As Jay Z did in 2001 — though under wildly different circumstances — Drake used the highest-profile beef of his career as a springboard to his best and most historic year yet. Now, with two of 2015’s highest-selling albums, the biggest hit he’s ever had, and seemingly the entire Internet behind him, the Takeover is finally complete.
“The takeover, the break’s over”
Only by Drake’s workaholic standards could 2014 have been in any way considered a break. He only released one song commercially as a lead artist — the hype cut “0 to 100 / The Catch Up,” whose gas-pedal hook quickly became one of the rapper’s most iconic. But, starting on New Year’s Eve 2013, he gradually gave away another half-dozen or so new tracks on his SoundCloud page, turning one-offs like the ebullient “Draft Day” and his cacklingly triumphant “We Made It” freestyle into fan favorites with no radio airplay or promotion. Meanwhile, the regal horns of the Young Money-billed “Trophies” made sure Aubrey Graham’s presence was still announced on the airwaves with authority, as did a smattering of well-chosen guest appearances on hits by YG, Nicki Minaj, and particularly iLoveMakonnen, whose “Tuesday” became omnipresent shortly following the OVO cosign.
Nonetheless, it didn’t take Drake long to dwarf his 2014 input in 2015. After weeks of rumors, a late Thursday night in February saw the surprise release of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, 17 frostbitten tracks of Drake at his most paranoid and isolated, the world’s most popular rapper sublimating his pop instincts in favor of an uncompromising vision of home city Toronto’s cruel winter. Reading was the perfect soundtrack for walking the snowy city streets, and while it’s still up for debate whether it’s best classified as an album or mixtape, its success was inarguable — the set sold about 500,000 in its first three days of sales, and became 2015’s first album (or mixtape) to sell a million copies. The collection dominated conversation over the year’s first quarter with instantly minted catchphrases (“Running through the six with my woes,” “I got enemies, got a lotta enemies”), drama-sparking callouts (shots at Tyga in “6PM in New York,” subliminals towards Kendrick and Diddy in “6 God”), and cover art that became a meme in its own right.
The most absurd thing about Reading‘s accomplishments — which, now that we’re in December, also include dozens of high placements on critics’ year-end lists — is that the release was and continues to be dismissed by Drake as a stopgap, something for the fans while he works on his true fourth album, the long-promised Views From the 6. It probably won’t stand as his finest or best-remembered album, but Reading will be the one most easily pointed to as representative of his mid-’10s imperial phase, when Drake could drop an LP out of nowhere and own half the year with it, solely in the name of killing time.
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“It’s like bringing a knife to a gunfight, pen to a test / Your chest in the line of fire with your thin-ass vest”
As much of a victory as the winter and spring were for Drake, the narrative of his 2015 threatened to flip for good overnight in late July, when a fourth-meal-hour social-media rant from Philly MC Meek Mill offered Toronto’s chosen son up as a fraud. “He don’t even write his own raps!” the MMG rapper blasted, in a series of tweets that served as the ultimate J’Accuse…! moment of 2010s hip-hop. “He ain’t even write that verse on my album” — a guest spot on “R.I.C.O.,” from Meek’s then-recent Dreams Worth More Than Money LP — “and if I woulda knew I woulda took it off my album… I don’t trick my fans!” Later that day, legendary New York radio DJ Funkmaster Flex leaked a supposed reference track for Reading highlight “10 Bands,” recorded by Quentin Miller, the artist Meek had cited as Drake’s ghostwriter. The evidence was damning.
In many ways, it was Drake who seemed out-weaponed and under-armored in this fight. Meek Mill represented his worst nightmare as an opponent: a hungry rapper still on the come-up, who had recently entered the top echelon of hip-hop celebrity with the chart-topping Dreams and a tabloid-courting romance with world-famous superstar Nicki Minaj. Meek hadn’t quite yet reached the commercial orbit of his competitor, but he had the classic hip-hop backstory that Drake never would — that of a hard-luck upbringing in the more-historic rap breeding ground of Philadelphia, an ascent marked with freestyle-battle victories and self-peddled mixtapes, and multiple stints in prison, the most recent of which (for probation violation) he finished serving in late 2014.
As a half-Jewish, middle-class kid from Toronto who spent many of his teen years as a heartthrob on Canadian TV, Drake’s perceived lack of toughness was always going to be his biggest vulnerability from hip-hop’s potential stone-throwers. His primary defense against such haters was always that he never pretended to be someone he wasn’t — “not acting tough or making stories up ’bout where I’m actually from.” But Meek’s claims of ghostwriting hurt, not only because it seemed to reveal Drake as fraudulent in his claims of peak sincerity, but because Drake had been acting uncharacteristically “tough” on Reading, bragging about his “brand-new Beretta” and claiming to “keep the blade with me when I go to check a bitch.” If the words weren’t even his, that certainly made it feel doubly hypocritical.
“Don’t let me do it to you dunny ‘cause I overdo it / So you won’t confuse it with ‘just rap music’”
After a couple days of silence, Drake responded to Meek’s allegations with the diss track “Charged Up.” The cut received a mixed reception — contrary to its title, “Charged Up” was moody and low-energy, only tangentially related to Meek for large sections, and badly lacking in specificity and detail. (“I can tell he wrote that 1 tho,” quipped a chortling Meek on Twitter in evaluation.) But then four days after “Charged,” and with no response yet delivered from Meek, Drake fired a second shot with “Back to Back.” This time, the song carried the chest-puffed, freestyle braggadocio that had sparked Drake’s most incendiary tracks in the past.
“I did another one / You still ain’t did s**t about the other one,” Drake taunted, as if the rules for timeliness in hip-hop beef were written and known to all. It’s not like Nas was given less than a week to respond to Jay’s “Takeover” back in 2001 — “Ether” was released a full three months after Jay’s initial throwdown. But Drake learned from another master of public relations that if you don’t like what people are saying about you, change the conversation. And so with a rush-ordered second diss and a jeer positing the dual transmissions as the work of a prepared professional battling an amateur out of his depth, Drake attempted to totally reframe the narrative of the dispute.
And it worked. Hip-hop scorekeepers suddenly rushed to name Drake the leader in the clubhouse, and grew increasingly impatient for Meek’s response — as if, just seven days after his initial Twitter missive, his answer track was already undergoing Detox-level delays. Drake also masterfully adjusted the parameters of the beef to his favor by nose-slapping Meek, “You just got bodied by a singing nigga.” Boiled down to its essence — “I beat you, and I’m not even really a rapper, so you must be trash” — the self-effacing jab expanded the playing grounds to be about more than Just Rap Music, and on the global field, the advantage was undoubtedly Drake’s. In the end, rap beefs almost always boil down to popularity contests — who the public really wants to win in the first place — and with “Back to Back,” Aubrey reminded fans that they had secretly been rooting for him to come out on top all along.
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“When I was pushing weight, back in ‘88 / You was a ballerina, I got your pictures I seen ya”
Meek Mill’s attempt to put Drake on that Summer Jam screen came less than 48 hours later with his response track, “Wanna Know.” Meek made gloating allusions to Drake’s alleged brouhahas with former foes Chris Brown and Diddy, and featured a clip of Quentin Miller performing the hook to Reading stunner “Know Yourself,” presumably as the song’s demo. But the coup de grace came in the song’s outro, where the rapper obliquely referenced an occasion where Drizzy “let Tip homie piss on him in a movie theater” (likely an incident at the Takers premiere in 2010 involving a drunk crony of T.I.’s), sneering, “We ain’t forget” about the humiliation.
The potential embarrassment for Drake turned out to be minimal, though, as Toronto’s finest took the power back at his OVO Fest performance five days later by projecting Meek-blasting memes — fans photoshopping the Philly MC on a milk carton, or creating mock GoFundMe pages for his overdue diss track — on a screen behind him during “Back to Back.” This wordless series of shots resonated far more with audiences than Meek’s puzzling You Let That Thing Happen to You That One Time callout, as it essentially let the fans play an active role in the fight, their commentary now becoming a part of the feud itself. It became clear that Drake was leading in the battle because he understood that to emerge victorious from a hip-hop beef in 2015, it wasn’t the streets that he had to win over — it was the Internet. Meek would always have toughness and credibility on his side, but he was no match for Drake in virality. No rapper is.
“No, you’re not on my level, get your brakes tweaked / I sold what ya whole album sold in my first week”
Obviously the sales for Reading dwarfed those of Dreams, and after it went platinum, that made it Drake’s fourth million-seller to Meek’s zero. But for all its cultural import, Reading hadn’t spawned any crossover hits — Drake hadn’t yet even had a chart hit on the level of Dreams’ “All Eyes on You.” But the same day that he released “Charged Up,” Drizzy also released “Hotline Bling,” a sublimely skanking jam with a helium-inflated, Timmy Thomas-assisted beat, and more hooks than a tackle box. Its title was perfectly self-branding, and its striking single artwork quickly became Drake’s second epochal cover of 2015.
“Hotline Bling” took off online and on radio, quickly achieving the kind of pop-cultural ubiquity no major artist achieved in hip-hop in 2015 — the year’s one refutation to Vince Staples’ claim that important rappers don’t have singles anymore. It was Drake’s best pop song, and would go on to be the biggest four-quadrant hit of his career, peaking at No. 2 on the Hot 100 and inspiring covers and remixes from Sufjan Stevens, Erykah Badu, Lil Wayne, Disclosure and Sam Smith, Justin Bieber, Jadakiss, Alessia Cara, and countless others. The fact that it was released as one of three tossed-off SoundCloud tracks seemed to demonstrate that the rapper could scribble out one of these world-conquering megahits whenever he needed to give his career momentum an adrenaline shot.
“So, yeah, I sampled your voice, you was using it wrong / You made it a hot line, I made it a hot song”
As brilliant as the success of “Hotline Bling” was, it didn’t come without its controversy. Initially, the song was erroneously advertised as a mere remix of Virginia rapper/singer D.R.A.M.’s similarly salsa-tinged, soft-shoed underground smash “Cha Cha,” but while that was obviously inaccurate — the two beats were far from identical, and in fact drew from different sample sources — the songs bore striking compositional similarities. The way “Bling” pilfered “Cha Cha” fed into unflattering narratives that had existed around Drake for years about his more pirate-like tendencies, lifting beats and flows from other rappers and plugging them into his own club bangers and street singles. D.R.A.M. himself said he felt jacked by the song, and combined with the ghostwriting claims of months earlier, they allowed Drake’s critics to continue to portray him as a charlatan at best, and a vampire at worst.
But to say that Drake simply stole the life force of D.R.A.M.’s minor hit and used it to power his own smash implies that the only thing that separates the two songs’ commercial potential is the cultural standings of their respective artists. As exciting, novel, and infectious as “Cha Cha” was, as a pop song, it’s obliterated by “Hotline Bling,” a brilliantly circular assembly line of lyrical hooks, where verses and choruses blur and it’s never more than a couple of lines before one of the song’s lyrical refrains hits like a Skrillex drop. The production is near-balletic in its weightlessness, and Drake’s phrasing is immaculate enough that the song’s patronizing tone (“[You] used to stay at home, be a good girl… You should just be yourself”) never becomes more trouble than it’s worth. The relatively free-form “Cha Cha” was more than just a hot line, but it still wasn’t “Hotline,” no matter whose name was behind it.
You could argue that Drake should do a better job shouting out artists like D.R.A.M. when he takes obvious inspiration from them, and certainly no one would say that his motives are entirely altruistic when he remixes or borrows from these lesser-known songs — though “Cha Cha” is almost certainly a much better-known song now as a result of the controversy, anyway. But you can’t argue that “Hotline Bling” isn’t captivating and unforgettable in ways singular to its creator’s strengths as a master crowd-pleaser. As one of pop culture’s great adaptors of intellectual property might say, D.R.A.M. had an idea. Drake had a better one.
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“Because you-know-who did you-know-what / With you-know-who / But just keep that between me and you (for now)”
As much fun as the Drake and Meek Mill feud was for popcorn-gobbling hip-hop fans, one of the unfortunate byproducts of it was how it made collateral damage out of Nicki Minaj. As both Meek’s new and extremely public girlfriend, and a labelmate, frequent collaborator, and oft-avowed unrequited love of Drake’s, it was sadly inevitable that Nicki would get caught in the crossfire at some point. Indeed, she ended up in the punchline of one of the most widely quoted lines from “Back to Back,” which needles Meek for serving as the opening act for the Pinkprint live show: “Is that a world tour or is that your girl’s tour?” Whether the sexist implication was that Meek should be generally embarrassed to open for his girlfriend or for Minaj specifically, it was insulting to Nicki — an icon in her own right, who no one (including Drake) should feel above opening for — and she understandably showed little patience for the whole affair, booting a New York Times interviewer for asking if she “thrives on [the] drama.”
At the least, Drake’s Nicki-related digs were only made to diminish Meek commercially — he had enough respect for Minaj (or narrative consistency) not to claim a sordid history with her just to get under his rival’s skin — which counts as some sort of progress from the Jay Z vs. Nas days, when Carmen Bryan was referenced in such callously territorial terms. And the deeper boast of “Is that a world tour or is that your girl’s tour?” jabbed at the fact that Meek, rising star though he may be, still hadn’t graduated to leading his own arena tour. Drake, on the other hand, was past the point of opening for anyone.
He headlined Coachella, Austin City Limits, and Governor’s Ball in 2015, and even when he toured with legendary mentor Lil Wayne in the summer of 2014, he was never less than a co-headliner. He may have started his year of marquee-topping with a disappointing showing at Coachella’s first weekend — a hiccup that felt like a big deal at the time, though it barely registered as a footnote to his 2015 a couple of months later — but Drake is ending this year as one of the country’s pre-eminent live performers, one whose every performance has to be watched, even remotely, for his ability to shift the culture with one move. “I got the fest in five days and it’s my s**t,” he bragged at the end of “Back to Back,” foreshadowing his eventual Meek-slaying at OVO Fest, and the unspoken disparity in status on that particular stage was a pretty decisive throat-cutting in itself.
“I don’t slack a minute, all that thug rapping and gimmicks / I will end it, all that yapping be finished”
In the midst of his post-feud victory lap with “Hotline Bling,” rumors began to swirl that Drake had snuck off to record another mixtape, this time with Future — his recent collaborator on “Where Ya At,” a peak track from the astronaut’s DS2 album, and the only rapper whose productivity eclipsed Drake’s own this year. And sure enough, on a Sunday evening in September, Apple Music premiered What a Time to Be Alive, the thrilling 11-track tape collaboration between the two planetary hip-hop figures. Recorded over a six-day session in Atlanta with most of the ATL’s hottest producers — particularly the time-warped sonics of 21-year-old wunderkind Metro Boomin — the record was a little too loose and hurried to be considered a masterwork for either rapper, but was doubly exciting for its air of spontaneity and to-the-moment currency. It felt as zeitgeist-capturing as its eminently hashtaggable title implied; the most staggering and timely display of hip-hop star power since Watch the Throne, and the kind of out-of-thin-air superstar team-up that could only happen in 2015.
What a Time to Be Alive quickly proved to be the exclamation mark on Drake’s late-year revival, moving 375,000 equivalent album units in an incomplete first-sales week, and furthering the rapper’s ubiquity on hip-hop radio and social media with rapturously received tracks like “Big Rings,” “Diamonds Dancing,” and the top-20 hit “Jumpman.” Perhaps more importantly, Drizzy managed to align himself with the rapper who owned hip-hop on a street level in 2015, and though the tape sounded much more like a Future project than a Drake one, WATTBA still felt like more of a triumph for the latter — the final jewel in the crown for the biggest rapper alive’s best year yet.
And in the meantime, months after its release, “Hotline Bling” was still gaining steam as a monocultural moment. In late October, with the single entrenched in the Hot 100’s top tier, Drake released the song’s long-awaited music video, a gorgeously fluorescent and gigglingly frisky visual that showcased its star engaging in a number of unapologetically goofy micro-dance moves. It was easily mocked, but more importantly, it was easily Vined. As with his only other music video this year — a clip for Reading’s “Energy” that featured a rapping Drake super-imposed onto other famous faces — it was practically begging social media to have its way with it, Twitter’s favorite rapper understanding that he was just as much meme as man at this point. And the Internet was more than up to the challenge, hashtagging, looping, and yes, meme-ing the video until it became just as ubiquitous as the song itself. By November, Jennifer Lopez was imitating his moves on the AMAs, Donald Trump was parodying the clip on SNL, and Drake was officially fare for Christmas sweaters. Music videos just aren’t supposed to be that inescapable in 2015.
As far as the Meek feud was fading in the rearview, Drake couldn’t resist putting one final nail in the coffin of his now-buried foe. The solo “30 for 30 Freestyle” shows up at the close of WATTBA like a twist ending, a recording tormenting Meek after Drake has long since absconded with the loot — if you’re listening to this, it’s too late. “I mean hats off for a solid effort,” he rapped, golf-clapping at Meek’s offensive. “But we didn’t flinch for a second, we got our s**t together.” Drake’s use of the plural first-person was telling — though he never addressed Meek’s fraud allegations head-on, he’s always broadcasted a collective approach to his music- and myth-making, drawing strength rather than insecurity from it. (In a FADER story from October, he even chastised Meek’s team for not having their leader game-ready when it came time to throw down on record: “You guys have high-ranking members watching over you. Nobody told you that this was a bad idea, to engage in this and not have something?”)
And for all the claims of “ghostwriting,” it’s also essential to note that a “Q. Miller” credit was always visible in seven tracks of Reading’s liner notes, along with a couple dozen other co-writers and collaborators. By late 2015, it was hard to remember what anyone was even yapping at Drake for in the first place.
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“And all you other cats throwing shots at Jigga / You only get half a bar, f**k y’all niggas”
Despite the tide threatening to finally turn on Drake early in the year, he’s finishing 2015 looking more bulletproof than ever, and virtually without peer among contemporary MCs when it comes to cultural impact, musical consistency, and sheer numbers on the boards. Kendrick Lamar decided he was more interested in exorcising his personal demons and spotlighting societal ills than dominating radio or starting s**t on Twitter. The jam Kanye West long held in reserve for his triumphant return to Song of the Summer contention fizzled on the charts, and the long-hyped SWISH still has no release date in sight.
Lil Wayne’s recording career is in irons, and on his most-recent mixtape, No Ceilings 2, he spun so many WATTBA tracks that he sounded like he was tapping on the window of Drake and Future’s clubhouse, wondering why he wasn’t invited. Even those rappers who did rival Drake for ubiquity this year — Fetty Wap, J. Cole, and Nayvadius himself — were successfully co-opted by Drizzy, who gave them guest verses, swapped live cameos with them, and recorded full-LP collabs with them until he could claim a percentage of the credit for their success. Tellingly, the song that held “Hotline Bling” from becoming Drake’s first solo Hot 100-topper — the Weeknd’s “The Hills” — was by an artist who Aubrey initially helped put on. Even when Drake lost in ‘15, he basically lost to himself.
Of course, there will always be those who claim that Meek Mill did win the beef by permanently damaging Drake’s artistic credibility — likely the same people who still talk about how Nas actually “ethered” Jay Z back in 2001, despite the Jiggaman ending the year with the better diss track, the better album, and all of the best and most popular singles. And they’re not necessarily wrong: It’s true that in terms of pure MCing, Drake will probably never be looked at quite the same way, while Meek — mostly silent on the scene for 2015’s final few months, an absence which Drake sarcastically deemed “very concerning… like you went on vacation with no plan of returning” — will ultimately settle back into the underdog, people’s-champ role he was always better off being cast as. He may never threaten true pop stardom again, but he’ll be fine.
But what the true hip-hop heads don’t care to acknowledge is that they’re not really Drake’s concern, and haven’t been for some time, if ever. Drake’s primary goal as an artist, even more than being the greatest rapper, is to simply be The Dude, the man for his time and place; to provide the “background music to your life as you live it,” as he told W Magazine in October. And right now, nobody understands what the people want — the mix of the familiar and the new, the palpable sense of nowness, the unquenchable desire for ceaseless content (and, with the perpetually looming threat of the still-forthcoming Views, the promise of more content to come) — better than Drake.
“It’s history that counts,” he said in that same W interview, and by year’s end he’s ensured that between the mixtapes, the hits, the videos, the memes, and the beefs, he’ll be the first artist who comes to mind ten years from now, when we look back and think, what a time to be alive. And if cats don’t start taking better aim with their shot-throwing, he might still be running this pop s**t then, too.