“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 parties…@ovo40 a decade ago you were scared to share your beats…@oliverelkhatib a decade ago you worked at a clothing store selling someone else’s product…@boi1da a decade ago you were in a basement with pink insulation walls figuring out fruity loops…@ovoniko a decade ago we were handing out flyers promoting club nights…@realbriamyles a decade ago you were working the makeup counter at Beverly Centre…@nebzilla a decade ago your moms house was my safe place and we really ran through the 6 everyday together…@bunb a decade ago you were a legend and you will remain that forever…@benballer a decade ago you promoted me as if you were getting a cut of my career…@treysongz a decade ago you were the first person to recognize potential and give me a co-sign…@omarion a decade ago you came to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and laid a verse for an unknown artist from Canada…@darkiemade a decade ago you emailed me the cover art for something that would change my life forever….@kingjames a decade ago you came to my release party at 6 Degrees and made me the biggest artist in the city off your presence alone…@kanyewest 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 forever…@jas.prince a decade ago you took a chance on MySpace and introduced me to Wayne…@liltunechi 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. 🙏🏽
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.”