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.