The Genius of Drake.
In a previous post, I flagged Lil Wayne for his genius, largely because of his witty irreverence. In a world of wanna-be gangsters and braggarts, it somehow occurred to Lil Wayne that he didn’t have to act hard—he could be funny, instead.
Drake’s genius, then, becomes clear as well, for a similar but distinct reason. While his contemporaries extoll their kill counts, sexploits, and paychecks, Drake stands out in a sea of monotony for his ability to express his emotions. Just imagine: it’s 2009; Drake is rising to fame; and suddenly, it’s no longer uncool to feel. The reader will surely join me, then, in deeming Drake’s impact on the rap world revolutionary.
Of course, it’s not all touchy feely. Drake brags about having started from the bottom with the best of them. But inside every turn about his status or wealth is a deeper pearl, so small and subtle you might miss it, which describes how his status or wealth has changed him. And it’s here, beneath the surface, where the true meaning of Drake’s lyrics lies.
You know, feeling good, living better (Drake, Over My Dead Body, 2011)
He’s feeling good. But he’s living better—better than he’s feeling. In other words, he doesn’t feel as good as he should, given how he’s living. Drake is proud, yet simultaneously wistful.
Or am I reading too much into it? The thing is, I may or not be right here. But it’s Drake, so I may as well be. It’s never wrong to read emotion into a Drake song. He gives us permission to do so.
In any case, how could you disagree with me after hearing lines like these?
I need you right now, are you down to listen to me?
Too many drinks have been given to me
I got some women that’s living off me
Paid for their flights and hotels, I’m ashamed
Bet that you know them, I won’t say no names
After a while, girl, they all seem the same
I’ve had sex four times this week: I’ll explain
Having a hard time adjusting to fame (Drake, Marvin’s Room, 2011)
The claim, here, is not the amount of girls he’s had sex with. It’s that such behavior is symptomatic of his struggle. His having had sex four times this week is a confession, not an exclamation. You can just picture Drake at 2:45 AM, standing outside a club, surrounded by women and entourage, expensive cars pulling up; but he strays from the group, just to get a free minute to dial his ex, the girl he had to leave because of his fame, the girl he really cares about. This is about much more than his sex count. Again, the meaning of the lyric is in the feeling, not in the content. And, famous or not, it’s a feeling many of us can relate to.
Indeed, it’s not just that Drake talks about his feelings. He makes us feel this way, about our lives. I feel the same thing Drake feels, even though are lives are so different. And that makes it all the more remarkable.
Your eyes aren’t playing tricks on you: this is an oasis of emotion, where people not only express their feelings, but support others who do so, in the midst of the desert of substance which is the YouTube comments. This is precisely what Drake has achieved. It’s not just a rap phenomenon. It’s a cultural phenomenon.
All this feeling is well and good, but what’s the use if you get bullied for it? Well, simply put, Drake doesn’t. Enter what is perhaps the most important and compelling chapter of this entire saga: the Drake vs. Meek Mill beef.
What makes for a truly compelling fight? Well, such a fight is so, so much bigger than the arena in which it’s fought. Take a few examples. Bobby Fischer faced off against Spassky and the whole Russian chess empire in the 1972 World Chess Championship, at the height of the Cold War. This wasn’t just about chess. This was about geopolitics, freedom, the will of an individual, the durability of American values. Consider also the Harvard vs. Yale college football game of 1968. Elitist, wealthy, snobby Yale was heavily favored to beat Harvard, a rag-tag team of blue-collar Boston boys. When the two teams tied, the Harvard Crimson blared “Harvard beats Yale 29-29”, referring to what is now widely regarded as the greatest Ivy League college football match in history.
Enter Drake and Meek Mill. Remember the rappers that I have contrasted Drake with, throughout this post? Meek Mill is, well, them, personified. His entire “career” has been spent constructing a thick shell of bravado, under which no substance lies.
I tell ’em meet me in the bathroom
I fuck her while the water running
Her friend knocking at the door
And she screaming out “I’M CUMMIN!” (Meek Mill, House Party, 2011)
he gloats, in a 2011 mixtape. I won’t get into the specifics, but some way or another, Drake and Meek Mill wound up at each other’s throats in 2015. This was it: the fragile, beautiful movement Drake had conceived was about to come crashing down. Drake’s biggest criticism, after all, was that he was soft. What did you think a rap game like the rap game would say about a rapper like Drake? And who better, then, to capitalize on such a softness than a hardened young buck like Meek Mill? The way it looked, the meanest school bully was facing the quietest, sweetest, smartest nerd in school. Drake, as we know it, hung in the balance, and with him hung the notion that it could be cool to care.
Then came Back to Back. Drake fired back at Meek with what will likely go down as the hardest, meanest, most decisive, fullest of anger and hate and triumph, funniest, wittiest, smartest, most convincing, and altogether greatest diss track in rap history. (Unconvinced? Read the lyrics, and their meanings). Meek wanted hard? Drake showed him hard. He brought his soft side, too, in that he owned it rather than distancing himself from it: “you’re getting bodied by a singin’ n*gga”. Above all, he brought to the track a level of intelligence Meek just couldn’t adequately face. We’re starting to see why this is so much more than a rapper’s beef. This is a story about the triumph of brain and heart over muscle and fist. It was a battle of the values, and that day, the good guys won.
A brief history of the beef:
Meek releases a few modest diss-tracks, which were fairly well-received, especially by his fanbase. The beef is picking up steam.
Drake releases Charged Up, which was a bit softer, a bit quieter. It doesn’t look good for Drake.
Drake unleashes Back to Back. The title refers to the fact that it was released directly after Charged Up. He posts it to Soundcloud along with this image.
The reactions started rolling in. Athletes, celebrities, and fans in general reacted to Drake’s home-run swing. Meek Mill released a rebuttal, and it was, by pretty much any standard, weak. Odell Beckham Jr. posted this excellent lip sync on his Instagram. There was no doubt: the tides had turned.
Not much really happened after that. Drake was expected to release the 3rd constituent of his diss track trilogy, but it never happened. The fact is, it wasn’t necessary.
Memes were made.
And Drake reacts to them, with Kanye and Will Smith by his side.
Drake was back on top of the world—and, this time, it felt more permanent.
Perhaps the biggest surprise here, though, was that it was surprising. After all, Drake isn’t just a softie. He’s everything, and he has been. He can sing and he can rap. He has wordplay, and he has rhymes. Take the following verse from Take Care, which, incidentally, is one of his most powerful songs, emotion-wise. He still brings a rapper’s genius.
They won’t get you like I will
My only wish is I die real
Cause that truth hurts and those lies heal
And you can’t sleep thinking that he lies still
So you cry still, tears all on the pillowcase
Big girls all get a little taste
Pushing me away so I give her space
Dealing with a heart that I didn’t break (Drake feat. Rihanna, Take Care, 2011)
Notice the rhyme scheme. I’ve colored like rhymes in like colors. He effortlessly strings together multi-syllable rhymes, so easily that the listener hardly notices. Indeed, Drake has never been one to put the emPHAsis on the wrong sylLAble.
He easily drops machine-gun bars, verse after verse (back-to-back?):
God damn, do y’all really know who y’all fuckin’ with?
Yeah, I mean you can’t blame me for wonderin’
Doesn’t matter, could be winter or the summer
On the road, I do One Direction numbers, I don’t fuckin’ miss
Yeah, Stunna and Mack know
When Wayne was gone for eight months, we put this thing up on our back
And I was snappin’ off on every single track though
Collect call from the boss like where we at though (Lil Wayne feat. Drake, Believe Me, 2014)
And he’s even got a little Weezy-esque cheeky wordplay.
I got a couple cars, I never get to use
Don’t like my women single, I like my chicks in twos (Lil Wayne feat. Drake, Right Above It, 2010)
Let’s face it: Drake is an extremely good rapper. Speed, articulation, rhyme scheme, delivery. He’s got everything that an excellent rapper should.
Then again, many rappers have those things. Drake, alone, though, has emotional expressivity. And now, the significance of this fact becomes all the more evident. For it wasn’t instead of his skill that he chose to be emotional, but rather, in spite of it (a failure to make this distinction represents the extent of Meek Mill’s tactical error). Drake could have buried his emotion deep, and relied on his raw rapping skill alone. And he probably could have been a pretty good rapper. Indeed, many rappers have probably made entire careers out of this strategy. Instead, though, Drake showed emotion, even though he knew he didn’t need to. Indeed, this might be what makes Drake’s music so powerful. Emotion can’t be forced. It must be offered.
Of course, not all of us are excellent rappers, or even, you know, talented. That doesn’t stop us, though, from offering emotional candor to others, and from supporting those who do so. Drake has taught by example that honesty, sensitivity, thoughtfulness, and, frankly, bravery, are values worth upholding. And for that, we should all be grateful.