From the beginning, Drake’s success raised more questions than it answered. How did an actor from a relatively affluent Toronto neighborhood become the biggest act in hip-hop, a genre whose progenitors largely hailed from economically desolated American urban sites? And what does his meteoric rise to success say about hip-hop in the 21st century?
Maybe more significantly, how has an artist once labeled by Vulture.com “the poet laureate of pettiness” turned the art of the “dis” into a form of music embraced by a majority of mainstream hip-hop fans as not only legitimate, but desirable? Why do so many people love this guy when he spends so much time acting like a privileged and narcissistic jerk whose skills as a rapper are questionable at best?
The answer can be found in the rise of social media as not only our primary means of interpersonal communication, but as the primary mode of musical dissemination. Drake is the perfect artist to be atop the charts as Generation Selfie reaches the apex of its cultural power.
He has turned self-pity, self-reflection and self-involvement into pop fodder. He spends as much time venting spleen over perceived disrespect from other members of his chosen medium as Donald Trump spends launching Twitter attacks.
In his recent book “The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age,” author Joseph Burgo offers insight into the self-involvement I have heard screaming from Drake’s music from the beginning.
“Because their shame is so much deeper and more agonizing, Extreme Narcissists will stop at nothing to avoid feeling it,” Burgo writes.
“The narcissistic defenses they mobilize against shame are so extreme and pervasive that they color everything about the person’s personality, relationships, and behavior, creating a kind of shell or armor against the threat of shame.”
If we focus on Drake’s art, what emerges is a portrait not unlike the one painted by Burgo. Drake once seemed to engage almost wholly in defensive gestures painting him as the would-be victim of a world in which he is routinely undervalued. He’s engaged in dissing matches with Meek Mill, Kendrick Lamar and Puff Daddy/P Diddy/Diddy/Sean Combs, culminating in an alleged physical confrontation with Combs outside a Miami nightclub in 2014.
Since this incident – which, miraculously, no one seems to have captured on a cellphone – Drake’s defensiveness has calcified and taken on the form of bitterness. Witness the recent “4pm in Calabasas,” a spare and venomous EDM/rap track which finds Drake employing some Diddy catchphrases in order to throw some shade Diddy’s way. It’s almost sublimely ridiculous. Mostly, it’s just ridiculous.
When did hip-hop devolve from a mode of social protest regarding contentious issues into a celebrity ego death-match that amounts to an equivalent of trolls attempting to out-insult each other via social media?
It started in the ’90s and Diddy was part of the problem back then. But with Drake – and to only a slightly lesser extent, Kanye West – the pettiness factor blossomed, until it became the rage of the age. It’s all a waste of time, but it is an incredibly lucrative one: As of early in 2016, Drake has placed more than 100 tunes in the Billboard Hot 100, as both guest artist and solo artist. In 2015, he brought home $40 million, according to BusinessInsider.com.
In an era when few artists come to close to selling 500,000 copies of their albums, Drake released a “Mix Tape” in 2015 and watched it break through the platinum barrier. All of this despite the fact that he has been accused of employing ghostwriters for some of his biggest hits, an accusation he acknowledged in an interview with The Fader with a shrugging “Music can be a collaborative process … and I’m not ashamed.” This supposed lack of shame did not prevent him from firing some broadsides at Meek Mill, who’d initiated the Ghostwriter claims, however.
It has not been surprising, bearing all of this in mind, to see Drake butting heads with Kendrick Lamar. Lamar revealed himself to be the “anti-Drake” with the release of the “To Pimp A Butterfly” and “Untitled Unmastered” albums, both of which managed to reunite hip-hop with its social conscience and point the way forward by incorporating new jazz/hip-hop hybrids.
Lamar is everything Drake isn’t – he writes about the world around him incisively, he doesn’t have time for self-pity, and he’s not all about self-mythologizing. He’s also a rapper of consummate rhythmic and linguistic skill.
When Drake performed at First Niagara Center in 2013, I noted “what looked like the world’s biggest IMAX screen” broadcasting the star’s every move, and described the experience thus: “The stage set was high-tech, and so too was the music, a wrinkle-free blend of pop, R&B and hip-hop short on melodies, long on braggadocio and centered on Drake’s sing-speak style. Not a particularly great singer, and far from a virtuoso rapper, Drake took the middle road, favoring a marriage of staccato spoken-word with occasional flights of falsetto fancy.”
Drake has not released new music that has changed my opinion of him since. I’m hoping Friday’s show in the same venue will change my mind. After all, it’s pretty obvious that being the object of Drake’s wrath is not a particularly pleasant experience.