In a 1950 profile for The New Yorker, Lillian Ross spent three days with Ernest Hemingway in New York City, a place he referred to as “a rough town, a phony town, and a town that was the same in the dark as it was in the light.”
Ross was with Hemingway as he met his book publisher, Charles Scribner, to sign a new book contract. After he signed on the dotted line, the 50-year-old American novelist said aloud, “Never ran as no genius, but I’ll defend the title again against all the good young new ones.”
Based on his scoreboard, Hemingway won the “title” in his 20s and spent his 30s, 40s, and now 50s defending the spoils of victory.
Drake, who needs no introduction, understands title defense well. Much like Hemingway, he won his title in his 20s and has been in constant protection mode throughout his early 30s. To his credit, Drake earned the title. Whether or not you believe he wrote every single line of every song or not, as a singular artist, Drake’s output and commercial dominance over the past decade as a singing rapper from Toronto, Canada is staggering.
As Jon Caramanica of the New York Times wrote in his 2019 op-ed, “Rappers Are Singers Now. Thank Drake”: “Drake’s So Far Gone mixtape—released in February 2009—marked the arrival of [a] new path: singing as rapping, rapping as singing, singing and rapping all woven together into one holistic whole.” By no means is Drake the first rapper to sing, but, to Caramanica’s point, he did fuse rapping and singing into a singular expression, and that is important to note. Drake changed everything.
After the success of his 2009 single “Best I Ever Had,” Drake was in the mainstream, a rapper who sang from Toronto. A new path was opening for a different kind of rapper to become a superstar, similar to how, back in 2007, Kanye West’s Graduation outsold 50 Cent’s Curtis. The era of gangsta rap was over, and rap music had a new face. Rap had a new champion. But no matter how much Drake cites Kanye West as one of his biggest musical influences, he’s a son of Phonte. The Little Brother rapper is embedded in the DNA of Drake’s rapping singing style. If Drake were ever to flip JAY-Z’s famous line—“Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense, but I did five mills’ – I ain’t been rhyming like Common since”—Phonte would have to be named.
In fact, it’s cosmic irony that Phonte released the music video for “So Help Me God,” from his 2018 sophomore album, No News Is Good News, two years before Drake’s “Toosie Slide.” Both visuals depict the rappers’ rapping throughout different rooms in houses. Although Drake and Phonte shot the same video in concept, their songs are entirely different. The home Phonte recorded in is gorgeous, and his bars are pristine. Watching the footage feels good. “Toosie Slide,” on the other hand, feels manufactured—to be everywhere, especially TikTok. It’s a song fitting of Drake’s massive fortress: a gaudy, empty palace.
Drake’s motives present as greedy and capitalistic. They inspire the calls of trend-jumping and culture-vultureism. That all can be true, but that’s not how Drake sees himself. “I mean, I’m really trying,” he told Leon Neyfakh of Fader in a 2015 profile. “It’s not like I’m just sitting here, just fuckin’ shooting with my eyes closed. Like, I’m trying. I’m really trying to make music for your life.”
To make a song like “Toosie Slide,” a song perfect for virality on TikTok, makes sense for Drake. He wants to be where the people are. If you’re on TikTok, he’s on TikTok; if you’re on SoundCloud, he’s on SoundCloud. Just look at how he labeled his recent loosies on the OVO Records SoundCloud page: “WHEN TO SAY WHEN (LEAK 2020),” “CHICAGO FREESTYLE (LEAK 2020),” and “DESIRES LEAK 2020 SUPER FUTURE DRAKE.” Drake is using the language of a scammer uploading songs they stole off hard drives, not the owner of an official account. That’s Drake, the man who watches and reacts, taking it upon himself to give us music for our life regardless if we want it or not because that’s what it means to be No. 1, to be a legend amongst the people.
Ever since 2015 and the release of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, Drake has used his music to document his life as a legend. The bright-eyed lyricism that made his 2008 mixtape, Comeback Season, hopeful and optimistic, is nowhere to be found by IYRTITL. Drake is successful but cynical, a boy who felt he was growing into a God.
As a student of Kanye, the next stage of stardom for Drake was Godhood—hence the “6 God” moniker. And although he could speak as if he was Zeus, Aubrey Graham was Achilles, and it was only a matter of time before we saw his heel. Meek Mill was supposed to be his Paris, the one to bring him down, but the Philadelphia rapper simply became food for Drake’s ego. Defeating Meek is why the rapping on Drake’s 2017 commercial mixtape, More Life, is full of baiting taunts and arrogant gloats. He was undefeated, a winner who felt unbeatable.
If More Life represents the conqueror’s ego after victory, Scorpion, studio album number five, released in 2018, is the conqueror after defeat. Drake’s not baiting foes or begging for battle. No, this is the passive aggression of a winner who lost. There’s no humble way to lose when you’re No. 1, especially when you find pride in your survival against the odds. Again, this is the same rapper who begins Scorpion by rapping on the intro:
“I’ve had real Philly niggas try to write my endin’ / Takin’ shots with the GOAT and talked about shots that we sendin’ / I’ve had scuffles with bad boys that wasn’t pretendin’ / I’ve had too many nights to mention, that’s just the beginnin’” –Drake, “Survival”
On the single “Life is Good,” co-starring longtime collaborator Future, released 19 months after Scorpion, Drake raps on the chorus, “Niggas caught me slippin’ once, okay, so what?” The lyric suggests the Canadian rap superstar acknowledges his loss to Pusha-T in one of the most significant rap beef of the 2010s. I believe Drake, personally, believes he didn’t lose to Pusha. In his mind, revealing his son was a crafty tactic, but not a remarkable feat. Pusha’s decision to bring up 40’s health was a move Drake doesn’t respect, either. He saw it as tasteless, a cheapshot only a heartless monster would bring into their conflict. If that’s what he thought, he would be right; Pusha-T is insensitive, and Americans love a good monster.
Drake isn’t a monster, but he’s not a villain, either. ‘Cause when the villain loses, they have to go away, and Drake wasn’t going anywhere. Instead, in response to losing, he chose to be omnipresent. Not just on the charts, but everywhere. Drake knew by not responding to “The Story of Adidon” that history would no longer speak of him as an undefeated conqueror. So he chose to accept the loss, but he wouldn’t do it quietly. Thirty-five days after Scorpion’s release, Drake appeared on Travis Scott’s multi-Platinum “Sicko Mode” as a block-circling headhunter who could have you clipped for a Louis belt. Lyrically, the verse is one of his best features: callous and catchy, an introduction to a malevolent Drake.
Losing to Pusha-T left the rapper known for his crossover hits full of malice. The same malicious energy that drives his verse on “Sicko Mode” appears in “Never Recover,” a song made to blow off more steam and gifted to Lil Baby and Gunna for their album Drip Harder. As the aggressor who kept his adversaries and critics nameless, we don’t consider these guest verses diss records. Drake doesn’t employ heavy profanity or lose his composure; he raps as if he’s talking directly to his opponent while the world listens.
Drake can turn any song into a diss track masked as a pop single, or a pop record masquerading as a diss track, or a rap song that’s R&B, or R&B that blends into dancehall. He blurs the lines of what can be commercial. Still, Drake isn’t just a man of product. He’s a man with malice who can drop a loosie rap song and say, “Borderline dangerous, approach with caution, I plan to buy your most personal belongings when they up for auction, truth be told, I think about it often.” He means every word.
Drake is imperfect—and that is why I appreciate him. He isn’t someone who can’t miss—he can—he just keeps shooting. Having a winner’s mentality doesn’t mean you’ll win, and winning once doesn’t mean you’ll win again, but Drake knows this. He’s like a matador who loves the rush of dancing with an unpredictable bull.
No matter the game, whether it’s rap beef or TikTok, Drake’s going to play a hand. He has to. You don’t become No. 1 and not try to keep the title. Drake represents what it looks like when the world is your audience, and if you want to keep the world, you have to dance with the bulls.
[Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly named 50 Cent's Before I Self Destruct album and stated 50’s battle with Kanye West was in 2008. The correct album is Curtis and their sales battle took place in 2007.]