In the summer, there was a seven-digit bidding war, brokered by Cash Money, to secure Drake’s signature on a recording contract; Universal Motown Republic Group won, at a rumoured price of $2 million (US). Over the following months, it proved a worthwhile investment. In September, a shortened version of So Far Gone
debuted at number six on the Billboard 200 chart, and has since sold close to 400,000 North American copies, despite the full tape being available online. “The Best I Ever Had,” released as his first commercial single, peaked at number two on the Billboard charts, then received a pair of Grammy nominations.
Incredibly, all this activity has preceded the release of Drake’s official debut album. Thank Me Later
comes out this spring, featuring guest vocals by Jay-Z and productions from Kanye West (the Elvis Presley and Brian Wilson, respectively, of the past decade’s sales charts), and fellow Torontonians 40 and Matthew “Boi-1da” Samuels, a Jamaica-to-Toronto immigrant. With guidance from Wayne, Drake is getting famous on his own terms, in a way that could never have happened in the pre-broadband age. If his plan holds steady — so far it’s been so good — by this October, when he celebrates his twenty-fourth birthday, he will have become this country’s most successful urban music export since...well, ever.
A word after
a word after a word is music. The godmother of Canadian rap is Michie Mee, a Toronto high school student when she cut her first single, 1987’s “Elements of Style,” with New York’s mighty Boogie Down Productions. The following year, she signed with First Priority records in New York, becoming the first Canadian MC to join hip hop’s big leagues. Her debut album with DJ L.A. Luv, the dance hall–flavoured Jamaican Funk: Canadian Style
, was Juno Award nominated in Canada — and virtually dead on arrival at stateside retail.
“With me doing the reggae stuff, some of it was like another language [to American listeners],” Michie told me in a 2005 interview. She was dropped by First Priority but kept grinding south of the border as a live performer — usually the opening act, rarely the headliner. She turned to acting in the late ’90s, playing (what else?) a rapper on CBC-TV
’s Drop the Beat
Today, if you approach a thirty-something Canadian and shout, “This is a throwdown, a showdown, hell no, I can’t slow down!” he or she will probably advise you to let your backbone slide. Such is the legacy of Michie’s male counterpart, Maestro Fresh Wes. After striking gold here in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Wes moved south to New York — hip hop’s birthplace and ultimate proving ground. There, he was swallowed alive.
At that time, American rap was turning self-important and xenophobic. As gangsta lyrics fanned across the country like buckshot, hip hop’s dominant narrative became the individual response to harsh social conditions. Authenticity trumped artistry. Never mind that the majority of the audience lived in the suburbs: to rhyme about the ‘hood, a rapper had to come from the ‘hood. There was no space in that climate for outsiders such as the Maestro, who slouched home to Canada and, like Michie, found second life as a television actor.
There’s little else to recommend from the early years of homegrown hip hop. In 1990, an MC named Frankie Fudge rhymed a verse for Céline Dion’s club single “Unison.” Two years later, Snow became a one-hit wonder — but he was a dance hall toaster, not a rapper, and it was a guest vocalist, New York’s MC Shan, who made “Informer” a hip hop song. Tom Green, the shock comic/performance artist, was one-third of Organized Rhyme, an all-white group that presented as a pale imitation of the Beastie Boys. The Dream Warriors were more jazzy, less able than A Tribe Called Quest.
Starting near the turn of the century, a new generation of MCs, led by Toronto’s Kardinal Offishall, gave Canadian hip hop a dose of street credibility. Offishall, a baritone who wears his Jamaican heritage like a badge on his chest, is astonishingly talented, and the only Canadian rapper who can rival Drake’s resumé of superstar collaborations. He is respected in America but world famous only inside Canada. He can be grouped with K’naan and K-os, two more Toronto-area standouts, as charter members of hip hop’s middle class, which the industry no longer supports.
With physical music sales in a prolonged fall, and mergers and attrition reducing the quantity and quality of legacy record labels, a blockbuster mentality has set in: every executive is looking for the next Tha Carter III
and has limited use for anything less. Hip hop has no pension plan, so young MCs must compete with a glut of aging stars for prime release dates (Thank Me Later
, like Tha Carter III
, has been bumped several times); stacks of albums come and go with bare-bones marketing plans. This culture of risk aversion continues to diminish foreign entry to the coveted American mainstream. Kardinal, K’naan, and K-os have not directly suffered because Michie and the Maestro failed to become stateside superstars — but the absence of Canadian successes certainly hasn’t helped them.
Meanwhile, desktop production and Internet distribution have opened a new back door to the mainstage. Lil Wayne is notorious for having made and benefited from a raft of mix tapes; Kanye West was typecast as a (very good) producer until he started rapping on them; 50 Cent owes his fortune to 2000’s Power of the Dollar
, a widely bootlegged tape that caught the ears of Eminem, who then guided 50’s development as Lil Wayne is doing for Drake.
Today’s hip hop
is unlike yesterday’s. In recent times, the genre has backed away from being hard. Aspiration has supplanted aggression; what matters now is unlimited access to the easy life, and songs that celebrate outsized privilege (see: Jay-Z, post-2000).
“There are people who rap about life, then there are people who rap about a life,” Drake told Vibe
last December, when the magazine put him on a split run of its cover (wearing a Toronto Blue Jays cap and multi-denominational religious pendants). He raps about both, because the life he’s living has so closely come to resemble a fantasy — the fulfillment of Room for Improvement
’s prophecies. He has been romantically linked to a murderess’s row of R&B divas, thrown parties with nba
icon LeBron James, and acquired a Range Rover to complement his Phantom (“Pull up, Range Rove; ‘Yo, chick — wanna roll?’ / And I play myself in the stereo”).
Drake has a talent for clever wordplay (“Burn bread every day, boy/No toaster”*
) that belies his lack of education; he quit school after the tenth grade to focus on Degrassi
. His lyrics are dotted with Yiddish, and references to smoking weed, which he calls “goodie,” but he’s never rapped about slinging drugs or bearing arms. Those experiences have not touched him. On So Far Gone
, his most introspective project to date, he exposed the pain he knows: life as a child of divorce.
Drake’s mother, Sandi, is white and Jewish; his father, Dennis, is black and Catholic. Aubrey, an only child, was five years old when his parents parted company. Sandi, an educator, raised their son in Forest Hill, one of Toronto’s wealthiest neighbourhoods. Dennis, a drummer who formerly backed Jerry Lee Lewis, moved home to his native Tennessee. Young Aubrey ate latkes and celebrated Hanukkah. He did not attend Hebrew school but was bar mitzvahed. In 2006, he complained to the Toronto Star
about never having a high school sweetheart, because it was “too risky” for girls at Forest Hill Collegiate to court someone with his skin tone. He spent most summers with his father in Memphis, where his play was less structured than it was in Toronto (for one thing, he was allowed the occasional beer).