Monday 23 October 2017

Drake: How did rap's biggest dweeb and sensitive soul become the current behemoth of pop?

Ahead of his sold-out Dublin gigs, Tara Joshi looks at how his music, love life, and ability to laugh at himself make him the perfect post-modern pop star

Drake in Hotline Bling
Drake in Hotline Bling
Drake
Heart on his sleeve: Drake declared his love for Rihanna at the VMAs

Tara Joshi

As Drake rinses his hair, he stares at the bottle of Johnson & Johnson shampoo. "No more tears," it reads. He sighs. "Maybe one day."

This is the kind of joke in heavy rotation when it comes to Canadian artist Aubrey Drake Graham, better known simply as Drake. The 30-year-old's image as the oversensitive, self-important, yet mind-bogglingly earnest rapper from Toronto has made him the butt of many internet parodies and memes - not least because hip hop was a genre built, to some extent, on hyper-masculinity.

Only the other day he purportedly offered to help the police talk down a man who was standing on a bridge in Manchester (the offer was "declined with thanks"). It launched a whole discussion over whether Drake could possibly be more Drake.

But last year Drake became the most streamed artist of all time, with over 4.7 billion listens in 2016 alone. His song 'One Dance' is Spotify's most-listened-to track ever. Tickets for his two Dublin shows, taking place at the 3Arena this Sunday and Monday, sold out in minutes.

Heart on his sleeve: Drake declared his love for Rihanna at the VMAs
Heart on his sleeve: Drake declared his love for Rihanna at the VMAs

So how did rap's biggest dweeb and sensitive soul become the current behemoth of pop?

Part of it, strangely, is entirely down to his embracing being a punchline. In the post-post-post-modern era, knowing how to be a meme is perhaps one of the best ways to ensure and consolidate fame.

When 'Hotline Bling' came out, he knowingly amped up his adorkable image with a video that starred him dad-dancing in a very orange puffer jacket. It was perfectly formulated to be chopped into short GIF videos and disseminated around the internet. By turning himself into a meme he told us he was laughing too, and by making a video that was sure to go viral, he assured that his music would do the same.

It's something he's traded on elsewhere too. In his rivalry with rapper Meek Mill, which came to a head last summer, Drake released a couple of 'diss tracks' attacking him right back - but crucially, he was also willing to laugh at himself.

Donald Trump parodies Drake's Hotline Bling for Saturday Night Live
Donald Trump parodies Drake's Hotline Bling for Saturday Night Live

Their feud initially centred on Meek Mill's accusation that Drake didn't write his own raps. Drake responded by saying that music was sometimes a collaborative process: yes, he co-writes some tracks, others are all him. There has not been the backlash and dethroning Meek Mill might have hoped to induce. Ghostwriting remains a sensitive topic, but it's no longer completely taboo.

Drake's beef with Meek Mill was also deemed as iconic because of Meek Mill's then-girlfriend: one Nicki Minaj. Indeed, part of Drake's goofy image is his predisposition to be lovelorn.

He has spoken effusively of his adoration of Nicki in the past and he famously received a lap-dance from her in typically awkward fashion in the video for 'Anaconda'.

But his gushing, public proclamations of love didn't stop there. Somehow, Drake's declaration at the VMAs that he had been "in love with (Rihanna) since I was 22 years old" was endearing rather than uncomfortable.

Drake on stage at The O2. Photo: Mark Doyle
Drake on stage at The O2. Photo: Mark Doyle

The two were dating - until they weren't, and he was spotted in snuggly Instagrams with none other than JLo. There's none of the bravado you might see from other male rappers: Drake makes his relationships fascinating by being so melodramatically heart-on-his-sleeve.

But none of this explains all those listens.

Musically, Drake has been most successful when amalgamating the most zeitgeist sounds from hip hop, R&B, and pop: though 'Hotline Bling' was accused of plagiarising a melody from trendy lesser-known rapper D.R.A.M, it helped make room in the Top 40 for the more cartoon-y sounds.

When Jamaican popular music dancehall seemed to be making a comeback, he featured on Rihanna's track 'Work', which was heavily influenced by those island sounds; the same was true of his phenomenally successful 'One Dance', which infused a beat from a 2008 UK dance song with vocals from Nigerian artist Wizkid.

Drake has an excellent ear for the sounds that wind their way into your head for repeat listening. Between that and his embrace of internet meme culture, he has become the pop star of a generation to whom a "personal brand" arguably means more than "authenticity".

Irish Independent

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