Yes, Drake is hip-hop
OPINION: In a recent podcast, Yasiin Bey, aka Mos Def, said Drake isn't hip-hop, but I must disagree.
Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
Y’all know I love dunking on Drake. I do it as often as I can. It brings me joy. As I have said before, there are many Drake songs I like, but when millennials start talking about whether he’s a great rapper, or he’s the best rapper, that’s when I lose it. He is, in fact, not a good rapper — he flows like a slam poet, not an MC, and his lyrics tend to be basic. But, sadly, I cannot in good conscience join the latest Drake pile-on. It kills me to miss it, but in my heart, I know this time, the Drake dissing has gone too far. I’m looking at you, Mos Def.
Yasiin Bey, aka the Mighty Mos Def, is someone I have known and respected for a long time. He’s one of the best MCs of his generation. He’s someone who keeps the spirit of hip-hop alive. He was recently on a podcast called “The Cutting Room Floor” where the host Omondi asked, “Is Drake hip-hop?” Bey said, no, Drake is pop.
The second part of that answer is unquestionably true. Drake is pop. He’s a multiplatinum seller who tours in arenas. Many of his fans are not fans of the genre he comes from. That’s a pop artist. Fine. But Mos also said Drake is not hip-hop. I have immense respect for Bey; he’s a brilliant person, but on this point he is wrong.
Drake makes music focused around beats and rhymes. He collabs with rappers like 21 Savage, Meek Mill, Lil Wayne, and J. Cole, which tells you what fanbase he wants to attract. But to me the question isn’t really about Drake, it’s about hip-hop. We have seen that hip-hop can, like water, take on almost any form. Travis Scott, Future and Tyler, the Creator are just a few of the people who are pushing the boundaries of hip-hop beyond anything previously heard. But we’ve been pushing the boundaries — the Weeknd, Erykah Badu and Mary J. Blige are singers but do we think they’re not hip-hop? Is Post Malone not hip-hop? The question is not “Do you like these artists?” It’s “Are they hip-hop?”
Hip-hop is fluid. We have seen hip-hop songs be constructed from bits of rock or blues or soul or punk or new wave or pop. Anything can become hip-hop; it’s an incredibly flexible genre. To try to define exactly where the boundary of hip-hop is feels like a fool’s errand.
This discussion makes me think about the art world. Twentieth-century art was, in many ways, a conversation where artists were challenging each other and the audience about the definition of what art is. Many artists were essentially saying, I dare you to say this is not art. We went from Marcel Duchamp putting a urinal in a gallery in 1917 to Damien Hirst entombing a shark in 1991 to Maurizio Cattelan pasting a banana on a wall in 2019.
To say something is not art is to say you do not understand art. Anything can be art — a painting of a Campbell’s soup can is just as much art as a painting of a tree. Of course, the discussion of what is good art or successful art reamains robust. We can talk about what moves us and what doesn’t, but the definition of art itself is endlessly elastic.
Hip-hop is the same. Its artistic boundaries are so large that it’s hard to say something is not hip-hop. I do understand what Bey is saying about Drake in that he lacks the countercultural edge that made hip-hop what it is. He fits in the mall where hip-hop once seemed made for the revolution, at least the sonic revolution that centered Black people. But that doesn’t mean he’s not hip-hop. The music and the culture have grown so much that it’s hard to exclude anyone. Drake is far from a good rapper, but he’s definitely making hip-hop, and he’s surely a part of hip-hop culture.
That said, I have noticed some of the millennial Drake fans fighting back by trying to dismiss the Mighty Mos Def as old. You’re playing yourselves. Mos is unquestionably hip-hop to his core. He lives hip-hop. Also, his worst rhyme is better than Drake’s best. He can say whatever he wants. In hip-hop culture, Bey is a king. If you don’t understand that then maybe you are not hip-hop.
Touré is a host and Creative Director at theGrio. He is the host of Masters of the Game on theGrioTV. He is also the host and creator of the docuseries podcast “Being Black: The ’80s” and the animated show “Star Stories with Toure” which you can find at TheGrio.com/starstories. He is also the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is the author of eight books including the Prince biography Nothing Compares 2 U and the ebook The Ivy League Counterfeiter.
Never miss a beat: Get our daily stories straight to your inbox with theGrio’s newsletter.