Nick Bollinger discusses the innovations and irritations of Canadian-born rapper Drake.
In the seldom-static world of R&B and hip-hop, Canadian rapper and singer Drake is impossible to ignore. In many ways he has changed both the sound and content of the genre. His records, more than anyone else’s, dissolve the line between rapping and singing, shifting back and forth between melody and recitation, over backings that are mellow and seductive in the mode of early-90s R&B.
Which is not to say his music is to everyone’s tastes. Up until ‘Hotline Bling’, his big from last year, I did my best to resist. Still, anyone who can revive Timmy Thomas’s ‘Why Can’t We Live Together? while fashioning a whole new song from its 70s-home-keyboard hook at least gets points for sharing my tastes in vintage soul.
That hit appears as a kind of bonus track, right at the end of the new album. Of course the message of ‘Hotline Bling’ is somewhat less altruistic than that of the song on which it is based; a profound and soulful plea for black civil rights. In Drake’s song – as in just about all of his songs – the chief subject is Drake, and the only injustice is the one being perpetrated against him by one or other ex-girlfriend. Which gets to heart of what is both most innovative and irritating about Drake.
When the former teen-television-star broke big with his 2010 debut, hip-hop was just emerging from a period of domination by self-styled sociopaths like Eminem or 50 Cent. But along with Kanye West’s ground-breaking 808s and Heartbreak, Drake’s Thank Me Later advanced the notion that the rapper could be vulnerable, could have doubts and insecurities and express these in a way that didn’t conform to the gangsta norm. Drake may have draped himself in all the usual symbols of success – big cars, bling, sexual opportunites – and yet he was left with something resembling depression, which he gave voice to in disarmingly personal songs. And, to a great extent, that’s still what he’s doing on this new disc.
In fact, his sensitivity borders on paranoia in ‘Keep the Family Close’, the album’s opening track, as he delivers in his Autotuned croon one of his typically curly melodies against a big moody orchestration. And he continues as he begins for the 80-odd minutes of music that follow.
“Why do I settle for women who force me to pick up the pieces? Why do I want an independent woman to feel like she needs me?” he moans rhetorically in ‘Redemption’, a track that displays both the best and worst of Drake. Musically the track is evocative; the backing is like a sound system playing in the next room. We’re on the other side of the wall; in fact we’re inside Drake’s head, right up against his conflicted thoughts. He almost puts us in the role of a priest taking confession, or at least a therapist.
But if we might, on the one hand, thank Drake for helping to shift hip-hop away from the guns, the violence, the overt misogyny of the gangsta rappers, how admirable are the things he replaces it with?
Materialism, as well as angst, looms large in Drake’s world. I stopped counting the number of different cars he namechecks on this album, each one seemingly status-encoded.
As black artists like Kendrick Lamar and Beyonce and D’Angelo usher in a new era of political awareness in black music, using their work to make strong statements on black lives, the only politics in Drake’s music is the personal. His Canadian background surely has something to do with it; his father was an African-American, born in Memphis, but his mother is Canadian and Jewish. And having grown up mostly in Toronto, perhaps he doesn’t feel qualified to speak out on African-American issues. But I also get the feeling that, whatever is going down in the wider world, Drake will always be too tied up in his own psychological dramas to notice.
Songs featured: Feel No Ways, Fire & Desire, Hotline Bling, Keep The Family Close, 9, Redemption, Hype, Views.
Views is available on OVO Sound/Young Money Entertainment/Cash Money Records.