Aubrey “Drake” Graham will leave the 2010s a legend. Not because he created the most renowned music or received the most distinguished accolades, but solely, if extracted from history, the Canadian rapper’s disappearance would impact all, if not most, hip-hop, R&B, and pop music released between the years 2009 and 2019.
Yes, hip-hop was moving toward a landscape of melodies with the industry-changing rise of T-Pain, Kid Cudi, and the influence of Kanye West and Auto-Tune. It’s not that Drake birthed any unheard sounds or unorthodox styles; he’s not the first hybrid to balance the cunning rhymes of a mixtape rapper and the quiet-storm sentimentality of an R&B singer, but he gave a new era a face, a feeling. In the process, he gave the world ten years of memories.
Memory-making is the best way to describe Drake’s decade. Not for any particular song or album, but for all he did throughout the 2010s. Drake spent a decade in rotation on your favorite radio stations, or rapping with your favorite rappers, or rapping against your favorite rappers, or singing alongside your favorite songstress, or announcing another tour, with, you guessed it, your favorite rapper.
Consistency made his brand inescapable. Drake is a phenomenon, like it or not, that we all witnessed. There isn’t just one kind of Drake, either. Over the past decade, he’s taken on different forms: a hitmaker, a feature-killer, a streaming kingpin, a beef-ender, and a father withholding a child, to name a few.
Regardless if he made your eyes roll or weep, Drake received a reaction because he was everywhere. A man, a myth, and a meme that mastered being widespread in the new age of virality. My five song selections follow Drake’s growth from dormant blog darling to enormous superstardom, and all that elevation encompasses.
“Best I Ever Had” (2009)
“Best I Ever Had” is Drake’s welcome mat. It’s the song that introduced him to the 2010s as a new artist who could rap and sing his fondness for women without enlisting help from famous, R&B features. This was a change from the crossover rapport rappers like Fabolous built with Trey Songz, or what T-Pain had with Ace Hood.
It wasn’t a paradigm shift in terms of technique, but “Best I Ever Had” rewrote the blueprint for new rappers to have singy-song rap singles like B.o.B.’s “Nothing On You,” J. Cole’s “Workout,” and Wiz Khalifa’s “Roll Up. The song also foreshadowed a future wherein Drake anthems (“Nice For What,” “In My Feelings”) would dominate captions online as well as the airwaves.
Although cynicism and paranoia have drained all the nice guy charisma from his music, the rapper with a buzz “big enough to sell a blank disc” wouldn’t have made it through the decade without being a voice that could sing and rap songs for women. There’s a part of him who will always be the guy who said, “Sweatpants, hair tied, chillin’ with no make-up on.”
“0 to 100 / The Catch Up” (2014)
“0 to 100 / The Catch Up” is special. It’s a double-Platinum, GRAMMY-nominated SoundCloud loosie that articulates the Demigod rapper Drake was becoming: confident without shame, brash without fear, a titan who would eat the sun if it tried to outshine him.
This version of Drake isn’t the rapper Cash Money Records happily put on every hook. No, this is the rapper who, on any occasion, gives his introspection a voice and turns honesty and swagger into captivation. The best example of the candor of So Far Gone meeting the rap-star braggadocious of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. “0 to 100 / The Catch Up” is when Drake felt like a hit-maker who couldn’t miss. A rapper on the cusp of a classic.
“0 to 100 / The Catch Up” defines the Drake who made rap his playground. He had a way of making you feel like he was the biggest rapper in the world. If not by metrics, in moxie. More than a song, “0 to 100/The Catch Up” is a testament to being unstoppable. No one would catch up with Drake, and this release represents the moment when he knew it.
“Know Yourself” (2015)
There’s no undermining the importance of records like “Started From The Bottom” or “10 Bands,” or “Trophies,” or any of the ground-shaking, couch-jumping records that turned Drake’s discography into a treasure chest of anthems waiting to score the next Olympics. But “Know Yourself” is different. It’s the single that gave Drake what he always wanted: an anthem for Toronto.
Oddly enough, Drake doesn’t mention landmarks by name the way Jermaine Dupri and Ludacris do on “Welcome To Atlanta.” Even the song’s slang term, “woe,” isn’t unique to residents of Toronto. Yet, none of that mattered in 2015. Not quite “Swag Surfin,” since there’s no dance to perform, but the song oozes energy. “Know Yourself” possesses an infectious rowdiness that made everyone run through the 6ix as if it was their hometown. Running with strangers, running with friends, no matter who was around, “Know Yourself” made you move.
The song’s success speaks to how Drake kept us in motion all decade. We’ll look back on ”Know Yourself,” a record that peaked at No. 53 on Billboard’s Hot 100, and recall how a number could never accurately depict just how large this record felt. If only for a moment, Drake successfully made the world feel welcomed into his home.
“Hotline Bling” (2015)
“Hotline Bling” was “Old Town Road,” except about communication, not horses. That’s not entirely true, no song is equal to Lil Nas X’s omnipresent 2019 single, but Drake got close. With “Hotline Bling,” he made a virgin Mary “Marvin’s Room” you can dance to, a “Hold On We’re Going Home” for the single and scorned. This version of Drake wasn’t the boyish, nice guy from “Best I Ever Had.” No, he’s toxic in language, and he crafted a gaslighting anthem instead of a tender, win-my-girl-back tribute. Incredibly, we overlook all of that because of the song’s masterful melody.
“Hotline Bling,” a record steeped in artistic controversy and forever attached to DRAM’s “Cha Cha” and the accusation of theft, represents a conundrum in Drake’s career. It won’t be the final time we criticize Drake for turning a hot song into a hit record, either. Still, no other rapper could have elevated the record with an internet-breaking visual the way Drake and Director X did to the tune of more than 1 billion YouTube views.
Problematic and inescapable, “Hotline Bling” defines Drake’s second career arc as a pop star rapper who is never far from the ghost that won’t stay buried. Although the single never reached No. 1, no other 2015 record felt as large. “Hotline Bling” was our first dose of “God’s Plan,” Drake the phenomenon.
“Fake Love” (2016)
What I love most about Drake’s 10 years in the spotlight is witnessing the death of his optimism. Drake came in the industry starry-eyed, with dreams of success and hopes of being a legend. Every year, his eyes darkened, and the vision he had of being the beloved rap star became a never-ending battle for his position at the top.
How I’ll remember Drake is the rapper who grew colder with every knife in his back. Sure, there’s the summery, dancehall-inspired hits, like “One Dance” and “Passionfruit,” but no matter how much he changes, Drake can’t escape that realization that the fantasy of his career wasn’t perfect. He had to fight against being the “soft” rapper, fight against legends and mentors, lawsuits and ghosts, friends and foes. Who does that make you?
“Fake Love” encompasses a simple, but real feeling: it’s lonely at the top. To look back on Drake’s decade, on his ascension, is to see a rapper gain the world, but become a pessimist. What happens if Julius Caesar survived the Ides of March? What song would he sing? “Fake Love” is the record Drake has spent the better half of his career singing. Legend or not, Drake made it, and despite all he’s gained from the fruit of his labors, he can never take his eyes off how many times they tried to take it from him. Neither can I.
By Yoh, aka Know Yohself aka @Yoh31