Drake is seen at the 9th Annual BET Awards on June 28, 2009, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles)
For the past six weeks, rapper Drake has been sitting at the top of the charts. What is the secret to this still-unsigned rapper’s success?
Last February, I fought the feeling. Every blog, from Nahright.com to Herfection, was pushing this new MC, Drake, with his then-new mixtape, “So Far Gone.” The tape’s cover art was pretty unassuming, decorated in black and white with a silhouette of a guy standing atop a pile of letters and looking up.
I don’t know about you, but when an artist drums up insurmountable hype before they’ve even released a debut album, let alone a decent single, and everyone is praising him or her, I’m cautious. I’m fine being late to the bandwagon. If I’m meant to join, the fans will still be there in my time.
Anyway, after brushing off a few weeks of daily Drake news, I attended a UGK listening for their last LP, “UGK 4 Life,” and talked with Bun B, who paused our conversation about Santigold to suggest that I listen to…Drake’s “So Far Gone.”
“It’s a great mixtape,” said Bun B. “Really.”
I told him I was protesting the Drake train and he said he’d done the same thing with Santigold’s self-titled album. Then he finally listened and he couldn’t get enough. I took that as a sign and said I’d give the light-skin MC a shot.
Popping the burned CD into my stereo, I immediately connected with “Successful,” Drake’s melancholy plea for international acclaim and financial achievement. “Any awards show or party I get fly for it/ I know that it’s coming/ I just hope that I’m alive for it,” raps Drake. It doesn’t get more emo than that folks.
But Drake’s raw similarity to Fiona Apple aside, I was impressed by his lyrics, flow and the mix tape’s diverse beats pulled from artists like Lykke Li and Pete Bjorn and John. These hipster anthems gave the newcomer credibility in indie rock circles, while his lyrics kept him relevant on radio stations like New York’s Hot 97. Not to mention the song, “Best I Ever Had,” became my favorite song for the month of March.
So how did this Canadian become the music’s newest poster child?
Drake, born Aubrey Graham to a white mother and a black father, was initially an actor. The 22-year-old spent seven seasons playing Jimmy, a basketball-star-turned-wheelchair-bound teen after a shooting, on the Canadian show, “Degrassi: The Next Generation.” While tween soap operas aren’t classically hip-hop, Drake had a salary to fund his first two mix tapes, 2006’s “Room For Improvement,” and 2007’s “Comeback Season” along with his first video for “Replacement Girl.” Meanwhile Jazz Prince, son of Rap-A-Lot Records’ CEO J. Prince, coerced Lil Wayne’s manager Cortez Bryant to sit in his car for five minutes and listen to this kid named Drake.
“He locked me in my car, and played me “Comeback Season,” recalls Bryant. “I thought, ‘Drake’s tight, let’s fly him to Atlanta for a meeting’ and once I saw him, I knew he was the total package.”
Soon after, Drake met with Lil Wayne, joined Young Money, a label/crew that Lil Wayne began in 2005, and garnered this advice, “You got to think about what you want to say beforehand,” Drake told RollingStone.com. “The more important thing is, ‘What’s your message, What’s your point?’ That should be the bare essentials of a line or a verse.”
Taking that advice, and hiring Wayne’s manager, Bryant and Kanye’s manager, Gee Roberson, Drake created January 2009’s tipping point in the mix tape, “So Far Gone.” To some, the street album’s popularity unfortunately impacted after rap mag XXL photographed their coveted “Freshman 10” MC list, and Drake wasn’t included.
However, I think this was a good thing. Without mainstream attention, this Canadian guy blew past everyone, from Wale, Jay-Z’s protegé, to Kid Cudi, Kanye West’s next up, virtually on his own. Of course, many say that Drake is benefiting from Lil Wayne’s helping hand, except the New Orleans native has a full Young Money Records rooster, who has been waiting in the wings for years. So what’s the difference?
Drake is successfully repeating Lil Wayne’s pattern of incessant touring, recording, and rhyming. Not to mention, visually, he’s perfect for Rihanna’s latest crush and most importantly, the fledgling MC doesn’t take his opportunity for granted. He has capitalized on the popularity of “So Far Gone” by touring colleges, guesting on numerous songs with artists like Mary J. Blige and Jay-Z, and finally the mainstream media came calling, proven by the madhouse during his first New York City show at S.O.B.’s in May.
Funny thing is, last week I read somewhere that this new rapper J.Cole, Jay-Z’s new protege from his Live Nation label, RocNation (read: watch out Wale) could be the new Drake. Really? Being Hip-Hop’s poster child isn’t what it used to be.