Mixed Drinks, Feelings, and Acuras: Drake Raps the Middle Class [Literary & Arts]
By Marshall Thomas
Young Money / Cash Money / Universal Republic
The world knows it by now, but Drake put out a good album last November. It’s on the radio, at parties, bumping out of half the cars that pass me, and has permeated just about the entire Internet. It features some progressive and distinctive production, and Drake’s flow has indisputably improved. Musical reviews of Take Care have already been taken care of by more capable critics; I write here out of strictly personal qualification. As a young, biracial, middle-class rap fan, no rapper’s socio-cultural identity has ever aligned this closely with mine, and I’ve greeted his rise with a certain suspicion.
A brief introduction to Drake for those who’ve had better things to do: Aubrey Drake Graham rose to fame in late 2008 and early 2009, handpicked by legendary rapper Lil’ Wayne, who likely intended to complement his bad-boy image with a cleaner, more sweethearted sidekick. The former teen actor now embraced a new role, with his “authenticity” very much in question. Drake proved immensely popular almost immediately, releasing the hit mixtape “So Far Gone” and a debut album, “Thank Me Later,” which was about as successful as can be expected in the illegal download era.
In November of last year, he released “Take Care,” earning the critical praise that had eluded him up to that point. The people crowned him too, and like it or not, Drake has now reached the level of fame and ubiquity of hip-hop princes like Jay-Z and Kanye West. As mentor Lil’ Wayne’s star dims, Drake is passing him on the way to the pantheon. As a rapper, Drake is lyrically clever, and articulates his words so clearly that he flirts with squareness. He pairs his raps with a droning singing voice that hopes to make up for its limitations in range with an acute catchiness. Drake certainly isn’t “real,” in the way rap has defined real until this point—he is one of the most carefully constructed pop stars of his time.
Drake matters now because, more than any other single figure in contemporary culture, he represents the tastes and ethos of this particular generation of the American middle class1—in this context, Drake is very much “real.” He is, by now, several million dollars beyond strict middle class status, but while you can take the kid out of the Camry, you can’t take the Camry out of the kid. Drake’s ethos remains decidedly middle class. Sure, he raps about unattainable luxuries, but only with a nonchalance so transparent and affected that it’s basically awe. While Drake claims to “do dinners at French Laundry and Napa Valley/Scallops and glasses of Dolce, that shit’s right up [my] alley,” the act of making this claim proves that it’s not, in fact, right up his alley.
Essentially, Drake has succeeded in reversing the entire model of pop-rap fandom, in which middle-class kids send their imaginations to “the streets,” and instead has come to meet us, ideologically, at our proms and house parties. He is one of us.With this in mind, nothing is more fulfilling, when listening to Drake, than cataloguing the generational traits he personifies over the course of a song or album. This catalogue and its examination are my purpose here. Drake has created a full, engaging account of us, and what he’s created is at once discouraging and hopeful.
Let’s begin somewhere simple: his and our love for the kind of brief wisdom tidbits that fill up Tumblr and Pinterest. Social media now holds and produces a boundless variety of these widely applicable quotes, usually ruminations on friendship, love, or the self. “I live for the nights that I can’t remember, with the people that I won’t forget,” Drake muses on “Show Me A Good Time.” His latest single, “The Motto,” has combined this instant wisdom with the recent micro-trend of acronyming to birth the sinisterly streamlined trend-word YOLO (“You Only Live Once”). This phrase is used both to praise spontaneity and justify rash decisions. Conquer your fear of public speaking, YOLO, get a piercing, YOLO, take ecstasy, YOLO. It is the ideal piece of “instant wisdom” for an impulsive generation.
Drake is also an adherent of a drinking culture that dramatizes drunken indiscretions as cathartic moments of “realness,” little windows into the soul. The robo-ballad “Marvin’s Room” centers around the trendy indiscretion of the drunk dial. By song’s end, too much rosé has led Drake to call an ex-girlfriend, describing his empty excesses and pleading for her to “Talk to me please, [I] don’t have much to believe in.” (It should be noted that the song is extremely convincing in its melancholy, with odd wails from unidentified instruments, and well-varied, organic rhythms in Drake’s sing-rap hybrid.) This drunk dial is a moment of clarity, and “Marvin’s Room” depends on the contemporary belief that alcohol reveals true feelings rather than distorting or exaggerating them. This belief should be familiar to anyone who’s ever discussed last night’s mistakes over omelettes.2
To speak of more essential qualities: Drake is soft and so are we. “Softness” as a concept encompasses many varying forms of weakness, whether referring to the pampered, the oversensitive, the easily intimidated, or those afraid of the black, urban, and dangerous.3 Drake started in the hole in this respect: a half-Jewish Torontoan who got his start on the teen soap opera Degrassi. But he certainly hasn’t toughened his image during these recent years in the spotlight. In an interview with Katie Couric, he speaks dreamily of ambitions to start a wine-tasting club with Justin Timberlake. And of course, the music is undeniably “soft,” lyrically and sonically. Take his guest verse on J. Cole’s “In The Morning,” where he reminisces about childhood visits to the riding stables and boasts about “things I can do with lotion.” The drawn-out mid-verse crooning and frequently slow-paced foggy beats complement this impression exactly. And by now, this softness is firmly implanted in the national comedic imagination. Satirical blogger Big Ghostfase has made his name from Drake slander, nicknaming him “The Kitten Whisperer” and joking that he “can make any origami animal you ask him to” and “frost a cake with his eyes” (those are some of the few jokes you could read your mom). The fill-in-the-blank hashtag #DrakeCriesWhen generated thousands of responses on Twitter.
Yet while the derision is public and visible, identification with Drake’s softness is by nature far more private, expressed between friends or thought to oneself alone, between earbuds. Drake’s popularity, by proxy, seems to prove that we identify with this softness. Frequent emotional vulnerability, a too-fine appreciation of luxuries, and a little crooning are all more than enough to earn a “soft” label in the rap game, which retains very real connections to America’s black ghettoes. But for much of America’s middle-class, feelings, nice shampoos and nice-guy ballads are desirable norms, not conspicuous “softness.” We are far more familiar with “tears on the pillowcase” alone in our rooms than with bulletproof vests, and we like soft.
Also key to Drake’s persona is a perfectly modern self-absorption. While Kanye West is the undeniable pioneer of confessional rap, Drake has taken it far further, and to a more vulnerable place.4 As with “Marvin’s Room’s” examination of drinking, Drake ends up with an excellent song by diving head-on into Drake-gazing in “Look What You’ve Done.” The title sounds accusatory, but in actuality asks his mother and aunt to “look what they’ve done” in raising a successful and grateful son. Throughout, Drake examines his relationship with the two women who raised him, yet despite his best intentions, he ends up speaking more about himself than the ladies, reflecting on a fatherless kid “going through life so worried that he won’t be accepted.” The song ends with a minute-long voicemail from his grandmother thanking him for his (likely financial) support, which manages to be both self-congratulatory and uniquely touching.
It’s familiar, this benign inability to stop talking about ourselves. Raised with the constant reassurance that we are special and should always “follow our dreams,” our generation has looked to personal fulfillment as a primary goal. We often understand others, including our moms and aunts, primarily through their relation to us. Yet “Look What You’ve Done” suggests that this is rarely a malicious self-absorption, and Drake’s love for his family is apparent. Rather, self-absorption is a system, a way of organizing the world. We are not sociopaths, just in the habit of looking at ourselves first and last.
Finally, a performative “cool” is a major aspect of Drake’s persona and our generation’s character. An example: last year, Drake performed a set at Radio City Music Hall. I watched it at home while eating some chips; it was broadcast on some channel in the mid-hundreds. He seemed determined to act out a wide range of core moves—he knelt at the end of “Fireworks,” while a recording of Alicia Keys finished the song’s coda, and appeared to attempt to cry. One song later, he spent a chorus executing some energetic two-footed bouncing and ripped off his jean jacket to prove his excitement. This “acted” quality spills over into his music, where Drake constantly borrows from several types. He slips into the costumes of Houston thug, underground phenom, R&B loverboy, kingpin, or harried celebrity as the situation demands. Often, Drake will wear each of these masks in the same song.
While over-exuberant claims about the effects of mass media on our generation should be viewed skeptically, it’s not hard to tell where Drake (and we) learned these gestures. TV and the internet have provided us with an exhaustive inventory of choreographed cool. This wealth of gestures extends beyond the domain of concerts, but into the everyday performances of partying, attending school, conversing, hooking up and more. Rather than working by trial and error, we choose from this wide range of already-familiar gestures when we set out to navigate any new social context: a new school, job, love, or friendship.
To this point, this profile of our generation might seem bleak, but it also suggests that the hate Drake draws for his “inauthenticity” is misguided: Drake is just authentically middle-class, rather than authentically street. Even his fake-thugging is an authentic middle-class trait. A more principled brand of hater disapproves of the entire people and belief system that Drake represents; this person is also likely callous and pretentious. The rest of us exist alongside middle-class friends and family with many of the same weaknesses and foibles, and for us, Drake’s long list of flaws has a redeeming aspect. The varying reasons we like Drake5 can act as a guide to liking those close to us and forgiving their flaws—not to mention liking and forgiving ourselves.
Take whichever reason appeals to you. You can love Drake for his accessibility. His vulnerability. His cleverness and charm. His earnestness, his transparency. He is personally compelling. These too are all trademarks of the contemporary American middle-class, and Drake has reminded me how to find and enjoy these positive qualities in myself and the people I know. We’re often wrong and have plenty of improving to do, but also worth caring about along the way. I might even go as far as Drake does on “Crew Love,” and admit it: “Really, I think I like who I’m becoming.”
^1. Despite technically being Canadian, Drake is somehow emphatically American. He often seems to forget Toronto, emphasizing connections with Houston, Memphis, and Oakland, and referring to his struggle with an absent father as the typical “black American dad story” on “Look What You’ve Done.”
^2. Or cereal, for those of us who keep it real.
^3. Accusations of “softness” also frequently take on a definite homophobic, anti-feminine aspect.
^4. Drake has also dethroned Kanye as the most easily memorizable lyricist alive.
^5. I understand that you, the reader, may not like Drake. Still, people like Drake.
MARSHALL THOMAS is a senior in Columbia College. He can be reached at [email protected]