“Along with most of his hip-hop contemporaries, Beanie Sigel has internalized the rules of corporate rap—he explained to me that you have to have a 'good marketing plan' when you’re 'selling your product,' whether it’s music or crack.” —Kelefa Sanneh ("Gettin’ Paid," The New Yorker)
Drake’s 2017 project playlist More Life―a full-length intermission between Views and his currently untitled, forthcoming fifth studio album―was a blockbuster release, but the 22-track effort failed to receive the reception of a major spectacle. Six months after its release, Drake’s 430-week streak of continuous charting on the Billboard Hot 100 came to an end. Though Drake remained unquestionably successful and unrivaled in terms of popularity―a.k.a. the biggest rapper on the planet―for the first time in what seemed like forever, he didn't appear to be superhuman.
Invincibility is an illusion Drake has carefully curated. His presence towers over the pulse of rap and popular music; next year will mark a decade of dominance, far longer than most careers last, but appearing unstoppable is one of many reasons his shortcomings are magnified. Forward-thinking critics see stumbling as a sign of his grip loosening; a growing divide between artist and audience. Climbing to the top of Mount Olympus means people will be waiting for your descent back to Earth. The laws of gravity exclude no man.
Within the first three-plus months of 2018, the Toronto superstar hushed all predictions of his waning dominance. The January 19 dual release of “God’s Plan” and “Diplomatic Immunity,” packaged together as the Scary Hours EP, placed the mainstream market entirely in Drake’s palm. “God’s Plan” has been to Billboard what Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is to the box office, and the recent release of the undeniably infectious “Nice For What” has placed Drake in position to dethrone himself.
To classify Drizzy’s current stretch of success as the power of popularity would be shortsighted. Every decision is considered with the thoughtfulness of a master chess player. To pull off what the OVO head honcho is doing takes an understanding of the music climate, social discourse, and how to properly create moments.
Here's Drake's formula...
1. Friday Night Lights
During a 2016 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Donald Glover stated, “How you get to the product is almost more important than the product, nowadays.” Glover went on to explain his strategic reasonings for releasing music on Sunday nights, hoping fans would engage without the influence of public discourse. Drake is doing the opposite. By choosing Friday nights as his preferred release time, he’s inserting himself and his material into the conversation. He wants to be a trending topic and the topic of weekend discussion.
Drake's celebrity allows an easy robbery of attention. The majority who are capable of listening will drop everything to see what is said. Being the center of conversations creates natural gravitation from listeners who simply want to be in the know. Even if you hate Drake, you’re pressing play to participate at the moment; to be a part of the moment.
Notice how Drake releases music earlier than he would a few years ago. Before it was in the wee hours with the owls. Now, it's between 11:30 p.m. and midnight Eastern Time. This tactic is brilliant; not only are people awake, but there’s no competition. He isn't breaking the internet, but inviting everyone to the event.
2. Less Music, Bigger Impact
Flooding the market has become common practice in order to maintain a sense of relevance and Drake refuses to stay away for long. Always has. There was, however, a small break between More Life and Scary Hours, which allowed for Drake to best utilize the elements of surprise and wonderment.
“God’s Plan” and “Diplomatic Immunity” expertly showcased the duality of Drake―the hitmaker who understands the power of tricks and the MC who is still capable of feeding the people with thoughtful lyricism. Remember, the release of “Back to Back” was paired with “Hotline Bling” and “Right Hand,” two of which were commercially effective.
Drake's comfortable 11-week stretch at No. 1 on Billboard with “God’s Plan”—his longest-leading Hot 100 No. 1—was more than enough time before unleashing “Nice For What.” From the chopped up Lauryn sample to the infectious New Orleans bounce, to the star-studded music video, the song is a shoe-in for a top 10 debut next week.
These are fun, feel-good records without an accent or Caribbean-inspired vibes. Rap's most notorious emotional wreck is winning over the masses with unbridled happiness. In an economy where making moments is the key to dominating relevance, an effective single is the most powerful tool. Drake could run the entire year employing this rinse-and-repeat formula without ever dropping an album. If the music and visuals are good, he’s golden.
Solo singles have played the most significant role in helping Drake dominate music this year, but a handful of guest features have also assisted in helping to keep his presence ubiquitous. A prominent spotlight on BlocBoy JB’s “Look Alive” has exploded the Memphis newcomer to new heights and given Drake another top-10 hit in 2018, its success a combination of buzzing new artist and a home run Drizzy performance in the vein of Migos' "Versace" remix.
Remixing N.E.R.D's “Lemon,” and jumping on Trouble’s “Bring It Back” haven't made quite as big an impression, and his contribution to Migos' Culture II single “Walk It Talk It” is far from his most impressive, but they all provide space in various sections of pop and rap. Of note, Drake's "Lemon" remix is currently No. 66 on Spotify's Global 200 chart.
3. Lights, Cameras, Music Videos
This may be the most obvious component, but the videos for “God’s Plan” and “Nice For What” pushed both songs into another stratosphere of appeal. Drake has been inconsistent when it comes to pairing singles with visual components; after the stunning success of “Hotline Bling,” you would expect this not to be the case, but Drake's most popular record of all time (“One Dance”) didn’t even receive a music video release.
“Hotline Bling” allowed Drake the chance to cleverly experiment with a video that doubled as a meme generator. This shows his awareness of the social media language and how every video can be sliced into hilarious micro-content.
Upon the release of “God’s Plan,” Drake’s label wisely uploaded seven gifs to Giphy. The video is serious in spirit, but also lighthearted and very expressive. If the internet’s natural inclination is to turn you into a meme, there are obvious benefits in providing them with an array of options.
When done well, music videos are enhancers. Migos' “Walk It Talk It” went viral once the excellent video was released, highlighting the power of nostalgia. Each of his 2018 features (excluding the Pharrell remix) has a corresponding video as well, intentionally increasing visibility. Hearing and seeing Drake has made him inescapable both on and offline.
Drake and company had faith that delaying the release of visuals for “God’s Plan” would give the song an additional boost. The 358 million views it has earned on YouTube tell you how important the visual has been to the song's success. “Nice For What” is fun, a certain smash, but it’s the video that makes the song polarizing. It was a stroke of pure genius to gather some of the entertainment industry’s most stunning, hard-working, and inspiring women to further promote the song’s core theme of celebrating, uplifting, and empowering women.
“Nice For What” is a friendly reminder of how far Drake has come since he dropped the ball on the music video for “Best I Ever Had,” allowing Kanye’s vision to insufficiently complement the song’s target audience. Thank god for Karena Evans, the 22-year-old director who was behind the lens for both “God’s Plan” and “Nice For What.”
Drake is the definition of calculated carefulness. Like a politician, he’s aware of how powerful PR can be during an election campaign. “God’s Plan” and “Nice For What” touch on topics that are easy to love and difficult to criticize―God and women.
Using his music video budget for charity gave "God's Plan" the heartwarming touch of a good Samaritan giving back. In the process of creating a classic music video, his unselfish compassion and goodwill gesture changed lives.
Even so, his intentions have been questioned. Not only for "God's Plan" but with “Nice For What,” in that his celebration of women, especially black women, is suspiciously on trend.
While Drake’s questionable politics and trend-chasing accusations are well-documented, what isn’t is his personal growth. As a listener and critic, there’s no telling what inspired Drake’s current artistic choices. Being on the right side of history doesn’t necessarily mean he's pandering. I might be naive, but this is an instance where I want to trust that the artist's intent is pure as the art.
After hearing about the call between Drake and Hot 97's Peter Rosenberg, after Peter criticized Drake’s charity on the radio, I sincerely believe the music and its visual counterparts are coming from a genuine place. Drake clearly isn't content with just being the man on the charts; he wants to be a man of the people.
This isn’t the same Drake who, a little over a year ago, unleashed a bloated playlist without any visual accompaniments. No, this Drake is calculated, inspired, rejuvenated, and creating music with the intent of touching people in ways that seems astounding even for him. I won’t go so far as to call this rollout infallible, but he has tapped into a winning formula that doesn’t require an eventual album release in order to achieve absolute commercial domination.
Few artists could follow in Drake's formulaic footsteps and expect to see the same type of success. But then again, Drake’s entire reign is special. I don’t know when we will see another Drake—or if we will ever see another Drake—but it’s important to acknowledge and appreciate being able to witness what will one day fill the (digital) history books.
By Yoh, aka Yoh's Plan, aka @Yoh31