How Did Drake End Up Being So Far Gone?

Much of the criticism of Canadian singer/actor/rapper Drake has centered around his image–he’s alternatively been Wheelchair Jimmy from Degrassi; softer than cottonballs and baby thighs; a Canadian rapper wannabe who has the unfortunate habit of adding “AWWWWW” to the end of every stanza. I’m low-key thankful for this; without it we wouldn’t have the truly hilarious Big Ghost Chronicles review of Drake’s Take Care album, or, for that matter, Big Ghost’s truly hilarious review of Drake’s life. I have cried real tears of laughter at Big Ghost’s apt descriptions of Drake as a “human croissant”, or the only person in the world capable of turning sandpaper into moist towelettes, or Young Garnier Fructis aka The Kitten Whisperer aka the dude who holds down the top three spots of the softest rapper top ten lists. Big Ghost Chronicles isn’t unique in its antagonism of Drake (although it’s gotta be the best). Other people have gone in on him, from comments sections on hip hop sites to Common with his diss verse on the “Stay Schemin” Remix.  But while these characterizations might be deserved due to his own actions, they are unfortunate. That’s because Drake had, and may still have, the potential to actually be one of the greatest rappers of his generation. I already know how that probably sounds.

If that sounds crazy to you, it’s because either a) you watched Degrassi and therefore knew Drake only as Wheelchair Jimmy (I’ve never watched the show) or b) you started listening to Drake after he had blown up to the extent that “Best You Ever Had” was getting airplay. For me, Drake seemed to come out of nowhere. I remember when I first heard So Far Gone.  I thought then, and still do, that the joint was bananas. The main reason people don’t think of it as a classic is mostly because it was a free mixtape. Rappers do either one of two things: they either bring their best on mixtapes and try to “dumb down” their albums for radio, OR they set the bar super high on the mixtape so you’ll want to go buy the album. Considering that Drake hadn’t had any albums and was a new artist, I assumed that he was in the “show and prove” category. I didn’t know what the guy looked like or what he had done previously. I just knew that I liked “Successful” and “Lust For Life,” really appreciated hearing Bun B (one of my favorites) on “Uptown,” and thought Drake blacked the eff out on “Say What’s Real” and “Ignorant Sh*t.” In a world full of catchy hooks and vapid lyrics, here was a young guy going in without some stupid chant about popping bottles in VIP to distract you from wack verses. Besides, I could appreciate a rapper who knew something about Lykke Li, Santigold, Billy Joel, Tears For Fears, Peter Bjorn and John, and Gonzales. “If this is what he’s giving away for free,” I thought to myself, “I can’t wait to see what this guy does with an album and a crazy budget.” I wondered where he’d go. Maybe he’d go to the Roc, or to G.O.O.D. Music. Or maybe he’d sign with a major and get his own imprint, or he’d stay independent altogether. Heck, even if he ended up at Maybach Music Group, I knew he’d at least end up with some nice beats. How could this go wrong? The only real question in my mind around those days was whether J. Cole, Drake, or Jay Electronica would have the best debut album. Now that seems like forever ago.

While I waited for Thank Me Later to see a release date, I dug back into Drake’s archives. Like comic book superheroes, some rappers have better origin stories than others.  They found DMX rapping through a jaw that was wired shut; Jay-Z went from a low-level drug dealer to the mogul he is today; 50 Cent (sigh say it with me) got shot nine times; Eminem was discovered by Dre due to his performance in the Rap Olympics, Juvenile used to battle guys on his front porch all day and then send them away. On the other hand, Big Boi and Andre 3000 met in high school and Kanye was the son of an English professor. Drake falls somewhere in between. But he’s actually similar to Kanye and The Ultimate Name Dropper Game in one important way: he started out as a big fan of hip hop. He just loved hip hop, which isn’t so different from the rest of us who care deeply about music. I first came to this realization about Drake when I saw this video:

This guy just loved the music. He already had money. Think about this: how many people have you seen on a Cribs/Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous/How I’m Living type show who want to show you their CD’s? It’s not the car or the Scarface poster or the swimming pool that he’s most connected to. So I thought it was worth reflecting on how exactly Drake went from Drizzy to “Young Playtex” with DMX threatening to smack him up.

Drake knew he had something to prove. Unlike so many other actors and athletes and rich kids who decide to try rap, Aubrey seemed to take it seriously and to have a legitimate estimation of his abilities. His first mixtape, which wasn’t bad, was called Room For Improvement. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t anything special, either. It was actually refreshing: so many rappers try to claim they wear the crown before they even have a kingdom. He learned from that and came back a year later, in 2007, with a mixtape appropriately titled Comeback Season. It was an improvement over the first, for sure. But I definitely couldn’t have predicted he would make the leap from Comeback Season to So Far Gone. No one could.

But then I began to hear some disturbing news: Drake might sign with Young Money. It was difficult for me to imagine a situation in which having Lil Wayne as your boss is a great thing. Wayne had had some great mixtapes, and Tha Carter III was cool (although I still believe Tha Carter II is in some ways superior), but Wayne was showing some cracks in the foundation. I was concerned that Drake would never reach his full potential with a guy who’d one day get up on stage in a fedora and leggings and a skateboard and play the guitar much more poorly than Lauryn Hill had for her Unplugged album. At least Lauryn had those three chords down pat, plus lyrically her Unplugged album is fire. Wayne, on the other hand,  seemed to be choosing appearing over being. And Drake, if nothing else, seemed to be focused on really being himself on SFG and as an artist. I was concerned about whether this would be a good fit.

Shortly after Thank Me Later dropped, I had a conversation with my brother about the album. We agreed: the album wasn’t terrible, but it also wasn’t great, making it ultimately a disappointment. There are lots of rappers who could release this very same album to critical acclaim. But Drake’s previous work had set expectations pretty high for himself. There weren’t any of those blackout moments, less sincerity and earnestness, less rawness. In fact, Drake seemed to be over his rap career by the time his first album dropped.

Drake isn’t, in any real sense, a failure. He’s been successful as an actor and a musician, he’s made some very good songs. I appreciate the fact that he’s vulnerable and introspective in his music. It’s a nice change up from drug dealing and gun clapping. He’s sold a lot of records. At the end of the day, the music isn’t bad. It’s just not that good. Lil Wayne’s verse on “Miss Me” didn’t even come come close to anything he’d supplied on So Far Gone.  (One day, I’ll write about the rise and fall of the Artist Known As Wayne…but that’s a topic for another time.) The beat for “Over” is great the first time you hear it, but it doesn’t reach it’s full potential. I guess the problem, as I view it, is that post-mixtape Drake sounds manufactured for mass consumption. I’m sure the first McDonald’s burger tasted a lot different when there’s a guy in the back making meat patties than they do today now that they’ve got a worldwide distribution network selling billions of pounds of Manifest Beef. Listening to Drake now is like getting a massage with a bulletproof vest on: you’re going through the motions, but the feelings just aren’t there.

The situation’s not hopeless, though. Drake still has potential. Maybe he has to leave Young Moolah. Maybe he’s got to disappear for a while and lock himself away in a room, or maybe he needs to go somewhere and rent a house or the top floor of a hotel and get in his zone. I don’t know–but what I do know is that he’s got to find within himself the kid who just wanted to show you his CD collection. He’s got to find the guy who put everything he had into an album only to realize how much room for improvement there still was, who had the tenacity to come back. Drake might’ve played a character on Degrassi, but he does himself a disservice by being anyone other than himself on record. Drake is special because, in the the video where he shows you his CDs, in the effort he put into his mixtape, you can tell that Aubrey was a fan first and foremost. And as a fan, he put out the music that he wished he could hear. As an artist, he’s putting out the music that he knows will sell. What he fails to realize is that who he is is enough: that his real life is what he want to hear and what will sell. Drake’s got to say what’s real.  I wonder if he ever listens to “Say What’s Real” and finds the lyrics are more true for him today than they were when he wrote them:

Why do I feel so alone
Like everybody passing through the studio                                                                                                                                                                                 is in character
As if he acting out a movie role
Talking bullsh*t as if it was for you to know
And I don’t have the heart to give these b*tch n****z the cue to go
So they stick around, kicking out feedback
And I entertain it as if I need that
I had a talk with my uncle and he agreed that
My privacy about the only thing I need back
But it’s hard thinking in polite flows
When Stephano Polato suits are your night clothes
And Jordan sweat suits are you flight clothes
And you still make it even when they say your flight closed

Maybe Drake feels like he’s put enough of himself out there, and that by making up a character he can get some of the privacy he needs back. Maybe it’s harder to go against the grain when what you’re doing is bringing the checks in. Fame is a monster. I don’t know how good Drake good be, but I have a feeling that he could be great. And if that’s true, you might understand why he takes the path of least resistance. Look at what happened to D’Angelo, Dave Chappelle, Lauryn Hill. They all paid a price. But look at what they’ve left behind: Voodoo, The Chappelle Show, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.  You don’t want to be Amy Winehouse and create a Back to Black and end up dead at 27. But you also don’t want to look back and realize you missed a moment. I hope Drake finds that balance and produces the work that we  I still think he’s capable of. Maybe Drake has been able to congratulate himself on successfully avoiding becoming J.Cole (critically acclaimed, commercially stunted) or Jay Electronica (when is that album coming out?) or Mims (a one hit wonder who couldn’t build a fan base). Those are understandable goals. But Drake also has to content himself with not being Kendrick Lamar, someone who stayed true to what he wanted to do and produced the brilliant and platinum-selling album Good Kid, M.a.a.d City. Someone who’s done something artistically powerful and still gets invited to perform on Saturday Night Live…someone who had Lady Gaga on a hook for “B*tch Don’t Kill My Vibe” and chose not to release her version of the performance even though it likely would have added “crossover appeal,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. Drake’s seen it up close and personal, having made a guest appearance on “Poetic Justice” from the GKMC album. Maybe Kendrick reminded him of what’s possible. I wish Drake could have been in the studio with Andre 3000 and Dr. Dre listening to playback–just so he could remember what that magic moment feels like: the moment when you hear something that you know is incredible, and that one day the world will sing along, but right now, right at this moment, these people in this room are the only people who even know that this song exists. There’s a choice that Drake can still make. I won’t begrudge him either way–after all, I’m motivated by my mostly selfish ambition to listen to this great unheard album that I think he still has inside him. But really, it’s a loss for music if he doesn’t come through. Of course, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe So Far Gone is the best he can do. But I doubt it.

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