Behind every great rapper, there’s a great co-sign. Sharing the wealth leads to a chain reaction of new faces; stamps of approval can generate a small internet buzz or overnight prominence. A co-sign can also extend an established artist's time in the limelight, Puffy is notorious for keeping new blood around, extending his personal relevance.
Label deals, features, remixes, even a Soundcloud repost can be career changing, and Drake’s co-sign is Wizard. He has the ability to turn practically unknown up-comers into widely popular shooting stars: Makoneen, Migos, The Weeknd, PND and Kendrick’s feature on Take Care are great examples of seeing potential in others and giving that potential a grand platform. And Drizzy's co-sign prominence makes sense. He was once an ignored and overlooked kid from Toronto known for a role on a teen show. Now, he’s hovering over his contemporaries, thanks in part to a co-sign. But is his success a product of destiny, or the domino effect of one man’s foresight?
In 2008, there wasn’t a rapper with more promise than Lil Wayne. "Lollipop" took him from underground undertaker to kicking down the door to mainstream’s promise land. Tha Carter III sold a million copies in one week, even if Cash Money bought 300K copies, and the feat polarized his status as hip-hop’s Martian mastermind. 2008 is also the year he met Drake and the two released "Ransom." Despite making music with 9th Wonder, Rich Boy, Little Brother, Trey Songz and Malice, Wayne’s feature gave Drake his real start. Behind the scenes, Cortez Bryant and Hip Hop Since 1978 started to manage Drake. They saw something in his lyricism, but he needed a branding makeover. The Comeback Season rapper was thrown on Wayne’s I Am Music Tour as an opening act. The idea was to create a grassroots movement, Wayne’s enormous following would allow Drake to win over thousands. That wasn’t the only change as Drake’s engineer Noah “40” Shebib was promoted to producer. New production, new management, and a worldwide tour, nothing was the same.
"Bitch Is Crazy," track 12 on Comeback Season, is the first time Drake sang on record. Despite joking about wanting to be an R&B singer, he didn’t begin to really combine singing and rapping until So Far Gone, possibly because of the suggestions from his new management team. History is engraved with what transpired once So Far Gone dropped—Drake’s domination, checkmate, a flawless victory. After an intense bidding war, he signed a lucrative deal with Young Money/Cash Money/Universal - a $2 million advance and a seemingly artist-friendly deal. He became Young Money’s songbird and an industry-changer. Drake changed the idea of what was accepted in hip-hop: a free mixtape with singles on the radio, a rapper wearing his heart on his cuff links, the prototype of a future unseen.
He did it all with Wayne in his corner, though, so as Lil Wayne threatens to leave Young Money and the empire appears to be collapsing, it's the perfect time to revisit YMCMB's legacy and ask some "what if" questions. Most significantly, what happens if we go back to 2008 and Drake never meets Lil Wayne, doesn’t hire Cortez Bryant and Hip Hop Since 1978 and never signs to Young Money? Would Drake be the same artist? Would hip-hop be the same? What's the butterfly effect of Drizzy on another label?
What if Drake signed to Jamla?
Instead of Young Money, Drake enters the house 9th Wonder built. The bottom that Drake started at was filled with Little Brother’s blueprint. His approach was more metaphorical than personal, he wanted to be seen as elite, backpacking his way into hip-hop’s heart. You aren’t striving for radio attention with a feature from Elzhi and rapping over Dilla beats. If Drake obtains tutelage from Patrick Douthit he’ll surely be a different artist. With 9th’s molding, he could’ve chiseled the style that Phonte forefathered and made a boom-bap monster. Imagine an album full of "Think Good Thoughts"? So Far Gone would be Comeback Season on steroids, hip-hop heads would rejoice. But sadly, hip-hop heads aren't the most reliable demographic when it comes to buying music. Unless he’s able to produce a hit on the caliber of Best I Ever Had, there’s going to be a lack of Drake in the mainstream, and what is the mainstream without Drake? More Auto-tune? DJ Khaled would need new friends. In the Wonder Years documentary, Drake expressed that he would like nothing more than to take a 9th Wonder beat to Billboard’s mountaintop, so it’s possible the two would make a big record, but I think the rapping/singing that affected the soundscape would be buried in the underground, somewhere in North Carolina instead of Miami, crooning over soulful loops instead of finding inspiration from the infectious claps of strippers booties.
Boi-1da is likely to still be on the boards, but 40’s faith isn’t so predictable. He only started to produce during a period when Drake wasn’t satisfied with the beats submitted for So Far Gone. He started to craft a sound, going from engineer to producer, emerging as the missing element that was needed. I’m sure 9th, Khrysis, and their many contacts would supply production that would appease Drake’s taste. 40 would be his Guru, instead of his Ryan Lewis. Maybe making beats on the side, uploaded to Bandcamp for fans. Drake’s debut album would have been much different; maybe Thank Me Later would’ve been Attention Deficit, a potential commercial flop but the music has a chance to leave a lasting impression. Being in the kingdom of underground royalty would attract the attention and respect he’s always sought, for his skills as a rapper, not just a hit-maker. Ideally, replace every Nicki feature with Rapsody, Skyzoo instead of Wayne, and Phonte instead of Birdman. Signing to Jamla would make Heart Break Drake into Little Brother’s little brother.
What If Drake signed to Roc-A-Fella/Roc Nation?
“They don't be saying how I'm humble, I'm hella nice, Or that I've been approached to sign to Roc-A-Fella twice." “How the fuck Jay and Dame gon' break up before they meet Drake? I'm sure it can be resolved, I'm just hoping that they make up.” These are lines from Comeback Season. It’s interesting that before the Roc’s demise, that Drake was one of their possible prospects. He could be lying, it wouldn’t be the first time a rapper stretched the truth. But let’s say the Roc wanted Aubrey, even with Dame’s hustle and gusto, I believe he would’ve sided with Jay when forced to pick a side. He did say on "Fear," “I never cried when Pac died, But I probably will when Hov does, And if my tears hold value then I would drop one, For every single thing he showed us,” a huge testimony to Jay’s lasting influence.
Depending on the timing, if Jay signed him early, he would’ve been on Roc-Nation before Jermaine. And if J.Cole thought he was on the bench before, he would be a water boy in Drake’s presence. Even if Cole still does sign, there’s no way he was getting that verse on "Star is Born" over Drizzy. It’s a chance the two could co-exist, their chemistry is evident on songs like “In the Morning” and “Jodeci Freestyle,” pitch them as the new Young Gunz. Possibly, J.Cole returns to Fayetteville and signs to Jamla, how he went this long without working with Little Brother is beyond me. Beyond that, Drake became the first unsigned Canadian rapper to have his music video featured on BET when his first single, "Replacement Girl" got premiered on 106 & Park, featuring Trey Songz, I wouldn’t be surprised if Jay wanted to recreate “Best Of Both Worlds” with these two. Trey has three features on Comeback Season, it’s not a farfetched thought.
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40 stated that he realized the best sound for Drake after hearing him rap over "Say You Will." So imagine Drake and Kanye really connecting through Jay. Kanye’s infatuation with singing would push Drake to discover his vocal potential, making So Far Gone a true offspring of Kanye’s most ambitious work. Think, "Find Your Love" but with more cowbells. The number of resources at his disposal would be unfair. Hopefully have a strong presence on BP3 that isn’t “Off That," and be a major factor in G.O.O.D Music. In this universe, Big Sean never becomes famous, he finally gets a job. Unfortunately, Jay isn’t the best label-head though. I don’t know if Jay would have time to babysit, but with Hov behind him and the right opportunities, could Drake have been even bigger signed to the Roc than Young Money?
What if Drake signed to Rap-A-Lot Records?
Houston’s culture can be found embedded in Drake’s music. He considers himself an honorary resident of UGK's town. He calls himself Young Sweet Jones, a moniker that pays homage to Pimp C’s nickname. He threw a Houston Appreciation Weekend in June of 2014. His infatuation with drank, strippers, and Houston would’ve surely taken him to James Prince front door. James "Jas" Prince claims to be the one that brought Drake to Cortez and Lil Wayne, he even attempted to sue them in 2012 for failing to compensate him. Something about a verbal agreement that led to Drake’s signing. He’s a bit soft to carry Pimp C’s legacy, but Rap-A-Lot needs new blood for the new generation. He could’ve filled that void.
Bun B has clout, he would’ve been the Phil Jackson to Drake’s Kobe. Despite lacking the resources to build Drake’s sound (producers, big named artist, etc.), he had the network to draw in the needed components. Bun filled the industry with features - he was the living legend that hadn’t lost his magic. The results of "Uptown" is proof enough that Drake and Bun as a duo are dangerous. The south would support, Drake’s ties with Yo Gotti would come in handy. Boi-1da and 40 would be important in crafting something that appeals to the new southern audience. A sound built from November 18th, double cups, and Pimp C. Drake would beat A$AP Rocky to the punch by a few years, bringing chopped and screwed to the masses. This would be Houston’s biggest return to the mainstream since Chamillionaire was riding dirty.
What If Drake signed to Death Row?
What if Drake signed to Bad Boy?
After Comeback Season, Diddy finds his music on YouTube and signs him to a prominent 360 deal. Drake spends two years ghost writing for Day 26 while getting Danity Kane, Dawn, Kalenna, and Cassie pregnant. Take Care While Drinking Orange Juice On The Last Train To Paris, his moderately-anticipated debut album, is well received, but soon after he’s dropped from the label for using a beat Puffy called dibs on. He’s completely blackballed from the industry, no one wants to work with a beat thief. After a few rough years, Aubrey signs to American Idol as a judge. They call him the “Lightskin Randy Jackson.” Noah “40” Shebib becomes a bestselling author for his, So Far From Success biopic, documenting the rise and fall of Aubrey “Drake” Graham.
What if Drake stayed indie?
Artistic independence is becoming a modern norm. Labels aren’t necessary to achieve success and generate revenue through art. Drake not signing to Young Money would’ve erased some of his inferior performances, like the painful versus contributed on "Every Girl" and "Bed Rock." Thank Me Later is also too influenced by a label, it felt rushed, attempting to extend Drake’s 15 minutes instead of crafting a memorable debut. Uncertainty is good for art, the fear of failure makes you desperate, but it also pushes you to create. Songs like "Successful," "Say What’s Real," and "The Calm" are inevitable. Drawing from the personal experiences, that has always been Drake’s Excalibur. Even Comeback Season had songs like "Closer" and "Going In For Life."
Back to where we started, does Young Money crumble without their songbird? Who’s going to sing on every hook? Lil Twist? We can do without “Make Me Proud,” but what happens to Minaj's career when you remove songs like "Moment 4 Life"? That’s not an interchangeable single. Who carries the team while Lil Wayne is doing his stint in Rikers? Drake put Young Money on his back. He brought a star quality that can’t be replaced, there’s a possibility that he would have prospered without them, but Young Money is a sinking ship if he’s not the helmsman.
Even with the problems surfacing around Wayne and Birdman’s situation, Young Money recently signed Stephanie Acevedo, while rappers like Gudda Gudda and Jae Millz await their turn. It seems like the label continues to grow with no real direction. Right now, being signed to Young Money is like being in college without selecting a major; there's a chance you'll stumble upon a prosperous career, but you'll probably just end up wasting a lot of time partying and doing drugs. Drake and Nicki are exceptions, Tyga made some noise, but most of that camp are probably getting a weekly allowance and hoping their verse makes Tha Carter V's final tracklisting.
Or maybe Cortez Bryant is the secret key to the label's success, his management took two underground behemoths to the forefront of hip-hop. Remove him from the equation, there’s no Wayne, no Drake, no Young Money and a very desperate Cash Money. Most importantly, Drake makes hip-hop exciting. Even if you despise Drake’s soul, we would be bored in a Drake-less mainstream. What’s the fun of drinking if there’s no "Marvin’s Room," who else is going to document their entire relationship history on wax, and who would introduce Korea to the Migos!?
"What you learn as you progress is this business is based on relationships in a major way." Drake said that after he realized that the right team will make a talented rapper into a superstar. So change Drizzy's team, and who does he become?