Monday, November 25, 2013

Everything Stays the Same: Drake Alone in First Class

In his hour-long interview on Canadian interview show Q, the host Jian Ghomeshi asks Drake what he thinks about his status as a "social media" rapper and icon of the millennial generation. Drake responds: "I hate the gist of living your life on the internet and telling everybody personal details about yourself on social media." The irony, of course, is that if you drop the internet references this is a perfect description of how he has made eight or nine digits in the past three years.  His distaste for the characterization and insistence throughout the interview that the stories on his records are all him, all Aubrey Graham autobiography, and not rap fairy tales are telling. Drake thinks that his success lies in his successful navigation between the Scylla of total naked confession and the Charybdis of bland genre convention.

This is exactly what is questioned in the article "Is Drake the Voice of the Millenial Generation" by David Drake (hereafter referred to as David). The author attempts to provide a survey of the "Millennial Drake" arguments and a bit of pleasant commentary. He muses that rather than representing self-obsession as the characteristic of a specific generation, Drake evokes a universal moment in the process of growing up. In this light, it's unsurprising when he writes:
"The most evocative moments are ones when reality intrudes upon the interior narrative, when Drake's abstracted ideas are replaced by concrete details [...] Oddly, these moments imply considerably more about Drake's internal world than the narration of his thought processes, and give oxygen to the world outside of his head. The confessional "Too Much," a rare moment of personal honesty about his family, is not unprecedented in Drake's catalog, but it explores a part of his life with a sincerity that is absent elsewhere. These are moments when he is least like a caricature of Drake, and most like a human being."
David thinks that Drake is making a move toward a fully realized adulthood on NWTS by demonstrating that he is becoming "emotionally responsible," with an implied wise wink suggesting that the millenials as a whole are reaching the same stage of their collective maturity. His laudation of Drake's patently relatable frustrations with his family on "Too Much" is helpfully understood as analogous to "Family Business" on Kanye's breakout The College Dropout or even 2pac's classic "Dear Mama".  These songs have to do with the artist-as-human-being, with the details of their families and therefore their histories. They try to get back to origin of the struggle, the emotional world from which the superheroes of rap extremity emerge. It's no surprise that the modesty and frankness of these tracks are striking to critics like David who think they articulate the "sincere" humanist undercurrent of the genre.  It's comforting to many to know that even the most talented and successful are damaged and vulnerable. At the heart of this rather dull aesthetic outlook is the thesis that nothing makes us more earnestly human than our family, which here represent the bedrock of our social responsibilities to one another.

Against this sort of pallid interpretation of his catalog, I want to say that the strongest moments of Drake's work are the moments of dehumanization.  These moments come in part out of his itinerancy. The boy that spent summers in Texas and winters in Ontario insistently raps about his home, but because he has never really belonged to only one city and travels constantly he often finds himself rapping about his homes.  His attachment to Toronto is more of an adoption than he commonly lets on. Remember that on "Club Paradise" one of his countless exes accuses him of "not knowing this city anymore" to which he gives a dismissive shrug. Even in his love letter to the city in the music video of "Started From the Bottom", he can't help but fly away and end the song with a vacation.

But Drake's predicament doesn't end with rootlessness. In the final calculus, it doesn't really matter where he is in the world. In the Pitchfork review of NWTS, reviewer Jayson Greene writes: "There is no uncomplicated forward motion in Drake songs; usually one small element worms forward while everything sits around it, a haze of rhythmic and harmonic indecision. " He's hit upon a critical insight; the thing that makes Drake's music work is that it's frozen in-between. As he says in "Furthest Thing", he's "Somewhere between psychotic and iconic/Somewhere between I want it and I got it/Somewhere between I'm sober and I'm lifted/Somewhere between a mistress and commitment." This sort of equivocality is often used to comfort by suggesting moderation or normalcy, but when it becomes a lifestyle things become much more problematic. On NWTS Drake flies between Miami (Hold On, We're Going Home), Memphis (Worst Behavior), and Toronto (Started from the Bottom), and everywhere he feels the same, and what he feels is very little.  But this isn't unique to Drake; the reason that it resonates with the rest of us is that his life exaggerates a contemporary world that we're all familiar with in the wealthiest countries. Money has bought us security, and with security has come insulation, and with insulation has come abstraction.  But after the complicated police-action wars of Afghanistan and Iraq, the more recent and hesitating pseudo-operations in Syria and Libya, and the realization of our collective impotence in the face of the world market in the recent financial crisis, it's hard to ignore the feeling that our comfortable position has very little to do with us.

Similarly, Drake's perpetually glamorous lifestyle has an element of inexplicable election; he's as bewildered by the spectacle of his success as the rest of us. Everywhere the citizens of the richest countries go, we're given the license and right to be unproblematically "what we are" and, similarly, wherever Drake goes he's accommodated as Drake. When we're protected that way, when we're shielded by money and cultural capital, the only thing that we can talk about are the times when we weren't so safe, our formative struggle. Drake raps about the girls that he was with, the women that pushed back against him when he was Aubrey Graham, and not the women that he told us about in Take Care when he said: "I got some women that's living off me/Paid for their flights and hotels, I'm ashamed/Bet that you know them, I won't say no names/After a while, girl, they all seem the same." This helps us to understand Drake's obsession with his emotional history and his crew; it's lonely at the top, and the only thing that you can see up there is everything that you passed up below you.  The people that he keeps around him are souvenirs and reminders of what he was beyond the fame, but they're not much more than that.  After all, how can they relate to him when he spends so much time struggling to relate to himself?  His reflective speech after receiving his Grammy is revealing (starting about 4:02):

On NWTS, Drake thinks that he's strong enough, famous enough to continue to push himself as a person into the limelight, rather than lapse into his identity as Drake the artist. The aggressive presence of Drake the man on this record is a reaction to the monstrosity of Drake the icon, and thus it's not surprising that NWTS comes off as Drake's most desperate record. No matter how much Drake might want to pose as relatable and aspirational, as an individual with personality and charm, with a claim to stake and name to defend, and no matter how much he insists on his authorship and authenticity in every verse, what draws us to him is his continual awe at his own lack of agency over his success. He's obsessed with his fame because he doesn't understand it and he desperately wants it to last, but at the same time he's not content with things staying the way that they are. When he proclaims "Came up, that's all me/Stayed true that's all me/No help that's all me/All me for real," the irony is so thick that it's hard not to cringe.

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