Jewish Canadian soap-opera actors are rarely rap stars, but Drake, inexplicably, is.
But is it so inexplicable? Or, can I explicablize (edit: explain, but that’s less fun) his keys to success?
I think I can. Read ahead, and unravel the mystery of Drake.
1. Drake Lets You Drake With Him
He’s sharable, good, and confessional in a way that the internet has learned to reward. He’s relatable, the same relatable that unbearable people seek to make their products relatable or (cough) pay for “relatable content.”
But that means he runs these (virtual) streets.
We all feel a kinship with Drake because Drake is both honest and complicated. There is a tone, a mood, a vibe you can find to match yours. Drake is a master of feeling and expressing in a subtle, building way that has you agree with the tone even if the facts don’t match your own.
Drake had his heart broken by Rihanna? You can relate. You need a visa to breathe the same air as Rihanna but somehow Drake gives you the impression that you and him are equals, parallels in emotion if not of fact. In Marvin’s Room Drake is drunk-dialing an ex who’s with somebody else and he sounds as bad and lonely as anyone else would.
Drake is a lyrically Tumblr, a diary that rhymes and wraps you within it. It’s music, sure, but it’s an emotional co-sign, a false-posivitive of your equality.
And that works. Because who doesn’t want to be Drake?
2. Drake Mixes Up Rap Like A Soup, Where Rap Has Been A Salad.
What is rap?
Some people doubt Drake as a rapper, but that’s based on a superficial reading of rap. 50 Cent isn’t the symbolic standard. Heck, 50 Cent isn’t even relevant in the mainstream today.
Rap today is a wide variety of characters and styles and, quietly, Drake has masted them all.
*On the one hand, Rap is designed to be entertainment and aspirational. You have the outlandish and entertaining who talk about their success- 2 Chainz, for example- or about bravado and swagger like 50 Cent.
*On the other hand, it’s a dense, lyrically complicated form of poetry designed to envelop and ensnare. You have Mos Def and old Lupe Fiasco that show off with such lyrical lucidity that you’re forced to rewind for lines you missed.
*On the third hand, it’s often a pressure and drift to extremes- in a crowded musical marketplace, there’s often a pressure for the immediately superficial or a push for even deeper art.
*And other stuff.
If the above seem vague it’s because rap is vague- it’s a whole genre that evolves and twists into new nooks and avenues across various scenes. The only real rule of rap is that it rhymes (and, in the hands of Lil B, legendary tone poet and Based God, even that is flexible.) And so, from the ashes, Drake combined it all.
Normally, rap is a healthy genre composed of different rappers with different styles and experiences. The Wu-Tang Clan is wildly different than Big Sean or Lil Wayne. But Drake can do a serviceable – not perfect, but serviceable – impression of any style. He mixes and melts them unlike any other.
Drake is entertaining. Drake is aspirational. But Drake takes the middle between the superficial and the deep. He mixes rap and R&B, boasting bravado and sneers before a piano-laden track with tender, saccharine sugar-tears. He can hit you with “5 AM In Toronto” or “Marvin’s Room,” A guest hook on “No New Friends” or a sneering verse on “It’s Good.”
Drake is a reaction to the scene around him. And he blurs the scene to create himself as something beyond. He is an avatar of rap that exceeds its boundaries.
3. He Varies Before You Can Box Him In.
This is crucial. Drake has enough variety that you can’t get sick of him.
Moody, emotional ballads? He’s got those. Tentative boasty songs that reflect about pros and cons? Yup. Boast-worthy anthems that swagger hard? Yup.
He does it all. And he rotates, tilling the earth for more fertility. That variety ensures longevity and reach. If you only like some Drake, that’s fine. He still gets a share of that. And even as he’s stereotyped as “Drake is like…” he can hit you with anything- a verse, a hook, or a whole track like “6 God” that’s as intense and bold as anything out today.
Drake has a diversified market, and there’s nobody in rap so removed from him as to lack a favorite verse.
4. He’s Good
This is the last and most important ingredient of Drake’s success.
Everything other theory melts behind it. Quality speaks, and the music Drake makes is good. Simple as that. Everything else is retroactive theorizing. Imagine, for a moment, if Kanye sucked- just was the worst. We’d forget him, and his personality would be forgotten in a sea of other ambitious egos.
But Kanye is amazing.
As is Drake.
You don’t have to like him, but, for the most part, the mainstream doesn’t lie for long. Quality lasts, but even ear-worms fade – have you heard “Call Me Maybe” lately? – and Drake has lasted with it. Longer than a gimmick, broader than a genre, Drake has endured in a business obsessed with the “next” and forgetful of the present.
And make no mistake. The present is Drake’s.