Bling King: How Drake Became The Golden Boy Of Rap

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A week on from the release of his fourth album, ‘Views’, Drake finds himself the king of rap. David Renshaw looks into what makes the so-called ‘6 God’ the quintessential modern artist

February 24, 2016. Drake is onstage with Rihanna at the Brit Awards at London’s O2 Arena. It’s just after the watershed and the Barbadian star is grinding against the Canadian rapper as they perform her new single ‘Work’. An hour later, 29-year-old Drake has blown off the ceremony to zip over to east London and jump on stage at Village Underground with fast-rising south London grime crew Section Boyz, who he’s been praising on Instagram. Flame emojis light up social media timelines as fan-shot videos are shared, and Section Boyz post a video on Instagram with the message “life only just began”.

These two hours of Drake’s life encapsulate his unique position in the music world. He’s a household name who megastars call up for guest verses on hit singles. He’s a champion of the underground, who’s as at home at an awards ceremony watched by millions as he is on stage with a bunch of 21-year-olds from Croydon. He’s a product, and master of, the internet. And he is, following the release of fourth album ‘Views’, arguably the biggest name in rap. Jay Z is semi-retired, Eminem hasn’t released a good record since 2009’s ‘Relapse’, Kanye West’s genius is undeniable, but his erratic nature has alienated some fans, and Kendrick Lamar is awesome and powerful, but not yet a megastar. Step up Drake, who’s asserted himself at the top of the pile. But how has he done it? And what is it about every album and video he releases that connects so overwhelmingly with his fans?

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The middle-class child actor

“Started from the bottom now we’re here / Started from the bottom now my whole team f***ing here”. So rapped Drake on 2013’s ‘Started From The Bottom’. But it’s fair to say that, by any measure, he did not start from the bottom. Born Aubrey Drake Graham in 1986, he was raised by his Jewish mother Sandi, a teacher, and musician father Dennis in upper middle-class Forest Hill in Toronto. Things weren’t always cushy for him though. At the age of five his parents split and he went to live with Sandi. Dennis, a drummer who played with Jerry Lee Lewis, was in and out of prison for “an assault charge or a drug charge or something,” Drake told Complex in 2011. “I didn’t [really] have a father, because he was in jail two separate times. He did a two-year bid and a three-year bid.”

At 15 he was cast on high-school drama Degrassi: The Next Generation, in which he played Jimmy Brooks, a high-school basketball star left disabled after being shot by a classmate. He was making music at the time too, and self-released his unimpressive debut mixtape ‘Room For Improvement’ in 2006. Juggling the two became too much of a compromise for his Degrassi producers, and they gave him an ultimatum. “I chose this life,” he told W Magazine last year, and quit the show in 2007.

It took another two years for Drake’s breakthrough to come, with third mixtape ‘So Far Gone’. In an early display of the social media fanbase that would push him to the top, word of mouth about his emotionally honest music saw the physical release become one of the year’s best-selling rap albums, a million or so copies behind Jay Z’s ‘The Blueprint 3’ and Eminem’s ‘Relapse’, but ahead of Flo Rida and 50 Cent. A deal with New Orleans rapper Lil Wayne’s Young Money record label followed.

The oddball rapper from Toronto

Drake is fixated with putting Toronto, the most populated city in Canada, on the map. He’s nicknamed the city ‘The 6’, thought to relate to Toronto’s 416 phone code, and crowned himself The 6 God. In the past he’s made a point of referencing local spots, as on 2015’s ‘Used To’ when he mentions “the Hazy” (prestigious hotel The Hazelton), or ‘Connect’ from 2013 when he lets us into his preferred driving route through the city: “I take Eglinton to 401 east / And exit at Markham Road in the east end”.

His insistence on repping Toronto matters because although the city has produced artists ranging from cheesy rockers Barenaked Ladies to electro-punk duo Crystal Castles, there have been no rap superstars. Local music expert and writer of 2012 book Far From Over: The Music And Life Of Drake, Dalton Higgins, says Drake thrives on the lack of competition. “Hip hop has been patiently waiting for a new region to engage the culture in a way that NYC, Los Angeles, or the southern US states have,” he says. “Toronto is this oddball, futuristic city that only the similarly oddball narrative of Drake could emerge from – he’s black, he’s Jewish, he went to schools in the wealthiest neighbourhoods. That is not the typical rap star narrative. Drake uses this outlier status to his benefit.” If Drake was from a famous hip hop hotbed like New York, LA or Atlanta, he’d have the weight of history on his back and a load of other rappers competing for the top spot. Toronto is under the radar in comparison, so Drake’s mythological take on the city is exotic and alluring.

The lyricist changing what it means to be male

It was Kanye West’s 2008 album ‘808s & Heartbreak’, with its emotive self-indulgence, plus romantic verses from Outkast’s Andre 3000, that gave Drake his heart-on-sleeve style. On his pre-‘808s…’ releases – ‘Room For Improvement’ and 2007’s ‘Comeback Season’ – he was trying to be funny, tough, or whatever he thought people wanted. “Those guys made it OK for melody to be introduced,” Drake told The Daily Beast in 2011. “They made it OK to not be the most street dude. I started to believe in myself when I saw those two.” He’s remained faithful to this approach. He cries when he gets dumped, he loves his mum, he sing-raps about running baths for girls, and as he’s risen to prominence, his own influence on the mentality of the mainstream has grown.

In the last six years there’s been a shift in what male bravado is, from macho and guarded to tear-stained and open. One Direction rebel Zayn Malik couldn’t have released the contemplative R&B of this year’s solo debut ‘Mind Of Mine’ if Drake hadn’t made it cool on second album ‘Take Care’ in 2011. Drake protégé The Weeknd has taken the high-life existentialism in Drake’s lyrics and run with it, and Justin Bieber’s 2015 sad-faced redemption had more than an air of Drake about it. Essentially, anyone making sad-in-the-club music owes a debt to him.

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The artist inspired by The States, UK and Jamaica

Drake and local Toronto producer Noah ‘40’ Shebib (who he still works with today) were sampling then-blog-friendly acts such as Lykke Li and Peter, Bjorn and John on 2009’s ‘So Far Gone’, but soon ditched the indie stuff and adopted the more traditional hip hop sounds of cavernous drums and bass on major label debut ‘Thank Me Later’ in 2010. It wasn’t until 2011, and the track ‘Take Care’, that Drake began to experiment.

He displayed a savvy ear for the UK underground music by lifting xx mainman Jamie xx’s remix of Gil Scott-Heron song ‘I’ll Take Care Of U’, and turning it into a rap banger by drafting in Rihanna for the chorus. Since then he’s refined a sound that takes in the best of what the US, UK and Jamaica has to offer, as evident on 2013 album ‘Nothing Was The Same’ and last year’s mixtapes ‘If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late’ and ‘What A Time To Be Alive’ – the latter a collaborative release with Future, the dark soul of Atlanta rap.

It means he approached ‘Views’ with a sound seven years in the making. A number one single from the album, ‘One Dance’, samples Jamaican dancehall artist Wizkid as well as Kyla, a British singer whose 2008 single ‘Do You Mind’ is used in the catchy chorus. Logan Sama, the Radio 1Xtra DJ who co-produced ‘One Dance’ with Canadian Nineteen85 (see also: ‘Hotline Bling’ and ‘Hold On We’re Going Home’), says the track perfectly encapsulates Drake’s approach to music. “He recognises the relationship between hip hop, grime, UK funk and afrobeat,” he says. “It’s the same people making the same music but in different environments. It’s like we’re all cousins around the world.” Sama has worked alongside grime crew Boy Better Know and UK rapper Wiley (who Drake referred to as a “#legend” on Instagram last year), and says Drake isn’t bandwagon-jumping with his Union Jack-waving. “He’s just fuelled by people making good music,” he says.

Drake has, though, been accused of picking up on whatever is cool in music at the time and using it to his advantage, and earlier this year Toronto-based MC Mo-G called him a “swagger jacker”. In 2014 he remixed rap crooner iLoveMakonnen’s ‘Tuesday’, and last year added a verse to the exuberant ‘Trap Queen’ for Fetty Wap. The releases helped make iLoveMakonnen and Fetty Wap big, but they made Drake even bigger. Nobody benefits from a Drake co-sign as much as Drake.

The master of the internet

Drake has always been an easy target for fellow rappers. Tyga once said, “I don’t like Drake as a person. He’s just fake to me”, and Puff Daddy went as far as punching him in a row at Liv nightclub in Miami Beach in 2014. Common – a calm and contemplative MC better known for his role in civil rights film Selma than for clashing with rivals – was among the first to lay into Drake. On his 2009 track ‘Sweet’, he rapped: “Singing all around me man, ‘la la la!’ / You ain’t motherf**kin’ Frank Sinatra.” It was later established that the friction centred around Drake’s relationship with Common’s ex, the tennis superstar Serena Williams. A relationship with Rihanna caused similar problems with Chris Brown, in a beef that culminated in a bloody bar fight in New York in 2012.

Biographer Dalton Higgins suggests Drake’s foes don’t take him seriously. “He’s considered an easy target because he appeared to represent the antithesis of what rap once stood for, and where it came from,” he says. “People didn’t know what to make of him. But people grossly misread who they were battling.”

It was the summer of 2015 when Drake fully harnessed the power of the internet to help fight his battles. He’d always been shareable (he is, after all, the man who coined the term YOLO on Lil Wayne collab ‘The Motto’ in 2011). And parody Twitter accounts such as @Drakethetype did things like riffing on embarrassing yet believable situations Drake might find himself in (“Drake the type of dude to send you a thank you card for coming to his party”). Other memorable Drake memes include him looking grossed out after kissing Madonna at Coachella in 2015, and awkwardly getting a lapdance from Nicki Minaj in her ‘Anaconda’ video. At the root of all Drake memes is the suggestion he’s corny. But they come from fans, not haters. It’s all affectionate.

On July 22 2015, old-school Philadelphia MC Meek Mill tweeted accusations that Drake used co-writers on his raps. To Mill, this was enough to end a career, but it didn’t turn out that way. Drake responded with two diss tracks, ‘Charged Up’ and ‘Back To Back’, both debuted on his Apple Music show in July. Mill was left reeling, and rap fans had a field day mocking him. Drake struck a finishing blow at his annual OVO Fest in Toronto last August, when he performed ‘Back To Back’ in front of a Power-Point presentation of the anti-Meek Mill memes.

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Drake, having become one of the first rappers to find his audience on the internet, had used that fanbase to turn from hunted to hunter. He released his ‘Hotline Bling’ video on July 31 2015, at the peak of his shareability. Thanks to his awkward dancing, every second of it was custom built to be turned into a GIF, and the video was parodied by everyone from Channel 4 News’ Jon Snow to wannabe US president Donald Trump, yet at no point did Drake’s cultural cache fade. Best of all: Drake knew it would happen. “We were looking at playbacks, choreographer Tanisha Scott told Complex in October 2015. “And he was like, ‘This is totally going to be a meme.’” The 6 God is in on the joke. He is, right now, untouchable.