Marvin’s Room’, an eight-minute odyssey about drunk dialling that forms the centrepiece of ‘Take Care’. In it, Drake tanked up on “cups of the Rose”, starts calling old flames, girls who’ve long moved on to new partners. He claims he can’t help himself, “I don’t think I’m conscious of making monsters out of the women I sponsor until it all goes bad…” he ponders, while jabbing his thumb at his iPhone as he stumbles around in VIP bars. Is the drunk dialling still going on then? “Not drunk dialling so much. I’m more of a drunk texter. I write Peach Ciroc poems. When that Peach Ciroc comes into my head and starts hitting the bloodstream, the words start flowing to exes. Some nights I’ll be in the club and start thinking back – it gets emotional”.
In real life, they don’t always reply. In ‘Marvin’s Room’ the girl eventually picks up. “Are you drunk right now?” she whispers. Drake tries to persuade her to forget about her man and let him come over. He does so with the immortal line; “I’m just saying, you could do better” It’s typical of what could generously be called altruistic arrogance.
At the moment he’s doing his best to reach out and do something nice, he belies his own high opinion of himself. “Take the security guard at The O2 last night”, he mentions in response to a question about whether he flaunts his fame. “I said bye to him as I was walking out of the door. I shook his hand and said ‘Thanks for everything’. I could have just walked by and said nothing but hopefully that guy will go on and say, ‘I remember when Drake was nice to me’. It’s moments like this that have earned him a bad reputation. For all his supposed self-awareness and introspection, he’s still an egotistical millionaire moaning about how great everything’s going. One newspaper said ‘Take Care’ consists mostly of “self-pitying whinges about expecting sympathy for liking strippers”. Most famously, a blogger called Big Ghost suggested that Drake could “pollinate a flower wit his fucking breath” and that each morning he sits in a ‘satin man nightie n has a full glass of breast milk”.
What his detractors ignore is that ‘Take Care’ is an intelligent response to the rap mantra that money can buy. It deals with things everybody feels: loneliness, regret, the nagging sense that everything would have been easier if we’d never left our hometown and stayed with our first girlfriend. Yes, it deals with the well-worn subject of the perils of fame, but it deals with them at a time in which the sacrifice you have to make to be famous has never been greater.
A sex tape, a breakdown, an eating disorder, an addiction, abuse from the media: they used to be occupational hazards, now they’re closer to inevitabilities. Drake’s trying to find his way out of fame’s trapping with sheer charm and self-awareness. Besides, by the end of our interview, the ego has all but disappeared. Staged responses have descended into frank conversation whether he has what it takes to turn his life around.
NME: From what you’ve said it sounds like you’ve got yourself together. Do you think things have changed since you made the record?
“If I didn’t have it together I wouldn’t be able to be that open and honest with you. I think that people think my life is just a shambles and it’s really not. The reason I can make an album like this is because I actually have a grip on my life. I recognise all my issues. When I say “I’ve had sex four times this week, I’ll explain” (on ‘Marvin’s Room’), I recognise that my life was going a little too fast at that point. I’m not depressed emotional guy that people try and paint me to be, I’m just observant. My mother always said 50 per cent of resolution to a problem is recognising the problem. The other 50 per cent is solving it.”
But you can’t solve the other 50 per cent. For the foreseeable, your life is going to keep being one big party.
“Well yeah, and that’s why I can keep making music! I haven’t got the resolution part down. I’m only 25, I’ve got time to fix the other part of it.”
So is ‘Take Care’ like a first strike? Are you just being defensive with the media before they turn on you?
“But I don’t live recklessly. I don’t have skeletons in my closet.”
That’s what they all say.
“It’s not necessarily me covering up or trying to be defensive, I just don’t do the dumb shit in the first place to get in trouble. If I’m drunk I’mma go out the back door. I ain’t gonna walk out the front so you see me stumbling and dropping my keys. I’m not that guy, I’m not dumb. I wana be in this position as long as I possibly can. I mean, I will be honest, any sex tape I’ve ever made… I own it.”
With that, our conversation quickly draws to a close. In a second we’re being shown out of this hotel room while the fretting female journalist outside is ushered in. Drake goes straight for the hug and a squeak passes across the room. As we leave, satisfied that Drake is just a regular guy, we hear one last hip-hop demand: “You! You ordered me that pasta?”