Memes, Rhymes, and Life: How Drake Turned Emotion Into An Economy

The rap game has always been in a constant state of change. One minute it’s been a conduit for spreading the message of social injustices, the next, it’s raining dollar bills down from the rafters at Magic City and spilling Ace of Spades on a white fur coat. What it has remained throughout, though, is, for the most part, a resistance to deep romantic sentiment. Rap is a game of braggadocio, of money, cars, women, and of extravagant and dangerous lifestyles. That’s not to say rappers never venture into personal odes on love, but amid rhymes predominantly about sex and strippers, the romance is usually fleeting; and any emotion in the genre has generally been tied to the loss of good friends and reflections on broken childhood homes.

Know Yourself, Know Your Worth
To step away from this tradition, to attempt to make a career out of sensitive lyrics, would be a huge gamble, one that could cost an artist his street cred and eventually his fan base if challenged by the right rapper. Let’s be honest, has anyone heard from Ja Rule recently? (Editor’s Note: Livin’ It Up is a vastly underrated gem.) Not to mention there was probably zero chance said rapper would achieve titan-level status like his contemporaries. So, taken at face value, Aubrey Drake Graham pursuing his passion for rap was illogical. It wasn’t that he lacked talent or drive or ego; he just had a penchant for pouring out his most intimate and vulnerable thoughts on love, longing and heartbreak. Sometimes, he even sang them. His name was Aubrey for god sakes. Add in that he was a former child star from the burbs of Toronto (Wait, what? Like in Canada?) without a rough backstory, crack empire, or a record deal in sight. Making it to radio or an online stream seemed impossible. Even if he did, there would no doubt be a torrent of backlash from other so-called “hard” rappers, not to mention internet trolls. Let’s be honest, the hip hop game isn’t kind to artists they or the collective deems “soft”.

There’s no true hip-hop fan who would’ve looked at these facts and history, and predicted that Drake would find a place in the genre, let alone build a generationally and demographically-spanning empire. But within the last decade, Drizzy has built a massively successful career and persona by mixing traditional rap tropes with the importance of expressing heartbreak and emotions. Most of his contemporaries don’t even seem to mind that his lyrics are considered softer than theirs, and his success has, sometimes begrudgingly, earned him the respect he long sought. Hell, 40 million made in 2015 is nothing to sneeze at. Rather than focus on trying to be something he’s not, (and, in conjunction, the same as every other guy in the game) his rise is a testament to how outsiders who forge their own way often end up becoming unavoidable forces of nature. No risk, no reward.

Started From The Bottom
Drake first entered the spotlight in 2001 at age fourteen on the soapy Canadian teen drama Degrassi: The Next Generation. As Jimmy Brooks, a high school basketball player who would eventually become wheelchair bound in an infamous episode about a school shooting, his success was mostly forgettable. Although he was early in his acting career, he was already distracted by his love for music, a hobby that was even worked into the script for his character. After his long days on set, he would spend his nights and early mornings recording tracks, sometimes forgoing sleep and working until he had to be back on set again. At the outset of the new millennium, youtube and the digital revolution had massively lowered the barriers to entry for anyone looking to break into music. With one mouse click, a mixtape could hit the web sans a middleman. So in 2006, Drake self-released Room for Improvement in collaboration with DJ Smallz and his Southern Smoke mixtape series. As if prophesying the future, the then nineteen-year-old young buck playfully rapped about dominating music charts one day and mused on relationship woes.

A year later, it was almost as if some switched had been flipped. His next mixtape, Comeback Season, showcased a polished lyricist and an artist who had finessed his skill between projects; the lyricism was stronger and the sound was much more hip-hop, but it was obvious that his frustration and hunger to make it were boiling over.. On “Closer,” Drake rapped about rejection from record companies: “When you hollerin’ at labels/And they silencing you back/’Cause you fail to thoroughly discuss some violence in ya track,” which was reminiscent of the same struggles expressed by Kanye West, Drake’s biggest influence and who, like him, didn’t have the kind of tumultuous background glamorized by the genre and was heavily influenced by inner turmoil. Still, the music video for the single “Replacement Girl” managed to make its way to BET’s popular countdown show, 106 & Park. Ultimately, the producers of Degrassi got tired of Drake’s double life and gave him a fateful ultimatum: focus on music or the show. In true Drake fashion, he went with his heart.

0 to 100 Real Quick
If every good story has a significant turning point for its hero, the release of the So Far Gone mixtape in 2009 was, most certainly, Drake’s. It was a tale of the pitfalls of the fame he hadn’t quite experienced yet but he was just that hungry for it anyway. He also had enough well known-features on the project to fake it: his mentor Lil’ Wayne, Bun B, Omarion, and frequent collaborator Trey Songz all had appearances. It was also the first time Drake experimented with singing, which was cleverly mixed in with his harder flows to lessen the impact of it’s softness. He bared his soul with reckless, emo-like abandon, ruminating on his unrequited love for an exotic dancer on “Houstatlantavegas,” and belting out a flat-out love song called “Best I Ever Had,” a seminal track that would finally thrust him into mainstream music (peaking at #2 on the Billboard 100), and land him a cushy record deal on Lil’ Wayne’s Young Money label. It would be easy to say that his moment finally arrived because the rap landscape was primed and receptive to change in the wake of Kanye West’s successful moody and genre-blending 808s & Heartbreak, but one can’t discredit that “Best I Ever Had” appealed on its own as a breezy crossover that was perfect for radio: the catchy, repetitive lyrics of an R&B song and the thumping beat of hip-hop. The way Drake expressed himself was also particularly noteworthy, he didn’t attempt to bury his sentiment under raunchy lyrics or over-the-top boastfulness, and he moved seamlessly between singing and rapping without seeming like he was having an identity crisis. He was planting his stake in rap as someone who would venture down avenues that were usually cut off to rappers and appealing to a wider, more pop-friendly audience, just as Kanye West had.

Drake certainly embraced his arrogance over his skills, fame and money, and he spit memorable bars that reinforced his status as one of the best lyricists in the game. It’s clear, though, that people also really connected to his signature emotional vulnerability across his first three wildly successful major studio efforts, Thank Me Later, Take Care and Nothing Was the Same, even as they mocked him relentlessly (and created meme after meme) for being so sad all the time. Maybe the truth was that the emotions he evoked were too raw and too real for people to admit to understanding. He could be incredibly self-loathing, and maybe he was too willing to talk about indulging in things he shouldn’t have when he was down. There was something about the way he reminisced on exes that made his pain contagious, and it was way too easy to drunk-dial numbers in your contacts you’d been avoiding when you had his album on. He also completely subverted the male and female relationship in rap by frequently confessing that he was often the one who was treated as expendable.

What A Time To Be Alive
Being relatable has driven his success, but he’s also made smart moves by not fighting the public’s perception that he is perpetually sullen and lovesick, even as he gets turned into memes and Tumblr accounts. “Sad Drake” is officially part of pop culture, which is constant free publicity for him. Beyond that, though, allowing fans to get comfortable with the emotional persona meant he could not only create a way for fans to feel more connected to him but also he could sneak attack with the surprise release of the harder, grittier album-mixtape hybrid If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late last year and remind everyone that no matter how many memes hyperbolic blog posts were created in his name, he still owned the top position in rap. At one point, as Billboard pointed out, not only was the entire album on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop singles chart at the same time, but Drake was responsible for or featured on 21 total tracks on the chart. And as a final exclamation point, Meek Mill also learned an important lesson about Drake’s lyrical skills and how he could pull away from his vulnerable side with ease when Drake mercilessly ethered him on the freestyle diss tracks “Charged Up” and “Back to Back.” Now who’s the one crying softly in the background?

It’s clear that Drake’s ability to slide between personas has and will continue to propel him further and further as a business mogul, no doubt ultimately into the realm of crossover heavy hitters like Jay Z and West. Maybe even bigger. His approachable, down-to-earth nature made him a natural pick for hosting gigs at SNL and the ESPY awards, but he was also perfect alongside legends Nas, Rakim, and The Notorious B.I.G. for Sprite’s “Obey Your Verse” campaign, and also as a designer for streetwear favorite, Nike’s Air Jordans. Speaking of hoops, while he's always repped his hometown Raptors and is a courtside fixture, Drake is now offcially a Raptors executive and helped bring this year's All Star Weekend to The 6. He even got a key to the city for it. Not to be outdone, his most lucrative deal to date has been his team up with Apple (rumored to be worth a cold $19 million), which includes the presence of his OVO Sound Radio station on their streaming music service and exclusive initial album releases, including his recent Avengers-level team up with Future, What a Time To Be Alive.

Summer Sixteen
As it sits here in 2016, with the public’s mouth watering for Friday’s release of Views From the 6, non-traditional album drops have become the norm. Drake joins the likes of Kanye West and Beyoncé with fans refreshing their favorite news sources and scoping social media trends for word of it’s release. Every theorized track list is scrutinized like DNA evidence and breadcrumbs of album covers are scattered about all corners of the internet. Semantics aside, Views will be the true follow-up to Nothing Was the Same since it will be an LP and not a mixtape, and it’s probably the most anticipated album of 2016, even eclipsing the hype machine-driven, gossip mag-covered, stop/start/stop extravaganza that was Kanye’s release of The Life of Pablo. Undoubtedly, there’s insane pressure that comes with being on top: he’s got to outdo himself and shift the entire rap genre again, them’s be the the rules when you’re king. “Can he actually do it and how?” are the questions that will be on everyone’s minds as the beats from Views flow over the weekend.

But it’s best not to underestimate Drake.

We are talking about the unlikely story of a former soap star who became the biggest rapper in the world.