On a Friday night last fall, Drake joined a handful of friends for drinks in a dark corner of a popular pub in downtown Toronto’s Queen West strip and then stealthily paid every customer’s bar tab before quietly walking out. At another party down the block, the lyrics to half a dozen songs off Nothing Was the Same, his third studio album, were on many lips, despite being only two weeks old.
This is Drake’s Toronto, where sightings of the rapper and his white Rolls Royce, easily identifiable by the Instagram handle-referencing “C PAPI” vanity license plate, are common. He’s already proven himself here, so a move like paying for dozens of strangers’ night out is taken as a genuine display of generosity, a relatively tiny but sincere gesture made by a man who wants his city to know he hasn’t forsaken it. In consistently declaring his allegiance to Toronto—by, among other things, championing local artists, signing on to help promote the Raptors in an official capacity, and launching an annual music festival—he’s opened up the possibilities of success beyond Canada, inspiring a palpable hustle in a city often criticized for having a chip on its shoulder. If Drake could make it, so can we is the unspoken refrain. Here, he’s understood and appreciated: “My city love me like Mac Dre in the Bay.”
But elsewhere, Drake is still up against the punchlines: the Canadian child actor-turned-rapper loves moms, hugs, and sweaters and he knows just how easy that is to make fun of. It didn’t help that his sophomore effort Take Care saw him play an overbearing, overly sensitive ex, down to the inclusion of a recording of a drunken phone conversation with a former girlfriend. “I’m so sick of people saying that I’m lonely and emotional, and associating me with this longing for a woman. I’m actually not that guy in real life. My life is constantly exciting. It’s not some sad, depressing story,” he said in a CBC interview.
His very existence, as a biracial, half-Jewish rapper from the upper-middle class Toronto neighborhood of Forest Hill, contravenes many of the stereotypes that have long made hip-hop and hip-hop culture easy to contain for insiders and easy to parse for outsiders. But it’s 2014 and “soft” is no longer a valid criticism of a rapper; consider Rick Ross’s stint as a correctional officer not precluding his drug kingpin persona, for instance. It’s easy—fun, even—to cling to jokes about Drake’s sad texts to exes and inward-looking, woe-is-me ruminations on the pitfalls of fame, but let’s not overlook the emergence of a new Drake and his ascendance to the top tier of rap.
Worst Behavior Drake, as some friends and I have christened him, a reference to the bombastic, middle-finger-to-the-haters single of the same name, is cognizant of and boastful about the leaps he's made in hip hop over the past couple of years: “You underestimated greatly/Most number ones ever, how long did it really take me?”
There are the critical accolades: both Take Care and Nothing Was the Same were beloved by critics and collectively earned him 18 Grammy nominations and one win.
There are also the attendant commercial successes: Nothing Was the Same moved more than 650,000 copies in its first week and over a million in its first five; by comparison, Kanye West’s Yeezus, released a few months earlier, sold 327,000 in its first week. Drake has landed the most number ones on both Billboard’s Rap and R&B/Hip-hop charts in his relatively short career, toured the world headlining arenas, and inked an unprecedented deal with Brand Jordan for a sneaker of his own design. Not to mention the fact that his adaptive musical style has proved singularly genre-defining: “Give these niggas the look, the verse, and even the hook/That’s why every song sound like Drake featuring Drake.”
Despite the culture’s ubiquity, there are few rappers who can fill and command stadium crowds in dozens of cities; Drake is one of an exalted few, finding himself on increasingly equal footing with former mentors like Jay Z, Kanye West, and label boss Lil Wayne, despite the generation gap and his relative newcomer status. Worst Behavior Drake knows just how successful his plan was and how unassailable he has become, and he’s unapologetic about it: “I’m the big homie/They still be trying to lil’ bro me, dog.”
The panderer of yore, a grating character eager to get into everyone’s good graces with his stereotypically Canadian charm, has been replaced by a self-assured mogul type. In a recent Rolling Stone interview, which came with a pair of controversies, Drake made an accurate but disparaging observation about Jay Z, for whom he’s consistently professed admiration and respect: “It’s like Hov can’t drop bars these days without at least four art references. I would love to collect at some point, but I think the whole Rap/art world thing is getting kind of corny,” he said in the interview.
Jay Z, ostensibly offended by the comment, addressed Drake on a recent verse: “Sorry Mrs. Drizzy for so much art/Silly me, rappin’ ’bout shit that I really bought/While these rappers rap about guns that they ain’t shot/And a bunch of other silly shit that they ain’t got.” It was a weak diss, and back-and-forth barbs have been central to the ethos and pendulum swing of hip-hop since forever, but nowadays they're received differently. Drake, playing it smart, hasn’t responded; in similar beefs with rappers Common and Kendrick Lamar, he took to subliminally dissing each on record but leaving it at that. “I don’t want confrontation because it’s stressful, man…I try and avoid shit like that for the sake of my career,” he told Rolling Stone.
Drake seems to relish being calm and calculated over being rash and reactionary, using it as yet more power with which to sculpt his dream career trajectory. The one-sided Jay Z melee was quickly forgotten, as tabloids printed news of a rekindled relationship between Drake and Rihanna. The two were spotted hanging out in Europe, as she accompanied him on the final leg of his tour. Neither camp has confirmed the romance, but a dalliance with Rihanna, who is among the reigning and most influential pop stars of the time, certainly wouldn’t hurt his status. There’s also the possibility of a return to acting, a proposition made almost certain by an impressive recent appearance as the host and musical guest of Saturday Night Live.
Either way, he’s poised to eclipse the rap sphere and Worst Behavior Drake is fully aware of that prophesied fact: “I'm tired of hearin' 'bout who you checkin' for now/Just give it time, we'll see who's still around a decade from now.”