The views and opinions expressed in the following feature editorial are those expressly of the writer of this piece and do not necessarily reflect those of The RAPture Museum.
Author: Edwyn Huang
In the post-post-modern world, everything is everything. But even with liberal interpretations, everything is still something...right? With genre bending acts like M.I.A., Bobby Ray, Girl Talk, etc., the traditional boundaries of Hip Hop are constantly challenged. Like all great art forms, Hip Hop has been absorbed by various regions and localized. East, west, south, midwest - they've all had their say, but the latest movement has been from the sixth Coast... the Internet i.e. Backpack Rapper 2.0. We've seen Drake, Soulja Boy, Kid Cudi, and many others build massive followings through the Internet forcing the industry's hand to listen and pay attention. But Drake stands out among the group. Not because his act defies genre (as we will later address, he represents an old archetype), but because the industry has tried to pluck him from the pack and crown him as the standard.
There's a difference between localized and market defining goods. Here's an example: BBQ. When you think BBQ, you think: spare-ribs, baby back ribs, pulled pork, brisket, all standard fare. Most prefer it with sauce, but dry rub only is neither alien nor novel. Now, North Carolina, vinegar sauce on pulled pork, that's a localized good which is clearly an outlier. I personally love it, great contribution to the BBQ canon, but standard fare: no. An example of a localized Hip Hop good that penetrated the industry and forced its way into every region was No Limit Records and Cash Money Records. The Bounce sound was proliferated, copied, and repackaged with various artists because it could be. It was formulaic, easily consumed, and viral. The same with Auto-Tune rappers. Both were absorbed by the industry and became part of the standard fare.
Why hasn't that happened with Kanye West, a genre bending act himself? Because it's very difficult to reproduce the Kanye sound. He's one in a million and its intrinsic to him. While he has Auto-Tune tracks, the sound is not formulaic. Why don't you have the next Notorious B.I.G.? Because no one can spit like that. Why don't you have another 2Pac? Because no one represented the struggle, came clear with his emotions, and had something to say as powerful as him since. These guys are what I call "Original Works," which Drake is not. He represents the next easily reproducible archetype and that's why there's so much fervor. What people fail to realize is that we are still a subversive culture in the midst of an identity crisis trying to cope with success: mo' money, mo' problems. We’ve been mainstream for 10 years now, but there’s always been a push and pull. There’s a tension between keeping it real and growing the kingdom, but with Drake, have we thrown in the towel and finally let the industry win out? When southern Rap and Auto-Tune became popular, there was resistance. Even though the Dipset basically moved Harlem to Atlanta and traded Sean John for Ed Hardy, people like Tru-Life dropped tracks such as "New New York." Jay-Z now has "D.O.A.".
Diversity is cool, evolution is inevitable, but there’s a point when both just become straight jacking. Hip Hop has been co-opted for years. Most of the time, we let it happen because the people co-opting hip hop gave us what we wanted. It was a negotiated for exchange. St. Ide’s wanted Biggie, 2Pac, and the Wu-Tang Clan; we wanted malt liquor, deal. The problem is that there aren't as many companies who are urban targeted that can afford to associate themselves with subversive Hip Hop. Drake can crossover to the Apple/Blackberry type advertisers as opposed to the Boost Mobiles of the world targeting consumers in the market for bodega burner phones. For this reason, Lil Wayne wants us to support his young boy, but what are we getting back? A light-skinned Canadian brother, with a couple mixtapes, a teeny-bopper sitcom, two left feet, and Blackberry “freestyles;” really, this is what I get for $13.99? More importantly, what am I giving up? By supporting Drake, you're telling the industry you want more female-targeted, Trey Songz-driven, lyrically-challenged music. And if that's what you want, they'll give it to you. Priority Records likely still has shelves of Lil Zane tracks that prep school gangstas in New Jersey have been dying to hear. But that's the industry's perogative. It isn't my concern that Apple won't sponsor Slaughterhouse 'cause females don't want to get laid on by Joell Ortiz. I bought the album, 'cause that's my shit.
Scarcity is a reality in music. There is a limited amount of radio, TV, and internet spins. While anyone can put out music on the Internet, there’s no guarantee people are listening. You need to be on the NahRight's, 2DopeBoyz, TheSmokingSection's, etc. With radio, they’re playing the same 12 to 15 songs every three weeks because it increases efficiency for Clear Channel - while Viacom’s not even playing music on TV anymore. This is important because without spins, artists can’t reach the people and the Hip Hop conversation dies. We communicate our culture primarily through the music and for it to continue, the people with something to say and represent need airtime. With the emergence of Drake, the industry is trying to compromise the Hip Hop market and bring us closer to the mainstream because it increases their margins. Currently, Drake is getting an inordinate number of spins on the airwaves across numerous platforms: one record, two audiences, double your dollars. In theory, Drake could draw Beyonce’s female R&B fan base, plus Lil Wayne’s fans and that's why the industry is excited.
And can you blame the industry? Hip Hop heads don't support their artists like other genres: we bootleg, full albums get leaked by homeboys, we cop the mixtape instead of the LP, we chill outside of the show instead of buying tickets, etc. Some shit happens sometimes, what can I say? This is part of the culture and its a problem for the industry, not me. It's not my concern that you can't sell core music and that the middle class wants watered down Hip-Pop. Drake has been quoted saying, “I love R&B music, man, that’s what you gotta understand, I listen to R&B music more than I listen to Rap. That’s kinda my thing. I just want to make genuinely sexy music for women to listen to and for men to play for women.” So go make R&B. By dominating the outlets traditionally reserved for Hip Hop audiences, you’re now decreasing the number of opportunities available for other Hip Hop artists to be heard and you’re proliferating R&B outside its lane. Hip Hop has always been for the margins, and if Drake displaces the music that used to be on stations like HOT 97, then where do we go for Hip Hop? Look at the 2008 Presidential Election: while Barack Obama is exactly what we needed, he had to fight a lot of pressure to move toward the center, curbing certain stances, and distancing himself from former colleagues because the other choices were moderate. If Drake becomes the dominant force the industry wants him to be, the boundaries between subversive and mainstream will be pulled even closer to the center. The answer is not to compromise. What we need to do economically is build a segment of the middle class that understands and grows out of the Hip Hop culture. We need to support the business that support our culture and vice versa. Already, other demographics consume Hip Hop music, so before we throw in the towel, we need to give the music more time to cultivate a paying fan base. Boost Mobile and St. Ide's can't be the only things we are buying can they? I know I copped two Dutch Masters this morning.
Not only is Drake’s cross-over appeal a problem, but what has Drake done to warrant his spins? Drake has big co-signs, a look that could go mainstream, and a female fanbase, but he hasn’t paid his dues. Drake’s rise from sitcom to mixtapes to #2 on the Billboard Chart (“Best I Ever Had”) to one of the biggest bidding wars we’ve ever seen are all the result of self-generated circular hype. Lil Wayne is the dog eating his own tail building up Drake, featuring on his tracks and then anti-climactically signing the artist and hype he created. Was there ever a question he was signing with Young Money? No, Drake is the Canadian Terry Conklin.
In addition, Drake's content demasculinates Hip Hop and defies current and past Hip Hop sentiments. Look at Drake’s fledgling catalog. “Replacement Girl” is about his ex. Ten years ago, it had to be about money cause it couldn’t be about females right? Six years ago, we had “99 Problems” but a chick wasn’t one. Since Drake has Lil Wayne’s co-sign and Young Money behind him, the ONLY problem he has is females. Are we growing up or are we turning soft like white peaches in November? Hip Hop heads buy misogynistic music because it’s real and subversive. There’s a lot of baby mama drama and Hip Hop reports it as it is like Ghostface Killah featuring Ne-Yo on “Back Like That,” or going way back, Gang Starr's "Lovesick." THAT’s how we do it. If we want cookie cutter, I love my queen, sugar pie honey bunch, best I ever had music, we’ll listen to Z100. We go the other way because nobody does it like we does. This is Hip Hop for a reason, and Drake doesn't get it.
On “Ransom” he says, “I ain’t smoked in three months, sorry mom, I had to do it to 'em.” This guy just transported me back to eighth grade. Again, like the misogyny thing, do I think you have put it in the air to rock? No, but act like you know. Don’t freestyle off a Blackberry, don’t do the Martin Gramatica at your show, and don’t apologize to mom dukes. Lastly, you have his hit video “Best I Ever Had,” where he plays coach trying to keep all his chickens in order. I understand that I’m judging him through the lens of old and the whole point with Drake is that he’s “new,” but I hate to break it to you… He’s not.
This is not the first time an industry insider tried to expand his base by aligning himself with an artist that has the potential to draw a female audience. Puffy did it with Mase, DJ Clue did it with Fabolous and before them, Russell Simmons did it with LL Cool J. The difference between these artists and Drake is that they paid their dues. Granted, I’m not the biggest LL fan, but he’s a legend, Fab has Brooklyn on his back, and Murda Mase had his moments. Even at their peaks, none of these artists were pushed as “the new industry model” and that’s my problem with Drake.
If we look at the new school, Joell Ortiz, Skyzoo, Crooked I, these dudes are our new bread and butter. Its our base I-formation, the classic Hip Hop we're used to. Then you have the artists who bring a new sound, personality, and perspective, the wildcat offense types. They aren’t going to totally change the game, but the wrinkles they bring will be retained like the Wildcat offenses introduced last year. Guys in this lane include Wale, Lupe Fiasco, and even Kid Cudi. While most want to group Kid Cudi and Drake together, I feel Cudi has a story, he has a struggle, he has a perspective. His approach to being an outsider is new to Hip Hop. Frankly, “Day n Nite” seems like hip hop’s answer to Weezer, they have dude’s crying over sweaters, we have the lonely stoner. He's not like Drake, who proliferates an old archetype.
Another core element of Hip Hop is that props are earned. We consume the rags to riches more than any other culture. We've all seen Biggie's freestyle on Fulton Street... That's why Hip Hop had no problem appreciating M.I.A., who comes from Sri Lanka or Kid Cudi blowing up off a mixtape he passed to Kanye at the Bape store (as legend goes). Every once in a while, there’s a landmark artist who forever alters the course of the culture, read: Nas, Biggie, Eminem, and Kanye. Immediately, they skyrocket up the charts, they’re crowned the king, but they earned it. Drake has been “given” the crown and his meteoric rise is unfounded. Hip Hop heads haven’t had a say; he’s been forced on us (pause). And that defies what we stand for, frankly, it's un-American. This isn’t an old boys network/ivory tower industry. It’s the US Open of music. If you got the goods, you can go from ashy to classy. This is the place.
But if Drake succeeds, what is it telling us? This will no longer be a merit based industry. Of course, there are guys already in the industry who had easier routes than others, but Drake’s rise is unprecedented. He’s a marketing/ad agency monster pieced together like a user created player in Madden 2010. Everything about him is planned, strategic, and focused on generating dollars with the lowest possible operating costs. Luckily, you can’t buy swagger or a story and Drake doesn’t have it. You can see through him because there’s no substance to his music or his life. There’s no struggle and that is what Hip Hop is about. The fact that he's been handed what he has is evident in the music. There's no pain, no perspective, its all very surface, teeny-bopper, substitutes for real life experience. In sports, you have playoffs, in Hip Hop, you have battles, but that’s the problem with Drake. He’s been shielded. When he fell on stage, Wayne was there. When he freestyled, he had the Blackberry. But, no one has had the balls to go after him and if people in Hip Hop have a problem with Drake, they need to take it to him. Someone should step to Drake and draw him out from under Weezy's wing to stand on his own two feet.
There are rappers who never been tested lyrically. In a way, Kanye has been shielded by Hova and he’s labelmates with Nas so no one in their right mind is going to battle him, but for other reasons, no one should step to him. Kanye has proven his talent 10 times over. He came out of the gate hard with “Two Words,” he is the most prolific producer out, and he has elevated the standard in the industry from his videos to style to artistic forays. Ironically, in an industry full of pitbulls, the only people that went at Kanye are the creators of South Park. Drake on the other hand should be challenged because he’s never been tested. He’s been allowed to climb the charts with no resistance. But, if it takes those two to bring Drake back to Earth, well, we probably already lost.
About the author: Eddie Huang is the Owner of Hoodman Clothing and Tonk Syndicate. Prior to those ventures, he wrote for The Orlando Sentinel, won the Zora Neale Hurston Award, the Barbara Lawrence Alfond Award, and was selected as a New York City Bar Minority Fellowship winner. Currently, he produces the General Ills Show, is a featured personality on The Bar Exam with Urkelbot and will be launching The Parlay With Eddie Huang on PNC Radio.