After the Toronto Raptors won game five of their playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks, edging them tantalizingly close to clinching a Finals berth for the first time in franchise history, Drake took part in an impromptu media-scrum where he spoke passionately about the impact this unprecedented playoff run was having on our city-at-large. Gesturing to the rambunctious crowd around him—the thousands of fans who’d gathered to watch the game in the “Jurassic Park” square outside Scotiabank Arena—he said:
"Look around you: we created this! This didn’t exist before we were here!”
Watching this interview in its entirety, Drake’s use of the pronoun "we" struck me as curious. If he meant "we" in the collective sense, as in the team’s fan base and the city’s residents, then this statement was too self-evident to warrant verbalizing—who else could have created it? If he meant “we,” as in himself and his OVO collective, then this sound bite was an unflattering display of self-aggrandizing narcissism. In either case, this wasn’t Drake at his most cogent.
To his credit, it’s possible Drake misspoke in a moment of excitement. For all his flaws, I doubt he’s delusional enough to think he had any role to play in securing the Raptors on-court milestones. Where I believe he may feel entitled to lay some claim, however, is in the city’s communal readiness to rally around such a moment.
For context, Toronto is a city with a needless inferiority complex. Proximity to America and a lack of unifying identity manifest themselves in the form of a nagging younger-sibling syndrome. We try to coalesce around multiculturalism as our central trait, but we’re justifiably uncomfortable being labeled a pluralist utopia. We try to take pride in the high standard of living we offer our residents, but we’re permanently conscious of the pernicious gentrification and myriad other issues that actively work to undermine this.
Lacking the blind civic pride that would allow us to do so successfully, we’ve never been able to curate an international brand that accurately reflects the city’s glorious spirit. Sub-optimally occupying the space left by this marketing failure are stereotypes about cold weather, maple syrup, Mounties, and pronouncing "about" as "aboot." Worse than all these goofy stereotypes, however, is the frustrating sense that, despite being the largest city in the second largest country in the world, our global reputation is that of an afterthought.
To the chagrin of a vocal minority of detractors in the city, Drake’s emergence in 2009 sparked an undeniable shift. To say he was single-handedly responsible for manufacturing the renewed sense of pride our city has felt over the past decade would be ludicrous, but to act like his role in catalyzing our global rebrand was anything less than profound would be similarly disingenuous.
Art influences thought patterns more effectively than any other tool. In this respect, Drake’s long-standing position as the most popular rapper in the world has given him immeasurable influence. That he’s from Toronto, wears the city proudly, and passionately raps about it in his music has done more to raise the city’s global profile than any concerted effort undertaken by the municipality in decades.
Drake gave the city a nickname used globally—“The 6ix—launched OVO Fest, bringing in hordes of tourists each year, and even brought niche Toronto slang to the stage of Saturday Night Live, parodying it for an audience of millions.
Above all else, he did all of this while making hip-hop, the international art form most associated with being forward-thinking, and for lack of a better word, “cool.” If rap is cool, and the world’s most popular rapper is vocal about being from Toronto, then by the transitive property, Toronto must be cool.
Consciously or otherwise, this reputation has found its way into the DNA of residents like myself, causing us to carry ourselves with a certain swagger that hasn’t always been visible across the city. If you’d taken a trip to “Jurassic Park” on the night of Drake’s aforementioned interview, it’s precisely this swagger you’d have seen on full-display.
Intuitively, the risks of Drake becoming Toronto’s de facto ambassador are clear. His ability to reflect positively on the city’s culture stretches only as far as his personal reputation does, meaning that each time his public image takes a hit—like when he lost his beef with Pusha-T last year—so, too, does the image of the city.
With this in mind, it’s unfortunate that Drake hasn’t been “cool,” so to speak, for several years now. He’s too ubiquitous to be cool; a permanent institution in society, like the education system or organized religion. None of this diminishes his previous triumphs, but he’s accomplished all he can from a re-branding standpoint. He can no longer be a part of the re-branding initiative, because, due to his various efforts, he is the brand now: maple syrup, “aboot,” and Drake.
Never has this been as clear as during the Raptors’ most recent playoff run. In 2013, the Raptors appointed Drake to the (ceremonial) position of “Global Ambassador” within their organization, wisely linking their status as an emerging NBA contender with Drake’s international superstardom. In 2019, their practice facility bears his logo, and their jerseys and home-court occasionally bear his color-scheme, but the power dynamics seem to have flipped. The Toronto Raptors are now world champions, while Drake is cheering from the sidelines, doing everything in his power to attach his brand to their newfound status.
On the one hand, the criticisms of Drake’s courtside antics throughout the playoffs were overblown—who really cares he gave Raptors’ coach, Nick Nurse, a shoulder rub?—but it’s telling that those who criticized these antics often neglected to mention Drake’s official role with the team.
From posting pictures of Mallory Edens, the daughter of the Milwaukee Bucks’ owner, on Instagram, to mocking Kevin Durant’s absence with a “Where’s Kevin?” Home Alone-themed hoodie, few of the actions he engaged in were befitting of those you’d expect from a professional employee of the organization. As it concerns the narrative, this wasn’t the work of the team’s Global Ambassador, this was Drake seeking attention, trying to dominate the conversation the way he’s expected to whenever anything of note happens in Toronto.
While mostly harmless fun, there’s little doubt in my mind that these antics were a distraction for some that sapped the tiniest bit of glory from a team and fan base who deserved it. Before the Raptors clinched their victory, I saw numerous Tweets expressing half-serious concern about how obnoxious Drake was going to be in the aftermath of this milestone.
When the Raptors ultimately did win, Drake immediately participated in another media-scrum, delivering an instantly memed quote about “want[ing] his chips with the dip.” Barely an hour later, the world refreshed his Instagram, expecting the new music he’d promised to release as a victory lap.
These two songs, ”Omertà” and “Money In The Grave,” arrived in the early hours of Saturday morning, and are perfectly passable for what they are. ”Omertà” has a sinister beat and boasts clever barbs like, “I’m buying the building of every door that closed on me,” while “Money In The Grave” is a gritty banger that offers further proof of the ample creative chemistry shared between Drake and Rick Ross. Disappointingly, neither of these songs are the exultant anthems I was expecting to hear from the highest-profile fan of the team I’ve been supporting for 20 years.
Rather than releasing a song like “Trophies,” Drake released “Omertà,” a song on which he eschews theme altogether in favor of bars like, “everyone that's married is miserable.” Rather than a song that marks the occasion, Drake released “Money In The Grave,” which foreseeably could be unveiled months from now without anyone the wiser. It’s not that these songs are bad per se, it’s just unclear how they tie in to our city’s current historic moment. They appear to exist in tandem with the Raptors' championship victory, but not in celebration of it. Worse yet, they feel borderline-opportunistic, as if a corporation cynically created them to cash in on The Raptors’ victory.
To speculate a little, much of this behavior—the awkward quotes, the sideline antics, and the underwhelming songs—feels like Drake is trying to come to terms with the realization that, for the first time in years, our city is having a moment large enough to make him an afterthought. This may just be recency bias, but over the course of one playoff run, it feels like the Raptors have successfully sowed the pride in our city’s fabric that Drake has been trying to instill for over a decade. This doesn’t mean we’ve lost any appreciation for Drake—just look at this video of Raptors’ fans celebrating our Finals victory by chanting “Sicko Mode” in the streets—merely that Drake could occasionally stand to be more stoic on the sidelines.
Last year, while flipping through my cousin’s tenth-grade history textbook, I came across a big picture of Drake in a section labeled “Notable Cultural Exports.” At the time, this took me by surprise, but in retrospect, Drake has done more than enough to solidify his place among the likes of Celine Dion and Jim Carrey.
In the coming months, the publishers of this textbook will sit down to create this book’s 2020 edition. In it, they’ll draft a section to chronicle the magical spring of 2019, where a whopping 7.7 out of 37 million Canadians tuned in to watch the Toronto Raptors win their first NBA Championship. This section won’t mention Drake at all, and no one will care.