If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late is great. It’s a really great album. I’m sure it will sustain its status as one of the best records of 2015. Surely, the album I’ve given the most spins. But its release cemented a worrisome change that has been percolating since the cultural reaction to Drake’s rise with 2010’s Thank Me Later and 2011’s Take Care: he’s become a rapper. If that sounds senseless, bear with me.
From the opening of Drake’s canonical debut, he exhibited the harmonious hybridity of his R&B/rap style. This beautiful, unabashed, personal honesty awash in smooth tones accompanied by sporadic verses, beats and guests was present but imbalanced on Thank Me Later, omnipresent and perfected on Take Care, slightly fatigued on Nothing Was The Same, and almost extinguished on If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. From the ashes of his once dominant R&B aesthetic arose Drake, the full-time rapper. Here, I discuss the prevalent Drake meme of yesteryear that poked fun at the emotional honesty of his R&B stylings, how that popular apprehension is a response to the conflicting sentiments of R&B and hip hop, and how Drake’s slight but important transformation can be read as a response to the image listeners were cultivating of him: a softy.
Although he raps throughout “Fireworks”, Thank Me Later opener, the prevailing mood of R&B supersedes any classification of hip hop. The following track, “Karaoke” displays even less of a battle between genres; it is, without doubt, an R&B track. Yes, he stops halfway through to spit a short-winded verse, but even that maintains the R&B spirit: “I’m always up too late/I worry ‘bout you there alone/in that place you call your home/warm nights and cold Patron.”
The genres of R&B and rap push and pull throughout the entirety of Thank Me Later; it’s telling that the album’s first two singles are the strictly hip hop “Over” and the sappy, sans rap “Find Your Love” (perhaps as a marketing maneuver to explore Drake’s potential with each target audience or optimize his skillset amongst multiple audiences). But the album shines when he gives into his foremost talent as an R&B artist with rapping tendencies, when he fills an R&B cannoli with rap cream. Wait, yuck. When he fills his R&B quiver with a few rap arrows.
And somehow, Drake’s R&B with an admixture of rap has always been culturally transfigured and repackaged as hip hop. He has always been referred to as a hip hop artist. Of course, this is also how he has always been marketed – as a once core member of Young Money, and therein under the tutelage of Lil’ Wayne. Surely, this is how Drake has always wished to be marketed – as a hip hop artist, not as an R&B artist. Finally, with IYRTITL, Drake has turned the discourse into reality; his rap image has absorbed his R&B music, displacing it to a mere footnote, and perhaps, doing away with any perception of himself as soft (i.e. open to exploring his emotions).
And I hate it. I mean, I love it still; IYRTITL is great. But in context, if IYRTITL comes at the expense of the rewarding hybridity of Take Care and songs like “Furthest Thing” and “Too Much” then I’ll be devastated.
Although not prevalent anymore, in recent years past, parallel to Drake’s rise, there was a field of memes that went something like this:
The joke throughout the Drake meme is that Drake’s too sensitive, that he cares too much about any number of things. These memes come from the expectation of Drake as hard as a result of being considered a rapper, which, as seen in this example, is often shorthand for excelling in personal pursuits at the expense of others, especially women.
While there’s a lot going on in these memes, I want to unpack how the Drake meme exhibited how Drake’s sensitivity, or emotional openness, was considered aberrant and ripe for comedy given his label as a hip hop artist. We’re not used to hearing rappers be so confessional, confronting their insecurities. We are, however, used to R&B artists laying out their emotional insecurities for all to see. For instance, Usher’s popular opus is even called Confessions. But that type of heedless emotionalism isn’t flush with the masculinity expected of a hip hop artist.
The public speculation about Drake’s hard-ness found in the Drake meme is inextricable from the machismo that has always saturated hip hop. This in-between space that Drake occupied, constantly oscillating between R&B and hip hop, problematized some people’s reception of his music, as well as his reaction to that reception. Thus, his R&B music creates a conflict of his “hard-ness.” If he doesn’t uphold an impenetrable posture by avoiding his proclivity to mine the depths of his emotional angst, then he will continue to be apprehended as soft.
As mentioned, R&B and hip hop are not conflicting in sound but attitude, and Drake’s talents are most evocative, poignant and astounding when he gives in to his hybridity, rapping over R&B tracks. But the trajectory of his catalogue, his artistic persona, and a large swath of his audience don’t seem to be comfortable with Drake being an R&B artist in rapper’s clothes.
Where Kanye doesn’t know how to be anything other than unabashedly honest in public, congruous with his music, Drake is less forthcoming in public as the confessional storyteller found on his albums. Instead, he wants to be the epitome of macho and cool, incongruous with the emotional honesty of a large fraction of his oeuvre. That is, until IYRTITL was the musical realization of his physical presence.
Off Drake’s 2013 record, Nothing Was The Same, “Worst Behaviour” is such an abrasive (albeit highly enjoyable) digression in tone because of how firmly “rap” the track is, aesthetically. Although an outlier on NWTS, the song would feel at home anywhere on IYRTITL. Upon the release of NWTS, Grantland’s Steven Hyden had this to say about the track: “Drake comes off at his most ridiculous when he attempts traditional macho posturing instead of subverting it.” Drake has a talent for matching form with lyrical content, but unfortunately, it cuts both ways as his most rigid beats often accompany his most rigid machismo.
Hyden continues, “When Drake sticks to more familiar subject matter – his conflicted feelings about women, how they make him feel, and how he feels about how they make him feel – he can be a penetrating lyricist.” But, of course, the type of subversion that Hyden and I agree makes up Drake’s most incisive work is the same material that yields him criticism via the Drake meme.
Nothing Was The Same highlight, “Furthest Thing”, envelopes my argument in real-time. The first 3 minutes is a beautiful lament of growing apart at the expense of personal work; it’s sentimental and truly sad, reprising the album’s titular line. And then, the song shifts to a macho manifesto as if to cover the tracks of his open wound. In part, as Hyden reminds us, that conflict of attitude is what has always been so mesmerizing about Drake. It makes him a confounding figure, and perhaps, allows us to enjoy his emotionally forthcoming side as a contrast to his machismo.
But, that balance of emotions is near non-existent on IYRTITL, a fun, sometimes great album that spends too much time spelunking in the musty caves of rap’s most dull stereotypes. Drake has attempted to course-correct from the Drake meme and any inane contestation of his soft-ness by creating an album full of “Worst Behaviour”s. The regretful amount of attention to personal work he laments on “Furthest Thing” has now been turned into a celebration.
While the “running through the 6 with my woes” chorus of “Know Yourself” remains the most stunning moment on the LP, most of the more interesting, usefully introspective lyrical content of IYRTITL exists on the album’s disjointed last third, which, unsurprisingly, finds Drake pulling his R&B skeletons out of the closet (“Company”, “Jungle”). Unfortunately, the days of “Marvin’s Room”, where a slow, extended, self-reflexive drunk dial is used as the centerpiece for a Drake record seem over.
Perhaps an alternative response should have less to do with how we categorize Drake, based on genre, but how we need to make room in rap music for a wider range of emotions. Throughout the first three albums of Drake’s career, he made steady headway in such a vein, as a de facto advocate of a more progressive form of hip hop, pushing for an acceptance of more emotional honesty and self-reflection in a genre that pervasively foregoes such behavior. Hopefully, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late is only a minor deviation and Drake has not abandoned that campaign trail for good.