Two MSN critics weigh in on the much-hyped rapper: The future of hip-hop, or just the best of a weak current field?
By Kathy Iandoli and Alex Thornton
Special to MSN Music
When Aubrey "Drake" Graham first started to dabble in music, plenty of people wrote him off as another TV teen idol adding "recording artist" to his résumé as part of some larger marketing scheme. It quickly became apparent, however, that Drake wasn't just playing around with rapping because he could afford the studio time -- he was making a legitimate effort to make actual art, and whether you liked that art or not, it was undeniable that he deserved to be taken seriously.
By now, his numbers of fans and detractors have both grown exponentially, but both groups do, in fact, take him quite seriously. Ask any hip-hop listener how he or she feels about Drake: Some will love him, some will hate him, but they'll all have an opinion and feel very strongly about it.
Fans praise him for his honest, introspective lyrics, but opponents write off that "honesty" as calculated and insincere. Some love his willingness to draw from a wide range of influences, while others accuse him of ripping off less popular artists and repackaging their innovations for audiences that don't know any better. An insightful poet, or a manipulative fraud? We'll probably never come to a consensus either way, but in the meantime, the debate itself proves that Drake has accomplished at least one thing: true relevance.
Alex Thornton: Drake and his fans are all very impressed with his supposed "triple threat" status as a rapper, singer and actor. We won't go into his performances on "Degrassi," but I'd certainly contend that he gets way more credit than he deserves for his musical accomplishments. As a rapper, Drake mostly gets by on the fact that hip-hop music in general is going through some difficult times. It's easy to look at Gucci Mane, Waka Flocka Flame and Soulja Boy and think that rap has fallen to such a low state that Drake is a genius, but upon closer inspection, he's a lot further down the list of talented emcees than it may seem.
Jay-Z and Rick Ross consistently deliver better big-budget rap, while Kanye West and Tyler, the Creator deliver a much more complex and honest version of Drake's solipsistic whining. Drake's tour mates A$AP Rocky and Kendrick Lamar have given us two of the best albums in years while incorporating sung vocals, and fringe groups like Das Racist and the Roots are showing completely different sides of what hip-hop can do. Let's not forget Pusha T, Common, Wale, Jeezy, Nicki Minaj or even Lil Wayne. How many of these artists can you honestly say Drake is better than?
Kathy Iandoli: It's hard to really say that Drake is "better" or "worse" than any of them because the idea of "good" music is a moving target. The problem isn't with Drake's level of quality; it's a question of whether or not you were ever interested in buying what he's selling to being with. Yes, you could argue that other people rhyme or sing better, but Drake isn't trying to be any of those artists and his fans don't want him to be.
You could say that Drake is a terrible rapper compared to Jay-Z or a terrible singer compared to Beyoncé, but that's hardly a crime. He's marginally better than most artists out today, and whether or not you feel hip-hop should have feelings, his songwriting does connect with a wide range of people in a very real way. Rap purists may find it tough to fathom given the genre's rugged exterior, but Drake's goal isn't to hang with the boys on the block. His music is obviously urban-skewed, but he's making pop music that's meant for everybody, and he's doing a damned good job at it.
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Alex Thornton: Granted, Drake doesn't have to be the best rapper of all time to be respectable, but I can't get over the idea that he's either at the bottom of the top or the top of the bottom. He's obviously clawing at something deeper than most pop artists, but a huge part of his acclaim is still simply the result of being compared to a mostly incompetent crop of rap stars. Yes, Drake is probably better than 90 percent of current rappers, but he's being graded on a very generous curve. Meanwhile, among that remaining 10 percent are a variety of artists who are all doing much better versions of anything Drake ever has or will attempt. His intentions may be slightly different than a lot of other rappers, but If Jay-Z can still make "traditional" hip-hop records that appeal to hip-hop audiences, does Drake deserve the luxury of being rated on a different scale?
The same could be said of his singing. Drake's vocal abilities seem advanced compared to the likes of Rihanna,Katy Perry or Ciara, but even though R&B "ain't what it used to be," Beyoncé, Erykah Badu and the Justins (Timberlake and Bieber, as if you have to ask) are still holding it down for real singers. New-wave R&B acts like Frank Ocean and the Weekend certainly owe some of their successes to following Drake's model, but both are already far more advanced songwriters overall. Even by the popiest of pop standards, he's middling at best. Any number of "American Idol" contestants could outsing him any day of the week.
You could do worse than Drake, but you could sure do a heck of a lot better. Is really this what passes for top-tier artistry these days?
Kathy Iandoli: None of these arguments are new, though. The best recent example could be Kanye West and his gargantuan leap of faith known as "808s & Heartbreak." Kanye started with a rap base that some wrote off as formulaic, added some indie-rock influences, mixed in a couple of teardrops and crafted an album that remains one of his most intense projects. Why was Kanye West allowed to do such a thing in all of his Auto-Tuned glory but Drake isn't? His singing is eons better than Kanye's, and while Kanye leaned on studio effects to distract us from his voice, Drake's singing still sounds pleasant a cappella.
Drake is experiencing the same problem as his labelmate and crewmate Nicki Minaj: Listeners looked at them with suspicion when they debuted, fell in love with them after coming to understand their intentions, but then expected too much and were left disappointed. Drake could spend his days fighting for respect from hard-hearted critics who'll probably never give it to him either way, but instead, he works to please his fans. It's not for the people who think he's oversaturated with emotion and call him "soft" on Twitter; it's for those little girls who line up outside of iTunes the night of his album release and eagerly await their chance to purchase it even though they already downloaded the leak.
If Drake were to settle for appeasing the old guard of hip-hop, then he might as well forget about his individuality and just rhyme about his car over a looped Dr. Dre sample. Don't we have enough of that already? He and his BlackBerry full of raps could travel to every radio show in the country and eventually earn hip-hop's respect, but what does that even mean anymore? For years P. Diddy and Jay-Z were crucified for "killing" hip-hop, and now it's Drake's turn to weather the storm. He'll eventually get his due when the next generation rolls around. Until then, he's crying all the way to the bank.
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Alex Thornton: I'm shedding a few tears of my own hearing you compare Drake's albums to "808s & Heartbreak," but that's a debate for another day. As for the topic at hand, I can understand the "give the people what they want" philosophy, and even though I think Drake has been a harbinger of a lot of awful trends over the last few years, that's admittedly out of his control. That said, now that Drake is in a position of influence, I guess I'd just like to see him do something more with it.
Aubrey seems like a nice guy who calls his mother often and gives his seat to old ladies on the bus (or at least would if he were ever on one), so as role models go, he's harmless. In theory, I can also respect the fact that, at least in his mind, he's trying to do things that are a little different from what hip-hop traditionally has been. In practice, however, he's always "different" in the same way, and as more and more people follow in his footsteps, this pony's one trick gets less and less exciting.
His "emotional honesty" mostly comes in the form of rich-guy ennui, and while I can buy that sort of thing from Mr. West, it seems less genuine coming from Drake considering that it started almost the second he became famous. You might become the sad king after a few years on the job, but on Day 1? If being rich and sleeping with models is so depressing to him, then why doesn't he just stop doing it? If he doesn't want the money I'll gladly take it off his hands, but otherwise, I don't have a lot of sympathy for his "problems" and therefore can't buy into 85 percent of his music.
Kathy Iandoli: I must admit, it does sometimes feel like Drake is looking for excuses to complain about the lavish lifestyle he was obviously aiming for by pursuing an entertainment career. We're not mind readers, though, so is it fair to question whether or not his insecurities are genuine? Most of us will never experience the things that Drake has as a result of his fame, so how can any of us really judge whether or not his reaction to that fame is sincere? Maybe Drake didn't expect for his atypical sound to be received so well and wasn't prepared to be an overnight success. I am in no way comparing him to John Lennon in the artistic sense, but didn't Lennon have a similar epiphany? Yes, it definitely came much later on in his life and career, but given how must faster we shove our new artists into the spotlight, it makes sense that Drake came to those same realizations much sooner.
Alex Thornton: That makes sense on paper, but I'm still not sure that I actually believe he's had some sort of early epiphany and isn't simply playing that role because he's smart enough to know that it's appealing. There are obviously far worse things than Drake songs, but I can't help but roll my eyes when his fans paint him as some tortured poet scouring the darkest regions of his soul. Even worse, it's inspired a whole crop of rappers to explore their own emo sides, mostly by copying Drake songs that were already copies of Lil Wayne songs (that were themselves copies of Kanye West songs).
Drake didn't explicitly ask to be appointed as a trend-setter, but he's got the ball either way, and I'd like to see him actually run with it instead of just briskly walking because that's all that's being asked of him. I get it: Drake has problems with haters and women who only love him for his money. How many times do I need to hear him say that before enough is enough? I want to like Drake since everyone else seems to be having such a good time, but much like the man himself, I always just feel like the guy sitting alone at the club shaking my head at everyone else's absurdity. Maybe creating that feeling is some sort of meta grand-scheme, but somehow, I doubt it.
Kathy Iandoli: Drake marks a period of uncertainty in hip-hop, bringing with him both questions of content and questions of intent. In a way, Drake really is more representative of hip-hop than it might seem: Both were fast-tracked to success in the blink of an eye and didn't quite know what to do with themselves once at the top. When the earliest rappers overcame their disadvantage, every step up was a new experience. Nowadays, kids from all walks of life are picking up mics and are far savvier about finding audiences, drawing from wide ranges of influences, and presenting a controlled image. Simply put, the game has changed.
Drake may be a poster child for this new model of rapper, but he didn't create the climate that made him necessary. What does Drake's example mean for hip-hop going forward? That's a very good question, but not one that he should be responsible for answering. Drake simply swung open a door that was left ajar by his predecessors (Kanye West, etc.) so to shove him into a niche of "emo" is both misleading and unfair. He's only following the cues of those who inspired him and are now sitting pretty at the top of the hill for it. Everyone can't be a gangster or a baller, so there's obviously a market for more emotionally driven hip-hop -- including yourself, judging by your reaction to me bringing up "808s & Heartbreak" -- so even though Drake may not be the specific version of the genre that some people want, that doesn't take away from his right to exist.
It is true that an artist has to grow and evolve over the years to keep a career going. Will Drake change up his style and cheer up once his doctor finds the right combination of meds? Maybe, but it's not for us to say when that should happen given how many people seem to love him just the way he is. He probably can't be sad forever, but he will unapologetically continue to make the music that his fans want to hear. His earliest works prove he has the skills to be something of substance, so he deserves time to live up to his potential before writing him off. It's clear this fame hit him hard, so let's hope once he works out his growing pains, he can return to the original formula and won't be "so far gone."
Kathy Iandoli has written for publications including The Source, YRB, BUST, XXL,VIBE, RIME and Vapors, and her work has appeared online at MTV, AOL and MSN Music sites. She is the former Alternatives editor of AllHipHop.com and the current music editor of HipHopDX.com.
Alex Thornton is a writer and critic currently residing in Los Angeles. A former editor for AllHipHop.com, he now works freelance and has covered music, movies and games for YRB, HipHopDX and a number of publications in the United Kingdom.