Drake is a polarizing rap figure, one of the most divisive rappers in recent memory. Maybe ever.
But not for what you might think.
He’s too soft. He sings too much. He wears ugly, oversized sweaters. He’s goofy. He freestyles while holding a Blackberry. He makes too much music for women. The latter is especially ridiculous since there’s an entire major genre – country – essentially dedicated to women.
What can’t be debated is that Drake is talented. Drake can rap. Even the most vocal of his detractors, like popular radio host Charlamagne tha God, acknowledge his rapping skills. But why make fun of the singing, particularly since a lot of radio-rap songs have hooks that require an R&B singer?
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Rappers singing isn’t anything new. Slick Rick did it. Mid-verse Grand Puba would break into song. Kanye West made an entire album singing, albeit his voice was autotuned. And at the height of his popularity, Ja Rule – with the assistance of Ashanti– was singing on just about every song released by the ironically named Murder Inc.
That drew the ire of 50 Cent, who infamously derailed Ja Rule’s career – through singing hooks to songs. Contradiction should be discussed in hip-hop.
Why Drake is loved – and hated – is because he is a soul-bearing performer. He admits his flaws. He exposes his relationships, shows his hurt. He raps about things he actually lives with creative aplomb; he doesn’t revel in imagined scenarios preferred by trap rappers. Yes, he can be a bit sensitive. And, no, he won’t “catch a body like that,” but it’s undeniable that he has song-crafting strength. Hip-hop is more than lyrics; it’s music, and Drake understands that.
What makes Drake so good? It’s because he’s a student, taking a little bit from everyone he’s worked with or admired.
Drake is the sum of these parts.
The singer, who died in a plane crash in 2001, was pushing R&B beyond staid come-ons. What Drake took: An appreciation of melody, especially for tunes that seemingly work independently of the beat but somehow still meshes.
The early tracks featuring Lil Wayne like “Ransom” initially gave hip-hop fans a reason to pay attention to Drake. And he continues to deliver. It can’t be overstated how much Wayne’s verbal co-signing has meant to Drake’s career. What Drake took: Swagger.
Confidence is something every rapper must possess, but Jay-Z’s sophisticated assuredness is something Drake emulates. Look at a Drake interview. He is well-spoken, introspective and sincere. Kind of like Jay, who on “Light Up,” kicks advice to Drake – on Drake’s own song. What Drake took: Hov’s ability to switch flows – cadence, meter, etc. – in verses, only he does it with singing and rapping.
West’s emotional fragility – when he isn’t being obnoxiously cocky – can be endearing. What Drake took: Talking about what he finds after a self-examination as heard on “Marvin’s Room.”
Eminem has struggled paying the price for fame, something Drake admits he wants on “Forever.” What Drake took: A me-against-the-world attitude.
The self-proclaimed No. 1 Stunna is not ashamed of excess and Drake’s got “Money to Blow.” What Drake took: An admission that he’s never been one for the preservation of money.
Drake and Common are feuding. The best rap beefs – Tim Dog v. West Coast, Nas v. Jay-Z, Rick Ross v. 50 Cent, 50 Cent v. every popular rapper it seems like – inspire some of the most impassioned lyrics. Drake sent the first shot in “Stay Schemin,” and Common responded over the same beat. Drake has yet to fire back. Since he’s at the top right now, he has more to lose. But this is hip-hop, and rappers can’t let another rapper call them out. An interview won’t do. What Drake took: A loss?
Bun B, one half of Houston’s UGK, has been a supporter of Drake’s, given him street credibility – and hard guest verses. What Drake took: The street cred.
Their songs “Made Men,” “Astin Martin Music” and the venomous “Lord Knows” present some of the best on-song chemistry in hip-hop, and there’s a rumored mixtape. What Drake took: A keen awareness for how to align in an unforgiving industry.
The only memorable song on his 2009 album “Shock Value 2” was “Say Something,” which featured Drake. What Drake took: A recent Timbaland beat and made it worth rhyming over.
Another young rapper who isn’t trying to be something he’s not. What Drake took: Ownership of the hook from their collaboration “In the Morning.”
Songz and Drake broke through the same year. Songz’s biggest hit, “Invented Sex,” featured a Drake verse. It was Songz who sang the hook on one of Drake’s first big-budget videos, “Replacement Girl.” What Drake took: The top of the charts.
The enigmatic group, led by Toronto’s Abel Tesfaye, is vying, with Drake’s help, to become the sound that moves R&B in a new direction. Songs like the Drake-assisted “The Zone” are beautiful, the magnetism undeniable. What Drake took: A partnership that can only help both.
If nothing else, it’s her glutes that make him so proud of her. What Drake took: Another look at her backside.
The rising rapper is also a fan of Aaliyah. What Drake took: Actually Lamar, on “Buried Alive,” an interlude from Drake’s album “Take Care,” gives Drake a nod for giving advice.
It can be argued that Khaled’s “I’m on One” was the hip-hop song of 2011. What Drake took: A sense of self-marketing. OVOXO is something people believe in.
The Atlanta rapper is master of slippery word groupings and vocal delivery. What Drake took: A mastery of moving from sing-song to rap and back to sing-song – in the same couplet. Sometimes whether he’s signing or rapping is left to the listener’s discretion.
The ruler rocked a lot of gold. What Drake took: A love of gold. Well, high-top fades are trending, so why not gold necklaces, bracelets, watches and rings?
Otis R. Taylor Jr.