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Margaret Byrne

By Following The Lives Of 3 Rural Black Men, 'Raising Bertie' Director Margaret Byrne Gained An Extended Family

Margaret Byrne opens up about directing Raising Bertie and the conversations she wants America to have about its rural communities of color.

There’s something special about winding up in the right place at the right time. In 2009, filmmaker Margaret Byrne made her way down from New York to Bertie County, North Carolina, a rural town with a population of just over 20,000. She was there to cover Vivian Saunders and her work at the Hive House, an alternative school for boys. When the then-underfunded program shut down mid-assignment, Byrne and her crew shifted their attention to the three Hive students who stood out to her most —Davonte "Dada" Harrell, Reginald "Junior" Askew and David "Bud" Perry — and Raising Bertie was born.

Over the six years she filmed them, the director and producer watched these teens navigate ups and downs and become men, whether that meant finishing high school and going to prom, chasing financial stability or mending relationships and starting families of their own. With the new documentary — J. Cole, a North Carolina native, serves as an executive producer — the goal was not to pass judgment on their circumstances or become a savior of sorts, but to provide a neutral eye into the quieter, less frequently covered happenings of rural communities of color and encourage much-needed dialogue.

Byrne achieved that and more. By the last take (and well into the years after the film wrapped), she ended up gaining an extended family. She now knows the nuances of their current lives and tracks their birthdays to keep up as the years go by. She knows how excited Dada is to have a son on the way and maintains a close relationship with his mother, Esther. She even hosts Keke, Dada’s nephew, at her Chicago home during the summer.

Raising Bertie premiered yesterday (Aug. 28) on the PBS Point of View (POV) channel and is now streaming for online for the next 30 days. Byrne opened up about the documentary's more difficult moments, what became of the Hive House and the conversations she wants to come out of watching her film.

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VIBE: What was it about Junior, Bud and Dada that drew you in, and how did you enter their lives?
Margaret Byrne: I’d originally set out to make a film about an alternative program called the Hive [House], run by Vivian Saunders. My intention was to make a story of hope. This program was doing amazing things, and that’s how I met Bud, Junior and Dada. Then, very early on into filming, the Hive shut down. I was already invested in their lives and in their families’ lives, so we continued to film, not really knowing what this film was about. Here we are filming these guys, and basically their agency has been taken away from them because this program was really supporting them in a way that they weren’t getting support in the regular high school. I knew that we needed to spend time with them, be invested in their lives and that it was going to take years to tell this story, which is why we filmed for six years. But ultimately I had an emotional connection to them. I found this community, and it felt like I could be a vessel to tell their story.

Did those three come to you when you approached the Hive about documenting the program? How did those conversations go — were they apprehensive?
It was different for each story. We didn’t find all three of them at the same time or on the same trip. At the time I started making the film, I lived in New York, so we would go and travel down [to Bertie County] for sometimes a week, sometimes three weeks, and we really spent a lot of time down there. Bud and Junior I met at the Hive. Junior was just… I knew immediately I wanted to tell Junior’s story. He is really a poet. Bud definitely was more apprehensive. Sometimes he wouldn’t want to be filmed, and sometimes he wouldn’t show up when we were gonna film something, but ultimately I think he was really proud of being able to put his story out there. And then Dada I actually found nine months into filming. I found Dada because I met his mom and connected with his mom. I hadn’t actually seen him at the Hive before that, because there were about 49 students at the Hive. I knew that I was looking for a third character, and Dada ended up being that voice that was missing, I think, from the story.

Dada seems like a natural introvert. How long did it take for his walls to come down and for him to open up to you?
You know, it was pretty amazing, because the first time I interviewed him and the first time I came to their house, it’s the first interview you see in the film. He really opens up about how upset he is about his dad not being in touch with him, and is very emotional and cries about it. That was my first real sit-down meeting with him, so I think initially we had a really strong connection.

We’re at a time where we’re expecting these robust and extraordinary stories coming out of the world of film and Hollywood. Why did you choose to chase the nuances of a normal life? Why North Carolina?
I actually came to North Carolina because I had a job shooting a video for an organization, because Vivian was winning an award for the work she was doing at the Hive. That’s really where it started. At the time, I was also working on another film called American Promise, which focused on urban education. It’s a film that follows two African-American boys over the course of 13 years through their entire education. I just realized that there was a lack of stories being told in rural communities. Particularly, rural communities of color historically have not had much of a voice in the national media. It’s been great to get these stories out there. And recently, the Associated Press came to Bertie, I believe, because they saw the film and spoke to Vivian and other leaders in the community. My mom said, “Did you see the article in the Chicago Tribune about Bertie County?” It’s great to see that people are talking more about rural communities of color, and specifically, after this presidential election, people are realizing how important these communities are.

Speaking of North Carolina, what role did J. Cole play in Raising Bertie, and how did you two come together for the project?
I connected with J. Cole through his manager and primarily worked with Adam Rodney, who is the musical director of the film. J. Cole really understood this story. He said that, essentially, this was his life growing up. These were the guys that he grew up with and this was the story of his youth, so I think he really connected to it on a personal level. He came onboard very early on. I’d say it was the beginning of 2015, I think. It was a rough cut that he had seen. It took us about two years to edit the film, so he saw a rough cut and immediately wanted to be involved. And then Ron Gilmore Jr. produced some of the music. He’s a producer with Dreamville, so they’ve been a great team to work with.

So they helped soundtrack it?
Yeah, some of the music is from Dreamville artists.

And when you linked with the manager, did you reach out to him, or did he reach out to you when they saw the work you were doing in Bertie?
I reached out to Ib, and Ib put me in touch with Adam, who’s his other manager and the creative director. And then I had a meeting with Cole somewhere through that process. He saw multiple cuts of the film, and he’d also seen American Promise, too. I remember talking to him about that.

Over the course of the six years spent filming, were there moments that felt too real or that you were apprehensive about showing or even being present in? For instance, there’s a fight moment with some neighborhood guys that actually gets very tense with the cameraman.
There was a big question when we were editing the film [over] whether or not to include that fight scene, because obviously I don’t want to further a negative stereotype, but ultimately I felt like it was part of Junior’s story arc. It was this rough period in his life. It’s difficult to be invested in the lives of these young men and their families and know that I’m there to tell their stories, but I can’t do anything to change or really influence their circumstances in any major way. Being a documentary filmmaker is different than being a journalist, in a sense that it’s OK to get involved in people’s lives. Obviously if one of the guys couldn’t pay their light bill, I’m gonna help them out with that. There is more involvement. There’s a much deeper friendship when you’re working with people over so many years. But absolutely, there are things that aren’t in the film that we filmed, or maybe we weren’t filming. You know, it’s difficult to be in people’s lives and see that they’re going through some trauma and knowing there’s not much you can do but be a friend to them.

Did you interject and offer any advice to the young men as they were going along, or did you just watch it objectively through your lens and let it be?
Oh, I always told them what I thought. I mean, I think that’s part of having an authentic relationship. I always told them what I thought and encouraged them to do things. I’m sure that I’m influential in their lives in some way, but ultimately I didn’t set out to change their lives, of course. Nor would I want to.

Which moments, good or bad, hit you the hardest or really brought tears to your eyes?
There’s so many things. I would say they have been there for me as much as I have been there for them, because through the making of this film I separated from my husband, got a divorce, became a single mom, moved to another state and went through a lot of things because of that, and they have also been extremely supportive in my life. I’m particularly close with Esther, Dada’s mom. She’s somebody I talk to all the time and share things with. She went through a period that was really difficult too. She’s a single mother, I’m a single mother. I’ve taken [Dada’s nephew] Keke for the summers because I’ve known him since he was a baby, and he is very close with my daughter. They’re pretty close in age, so he’s like a brother to her. He comes here [to Chicago] every summer. It’s partially [that] I want to support Esther, but also he’s like my own child in some ways, and he’s a part of my family. But difficult moments: I don’t want to get too much into it, but I continue to be a part of their lives, and we’re still very connected. The things that are happening right now even, they continue to have challenges. Bud was recently in an accident and is working hard at rehabilitation, but there’ve been a lot of challenges along the way. That’s probably been one of the most difficult things, because at one point we didn’t know if he was going to make it. He’s still dealing with health issues right now, and I’d say that has been difficult in general.

Hopefully he winds up OK. Raising Bertie is a film that doesn’t have any solutions. It doesn’t seem like the intent was to solve anything, or for their journeys onscreen to have a definitive beginning or end. Was that what you wanted, and what is the value of telling a story in that way?
I think that people need to draw their own conclusions. I’m not going to give you a policy prescription in the stories that I’m telling. I want this to be a tool to engage people in conversation. Vivian and the work she’s doing offer some solution since the release of the film. She’s gotten a $150,000 grant to renovate the Hive House, and it’s going to get more funding for operational costs for the next 10 years, so that’s very exciting. The film does ask some questions, like, who is the Vivian in your community and how can you support that person and that organization? Connecting with people in rural communities, and seeing that there’s a lot of similarities in urban communities, and we don’t really talk about that. And also talking about working with opportunity youth. How can we support young people between the ages of 18 and 24 that aren’t working and that aren’t in school? Junior is a perfect example. He is so talented with building and with his hands, yet because he didn’t have that mentor in his life that could guide him to a trade or running his own business, he’s working at the pork plant that is two hours away. Those are some of the challenges we’re trying to look at and work on through our engagement campaign. But I want people to come to their own conclusions. I want people to watch this film and engage in conversations about what can we do.

Right. It’s something that makes you wonder, what can I do once I get up from in front of my screen?
But who am I to say? I’m just a filmmaker. I’m just a storyteller, and I feel like that was my job — to tell their stories as authentically as possible. But beyond that, I don’t know all the answers.

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Meet Koffee, The Rising Jamaican Star Who Is Hot Like A Thermos

Back in 1962, a 17-year-old Jamaican singer/songwriter named Robert Marley recorded a song called “One Cup of Coffee” and went on to take reggae music around the world. Fast forward 55 years to 2017, when a 17-year-old Jamaican singer/songwriter named Koffee dropped her first record, “Burning,” setting her on a path to become the most talked-about new artist in dancehall reggae right now.

Koffee got her big break when veteran singer Cocoa Tea invited her onstage at the January 2018 edition of Rebel Salute, Jamaica’s biggest roots reggae festival. “She name Koffee and me name Tea,” he quipped, calling her the “next female sensation out of Jamaica.” The artist born Mikayla Simpson doesn’t actually like coffee though—she prefers hot chocolate.

After graduating from Ardenne High, the same school dancehall star Alkaline attended, Koffee turned her focus to music. She shot a live video with new roots superstar Chronixx at Marley’s Tuff Gong Studios, then dropped her breakout single “Toast,” produced by Walshy Fire of Major Lazer fame. That video has racked up 10 million+ views and made the artist, who stands just over five feet tall, a very big name on the island. Now signed to Columbia UK, Koffee will release her debut EP Rapture next month.

“Mi only spit lyrics, don't really talk a lot,” she states on the track “Raggamuffin.” But when Koffee turned up to VIBE’s Times Square headquarters, bundled up against NYC’s February chill in a hoodie, thermals, and Nike x Off-White sneakers, she opened up about her musical journey, the power of gratitude, her surprising inspirations, and how she plans to spend her birthday.

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VIBE: I haven’t seen you since your EP listening in Kingston. Congratulations on an impressive body of work. Koffee: Thank you. I feel humble and proud at the same time. I really put a lot of thought into the EP, the way I structured it, and the content, the lyrics. It really means a lot to me, so I appreciate you saying that.

It’s amazing how much you’ve accomplished since Cocoa Tea brought you out on Rebel Salute. Yeah, and that was only a year and a month ago!

So how did the link with Cocoa happen? Actually, it happened through Walshy Fire. After my very first single “Burning,” Walshy reached out and sent me some riddims, in hopes of us working together, which we ended up doing. We were supposed to meet up at a studio in Florida and when we went there Cocoa Tea was already in the building. We were like, “Wow, Cocoa Tea!” Because Cocoa Tea is a reggae legend for us in Jamaica. Walshy actually introduced Cocoa to some of my music, and Cocoa was like, “Wha? Mi gonna bring her out on Rebel Salute next month!” This was in December, and Rebel Salute was in January.

Timing is everything. Rebel Salute made a huge difference. It opened me up to a lot of opportunities. Even today a lot of places that I go, people remember me from there. I was doing music before. I’d done a few shows here and there, but the audience at Rebel Salute is very important. It’s an epic stage to present yourself.

Were you nervous? Just before going out on the stage I was backstage pacing back and forth. I was trying to keep warm as well because it was chilly that night. But I was really nervous because it was my first time being in such a light.

Do you think being so young has helped you? Like, you may not overthink everything. I think you have a point. Because I’m young, my mind is a bit more pure, or uncorrupted. Experiences do have a way of taking away your mental space and the things you’re willing to try. Staying in “the comfort zone” is the most comfortable thing, but sometimes pushing yourself to step outside of that will help you overcome your fears. That, and just the drive and motivation. I definitely try to keep challenging myself.

Reggae has always been a male-dominated industry, but female artists are definitely on the rise. How do feel getting catapulted into that category? I feel like it’s a big responsibility, and “to whom much is given, much is expected.” So I don't look at it as, “Oh, I’ve made it.” But I acknowledge that I’m in a position where I have a responsibility now to fulfill and to pull through. It just pushes me to work harder, make more things happen, and just keep it going.

I love the line in your song “Raggamuffin” where you say, “Mi give them heart attack inna mi halter back.” Was that inspired by Althea & Donna’s “Uptown Top Rankin’” from the ‘70s? Yeah, I love that song. That’s the thing, I would say that every artist is an influence to me. Growing up, I would hear these songs being played by people next door, down the road, all around. Just in the Jamaican environment on a whole. So those songs definitely do have an influence on me, the messages from those times. Once you hear it, it’s in your head. You know it now and it really makes a difference in how you think, how you speak, and everything.

When people think of a female dancehall artist they usually think of colorful hair, long nails… But you seem to have your own swag. How would you describe your style? I would definitely say unique, but at the same time, it is natural to me and not calculated. I don't put a name to it and say, “I’m gonna be this way.” I just kind of flow and whatever you see is me doing what I feel. Like, I’m not sure what these pants are, but I bought them in Berlin. I got this hoodie in the UK—I’m not sure what brand this is either. I was just trying to keep warm. My friend Ayesha from the UK styled me with this top recently for a shoot.

There’s a line on “Burning” where you talk about “Koffee pon di street, tank top inna di heat / Jeans pants an’ Crocs / No socks pon mi feet / Knapsack mi a beat / Well pack up an’ it neat.” Was that your real-life dress code in 2017? Yeah, I remember at that time that’s how I used to roll. You know in Jamaica it’s hot, so I probably had my tank top and my jeans on, or my shorts. And I had this one pair of grey Crocs that I just wore everywhere. And I always have my knapsack. So yeah, that was my reality at that moment.

How far away does that feel, now that you have a stylist and travel the world? That’s amazing. It’s a transition that’s really beautiful and something I really appreciate.

I have a feeling you’re going to re-introduce words like “appreciate” and “give thanks” into pop culture. I hope to start a wave of gratitude. Even by writing that song “Toast,” when I say “We haffi give thanks like we really supposed to,” it reminds me to be grateful. I aspire to be humble and I pray and ask God to help me be grateful. I try to maintain it and I hope that will inspire other people to do the same.

Let’s talk about “Toast.” On the chorus, you say “We nah rise and boast.” But then again, a lot of reggae and dancehall artists are very “boasy.” That’s part of the culture. When I say “Wi nah rise and boast” it means that no matter what happens along the journey, we’re still gonna remain the same. We gonna big up we friend and hold a vibes. I’m just making it clear that we never come fe hype.

You can spit pretty fast, but I feel like some people may be missing some of the things you say. But if you listen carefully you’re talking about real things. Thank you for noticing that. When I wrote “Raggamuffin,” a lot of my musical influence came from artists like Protoje and Chronixx. Chronixx has basically been an advocate for the youths, so his message had an impact on me. When I was vibing to the beat, I wanted to cover myself, cover my country where I come from, good things and bad things, and the music, reggae itself.

Growing up, did you see inner city kids not being looked after by their own government and their own people? Most definitely. I wouldn't say that the government is responsible for the lives of everybody as citizens. But there are some general things that need the government’s attention and they don't pay the attention that they should. They'd rather focus on things that can garner income. There are roads that need to be fixed in places that tourists don't necessarily visit. And nobody cares about those roads. Minor injustices, major injustices—just things that really need to be spoken about so that people can think about it and look into it.

BDP used the term Edutainment—education and entertainment. Is that something you present in your music? Yes, it’s definitely something I aim for. I think that it’s important to keep people interested enough to want to absorb what you are saying. And then it’s equally important to present something that is worth absorbing. Something productive, something inspiring, motivating. Just mixing both so that you have their attention and you’re also delivering something that’s worth their attention.

You were still in school when you did your song “Burning.” As a new artist did you have to convince the producers to work with you? Gratefully, no I didn't have to convince them. Because I did a tribute to Usain Bolt before that. I wrote a song with my guitar titled “Legend” and posted a video of me performing it with my guitar on Instagram.

Usain came across it and reposted it, so that garnered a lot of attention. People from the music industry reached out to me, and in that group of people was Upsetta records with their Ouji Riddim. They sent it to my first manager like, “Let’s see what she can do” and so forth.

There’s this thing in Jamaica called Sixth Form. It’s like you graduate high school and there’s an extra two years that you can do as like a pre-college. I applied for it and didn’t get through. Right after that, I did the tribute to Usain Bolt and then Upsetta sent me the Ouji Riddim. I was in a state of mind where I felt disappointed. I felt the need to motivate myself, so I was like “Come with the fire the city burning!”

How does your mom feel about all of this? I started writing lyrics at 14 years old, but she didn't find out until I was 16, when she saw me perform at a competition in school. I invited her there and she was taken aback, like, “Wow! So this what you've been doing?” (Laughs) She wanted me to do academics like every parent wants. And she was little disappointed when I didn't get through to Sixth Form. But over time, as I wrote more and performed more, she began to trust my talent and just trust the process. So she started appreciating the music and now she's fully on board.

What did your mother think of “dancehall pon the street,” like you sing about in your song “Raggamuffin”? As you know I’ve been living with mommy since I was a baby up until I was 17, so being under her roof I didn't go out much. I was always in the house just chilling and stuff. I know that there’s a dance on like every corner. lf you are driving, you always hear music playing. You have the oldies dancehall, you have the new dancehall—everybody just hold a vibe. That’s basically where that line comes from.

Do you go to dances now? I’ve been going to a few parties and getting out, but I haven't been to like a dance dance. I’ve been to Dub Club, you get some really good music there. But Dub Club is like a relaxed kinda vibe.

You recently performed at Bob Marley’s 74th birthday celebration in Kingston. Do you still listen to his music? Most definitely! Bob has set such a great and amazing foundation for the music, the industry, the genre itself, the country, the youth... He’s set such a great example that you haffi really learn from it and take a lot from it so that you know where you’re coming from. You haffi understand how to execute in honor of such people.

What are some of your favorite Bob songs? Well, I performed “Who the Cap Fit” that night, so that’s one of my favorites. And I like “Is This Love” and “Natural Mystic.” That’s just a few.

I know that’s a hard question. What about a dancehall legend like Super Cat? Hmm… “Mud Up” woulda be my favorite Super Cat.

Really?! Yeah, because of the flow he has on it, not necessarily the content. See, I’m from Spanish Town. Jamaicans on a whole, we like vibes. We like lyrics that, as we would say, “it slap!” It touches you, and really hits that spot. So I listen to a lot of different things, and the lyrics that I listen to aren't always conscious. But what I derive from music is not necessarily the message. Sometimes the flow that you’re hearing, that’s the wave for the moment. It may not be the best for the youth, but that’s what people like to vibe to. So you take that vibe, put a positive message to it, and that’s the spin. So I listen very widely.

One of my favorite songs on your new EP is the “Rapture” remix. It was dope that you got together with Govana on that. When I first wrote “Rapture,” Govana had recently done a song called “Bake Bean” that took off in Jamaica. When him drop that, it’s like the flow really resonate with me. I was like, “This is dope.” So when I did “Rapture” I was listening back to it and thought I should probably try to get Govana on this track. And it turned out so sick!

That’s cool to have the credibility where other artists respond to you like that. Because I'm sure it’s not always that easy. No, it’s not always easy. Me haffi give thanks for the way people have been responding.

So no one has kissed their teeth and said, “Nah man”? (Laughs) No, not yet. (Laughs) But what I have to appreciate is just when another artist really listens and pays attention. Sometimes an artist can be good and they don't get the response or the attention that they deserve. Some people don't want to listen, so I give a lot of respect to who is willing to listen.

Well Govana has given you that “crown” in his verse, which reminds me—how did the song “Throne” come about? I remember Walshy sent me that riddim in the first batch of riddims that he sent me. The riddim for “Toast” was also in that batch, but I started with “Throne.” It was basically like a challenge for me. I was like “How am I gonna spit on this?” Because the riddim sounded so dynamic. I was like “mi haffi mash this up!” Hence the fast spit-fire kind of vibe.

What music are you currently listening to on your phone? I don’t listen to my own songs that much. I’m vibing to Mr Eazi. I’ve been going in on the Afrobeats. Burna Boy. Smino the rapper. And I’ve been going in even more on Bob Marley.

Well, it’s reggae month right now. So there’s lots of legendary birthdays—Bob Marley, Dennis Brown. That makes the month even more significant! By the way, I’m born in February also. (Laughs) February 16th.

Happy Earthstrong! Were you keeping that quiet? I just remembered. I’ll be 19!

Wow—you’re gonna be out of the teens soon. What you gonna do on your 19th birthday? Wowwwww—I dunno. I’m gonna see when I get to Jamaica which party. I’ll probably just try and go to a dance or something. That ah go be mad!

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Solitary Alignment: 5 Self-Affirming Reads For Single Ladies On Valentine’s Day

Ahh, the Feast of Saint Valentine—the Hallmark holiday that strikes us with its arrow each year, for better or for worse, depending on your bae status. While the romantic holiday is adored and celebrated by many, if you’re still reeling over, say, your ex’s refusal to commit, chances are Feb. 14 is more of a heartache for you than anything.

But as a wise woman once said, “If they liked it then they should’ve put a ring on it.” So whether V-Day has you scared of lonely or sulking over a lost love, as another wise woman once said, they “would be SUPER lucky to even set eyes on you this Valentine’s Day. That’s it. That’s the gift.” Shout out to The Slumflower.

Sure, having a bae on Valentine’s Day is cool, but so is reminding yourself why you’re just fine without one (cue Webbie’s “Independent”). In fact, single folks have better relationships overall, according to the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. You know how the old adage goes: love yourself before loving someone else.

For this Valentine’s Day, VIBE Vixen rounds up a nourishing list of books for our sisters doin’ it for themselves. Consider this your reminder of how badass you are—because you are! Oh, oh, oh. *Beyoncé voice*

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Johnny Nunez

'So Far Gone': Re-Reviewing Drake's Iconic Mixtape 10 Years Later

“Draaaake?! Draaaake?! Aubrey Graham in a wheelchair... Draaaake?!”

Soulja Boy’s viral rant, while hilarious to 15 million viewers who watched The Breakfast Club interview, seems almost silly to contemplate now in a musical climate so easily dominated by the OVO frontrunner. But in 2009, at the release of Drake’s breakout mixtape, So Far Gone, Soulja’s questions of Drake’s influence and placement on the hip-hop spectrum actually mimicked the inquiries fans may have been asking at the time. Even Drizzy seemed to share those same contemplations on the project as he reflected his newfound stardom and the future that would unfold as a result.

So Far Gone, however, diminished those ounces of doubt. Ten years later, the 18-track project still comes together as one of the most cohesive mixtapes of this decade and has become the building block to one of the sturdiest foundations of a hip-hop artist to date. Revisiting So Far Gone and taking its temperature anew, we get a glimpse of how the personas of the emotional rapper came to be such inescapable and successful forces within the music industry at that time.

 

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@futuretheprince a decade ago you were Dj’ing all ages [email protected] a decade ago you were scared to share your [email protected] a decade ago you worked at a clothing store selling someone else’s [email protected] a decade ago you were in a basement with pink insulation walls figuring out fruity [email protected] a decade ago we were handing out flyers promoting club [email protected] a decade ago you were working the makeup counter at Beverly [email protected] a decade ago your moms house was my safe place and we really ran through the 6 everyday [email protected] a decade ago you were a legend and you will remain that [email protected] a decade ago you promoted me as if you were getting a cut of my [email protected] a decade ago you were the first person to recognize potential and give me a [email protected] a decade ago you came to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and laid a verse for an unknown artist from [email protected] a decade ago you emailed me the cover art for something that would change my life [email protected] a decade ago you came to my release party at 6 Degrees and made me the biggest artist in the city off your presence [email protected] a decade ago I rapped over your beat cause you just made the best shit and even though you stay wildin on twitter these days I will never forget what you contributed to the game and my career...Portia I don’t know your IG but a decade ago you told me to rap over June 27th and bonded me and Houston Texas [email protected] a decade ago you took a chance on MySpace and introduced me to [email protected] a decade ago you took me out of Toronto and gave me the biggest blessing anybody has ever given me...I will never forget anybody involved in this journey even if you don’t fit in this caption...So Far Gone streaming everywhere for the first time ever Thursday. 🙏🏽

A post shared by champagnepapi (@champagnepapi) on Feb 13, 2019 at 3:27am PST

With his follow-up to Comeback Season (2007), Drake interrupted the hip-hop landscape with introspective songs that played up relationships instead of violence and street life through a healthy mix of confident raps and charming vocals. The idea of “emotional rapping” was so novice that it seemed uncool or too feminine in a male-dominated genre (Lil Wayne’s No Ceilings, Nicki Minaj’s Beam Me Up Scotty, and J. Cole’s The Warm Up also created noise at the time), but Drake’s ability to reach his female audience while still resonating with the masses was irrefutable. The somber tone of “Sooner Than Later,” sung in his lower register, perfectly conveys his efforts to reach an estranged lover before she’s gone for good. “The girl or the world? / They say someone gotta lose / I thought that I can have it all, do I really got to choose,” Drake ponders on the record.

In addition to lyrical content, Drake’s audacity to sing on heavily R&B-inspired tracks is unmatched. We saw that on “Houstatlantavegas”—possibly the genesis of his infatuation with strippers (“Hey there, pretty girl/You know, exactly what you got/And I don't blame you at all/You can't resist it/Especially when the lights so bright/And the money so right/And it's comin in every single night,” he crooned)—a seductive song that listens as an open love letter to a mysterious working girl. The romanticization of this woman is reminiscent of T-Pain’s 2005 single “In Luv With a Stripper,” but it seesawed back and forth between velvety refrains and confident bars that captured the allure in a way that felt both sexy and humanizing. The girl was no longer just a stripper, but one who dreamed of making it out of her hometown.

His singing may have seemed comparable to Kanye West, who had just released his predominantly auto-tuned album 808s & Heartbreak just a year before (Drizzy actually sampled Kanye’s “Say You Will” from the same album, flipping it to be a rap track). Even so, Drake dared to pair his vocals alongside talented voices within the R&B space, proving that he could sing just as much as he could rap. “A Night Off” was an incredibly bold and ambitious move. Drake had cojones to pair his sensuous crooning with the high notes of a certified songbird like Lloyd, but somehow it worked. This was the vulnerability that would give him his “Heartbreak Drake” persona, and he won for it.

While his vulnerability would be his gateway into the industry, Drake wanted to remind fans that he was still very much a rapper and a force to be reckoned with. In comparison to “A Night Off,” Drizzy flexed his flows on “Successful,” while Trey Songz held down the chorus. The materialism that was an undeniable 2009 rap music theme stood on the forefront as the eerie harmony led into Songz’s hook, fully encapsulating the desperation of a rookie attempting to overcome struggles and bolster from nothing to everything.

A seasoned Drake would surely not equate his success to simply h*es and cars, but its message, while simple, was honest and provided insight into a naïve conversation on what fame meant to a newcomer. Drake went harder on “Uptown,” though. The rapper had no choice to flex cocky bars over the Boi-1da-produced beat in order to keep up with its A-list features, Lil Wayne and Bun B.

This reminder of Drake The Rapper was also prevalent in his sampling. He demonstrated his understanding of hip-hop’s rich history on songs like “November 18th,” where DJ Screw provided the perfect assist with a chopped and screwed sample of Kris Kross’ “Da Streets Ain’t Right” (which also borrowed from Notorious B.I.G’s 1994 single, “Warning”). Although the track held a lot of weight in its instrumentals, Drizzy forged his own story by illustrating the day Lil Wayne called him, which in turn changed the course of his fate. Likewise, a purely-rapping-no-hook Drake over Jay-Z's original “Ignorant Sh*t” on his version, “Ignant Sh*t,” is quite nice. Yes, breaking away from the usual blueprint of breaks and harmonious choruses makes it teeter on the exhausting side, but the song’s lyrical content was a time capsule of the last decade (“Rest in peace to Heath Ledger, but I’m no Joker”).

The entirety of So Far Gone set the pace for Drake’s career in the years to come, but the tape’s final track, “The Calm,” foreshadowed his position in the landscape of hip-hop the most. “Leader of the new school, it’s proven and it’s known / I’m sitting in a chair, but in the future it’s a throne,” he prophesied. The electronic and muffled beat leads in to Drake’s reflection about a sense of alienation in the industry and his personal life that surely has continued well into the 2010s. While he is now one of the most commercially sought after talents in pop culture, his artistry has often been questioned by his musical peers. But even then, like the song said, Drake has always known that things were going to work out in his favor: “Everything will be okay and it won’t even take that long.”

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