It begins with a chord played by a Rhodesy synthesizer that wobbles through chorus effects and filters until it sounds like a cheap organ in an underwater church. Two bars in, a three-voiced choir riffs over the synth; open vowels, vibrato and tons of reverberation. The choir stops in caesura, and the drums enter—a kick and a snare, both round and electronic, leaving acres of space for the low-key melodies to loop.
It’s so dramatic. It’s so 2009. It’s so fucking Drake.
“Successful,” a boys’ club anthem featuring Trey Songz and Lil Wayne from Drake’s seminal tape, So Far Gone, finds the Toronto rapper reflecting on newfound fame, expensive habits and struggles with insecurities along the way. The sparse instrumental, which sounds like a slow-motion heavy Lexus commercial, could only ever have been produced by Noah “40” Shebib, Drake’s long-time collaborative partner. The two crafted this oceanic sound together to let the performers introspect with full clarity; to let every word resonate.
The song’s hook delivers on that potential and is among the most memorable of the late 2000s. The sweet-singing Songz just wants the “money, money and the cars, cars and the clothes,” and, of course, “the hoes, I suppose.” The refrain is a yearning for bigger things, but that final supposition leads to a most important caveat: “I just wanna be successful.” This tentative, desperate declaration is a sententia of the young male psyche at the end of the 2000s.
At the same time that Drake began his ascension, Barack Obama, a fellow biracial icon, was inaugurated as the forty-fourth President of the United States. A period of celebratory excitement followed Obama’s entrance into the White House, less than one full month before the release of So Far Gone. The election of America’s first black president signified a new era of hope and unlimited possibilities after a tumultuous decade. The future was nigh.
In Drake, rap fans found a new, more “relatable” figure; a racially ambiguous, middle-class pretty boy growing into adulthood alongside them. It seemed every girl at school found him attractive, and every song was better with a dash of Drake. Let the versatile star from the apparently cool now Canada sing your hook, Timbaland! Let him rap forever, Rick Ross! Let him write your whole song and watch his demo go viral, Jamie Foxx! (Author’s Note: Christopher Francis Ocean would later perfect this move.)
I was in the eighth grade when, suddenly, just about every dude wanted to be like this new rapper named Drake. What hooked us beyond the inescapable boy wonder traits was how Drake consistently channeled the attitudes of young men growing up in a world full of new possibilities, driven by social norms to gain material success by any means.
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The theme of “Successful” was immensely relatable to adolescent males in the high-potential atmosphere of the late 2000s. Drake’s songs consistently soundtracked the average young person’s unending fear of failure, with a tinge of—perhaps toxic—masculinity in the form of lyrics about material conquests, unforgiving women, and a misunderstood male protagonist just trying to make his people proud.
When Drake talks about leasing phantoms and blowing money in clubs, the boy in you thinks, “I want that,” because that is how the ideal man has been presented to you all your life: rich and capable. When Drake raps about hard times, about comforting his mother during a dark period at home (“She cried to me, so I cried too / And my stomach was soakin' wet, she only 5'2"), we can relate because as men, we love and bond with our mothers. When these made men solemnly croon they “just wanna be successful,” you scream “Man, me fucking too!”
“Successful,” which earned a platinum certification in June 2018, has aged hilariously, if only because the world seems to have completely changed in 10 years. On one hand, it feels super cheesy: Drake’s breathy flow sounds amateurish now and Trey Songz’ “Yup!” has become more meme than calling card. On the other, it still feels more relevant and more vital than most songs from the period.
Where many popular rap tunes from the late 2000s feature over-the-top joviality and emanate ringtone-rap PTSD, “Successful” and its simplistic solemnity feel honest in a way that reminds us of Drake and Shebib’s massive influence. Artists like Travis Scott still use parts of OVO’s original recipe to cook up smash hits in the late 2010s. Drake has used his star qualities to become one of the most popular artists in the genre’s history, an inescapable celebrity now making regular NBA Finals appearances as the Toronto Raptors’ cultural ambassador.
Meanwhile, the job market is increasingly daunting, health care is too expensive, and most of us aren’t famous rappers. Seventy-one percent of American college graduates have student loan debt, with the average amount of debt per graduate a cool $28,500. Many of those young men who I graduated with—who had dreams of the NBA, or Wall Street—still struggle to make ends meet, much less fulfill their ambitions.
Drake became more successful since “Successful,” while the kids who grew up idolizing him remain inextricably linked to a single line from the song's second verse:
“I want things to go my way / But as of late, a lot of shit been goin' sideways.” —Drake ("Successful")
Yet, as much as we’ve grown, and as jaded as we’ve become, those of us who grew up on So Far Gone can’t deny we are still the young boys who once saw ourselves in Heartbreak Drake. His old anthems don’t just trigger nostalgia; they say important things about us. Play “Successful” at a house party and watch as grown men around the room lift their drinks and shout to watery chords like wistful, vulnerable little boys.
The future seems bleaker by the day and pressure is mounting higher and higher, but each of us, now more than ever, just wants to be successful. Still.