[Editor's Note: Drake's debut full-length, Thank Me Later, was released today, June 15, 2010. This article originally appeared in SPIN's January 2010 issue.]
Though hip-hop has always defined itself by its aspirations -- fiscal, political, sartorial -- Drake did his damnedest in 2009 to move the genre out of a thirtysomething malaise and into an age of feeling. Whether that means the music enters a mature growth period or a midlife crisis remains to be seen. But there's no doubt that the MC born Aubrey Drake Graham has changed the perception of what a rap star can sound like.
Before this year, Drake, 23, was best known as Jimmy Brooks, the wheelchair-bound Lothario on the Canadian teen soap Degrassi: The Next Generation. He was also an aspiring rapper who had recorded two little-heard mix tapes and collaborated with future mentor Lil Wayne on a song, "Ransom," that found some Web love in fall 2008. Then, in February '09, Drake offered his third mix tape, So Far Gone, for free at his blog, octobersveryown.blogspot.com.
Largely produced by friend and engineer Noah "40" Shebib -- who was inspired by the otherworldly symphonic folk of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks -- the mix tape was a tangled web of influences (Lykke Li and Peter Bjorn and John samples) and collaborators (august Southern MCs Bun B and Wayne, downy-soft R&B crooners Lloyd and Trey Songz). Drake, meanwhile, rapped with impish glee and crooned in a delicate vibrato: So Far Gone was downloaded more than 40,000 times in less than a week.
"When we released it, I was having a nervous breakdown," Shebib says. "I didn't know how people would interpret Drake singing Jodeci records, and then rapping with Lil Wayne. For years, when we were out there negotiating for a deal, people didn't understand it. They were like, 'He's light-skinned, he's friendly, he's Canadian.'?"
Looking back, it all makes perfect sense. The upper-middle-class son of an African American session drummer from Memphis, Tennessee, and a white Jewish homemaker from Toronto perfectly triangulated hip-hop at a dire moment. As the genre desperately searched for a legit new star, Drake embraced three crucial elements: Weezy's prolific swagger, Kanye West's hypertrophic obsession with fame, and a uniquely prideful sensitivity. "Best I Ever Had," a mix tape song that became an organically grown No. 2pop hit, initially sounds like so many other modern rap tracks: sexual triumph, vocal trickery, tastes great, less filling.
But there are stunning bits of emotional clarity. He raps, "Sweatpants, hair tied, chillin' wit' no makeup on / That's when you're the prettiest, I hope that you don't take it wrong." Toying with slickly emo sentiments without appearing out of step with commercial trends, Drake opened up an enormous young female fanbase. College shows sold out across the country -- Ohio, Georgia, Louisiana. Even New York dropped the sneer and embraced Drizzy.
In June, Drake announced a million-dollar deal with Wayne's Young Money imprint, to be distributed by Universal Motown. But the celebration turned sour with the much-derided, dumbly glossy, Kanye Westdirected Hoosiers-meets-Hooters video for "Best I Ever Had." Then in August, Drake collapsed onstage after reinjuring a balky knee. The video of his awkward fall became a jokey viral sensation, and "Drake's knee" was a trending Twitter topic. Experiencing his first backlash, Drake opted for surgery, spending the autumn out of view, recovering and recording in Toronto. During that time, he re-released So Far Gone as an EP, featuring two new songs; it sold 73,000 copies in its first week.
"Being the new guy in this game is hard," he says from Toronto, where he's finishing his debut album, Thank MeLater. "People don't want to accept the fact that there could be another artist on a Jay-Z level, on a Kanye level. No matter what I do on this album, no matter if I rap ten, 20, 30 times better than on So Far Gone, people are still gonna be like, 'This isn't as good as his last shit. We're over it.'?"
Still, Drake has become this year's go-to guest rapper, putting in work for Mary J. Blige, Fabolous, Alicia Keys, and Jamie Foxx in recent months, offering a bizarrely endearing reinvention of braggadocio. On Foxx's "Digital Girl," he seduces with a nerdy sensuality: "I just hit ALT-TAB?/ Switching in between two convos / I should just call cabs / And bring 'em both here to the condo." Jay-Z called on him for a Blueprint 3 chorus, and even played hype man at a Drake concert in October.
For now, Drake is focusing on what he knows. "In order for me to have a working process that doesn't make me crazy, I have to rap about myself," he says. "That's the only way I can finish songs. I'm just thankful the world was so receptive to it, because that means I can do it again. And again."