The New Face of Hip-Hop

I’m Ready For You- Music By Drake

IN March the young hip-hop star Drake was in town for a harried few days, polishing up the final details on his debut album, “Thank Me Later,” and filming the video for the first single, “Over,” before heading out on his first proper headlining tour. On his last night, his team was holed up at the studio in the basement of the Sunset Marquis hotel, accessible only by special elevator.

Earlier in the day Jay-Z had sent him an encouraging e-mail message that paraphrased one of his own lyrics: “Things are going good/But good can turn to better.” Taking a break to eat before settling in for an all-night session at the studio, Drake checked his phone and laughed. He was texting with someone he was pretty certain was Halle Berry; LeBron James, a close friend, thought he’d be a great match for Ms. Berry’s cousin, and Ms. Berry seemed to be feeling him out.

For most of his teenage years Drake, tall, broad and handsome, was still known as Aubrey Graham (Drake is his middle name) and played the basketball star Jimmy Brooks on the popular Canadian teenage drama “Degrassi: The Next Generation.” In the last 18 months, though, he’s become the most important and innovative new figure in hip-hop, and an unlikely one at that. Biracial Jewish-Canadian former child actors don’t have a track record of success in the American rap industry.

But when “Thank Me Later” (Aspire/Young Money/Cash Money) is released this week, it will cement Drake’s place among hip-hop’s elite. It’s a moody, entrancing and emotionally articulate album that shows off Drake’s depth as a rapper, a singer and a songwriter, without sacrificing accessibility. That he does all those things well marks him as an adept student of the last 15 years: there’s Jay-Z’s attention to detail, Kanye West’s gift for melody, Lil Wayne’s street-wise pop savvy.

In rapid fashion Drake has become part of hip-hop’s DNA, leapfrogging any number of more established rappers. “I’m where I truly deserve to be,” Drake said over quesadillas at the hotel’s lobby bar. “I believe in myself, in my presence, enough that I don’t feel small in Jay’s presence. I don’t feel small in Wayne’s presence.”

But “Thank Me Later” is fluent enough in hip-hop’s traditions deftly to abandon them altogether in places. Finally his outsider background has become an asset. As a rapper, Drake manages to balance vulnerability and arrogance in equal measure, a rare feat. He also sings — not with technological assistance, as other rappers do, but expertly.

Then there’s his subject matter: not violence or drugs or street-corner bravado. Instead emotions are what fuel Drake, 23, who has an almost pathological gift for connection. Great eye contact. Easy smile. Evident intelligence. Quick to ask questions. “He’s a kid that can really work the room, whatever the room,” said his mother, Sandi Graham. “Thank Me Later” has its share of bluster, but is more notable for its regret, its ache.

As for Ms. Berry’s cousin, Drake’s interested, of course, but wary. “I think I have to live this life for a little bit longer before I even know what love is in this atmosphere,” he said. More fame only means less feeling, he knows.

Dodging vulnerability has been a fact of Drake’s life since childhood. His parents split when he was 3. An only child, he lived with his mother, who soon began battling rheumatoid arthritis, a condition that eventually prevented her from working, forcing Drake to become responsible at a young age. “We would have this little drill where, Lord forbid something happened, if there was a fire or an emergency, he would have to run outside and get a neighbor and call 911,” Ms. Graham said. His father, Dennis, who is black, was an intermittent presence — sometimes struggling with drugs, sometimes in jail.

“One thing I wasn’t was sheltered from the pains of adulthood,” Drake said. When something upset him as a teenager, he often told himself: “That’s just the right now. I can change that. I can change anything. The hand that was dealt doesn’t exist to me.’ ”

From an early age he’d been interested in performing, whether rewriting the lyrics to “Mary Had a Little Lamb” or spending time as a child model. By then, he and his mother were living in Forest Hill, a well-to-do, heavily Jewish neighborhood on the north side of Toronto, where he attended local schools, often the only black student in sight. His mother is white and Jewish, and Drake had a bar mitzvah. At school he struggled academically and socially. “Character-building moments, but not great memories,” he recalled. In eighth grade he got an agent and was soon sent off to audition for “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” an updated version of the popular 1980s Canadian drama.

He auditioned after school, on the same day, he said, that he first smoked pot from a bong. Nevertheless he landed the role of the wealthy, well-liked basketball star Jimmy Brooks, who was originally conceived as a white football player.

“Part of his journey is trying to figure where he does fit in in the world, having a white Jewish mom and a black, often absentee father,” said Linda Schuyler, a creator of the show. “It’s almost a comfort factor with Jimmy Brooks. That was the antithesis of his life at the time. It was probably reassuring and a bit escapist for him to play that role.”

Sometimes he was hiding even when the cameras were off, sleeping on the show’s set. “When I woke up in the morning, I was still the guy that could act and laugh,” he said. “It’s just that home was overwhelming.” Along with “Degrassi” came a new, more diverse school closer to the set, where he first tried rapping in public. As he got older, he also tried out his verses on one of his father’s jailhouse friends, who listened over the phone.

In 2006 Drake, then an acolyte of hip-hop’s thoughtful bohemian wing, released his first mixtape, “Room for Improvement.” He also was testing out the rapper lifestyle, spending money — some from “Degrassi,” some borrowed from family and friends — out of step with his actual earning.

He leased a Rolls-Royce Phantom, parking it on the street outside the family’s apartment, much to his mother’s chagrin. “Who drives a Phantom and doesn’t have a place to park it?” Ms. Graham remembers asking her son. “And what’s even more embarrassing is we owe so much money and we have so many debts and bills.”

Summers were spent with his father’s side of the family, in Memphis, where one of his cousins was dating the manager of the rapper Yo Gotti. There Drake gained an affection for the energy of Southern rap, which contrasted with the headier material he had started out making himself.

The New Orleans rap star Lil Wayne heard Drake’s music in the summer of 2008 and invited him out on the road. “I sat in the same place on the bus for a week,” Drake recalled. “I was scared.” Wayne only found out about Drake’s acting past when he landed on “Degrassi” while flipping channels on the bus’s television.

In short order Drake became a key part of Wayne’s touring madhouse, and whenever there was downtime, in a studio or hotel room, he worked on songs. The outcome was “So Far Gone,” his third mixtape and one of last year’s best-received hip-hop recordings. It’s one of the most ambivalent, melancholy documents of rap success ever released, which is odd, because it was recorded long before Drake’s turn in the limelight.

On “So Far Gone” he sought to cultivate multiple audiences at once: in addition to straight-ahead rap songs, he also rapped over instrumentals from indie acts like Santigold, Lykke Li and Peter Bjorn & John. “That was supposed to be the wild and crazy project we did to get that out of our system before we put out a really generic rap album,” said Oliver el-Khatib, Drake’s longtime friend and de facto creative consultant.

Most notably, he sang — some songs in their entirety. In part that was a response to heartbreak: he’d been trying to shake loose of a destructive relationship with a manipulative woman who had taunted him with the fact that she had previously been involved with a famous rap star. The wounded R&B;songs are about her. “I don’t even know if I wrote a rap song in that whole nine months,” Drake said, “because I wasn’t a rapper anymore. I didn’t believe in myself. I was someone else’s property.” (He was so uncertain about the sung tracks on “So Far Gone” that he tried to get them placed on an album by his friend the R&B;singer Trey Songz — fortunately, with no luck.)

His next relationship was better: it inspired “Best I Ever Had,” the bawdy song that became his breakthrough solo hit. It reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, practically unheard of for a song that originated on a mixtape. Eventually it would earn Drake a pair of 2010 Grammy nominations, a first for a rapper with no album out. (An abridged EP version was eventually released to stores to capitalize on Drake’s raised mainstream profile. It has sold almost 500,000 copies, a surprising number for a collection of songs widely available free online.)

An endorsement deal with Sprite (which led to a bizarro commercial in which Drake’s body splits into pieces, then reforms) was already being negotiated before Drake’s record deal was complete. “The fact that he has a background that differs from your prototypical rap artist — from Toronto, multiracial, the fact that he was a child actor — corporate America, they’re attracted to that,” said Shawn Gee, Drake’s business manager.

But Drake’s difference has also made him a target. In May 2009 he was robbed at gunpoint in a Toronto restaurant. He cooperated with the police investigation, in what some perceived as a violation of hip-hop’s no-snitching ethos. The black gossip Web site posted a snapshot of a page of the criminal complaint under the headline “Caught Snitchin!!! Rapper Drake Testifying Against Men Who Robbed Him!!!”

“I feel unsafe in Toronto at all times,” Drake said. “I’m a one of one. There’s no one else you can hate as much as me if you hate money, or you hate success.” Reminders of fame’s dark side are all around him. Since March his mentor and label boss, Lil Wayne, has been on Rikers Island serving a one-year sentence in connection with a 2007 gun charge. This month Drake visited him there for the first time. “That’s not the place for him,” Drake said. “A lot of ‘So Far Gone’ was predictions,” he said. “I was rapping about things I’m only going through now.” As a result “Thank Me Later” often feels like a memoir: Drake is the rare pop artist who seems to think of himself in the past tense. On “Light Up” he raps, “I keep thinking, ‘How young could you die from old age?’ “ For a first single, “Over” was particularly paranoid and cheerless. “I know way too many people here right now/That I didn’t know last year,” he sings at the chorus. As if to prove the point, at the video shoot just outside Los Angeles, which was meant to be private, the hangar-size studio filled up with hangers-on over the course of the long night, including the actor Ryan Phillippe, a friend of the director. “Thank you for coming,” Drake said, his face a blend of gratitude and bewilderment. On “The Resistance” he raps about an accidental pregnancy with a woman he was briefly involved with, who chose to end the pregnancy. And on “Fireworks” there’s a verse about Rihanna, who asked him last year to write a song for her new album; the two soon began seeing each other regularly, though they never publicly confirmed their brief relationship. “I was a pawn,” Drake said. The song he wrote for her never got released. “You know what she was doing to me? She was doing exactly what I’ve done to so many women throughout my life, which is show them quality time, then disappear,” he said. “I was like, wow, this feels terrible.” But it’s also the new normal, and Drake wonders if real intimacy is now out of reach, maybe irretrievably so. “Did I sacrifice something?” he asked, looking for the black cloud above the silver lining. “Have I not realized what it is yet because I’m enjoying this too much?”


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