drake, rap and r&b

Two leaks into the run up to Drake’s album, and I think it’s safe to say that he’s confirmed what has always been obvious: as a rapper he exists somewhere between endearingly corny and truly asinine, but as an r&b artist he is often sublime and surprising.

The more I listen to “Over,” the more I become baffled at Drake’s popularity amongst critics as a rapper qua rapper. As someone who pretty much triangulates the careers of Kanye West and post-mega stardom Lil Wayne, he somehow retains exactly none of the qualities that make (or made, I guess) either of those guys interesting. He is largely a punchline rapper, but he isn’t as hilarious or refreshing as Kanye was, and his moments of anti-gangsta self-introspection like on “Successful” (still his best rap song) are rather elementary, outlining the basic dichotomy between being humble and true to yourself and still wanting to enjoy the spoils of rap without really providing much insight beyond that. Drake wants to ball, but he is wary. He is conflicted. This brand of introspection functions as a check mark in a box, and as a selling point for him as a rapper worth repeated listens it lacks.

Most troubling are his verses on big, swaggering rap singles like “I’m Going In”, “Forever” and “Over”. He rarely wastes time or words or alters his flow, and thus he leaves his punchlines bare and ripe for the picking, and what’s left are verses that are either symptoms or emblems of a lowering in the standard of what critics and fans seem to accept as good/exciting rap music right now. It’s this Jay Leno monologue rap that was adopted by Lil Wayne not shortly after Tha Carter III (I touched on this in my No Ceilings post from a few months back), where metaphors and similes are as simplistic as possible (“Like a sprained ankle, boy I ain’t nothing to play with”; “Bout to go Thriller, Mike Jackson on these niggas/ all I need’s a fucking red jacket with some zippers” etc.) and “big reveal” punchlines can be seen a mile off.

It’s those punchlines that often drag Drake into point-and-laugh territory. Internet bro Al Shipley coined them grocery bag lines, and while most people seem ready to rightfully dismiss guys like Mack Maine and Gudda Gudda (or at least accept them as circus clowns), Drake (and to a lesser extent Nicki Minaj, who really was interesting and exciting before going into a wormhole of late) is still ushered through as a “real” MC despite propping up his verses with embarrassingly obvious punchlines like “Learn to speak my language… ROSETTA STONE” and “Two thumbs up… EBERT AND ROEPER” (the latter of which I pointed out on Twitter was used better by The Bloodhound Gang). At Pitchfork, Ryan Dombal offered a meek defense of the lines by saying that they, “may not be terribly complex, but Drake’s laser-guided delivery turns them into automatic catch-phrases” without acknowledging or realizing that it was Ebert and Roeper (actually Siskel and Ebert, but whatever) who turned the phrase into an automatic catch-phrase, hence the whole function of the punchline. Drake doesn’t write punchlines, he appropriates them. (And that’s to say nothing of the disastrous “Brown… NINO”/”swimming… NEMO”/”ball… CHEMO” stretch in “Forever,” which represents some sort of low point in rap in the past two years.)

To me it goes without saying that rap like this is unacceptable, but the rubber stamping of Drake by most critics signals that people are much more quick to accept and praise rap that feels or needs to feel important rather than rap that is/should be important because it’s creative and fresh. When we’re okay with a rapper drawing a line from “language” -> “Rosetta Stone” or “two thumbs up” -> “Ebert and Roeper” we have failed. It started (and festers) with Wayne, and it has manifested itself wholly with Drake.

Thankfully— since he’s all over the radio regardless— Drake has been able to redeem his career through r&b. Where he fails at retaining or emulating what makes his rap influences great, he’s been able to easily assimilate into the space occupied by modern r&b hitmakers (and collaborators) like Trey Songz and The-Dream. “Shut It Down” for instance comes clearly in the wake of Dream tracks like J. Holiday’s “Bed” and his own classic “Purple Kisses”, as well as “Put It Down”, with which it shares both phrasing and Dream’s tangents about ice cream. “Shut It Down” would slot perfectly in the back half of The-Dream’s Love/Hate, and the fact that it would make more sense sonically and thematically in the context of the album than a song like “Ditch That…” currently does speaks to Drake’s ability to make top-flight modern r&b. And Love/Hate is maybe my favorite album of the 00s, so I don’t make that claim lightly. (Within his own career, “Shut It Down” is pretty similar to his Lloyd collabo “A Night Off”, not coincidentally the best song on Thank Me Later.)

Drake’s cuddly loverman persona is a much more convincing antidote to his street rap peers than his rap persona as a distanced, world-on-shoulders introspective. On his r&b songs he displays a confidence and control of his music that is more believable and natural than when he is rapping. “Over” is busy and overwrought, with Drake pretty much forced to shout his lines in order to compete with the beat, while on the other hand “Shut It Down” is glacial and practically nude. Drake on rap songs with established rappers comes off as a little brother eager to prove he can play ball with his big brother and his friends; on r&b tracks with established r&b singers he sounds at home. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that the guy is rather talented when it comes to writing melodies— “Best I Ever Had” is totally made by the falsetto-y second half of the chorus, and even songs like “Forever” and “Money to Blow” that would otherwise be unbearable slide by as decent modern radio joints because Drake’s hooks posses a sort of intangible relaxed epicness.

“Shut It Down” could be a huge song, and hopefully it will be; it’s one of the better singles of the year so far, and has been rightfully hailed as so. “Over” is grocery bag rap masquerading as good rap, and that’s potentially as poisonous as the popularity of “Bedrock,” especially when critics and writers choose to ignore both the obvious similarities between the two and better music in its place.

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14 responses to “drake, rap and r&b

  1. No really. Why do you waste your time writing about a wack rapper?????

    The standards being held for this emcee here are staggeringly low compared to any other emcee.

    This is rap music, not American Idol we just found the next top entertainer for young white girls!

    Still on point though and nice read except that I dont understand why you would diss gudda and maine (two real niggas from hollygrove) over someone who made a song called over.

    roger dat.

  2. ha — well i don’t think i need to explain why i’m blogging about drake. dude is a pretty big artist.

    as far as mack maine & gudda gudda — being a real nigga from hollygrove doesn’t necessarily make you a good rapper, and they aren’t. in terms of new orleans second stringers, i’ll take boosie’s over wayne’s.

  3. yeah re: gudda gudda n mack maine, as a Wayne-fan I’ve BEEN trying to like these guys but I’ve given up. There is a Gudda verse on a song with Lil FLip called “Me and U Baby” (it’s on digitaldripped) which might be the laziest “punch-line”(that aren’t even punchlines)-rapping in recent history.

    re: Drake, yes. If he didn’t rap and just sang, I’d really really like the guy.

  4. Best criticism Ive read of Drake yet. I liked quite a bit of Thank Me Later but his output as of late has been pretty horrible. It might just be because I read Phonte is Drake’ fav MC but Drake at his worst has always reminded me of Phonte at his worst.

  5. I agree, but I think you could find some equally embarrassing punchlines from some much-beloved 90s rappers, to say nothing of people like Jeezy or Wayne before, not after, your opinion of him soured. So I wouldn’t say the real problem with Drake is how lyrically deficient he is, as someone else could pull that crap off. (Though maybe no one can pull off two thumbs up, ebert and roeper.) I think it’s actually more the laser-guided delivery that Dombal praises that, like you say, hangs them out there for the picking in this really self-impressed, self-congratulatory way. I only heard the song we’re talking about once, but I’m sure he pauses between two thumbs up and Ebert and Roeper for half a beat in a “wait for it, it’s really good, here the punchline comes… Ebert and ROEPER, wow, I killed that!!!” way. While Wayne can say he’s in the building like the audience (bad example, but he did much worse even in his prime) and it’s okay because it’s just a part of his train of thought, not this pseudo-aha moment.

  6. Dude is suspect at best. This will be seen when this highly overrated CD drops and it’s nothing more than a bunch of cameos from other artist because he isn’t talented enough to hold down a full playlist on his own.

  7. I think this criticism is of course, valid, but way hyperbolic. For a critic who believes Gucci Mane is one of the best rappers out right now, the dissection of Drake in this article is way beyond anything Jordan would level at Gucci. Jordan, I think you should just say, ‘I don’t like Drake,’ because this so-called ‘serious criticism’ is just a bunch of hot air.

    The criticism levied on Drake primarily rests on one song. So he made a bad song, big deal. Dude’s career has just really started. Why be so quick to condemn the guy. When I do think of this blog’s fascination with Gucci and I think of Gucci’s biggest hit is an ode to appropriating years old white slang (‘wasted’), while Drake was able to get serious hood love from songs over hipster mainstays, Peter, Bjorn, and John and Lykke Li. It seems to me that at this point Drake is a much stronger artist than Gucci and in my attempt to be objective, doesn’t deserve the FAIL that this post gives him.

    So yeah, why not just say, ‘I don’t like dude’ since it seems largely a matter of preference and not artistic merit.

  8. not that im defending dude writing so much about an artist he only likes as an R&B star on a rap blog, but 1) the idea that Drake is a ‘stronger artist than Gucci’ is LOL 2) ‘matter of preference’ vs. ‘artistic merit’ is a misleading dichotomy. Look at it this way:
    a) jordan finds himself not liking drake’s rapping (preference)
    b) jordan tries to articulate why he doesn’t like drake’s rapping

    theres nothing else to it, there’s no diff between ‘drake’s merit’ & ‘jordan’s preference,’ they’re two sides of the same coin

  9. “the dissection of Drake in this article is way beyond anything Jordan would level at Gucci.”

    my dissection of drake in this post (and how much time it took me to write it/think about it) barely scratches the surface of how much i’v dissected gucci mane in the past three years on this blog, on message boards, on AIM, in real life conversations w/ people & in my head. really, i think this drake post is about as thorough a critical dissection of drake as has been written anywhere, but maybe i don’t read the right blogs for that.

    “So yeah, why not just say, ‘I don’t like dude’ since it seems largely a matter of preference and not artistic merit.”

    david points this out, but i don’t like dude because of the merit of his art, as perceived by me. the two cannot be separated, and just saying flat that i don’t like drake wouldn’t give anyone any insight as to why, and would thus be a worthless statement, seeing as i’m not jimmy iovine or w/e.

    as for whether drake “deserves” something like this, i think it goes without saying that any rapper as popular and successful a him is “fair game” or w/e when it comes to a post like this. it’s not like i spent a thousand words shitting on big sean or something. my aim with this post (and the one about ‘dedication 3’) was, in essence, to provide a counterpoint to majority opinion, as best as i could read it, because that’s the supposed of ‘dialogue’ that’s supposed to happen across blogs.

  10. And all we hear are opinions right…Very well. I know one thing more than others. I listen to allot of Gucci’s music because I cant’ go out and not here it in the club on the radio etc. BUT!!! is he a talented rapper to me…..in now way or no how has he said anything appealing to me. Delivery is everything, and Drake does deliver with definition. I am honestly not a huge fan of Drakes but he has made varities of music I’ve never heard a artist make. Btween these Euro sounding songs he has made or so called hood joints he is very consistent. His style is very similar to Wayne no lie but I’m sure he listened to him and defined allot due to what he hears as we all do. Is he a horrible rapper??? Well Gucci actually is a horible rapper cause in no way do I classify him as a talent but I do like some songs but not lyrically. Drake is he a horrible rapper??? No cause I actaully catch some of his lines. and his songs are catchy which I’m sure helps. Is he a good R&B artist….not really but again a different style like Sade. I cannot deny as a preference Drake does come with a different style totally and some dont like a pretty boy swag idea but hey if it works it do. All rappers can’t wear a handkerchief and rap really slow.

  11. Pingback: Bamboo Review: The Ineffable Drakeness Of Drake | Partip News

  12. Pingback: Bamboo Review: The Ineffable Drakeness Of DrakePartip News | Partip News

  13. Pingback: How is Drake regarded by the hip hop community? - Quora

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