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Drake combines success with social media spectacle

Drake's summer was suffused with controversy (courtesy of Anton Mak and Wikimedia Commons).

Drake has had a weird year.

By any objective metric, the Canadian rapper/singer/pop giant, who needs no other introduction, has had one of the best years a pop star has had since the dawn of recorded music. He held the number-one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart for 16 of the 21 weeks from the start of May to the end of September and has only missed nine weeks at the top spot since February, when “God’s Plan” dropped, and his album cycle began. All 25 tracks on “Scorpion,” his fifth album and seventh major release, charted in the Hot 100, with seven in the top 10. “Scorpion” itself went platinum the day it came out, charted at number one on the Billboard 200 for five weeks (a record on the year) and didn’t leave the top five of that chart until this week.

Yet, despite that dizzying array of chart accomplishments, the year of Drake has felt oddly quiet. While he never has been particularly fond of interviews, “Scorpion”-era Drake has given no quarter to the press at all. His social media presence has been largely boring — links to labelmates’ projects on Twitter, concert pics from his tour with Migos on Instagram, but nothing that sounds like he wrote it instead of some personal assistant. Even in his music videos he’s tended towards playing second fiddle — to a cast of women who are cooler than him on “Nice For What,” the cast of “Degrassi” on “I’m Upset,” the entire city of New Orleans on “In My Feelings.”

In a year filled with rap industry news storylines, Drake has been largely absent, overshadowed by both his contemporaries and his stylistic descendants. In terms of headlines, the summer has been dominated by Nicki Minaj and Kanye West’s ragings against the world. The two, who have both been among Drake’s chief rivals and collaborators over the past decade, have been beefing with everyone except for each other, lashing out against everyone from CNN and Spotify to Cardi B to Travis Scott and Kylie Jenner’s baby and a nonprofit named after Kanye’s mom. Even younger rappers heavily indebted to Drake have made more headlines than him and captured the zeitgeist better. From Post Malone and JUICE WRLD’s emo-rap conquest of the streaming charts to the deaths of XXXTentacion and Mac Miller, there have been plenty of cultural moments focused on rappers that feel more interesting and current than Drake.

Yet, Drake’s relatively quiet summer may be to his benefit. When he has been at the center of the music media’s conversation this year, it’s rarely been in his favor. In the month leading up to the release of “Scorpion,” Drake entered into a beef with Virginian Rapper Pusha T that can be traced back disputes that go back at least a decade but more proximately to “Infrared,” the final track on Pusha T’s most recent album, this May’s “DAYTONA.” The day after “Infrared” dropped, Drake shot back with a Soundcloud-only track, “Duppy Freestyle.” “Duppy” went with the tone of a disappointed fan and peer, hitting Pusha for his decline in success since his days as part of the duo Clipse and calling him a fake drug dealer. It was a compelling attack, passive-aggressive and restrained in a way that suggested poise on Drake’s part.

Then Pusha released “The Story of Adidon,” and all hell broke loose. Over three minutes of surgically precise rhymes, the older rapper went after Drake for everything from using his blackness as a minstrel-esque tool for performance to mistreating his producer and close collaborator Noah “40” Shebib, who has multiple sclerosis. But most potent of all of “Adidon”’s allegations was the plainly stated claim that Drake was “hiding a child” that he had with a French former porn star. Pusha claimed that Drake was simultaneously becoming an absentee father and planning on using his child, purportedly named “Adonis,” as a marketing tool for his upcoming Adidas shoe line.

Pusha’s attacks on Drake hit hard, becoming the stuff of memes for weeks on Twitter and leading some rap heads to pontificate on how Drake was finished after “Adidon”. Yet in the long run, the strangest thing about them is how little it impacted Drake. He still went ahead with “Scorpion”’s late-June release, adding in a few lines about how he “wasn’t hidin’ my kid from the world” but “hidin’ the world from my kid” (which, as a note, means absolutely nothing) and a final track, “March 14th,” about finding out he was going to be a father. But other than those acknowledgements, Drake seemed ultimately unphased by what would be a career-ending diss track to anyone else. He smothered the story by virtue of his own star status — he became too big to fail.

As autumn moves on, however, Drake has seemed increasingly restless in his hegemonic pop status. “In My Feelings” has finally moved out of the top 10 (it’s still in the top 20, along with Drake’s “Nonstop” and “Never Recover,” his collaboration with Atlanta rappers Lil Baby and Gunna), leaving Drake for the first time in 31 weeks without a song in those upper reaches of the chart. Sure, he still has an uncredited, song-stealing cameo on Travis Scott’s “SICKO MODE,” but for an artist of Drake’s world-dominating stature, that’s not enough.

And so Drake has taken to his favorite pastime — hijacking the hype cycles surrounding younger rappers and pop stars. Just as Drake’s appearances on BlocBoy JB’s “Look Alive” and Lil Baby’s “Yes Indeed” in the spring presaged “Scorpion”’s dominance of the early summer, Drake has followed the release of his album with a run of collaborations with lesser rappers that seem pinpointed for pop success. Beyond “SICKO MODE” and “Never Recover,” the two most successful of the collaborations so far, there’s also been “No Stylist” with New York’s French Montana, “FLIP A SWITCH” with Quavo and “MIA” with Puerto Rican Latin Trap superstar Bad Bunny, who just so happened to be on Cardi B’s “I Like It,” one of the few songs to dethrone Drake from the number-one spot this summer. That roster — from French Montana’s clubby New York Rap to Travis Scott’s psychedelic Houston style and then onto Quavo and Lil Baby/Gunna’s Atlanta Trap and Bad Bunny’s Latin take on it, represents a rolodex of nearly every proven B-list hitmaker still standing in 2018. No one on that list could claim to be a threat to Drake’s rap game dominance, but they aren’t obscurities either.

Even as he’s making all the right moves on a music business level, Drake seems dedicated to creating bad press for himself. Some of this bad press comes from rumors an speculation. In September, odd news about 14-year-old actress Millie Bobby Brown texting Drake, who is 31, about romantic matters came out, as well as reports that Drake may be dating an 18-year-old model whom he first met two years ago. But Drake also reignited the flames of the “Adidon” controversy last week. As part of his appearance on “The Shop,” Lebron James’ HBO talk show, Drake sighed at length about the beef, trying to repair his image and change the topic to Kanye West, who is an easier villain than Pusha T at this point. But his appearance there simply served to reactivate Pusha’s sense of competition — just days after Drake appeared on “The Shop,” Pusha T put out a three-hour appearance on Joe Budden’s podcast, a common stopping-by point for any rapper looking for industry credibility in 2018, talking mostly about the beef itself.

And so Drake has brought another round of scrutiny to himself, reawakening bygone controversies for no apparent benefit. It’s a puzzling move, especially for an artist as established as Drake. But it fits what has been a puzzling year for the artist. Everything he’s done, from surprise drops to nonexistent press tours to playing Fortnite on livestreams to beefing with Pusha T, feels like an intentional provocation, a test of what a music celebrity can do to undercut their own musical moves. In this case, at least for now, the answer seems to be that nothing, not even Drake, can stop Drake.

 

Contact Jacob Kuppermann at jkupperm ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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