I wanted to get a little rambly about music for a bit, because I've been listening to The Weeknd's "Trilogy" again, giving it a second chance, but I didn't know where else to put this, so it goes here.
For the last month or so, I've been giving sad guy music another shot. When I say "sad guy music," what I mean is this sort of sub-genre that's alway existed, but has become increasingly prevalent in the Hip-Hop and R&B circles, or at least the ones I tend to find myself or my friends listening to. In my listening, I've figured that Drake and The Weeknd are pretty much at the forefront of my view of sad guy rap/R&B, and when I first gave them a listen, I'll admit I didn't much care for them.
Drake had bothered me for a while, for all the reasons one is typically bothered by Drake. This idea that he's not as "real" as other rappers, that perhaps he is much less deserving of this lavish lifestyle that he so laments. He got his start on Degrassi, but never really acknowledges this in his music, preferring instead to recall a past life of non-specific "struggle." I saw him as more an actor playing a part, rather than the "Last name: Ever, First name: Greatest." These were the initial misunderstandings about Drake that would weigh heavy on me as I found myself listening to 2011's "Take Care," struggling to stop myself from enjoying it too much.
But the fact is, I did find myself enjoying "Take Care," and I hated that I enjoyed it because I couldn't properly explain why. I didn't think that any criteria or reasoning I had for liking something really applied to Drake's "Take Care." I mean, this guy Drake was supposed to be some kind of punchline in the Hip-hop community whose music I never really had to struggle to like, but I can't deny that some of his lines were pretty much perfect and resonant. Moreover, I just couldn't align myself with supporters of Drake's work who were touting it as some kind of break-through in "sensitive rap" or whatever. Rap music has always had the capacity to be sensitive, something I always understood as being a dimension of that "realness" that's so important in the Hip-hop I enjoy. Confounded and frustrated, I put it on the shelf, writing it off in the guilty pleasure category.
I dug up "Take Care" a while ago and I realized my problem with understanding my enjoyment of it had a lot to do with this idea of "realness." First, why was I so concerned about Drake's realness anyway? I admittedly have no claim on starting from the bottom, so I'm not the most accurate barometer of hip-hop realness. Drake is a qualified actor, so perhaps this is as good a reason as any to suggest that maybe his stage persona is a performance piece? Consider Aubrey Graham as "Drake." This certainly flies in the face of traditional "realness," but plenty of performers have created personas for themselves that they embody onstage and in their music. Is Bowie less "real" for doing that? Maybe this doesn't fit hip-hop's definition of traditional "realness," but hip-hop is still a constantly evolving genre, and the idea of a rapper's persona isn't new in hip-hop, either (see: Eminem/Slim Shady/Marshall Mathers, TI/Tip, RZA/Bobby Digital, Rick Ross/Rick Ross). I will admit that this may seem like reaching on my part, trying to justify my enjoyment of "Take Care," but I think there's more to it.
One prevalent theme of "Take Care" is the sense of loneliness at the top. Drake is not subtle about this. The whole "heavy is the head that wears the crown" motif is for display right on the cover, and one of the recurring themes of a Drake song is this image of a man adrift in a sea of beautiful women and luxury condos, all of which can mean nothing to him because he's hung up on the one that got away (be it a woman or a certain moment in time), that unattainable ideal that he may think he once possessed. Now because of his own mistrust of himself and others, this ideal of true love or compassion or happiness or whatever will always be out of reach. As a result Drake probably gets a lot of sad handjobs. But is chasing this ideal really the only thing that is making Drake so lonely? Maybe in the context of the music, it's as simple as the loneliness inherent in striving for the unattainable, but within the context of Drake as a persona, maybe the loneliness stems from Aubrey Graham's desire for transformation and reinvention.
There's this line in the title track off of "Take Care" that's probably my favorite thing Drake has ever done, and it's simple. It goes: "My only wish is I die real." I like this line because of how it works within the context of the idea that Drake is a persona created by Aubrey Graham. On top of just being a nice line that sounds cool, the idea of wishing to be real is a central theme of hip-hop. Although usually in hip-hop we hear it more as an assertion that someone is real, as opposed to being a wish. Drake in his music wishes to be real the way we've previously understood that someone is real in hip-hop: money, power, talent, loyalty, etc. What if Drake the persona's wish to be real entailed becoming not a facet of the author, but instead the reality of the author? What being real means to Aubrey Graham may be a little bit more complicated, and we'll never actually know the answer to that, of course, because Aubrey has so thoroughly immersed himself in his Drake persona, but maybe what this means is that we can remove Aubrey from the equation and focus solely on the Drake persona, this character that Aubrey has created and has presented to us fully on "Take Care." Perhaps the removal of Aubrey is what Drake the persona wanted all along. Perhaps the picture of Drake is not so much unreal as it is incomplete because the persona is still figuring out how to achieve total personhood. Give it enough time. Aubrey Graham will be So Far Gone, Buried Alive beneath the luxury condo of a Drake that has been fully fleshed out, a real person in his own right.
Anyhow, this is all kind of a roundabout way to admit that I like Drake, despite everything else. I think he offers a lot to think about "realness" with his Brechtian approach to hip-hop. I think his lonely mobster/sad hand job receiver image is an interesting commentary on the changing mood of hip-hop performance. I've got fairly specific conditions to liking Drake, yes, but at the end of it I've learned I need to be more real with myself and admit to what I enjoy.
NEXT TIME: I'll probably talk about The Weeknd, and why they could stand to lighten up.