Drake’s strategic silence and the task of a triumphant return
The Toronto superstar appears to have recused himself from Grammys — but he’s still at Grammys
A Toronto to New York flight usually takes less than an hour. But don’t expect Drake to stand in line at customs to be in New York this weekend as the Grammys return to Manhattan for the first time in 15 years. For the first time since 2008 — the year before his genre-bending third mixtape, So Far Gone, altered hip-hop’s sound, structure and release pattern — Drake will not be an official part of Grammy festivities. In recent times, music’s biggest night and one of music’s biggest names haven’t exactly seen eye to eye.
Drake’s 2017 More Life was not submitted for 2018 Grammy consideration. According to Billboard’s anonymous source “close to the nomination process,” the decision was Drake’s.
The 35-time nominee has won (only) three times. Drake captured the last two for the huge sales/radio/video/streaming smash “Hotline Bling” and later took to his OVO Sound show on Apple’s Beats 1 to voice frustration. “Even though ‘Hotline Bling’ is not a rap song, the only category they can manage to fit me in is a rap category. Maybe because I’ve rapped in the past, or because I’m black, I can’t figure out why,” he said. “I won two awards last night, but I don’t even want them. … It feels weird for some reason.”
There’s a possibility that he’s still in his feelings a year later. He kind of made his statement with the recent Scary Hours, a duo of songs. The bouncy, anthemic and A-side-ish “God’s Plan” is soon to be a No. 1 pop hit. It and “Diplomatic Immunity” — patented, introspective, sans hook — end Drake’s self-imposed musical sabbatical.
In the nearly a year since “getting back to his regular life,” hip-hop continued to be music’s trendsetter. Kendrick Lamar and Jay-Z were the authors of the year’s most analyzed and celebrated projects — records that dealt with self-atonement and generational and emotional dispositions. Migos and Cardi B dominated airwaves with monster records. Tyler, the Creator dropped a career-defining number. Bruno Mars cemented himself as pop culture’s king. And Toronto’s newest wunderkind, Daniel Caesar, emancipated another layer of The 6’s musical identity with Freudian. The timing of Hours’ release, a week to the day that Grammys weekend kicked off, wasn’t random. Nothing Drake does ever is.
“I’m not sure he’s trying to shake anybody at the Grammys, but I do think what he’s saying is, ‘I’m recharged,’ ” said longtime New York Times pop music critic Jon Caramanica, “Like, ‘That’s cool. Have your party. But I’m coming.’ I assume what he’s saying is ‘The summer is mine.’ ”
In the coming months, rumors of a new Drake album will become reality. He’s been dealing with whether to stay in constant pursuit of immortality, or to fall back and let music figure out how to operate without him. The clues to this tug of war are in his own music, hidden in plain sight.
In his decade-long drive to reach rap’s Mount Olympus, Drake has become the most successful post-808s & Heartbreaks artist. He has best synthesized the DNA of hip-hop and R&B to embody an unfiltered sense of emotion. After So Far Gone’s runaway success, Drake’s mesh of singing and rapping was diagnosed in influential circles as a detriment to rap’s brashness, and/or as a flavor of the moment — nothing sustainable. This made Drake not only an eternal brooder but also (even with his relentless success) an underdog attempting to plant his OVO flag in the center of hip-hop. “[Drake was] driven by feelings,” said Caramanica, “pioneering or popularizing a musical approach that not everybody at that time was on board with.”
Underdog Drake, though, opens the doors for King Drake. From February 2015 to March 2017, Drake released four projects: If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, What A Time To Be Alive with Future, Views and More Life. He embarked on two marathon tours: Summer Sixteen, with Future, and his international leg, the Boy Meets World Tour. Drake was also involved in rap’s most publicized beef since the days of Jay-Z and Nas. Meek Mill vs. Drake was a battle the More Life rapper won, but its aftereffects haunt him.
Drake has been enjoying a tidal wave of success. His fingerprints are all over the musical spectrum, with a king’s ransom of hits: his first No. 1 as a lead artist in “One Dance”; its spiritual twin, “Controlla”; the Tyra Banks-assisted “Child’s Play”; DJ Khaled’s “For Free”; and Rihanna’s international smash “Work.” Statistically, Drake had no peers with his 2016 behemoth Views — he is the first to crack a billion streams on Apple Music.
By his own admission, life at the top of rap’s food chain is exhausting. Sorry if I’m way less friendly, he noted on “Work,” I got n—as trying to end me. “To be completely honest with you, I was having trouble figuring myself in rap at the time,” he said last year. “I was a very defensive individual just coming off the situations I’d come off of.”
I’m not a one-hit wonder, they know all my stuff/ You let me turn into the n—a that you almost was/ I done see a lot of s— and I done been in things/ And I never started nothin’, I just finish things — Drake on French Montana’s “No Shopping” (2016)
So, whether it’s due to Views’ lukewarm critical and social media reception, the anxieties of fame, the claims of his experimentation with ghostwriting or a potluck of the three, it can seem like Drake never had an opportunity to flourish in his global success — even as he’s all smiles courtside.
This bellicose introspection has been noted by those closest to him. His producer/creative partner, Noah “40” Shebib, constantly reminded Drake of this moody, at times even messy persona during Views’ recording sessions. “ was like, ‘Man you really sound aggressive and defensive,’ ” Drake recalled. And Drake’s mother saw the change in her otherwise jovial only child. In her message at the end of 2017’s “Can’t Have Everything,” she wondered whether Drake’s new alienated attitude would “hold him back in life.”
Nowhere did his mental merry-go-round present itself in more contradictory terms than on More Life. With nearly 90 million global streams in its first 24 hours on Apple Music and 61.3 million global streams in the same time frame on Spotify, Life was more critically embraced than Views. Drake had seemingly entered a new chapter: applying pressure on rap’s jugular. N—-s see me in person/ First thing they say is, ‘I know you need a break,’ he rhymes on “Sacrifices.” Hell, nah, I feel great/ Ready now, why wait?
Between Jan. 21, 2017, when he recorded “Sacrifices,” and Life’s release on March 18, Drake’s mentality seemed to change. His breaking point arrived on Life’s melancholy “Do Not Disturb.” He reminisced on the Views era: Yeah, ducked a lot of spiteful moves/ I was an angry youth when I was writing Views, he confessed. Saw a side of myself that I just never knew/ I’ll probably self-destruct if I ever lose/ But I never do.
“Disturb” wasn’t just Life’s final song. It was the last song he recorded for the project — a bon voyage to rap, a la Jay-Z’s “Dear Summer.” More importantly, the curtain call held the album’s most important revelation. Take summer off, ’cause they tell me I need recovery/ Maybe gettin’ back to my regular life will humble me/ I’ll be back in 2018 to give you the summary … More Life.
“Everybody who has the throne loses the throne. That’s just the definition of the throne. It’s got nothing to do with Jay [Z], [Kanye West], Drake or any individual,” said Caramanica. “Rather than continue to pump out music and sort of be in perpetual competition, the healthiest thing to do was to step away.”
Drake, in essence, dropped More Life and went on about living his. There were no videos from the project, nor was there a need to rush out singles. As a result, Drake’s 430-week run of at least one song on the Billboard Hot 100 — a run, by context, that spanned all but 124 days of Barack Obama’s tenure as president — was snapped. He let go. Almost as if to say, “I’ve done this at such a high level for such a long time. I’m confident enough to walk away. I need to walk away.”
There was his short-lived fling with Jennifer Lopez, a romance Drake characteristically translated to his music. He paid homage to his Toronto superstar prophyte Vince Carter in a candid sit-down with basketball stars LeBron James and Chris Bosh. He further embedded himself with his hometown Toronto Raptors by co-designing the team’s City Edition jerseys. Drake donated $200,000 to Hurricane Harvey victims, and tragedy struck even closer to home as he served as pallbearer at the funeral of his friend Anthony “Fif” Soares.
Drake’s vow of a 2018 “summary” has interesting timing. He returns at a time when his two most high-profile associates-turned-competitors, Kendrick Lamar and Jay-Z, are celebrated for projects (both of which released after More Life) that largely helped shape the conversation in hip-hop last year. Both DAMN. and 4:44 are nominated for album of the year at the Grammys. “The type of record that Jay made can only be made by someone who is middle-aged and reflective,” Caramanica said, “[whereas] Kendrick’s [project] is political, socially aware, religiously invested. It’s a much more earthy, grounded endeavor. It’s just not what Drake does.”
Maybe. At 31, Drake’s portfolio continues to expand. The most successful rapper 35 and under/ I’m assuming everybody’s 35 and under, he waxed on 2016’s “Weston Road Flows.” That’s when I plan to retire, man, it’s already funded. Whether 35 is a hard date is a question better left for the year 2021. For now, as he said last year, leaving music is off in the distance. “But,” he told The Hollywood Reporter, “I do plan on expanding — to take six months or a year and do some great films.”
Since the turn of the century, Pharrell, Kanye West and Drake represent the holy trinity of songcraft. While the (warranted) debate rages about whether, in fact, Drake has a classic album to his name, there is no debate about his ability to shift conversations and birth new dialogues. Drake’s credibility lives and dies on him being Drake: the emo, wickedly selfish yet fiercely loyal, boastful, successfully paranoid extroverted introvert and modern-day Billy Dee Williams who can’t seem to find love in any of the strip clubs he frequents.
“I think if you look at earlier artists who have some version of the throne, where they may have gone wrong is chasing a younger sound when they were trying to fit in a place where they didn’t naturally fit in,” said Caramanica. “My hope is that Drake will be astute enough to not do that.”