The Cult Of Drake: Why Rap’s Most Important Millennial MC Is So Polarizing

Features

/ March 31, 2014

“Sorry Mrs. Drizzy for so much art talk/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…” —Jay Z, “We Made It (Remix)”

The news headline was innocuous enough. Earlier this month, Drake, the Toronto, Canada rap superstar, announced that his growing OVO Fest would be receiving some sizable funding for his upcoming August concert, featuring the recently reunited OutKast. But the $300,000 grant, which was given by the Celebrate Ontario program, has sparked some outrage in the self-proclaimed “Light Skinned Keith Sweat’s” neck of the woods.

“The Ontario Govt is so worthless for giving Drake money for the OVO Fest. Drake does not need this grant,” protested @jimmyyadig on Twitter. “You know our government sucks when it’s funding $300,000 to @Drake OVO fest. Lol, wut?” bristled @RealScheet_Mane. And @JohnBToronto added much needed context to the uproar of resentment: “Multi-millionaire rapper #drake OVO Fest receive $300000 grant from Taxpayers #BeachesInternationalJazzFestival lost Ontario funding…”

Such criticism could all be viewed through the lens of the trappings of celebrity. But there’s another angle at play here: Drake is the most polarizing headliner in hip-hop history.

There has been some noteworthy competition for that dubious title. Back in the late ’80s, LL Cool J had to fight through career-damaging charges that he was an out-of-touch egomaniac who came off as above-it-all during rap’s groundbreaking socially conscious age. At the other end of the spectrum, MC Hammer was (unfairly) labeled a sellout after he traded in the 10 times platinum mega success of 1990’s Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em for Saturday morning cartoon glory and as a dancing pitchman for Kentucky Fried Chicken. Vanilla Ice? Let’s not even go there. And Kanye West has at times taken the sensitive jerk archetype to dizzying heights (He can currently be seen trolling the cover of Vogue embracing his fiance and ultimate pop culture spectacle Kim Kardashian. You mad?)

Yet Stanley Burrell and Robert Van Winkle were both viewed as uber pop anomalies rarely taken seriously by so-called “music heads.” LL atoned for his over-indulgent Walking With A Panther sins by pulling off one of popular music’s most improbable comebacks with his career-defining 1990 release Mama Said Knock You Out. And for all of his side-eye worthy tantrums, West is generally given a pass for his public outbursts as a result of his image as a maddening, passionate visionary that’s refreshingly serious about his art. In the case of Drake, however, the “hate” (and praise) is infinitely more layered and complex.

When Drake’s Nothing Was the Same debuted last September at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 moving a gaudy 658,000 copies in its first week, it offered yet more emphatic proof that the 27-year-old rapper is truly the leader of the new school. When he isn’t keeping radio in a proverbial chokehold (his remix-sparking “We Made It” follows the chest-beating middle finger anthem “Worst Behavior” and his highest-charting single to date—the easy listening top 10 hit “Hold On, We’re Going Home”) or selling out arenas shows on his latest trek, Drizzy can be spotted jet-setting in the tabloids with rumored girlfriend pop bombshell Rihanna. In all, Drake has released three consecutive platinum albums during an era when his peers like Rick Ross are celebrated for creeping to gold status.

And yet for many of his constructive critics and hard-boiled detractors, Drake is an all too easy target; a loquacious lad who often times brings on an avalanche of scrutiny on himself. His most recent shade comes courtesy of frequent collaborator Jay-Z. In response to a February Rolling Stone interview, in which Drake said of Jigga’s ubiquitous art references, “It’s like Hov can’t drop bars these days without at least four art references…I would love to collect [art] at some point, but I think the whole rap/art world thing is getting kind of corny,” a perturbed Mr. Carter responded to the youngin’ on Jay Electronica’s remix to the aforementioned “We Made It.”

“Sorry Mr(s). Drizzy for so much art talk,” Jay-Z quipped. “While these rappers rap about guns that they ain’t shot/And a bunch of other silly shit that they ain’t got.” The jab comes on the heels of a humbling February in which Drake was forced to apologize to the family of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman after slamming RS for losing the cover to the late Oscar-winning thespian (“I’m disgusted with that” a seething Drake tweeted of his perceived slight). And in the same write-up, Drake called out Grammy darling Macklemore for publicly admitting that Kendrick Lamar deserved a Best Rap statue over the white Seattle MC.

“To name just Kendrick? That shit made me feel funny,” Drake said. The rapper was given a collective head shake from the blogosphere, no doubt a result from the lingering fallout from his high-profile squabble with people’s champ Lamar. The brief blow-up backed up the worst suspicions about YMCMB’s franchise talent (sorry Weezy): the singing, rapping behemoth is way too sensitive to sit in the throne.

There’s the sense that Drake is a foreign hip-hop interloper, complete with faux southern rap accent and a legion of loyal female supporters eager to eat up his EMO pillow talk. “He’s one of those artists that you can’t neatly place in a box,” says Datwon Thomas, former VIBE editorial director and contributing editor at lifestyle site OZY.com. “He’s this child actor from Degrassi: The Next Generation who has gone on to perform with a lot of respected [street] artists and headline his own festival in Toronto. Then there’s the Canada factor at play. For some reason, Americans just like to make fun of Canadians. And Drake makes more love rap songs than LL, who was still entrenched in B-Boy masculinity from off the block.”

But Thomas says the strong reaction to Drake mainly comes down to class. “Drake doesn’t come from the usual hard-luck rap story,” he adds. “There’s this resentment that Drake didn’t have his humble beginnings. People battle with the whole “I don’t know if Drake can do all this hardcore stuff” when he goes that route.”

Indeed, there are no easy outs when it comes to the cult of Drake. The infamous “Drake the type of nigga” social media meme lampoons the rapper’s weird space perfectly. One click on Instagram, Twitter, or Tumblr unleashes an hilarious wave fan-posted one-liners playing up the gooey soft core of the Canadian export (One of the more laughable jabs: “Drake the type of nigga to eat two gummy bears at a time so they don’t die alone…”).

And yet the hashtag rap king remains a highly influential, risk-taking artist for the Millennial Age. As you clown Drake remember that this is the same guy that dropped one of rap’s bravest debuts (2009’s So Far Gone), a revolutionary mixtape-turned-EP that buried rap’s traditional, street-fueled restrictions (is he a heart-on-the-sleeve rapper that sings or a singer that raps?). Remember that wheel chair Jimmy from Degrassi co-wrote Alicia Keys excellent, brooding, vulnerable love song “Un-Thinkable”.

Maybe Drake would do well to follow the example of OG Kanye, who was one of the lone supporters of the rapper after the Hoffman debacle.

“That ain’t gonna go down no more,” West declared during a February 15th Newark, New Jersey stop for his Yeezus tour, pointing to what he believed to be the media playing the two friends against each other. “We love Drake, we love every motherfucker that put their heart into this motherfucking music!”

That’s it, Drake. Just fully embrace you inner-asshole and never look back. —Keith Murphy (@murphdogg29)