A brief Instagram post last week heralded the release of Scary Hours, a duet of tracks from hip hop superstar Drake, titled “God’s Plan” and “Diplomatic Immunity.” The songs were always bound to get millions and millions of plays regardless of their quality – such is the commercial and critical stature of the Canadian rapper. Rather than simply serving as filler until his next album however, the tracks have been met with nearly universal praise from musical pundits and casual listeners alike. “God’s Plan” immediately broke the Spotify record for most plays in a single day (4.3 million for those of you wondering) and assured that that catchy drop – I only love my bed and my momma I’m sorry – will boom through car stereos and fraternity parties alike for the foreseeable future.
The immediate ascendency of these songs to the top of the charts was somewhat unsurprising. But nonetheless, the casualness with which the two new tracks slid into Drake’s catalogue of smash-successes goes to show just how much we take for granted the Canadian’s ability to consistently redefine both himself and the very heights musical artists can reach.
In modern hip-hop, Drake’s run of success is unprecedented. Since 2010’s “Thank Me Later,” Drizzy has managed to make seven albums eight years, all of which received widespread critical and commercial acclaim (with the possible sole exception of 2016’s “Views” which, personal opinions aside, still became the most streamed album of all time). It’s truly quite difficult to express how incredible of a feat this really is. There is not a single other living artist who has produced so much music at such a high level for so long. None of his contemporaries have come close. Kanye West has released only two albums in the last eight years, Kendrick Lamar has (despite more critical success) still not managed to appeal to such a broad swath of the general public, and Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Pump, Lil Yachty and the rest of the Soundcloud brigade only need to prove that they can stretch their meme-ability out for eight more years (good luck ;)) before they can claim the same threshold of success.
Hip-hop is not exactly a static entity and so to dominate the charts for so long would inherently necessitate an incredible amount of stylistic limbo. Drake’s chameleon-like ability to rap, sing, act and sell himself allows him to craft different personas uniquely tailored to appeal to just about every sector of the listening public. Early tracks like “Find your Love” and “Best I Ever Had” introduced us to the braggadocious Drake – the maker of raucous club bangers oozing with arrogance and swagger. 2011’s Take Care showed us the Canadian’s vulnerable side, mixing wavy R&B beats with Drake’s surprisingly adept vocal range to create debatably his best ever album. A consistent flow of radio-ready singles (“Hotline Bling,” “Hold on We’re Going Home,” “Know Yourself,” etc.) cemented his wide-ranging pop music appeal, and more hard-hitting numbers like Meek-Mill diss track “Back to Back” even gave him some credibility amongst the more staunch defenders of rap music.
Although this ability to wear many hats has made Drake the most commercially successful artist of his generation, it has somewhat conversely undermined his standing within many of these specific sub-sectors of urban music. After all, this is a guy who has managed to include lines like both, “I pop bottles because I bottle my emotions” and, “F*ck n*ggas gon’ be f*ck n*ggas/That’s why we never give a f*ck when a f*ck n*gga switched up,” in the same body of work. This ability to play multiple parts – the hard hitting gangster rapper, sensual R&B hit-maker, international pop star and everything in between – is Drake’s most important asset but also his biggest limitation. Few, if any, fans of rap would seriously claim that Drake is the best artist alive and fewer still would call him the greatest of all time, despite the commercial success that has outpaced perhaps every other artist in the genre’s history. The widely held view of Drake is one of love, but not absolute respect.
Some even go so far as to argue that Drake isn’t a rapper but something more akin to a corporate shill, capable of moving records and selling brands but not of truly dedicating himself to any one facet of his own craft.
The problem with this line of thinking is that it attempts to portray Drake as a pretender – a guy who can recycle other’s styles and create hits for the masses but not truly innovate as the all time greats are expected to do. I personally however would argue that Drake’s success in this field – borrowing, sampling, layering and experimenting – is exactly what sets him apart from his peers. Drake doesn’t have the the pure rapping skill of Kendrick, the production genius of Kanye, the vocal range of The Weeknd or the raw energy of Travis Scott. But even despite that lack of a single defining trait (an automatic death sentence for most musical careers) Drake has managed to consistently redefine the very direction of hip-hop culture and appeal to a broader audience than anyone before him. To do this at all is an incredible balancing act, but to do it for seven consecutive albums is nothing short of astonishing.
Those seven albums and the endless stream of singles and features in between them clearly haven’t saturated the public’s desire for more Drake. Even today, eight years on from his coming-out party, the musical world still comes to a halt for anything from him – much as it did last week for “Scary Hours.” That EP featured only two songs, but their predictable likability and immediate success were more than sufficient as a reminder of Drake’s brilliance. It’s a brilliance that must be viewed over the long term to be fully appreciated and one that we may never see again once Drake does eventually decide to stop making music. Until that day however, we can still acknowledge Drake for what he is – a championing pioneer of hip-hop culture and an artist who has succeeded where no other has before.
Contact Harrison Hohman at hhohman ‘at’ stanford.edu