Canadian rapper Drake is a busy man. On top of releasing his highly anticipated debut album Thank Me Later this week, the 23-year-old former star of the Canadian hit teen drama Degrassi is reportedly flirting it up with Halle Berry’s cousin, taking professional development tips from Jay-Z and gearing up for the release of his MTV documentary. The record industry fawns over him, the media loves him and he’s mesmerized enough fans so that even though his album unofficially leaked two weeks ago, it’s still expected to be one of the best selling records of the year.
With his prep school demeanor, million dollar smile and celebrity endorsements, what’s not to like about Drake? According to his detractors, there’s plenty, including what his corporate success could mean for how less popular artists of color independently distribute their music.
An awful lot of the criticism has centered around the fact that Drake is not a "real" rapper because he grew up in the suburbs of Toronto and makes pop music. Good pop music. But his unabashed catering toward the masses certainly isn’t new–it’s Kanye West’s self-articulated mission statement. In one of the most cogent take-downs of Drake so far, Columbia professor Marc Lamont Hill warns that he represents a "dangerous historical moment in hip-hop culture where rapping has overshadowed other dimensions of MCing like freestyling, battling, and moving the crowd."
But too many battles have been waged and lost in hip-hop’s authenticity wars. Even Hill admits that his biggest gripe is that by signing a major label deal, Drake blew a golden opportunity to pave a different path for a new generation of artists that wasn’t beholden to stingy record executives.
By most accounts, Drake’s an industry product, a fact that not even some of his closest handlers try to deny. His business manager Shawn Gee recently told the New York Times, "The fact that he has a background that differs from your prototypical rap artist–from Toronto, multiracial, the fact that he was a child actor–corporate America, they’re attracted to that." Carefully packaged products certainly aren’t new in hip-hop. It’s no secret that one of the first commercial rap songs to break through mainstream radio airwaves in 1979 came straight from the corporate boardrooms of New York City music executives.The difference is that Drake began his career with a series of mixtapes offered for free on the Internet. He already had a well-established teeny bopper fanbase and eventually picked up a long list of endorsements from hip-hop’s elder statesmen that helped him gain much-needed credibility.
What appeals Drake to many fans is his candor and penchant for introspection. He’s part of a newly arrived crop of emcees, including Kid Cudi, Wale and J.Cole, who’ve turned the careful exploration of the young Black male ego into a legitimate and profitable art form. As a departure from much of hip-hop’s mainstream, these younger emcees didn’t grow up in the streets so much as witness what could happen in them. They rap mostly about going off to college and juggling internships with late night drinking binges and dorm room booty calls.
This is even less true for Drake. He spent his formative years shuffling between his mother’s affluent Jewish suburb and summers with his father in Memphis. At 18, he dropped out of high school to focus on his acting career and by the time his stint on Degrassi came to a close in 2008 he had already been spending late nights working on his music. You could probably sum up his subject matter in four ways: wanting fame, wanting love, hating fame, losing love. They’re predictable themes with near universal appeal.
Still, much of the furor and antipathy surrounding the rapper, even when it’s channeled through questions of his authenticity and talent, has to do with how easily he’s broken into the commercial hip-hop market.
After releasing two well-received, but far from spectacular mixtapes, the rapper made his mark with his third mixtape early in 2009, So Far Gone. The experimental fusion of R&B and emotionally evocative hip-hop had over 2,000 downloads in its first two hours. As these things tend to go, someone played a few tracks off the mixtape for New Orleans-born rapper Lil’ Wayne while on tour in Houston, and Wayne immediately flew the fledging emcee out to join him. The tape caused so much buzz that it was released again six months later and sold over 400,000 copies through retail distribution, even though it was–and remains–available for free download online.
Even after his debut album leaked to listeners earlier this month, Drake seemed to take it in stride. "I gave away free music for years so we’re good over here," he tweeted to followers. "Just allow it to be the soundtrack to your summer and enjoy!" Even after the leak, some devoted fans once again vowed to hold out and still pay for the official album.
It’s an odd trait of human behavior that people will always pay for things they can get for free, but all this brings up important questions: Just how independent do we want our artists to be? After all, some of us spend our hard-earned dollars on what we hope is an authentic product. Whether it’s the allure of the album artwork or just the preference to support an artist whose hard work we respect, the Internet doesn’t always tap into our primal desire to appreciate things. It’s probably one of the smaller and certainly more decontextualized reasons why the Internet, once thought to be the salvaging hope for communities enslaved to industry Top 40 playlists, hasn’t done all we’d hope it would.
Drake certainly can’t be hated for his pursuit of a record deal; he’s admitted that that marketing and distribution expertise offered by a major label is second to none. Not too many artists would disagree. And he was ultimately able to negotiate a deal that gives him a great deal of artistic freedom, upfront cash and sizeable share of album profits.
In an interview with Heeb magazine, he later seemed much more worried about the impact a free-flowing Internet could have on his burgeoning career.
"The internet has fucked the game up so bad, that if I don’t do it, I’m curious to sit back and watch whoever does," he said. "If Thank Me Later doesn’t do what I think it’s gonna do, I’m very curious to see the next artist, birthed in this Internet generation, that will go on to sell millions of records."
It’s hard to tell whether the rapper is now afraid that the Internet will destroy his record sells or simply in awe of the challenge facing younger artists to sell as many records as their predecessors. In a very general sense, the Internet was once thought to be the great democratizing factor for musicians and musicheads alike. The idea was that listeners had access to a plethora of artists and genres, and that the content was available mostly for free. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 had long ago done away with the idea of diverse pickings at most local urban radio stations. As Eric Arnold pointed out in his analysis of the decline of Hyphy music in the Bay Area, at its peak media giant Clear Channel had more than 1,200 stations with generally the same Top 40 playlists.
And Drake has seamlessly broken into that market. His hit mixtape single "Best I Ever Had" played endlessly last summer on stations across the country. Singles from his latest album are predicted to do the same this year. But Drake is a fascinating case study because he’s blurred the lines between indy and commercial for years. Unlike a few one-hit wonders and YouTube sensations, the rapper had already built a well-oiled distribution network long before major labels came knocking on his door. In fact, he notoriously wielded his independent success as major leverage in negotiating his lucrative record deal with Universal Motown that’s given him a substantial amount of artistic freedom.
Drake’s success shows that even with a strong online following, major labels still pull the strings and sometimes, we let them. If anything, the Internet is an important vehicle by which young artists can get noticed and hopefully signed in order to break through to the mainstream. The problem, of course, is that not all young artists are as meticulously crafted as our new neighbor from the North.
Photo: Getty Images/Frazer Harrison