Arsenio Hall Talking During Interview
Comedian Arsenio Hall gets serious and makes a point during an interview at his office at Paramount Studios. Hall will be the host and producer of The Arsenio Hall Show,' yet another late night talk show which will premiere January 3, 1989.
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Music Sermon: How 'The Arsenio Hall Show' Brought Black Music To Late Night

'The Arsenio Hall Show' gifted the culture with unforgettable, iconic moments, new catchphrases for the lexicon, and…a president?

#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.

In 1989, the late-night landscape was ruled by old white men who mimed golf swings when they landed jokes, and the only mainstream outlet to see your favorite hip-hop acts - or young urban acts period – was the one-year-old Yo! MTV Raps (or It’s Showtime at the Apollo, which required willing yourself to stay up until after Saturday Night Live).

And then came Arsenio Hall. We’ll put his recent out-of-touch and curmudgeonly remarks (you can delete tweets, but screen caps are forever) aside to remember that The Arsenio Hall Show was the first late night platform to bring black cool into America’s living rooms. Hall changed the late-night game, gave young black entertainers much-needed legitimacy, and warmed the TV world up for the slate of hip-hop influenced programming that was on the way, like In Living Color, Martin, Living Single and New York Undercover. The show hit massive heights before a relatively quick burnout, but through its five-year run, Hall gifted the culture with unforgettable, iconic moments, new catchphrases for the lexicon, and…a president?

Let’s look at why Arsenio was the place to be for Gen Xers to “get busy” every night for five years.

In 1988, Hall filled in when Joan Rivers (who’d given him his first stand-up slot on The Tonight Show) abruptly walked off of her Fox talk show.
Very quickly, it was evident he was not following the traditional late-night formula, but had something special going. Guests were disarmed and at ease; it felt like watching friends chillin’ and chatting, instead of a formal interview. Viewers were eating it up, and the ratings reflected it.

LL COOL J – 1988
Little Baby L talks image, plays coy about his personal life, and licks his lips a lot.

Unfortunately for Fox execs, by the time they thought to offer Hall the show permanently, best friend Eddie Murphy had already tapped him for Coming to America, and the movie’s studio, Paramount, had locked him into a deal. A deal that included three movies and a syndicated late night show, which he’d executive produce.

The Arsenio Hall Show premiered on January 3, 1989. It was designed to feel like a party, and was widely described as the “hippest” thing on TV. “Hall’s invitation might read: Give me your hip MTV fans, your urban viewers, college students, the crowd that gravitates toward cable or the huddled masses that don’t watch TV at all,” remarked The Washington Post shortly after the show debuted. More important than that, however, was that Arsenio was looking to fill a hole for black entertainment specifically––and he knew there was a growing need because black culture was permeating pop culture, period. Explaining his vision in 1989, Hall highlighted the void. “Where does the urban contemporary audience see Bobby Brown, the number one pop – not R&B, but pop, that means white people bought it – crossover artist in America, who could not get on a talk show?”

Everything about The Arsenio Hall Show format reflected a 30 year-old (or 34 year-old, depending on who you believe) black man at the helm. Instead of a band, Arsenio had “The Posse.” Instead of a quiet, polite studio audience, there was “The Dog Pound” (named for Hall’s hometown Cleveland Brown’s “dogs”) who pumped their fists and barked - loudly - in lieu of clapping. Instead of a desk, Hall would be stretched out in an armchair with his Reebok-clad feet up on an ottoman. Or maybe even sitting on the ottoman. Instead of “We’ve got a great show for you tonight,” the program officially kicked off with “Let's. Get. Busy!” It really was like going to an exclusive lounge every night to hang out.

Also, the show was black. As hell. Early critics and even other comedians criticized Hall’s unabashed blackness in the show; his use of slang, his style, his relaxed format, his ease with the guests. He was undeterred. “The critics say Arsenio is maybe too urban to succeed; a studio head may say it,” Hall told the New York Times during his first season. “But the biggest mistake a black man can make creatively is not to be himself.” That’s what quickly set him apart from the other shows. Where everyone else was competing for the same older viewers, Hall immediately locked in the 18-34 demographic. Aside from the show’s energy, the biggest difference was that he booked acts other shows wouldn’t touch. Aside from Yo! MTV Raps, no other show was putting hip-hop on the air – even some existing prominent black-owned media platforms. “Hip Hop gave me a career,” Hall told Vlad TV in 2014. “...I was bringing this (whole new culture) into the living rooms of people who could safely watch it and get to understand it, and that’s really why it worked. Don Cornelius is an idol. Oprah, an idol. But they didn’t like hip-hop. And that was the best thing that ever happened to me…because I got all of that.”

And indeed, Hall always had all of the hip-hop acts.


NWA - 1990
Before performing, Hall talked to the group about their infamous drama with the FBI.

This was the only live TV performance of the supergroup‘s “All in the Same Gang.”

Providing a performance platform wasn’t the only aspect that made Hall’s show unique. He was also giving acts couch time, so we saw a conversational side of these artists beyond the standard promo spiel that we couldn’t really see anywhere else.

ICE-T - 1990
Ice-T talked to Arsenio about gang violence in Los Angeles, including speaking in front of the Congressional Black Caucus, who he felt hadn’t been paying attention. “The gang situation in Los Angeles has been here twenty years. And then a lady got killed in Westwood – you know, a non-black. Somebody out of the neighborhood. Then all of a sudden, there were 387 murders that year and 70,000 gang members; they didn’t join that night!”

2Pac – 1993
A clearly…lit Pac came on Arsenio to talk Poetic Justice, including his oft-repeated and later debunked story that Janet Jackson demanded he be tested for HIV before she’d participate in any love scenes. “I was like ‘No, I’m not taking the test. If I’ma get to really lay with her, we can take four tests…she really wanna be sure.’ But other than that, it’s disrespectful to me.”

The show’s fresh perspective and authenticity were so successful, six months into the first season Arsenio was #2 behind Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, beating David Letterman’s Late Night. White critics and TV execs weren’t warm to Arsenio or his show, and didn’t understand its success (they were equally confused a couple of years later with the success of Fox’s urban line up). They even protested that the show was too black, and it was unfair because they didn’t get the references and felt left out (funny how that’s still happening when black folks see a need and create something dope). Hall’s response was, to paraphrase, “They’ll be aight.” After all, black people have been adjusting to all white entertainment for…ever, “…like I did when I watched my first Bob Hope special, my first Three Stooges…My whole culturalization requires that I understand everything that America is,” Hall told the Washington Post, and he truly did present black culture as part of America in a real way for five years.

As the show hit its stride, it was the destination for all our favorite acts because they knew they were at home. That comfort level showed up in their performance.

BBD -1991
The best performance of “Poison” ever. Shout out to the Str8 Ahead dancers; the reason BBD was so live.

HEAVY D – 1989
You’re at home chanting “Go, Heavy” with the Dog Pound, aren’t you?

Busta Rhymes' first TV performance. The star power shining all up and through.

And it wasn’t just the hip-hop acts; Arsenio was key in breaking R&B acts as well.

Mariah Carey’s first official TV performance? Arsenio.


En Vogue’s first TV performance? Arsenio.

EN VOGUE - 1990

TLC’s first TV performance? Most likely Arsenio. But Babyface definitely called Hall directly to book them.

TLC – 1991

Beyond the young and hip moments, Arsenio also made sure our legends had a home and space to be heard.

Davis was in poor health and his voice barely audible, but Hall gave him ample couch time after his performance, keeping the convo going as though he could hear Miles loud and clear.

Arsenio would give dedicated time to entertainers instead of rushing them through segments. Sammy Davis Jr. had already been on the couch for about 15 minutes when he decided, impromptu, that he wanted to perform a number (he’d initially said he didn’t want to sing during his appearance). He then returned to the couch telling Hall, “I say this to you on a one to one basis: you ever need me, you got me, for the rest of my life.”

The Godfather was on Arsenio’s show multiple times.

PRINCE - 1991
Hall turned the entire program over to Prince twice during the show’s original run.

And on a non-music note, where else would you get Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard and Mike Tyson on the same couch? Greatness. (1990)

Arsenio proved that the landscape could be broader than the very formulaic, mildly edgy space that had been late-night. The biggest moment that drove this point home was presidential candidate William Jefferson Clinton, who was having some trouble in the polls, jamming on the sax.


The performance is noted in the annals of TV and political history as not only a turning point in Clinton’s campaign, but in how candidates campaigned moving forward. At the time, Clinton was criticized for letting his proverbial hair down that way; detractors said it wasn’t “presidential.” But it helped him win the young, urban vote (and possibly kicked off the whole “First Black President” mess that we should all forget). It must have been some kind of presidential, because he became the president.

Hall also permeated pop culture at large. His monologue segment “Things That Make You Go Hmmmm’’ was flipped into a No. 1 dance hit by C+C Music Factory…

...and the Dog Pound’s infectious barking (which morphed, over time, from a full “Woof Woof” to something like a “Woo Woo” or a “Whoot Whoot”) apparently inspired Tag Team’s tootsie-roll-inducing classic “Whoomp! There It Is.” Group members Cecil “DC” Glen and Steve “Roll’n” Gibson have credited The Arsenio Hall Show for the idea, “People had been saying ‘There it is’ forever. Everybody in Arsenio Hall’s television audience used to do the “Woof” chant. We put that together with the ‘There it is’ dance-floor chant we were hearing at the club.

In 1992, Carson stepped down from the late-night throne and threw the space into a warring frenzy for audience and ratings. Jay Leno ascended to Carson’s spot at The Tonight Show, and Dave Letterman, angry he didn’t get the coveted gig, jumped ship from NBC to CBS. Hall, who was syndicated and not locked in to a specific network or time, was left vulnerable. NBC and CBS started pressuring markets that carried The Arsenio Hall Show to drop him or change his time slot. The Tonight Show was going for a young demo with Leno, and started booking guests that were usually in Arsenio’s domain. Leno, who had also moved up to an earlier time slot, created an irreverent, who-knows-what-might-happen vibe for his new The Late Show – an older (and whiter) version of Hall’s energy.

In ‘93 Hall’s ratings started taking a hit, and in 1994 he wrapped the show. For the final episode, Queen Latifah asked Hall to let her produce a segment, but he couldn’t be involved. She put together one of the greatest rap cyphers ever seen on television – Yo-Yo, MC Lyte, Naughty By Nature, A Tribe Called Quest, Fu-Schnickens, Pete Rock and CL Smooth, Gang Starr, Das EFX, Wu-Tang Clan, KRS One and Mad Lion - to surprise Hall and get busy one last time.

And LMAO at Ghostface shouting “The black man is God” over and over again at the end. This is what happens when you put Wu Tang on live TV.

In 2014, Hall made a short-lived return to the late-night scene, but it wasn’t hittin’ the same way this time. First, he’s much older. And while hip-hop has gotten older, too, what made The Arsenio Hall show fresh and different was its young energy. Second, he wasn’t offering something special and exclusive anymore. In the same VLAD TV interview mentioned earlier, he noted the difference in the landscape. “The hard part now is, you can turn on Fallon, or Kimmel, or any Jimmy… They’ve all got rappers. And they might sit and talk to the big ones, so I don’t do anything unique now.”

Still, his original run is more than enough to forgive later shortfalls. We appreciate all that you gave to and did for the culture, Arsenio. Just stay off twitter, please, so we can continue to enjoy it.

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Stacy-Ann Ellis

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.


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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