The night Drake won his Grammy for Hip Hop Album of the Year for Take Care he was interviewed by Ryan Seacrest on the red carpet for E!. With a smile luminous enough to grace dentistry advertisements and a tasteful tuxedo that foreshadowed his GQ cover spot in the coming months, the Canadian hip hop/R&B artist politely shmoozed his way through questions about his art and trend-setting ability in a buddy-buddy manner with everyone’s favorite former American Idol host, even responding multiple times to Seacrest with an almost reverent, “yes sir.” I guess the dude’s mom raised him right. But in a culture in which authenticity is so often based upon one’s, “realness,” or, “hardness,” even a simple smile can be taken as a sign of a, “bitch ass nigga,” in the words of Lil’ Kim. Obviously we never saw this type of gentlemanly courtesy when gangsta rap crossed over to the mainstream back in the nineties, or during the turn of the century TRL flashy video era. Even artists like Jay-Z and Kanye West who have been fully assimilated into the Hollywood infrastructure pale in comparison to Drizzy’s spotless etiquette.
Authenticity is a complicated issue in hip hop, a genre built as much on pissing contest egoism as it was on social commentary and clever wordplay. Take for example the contentious dialogue in response to Drake naming a song from his upcoming album Nothing Was the Same “Wu Tang Forever.” You have backpackers on the internet juxtaposing rapgenius lyric pages in a feeble attempt at proving Drake to be outside of this magical fantasy world called “Real Hip Hop” that lives inside the head of every “Dilla Saved My Life” t- shirt wearing fifteen year old. Then you’ve got the DMX fans of the world- and if any of you out there are reading this allow me to greet you all with a salutory, “woof woof,” – the people who believe artistic validation is earned via criminal records and looking hard in every photo that graces XXL magazine that are ever so eloquently claiming Drake to be a, “bitch,” or,”pussy,” either due to his balladeering, suburban upbringing, or the aforementioned pretty smile that most likely earned him a spot on their girlfriend’s bedroom wall. But in a post-Kanye hip hop landscape in which, “it’s recreation to pull all your skeletons out the closet like Halloween decorations,” does, “realness,” even exist anymore, and if so where does Mr. “I know being sensitive don’t ever mean I’m a pussy,” stand?
The conversation more often than not turns to the issue of race. Drake is far and away the most successful half-white, half-black rapper in the history of hip hop, and despite how far away our society has moved past seeing things in black and white, it still indubitably saturates our perception of his work. This introduces an interesting dichotomy into his music that reflects the complex duality of his character as a person of mixed race, who can often feel forced to live up to expectations of both demographics. That is to say with Drake we have a rapper as likely to offer red-blooded statements of machoism and misogyny as he is to sing about heartache and alienation from his chauvinistic peers (e.g. “all my young boys round me saying get money and fuck these hoes, where we learn these values I do not know what to tell you.”) And people can often have trouble trusting someone who can be so cordial in front of the omnipresent cameras of the mainstream media yet can also be spotted in photos flashing bands at King of Diamonds with Stunna and Weezy.
It’s almost as if there are actually two Drakes- one, Aubrey Graham, the former Degrassi actor who was born and raised by a single white mother in suburban Toronto, and two, Drake, the rapper who quips about, “bigging up his chest,” and names songs, “Hell Yeah Fucking Right.” Take a look for instance at a few nights ago on Jimmy Fallon when he premiered the absolutely breathtaking track “Too Much.” For every moment of the performance Drake seems entirely drowned in the weight of the song, one in which he feels disenfranchised from his family, and proceeds to call them out…on national television. It was bottom-line great art. But then the second the song’s over and Jimmy comes out to shake his hand the dude’s all smiles and tough guy faces again like he just Punk’d us with his sensitivity. Hell he even plays charades with Scarlett Johansen later in the show.
Whether or not this breaking down of the emotional fourth wall turns you off from his work or causes you to perceive it as any less authentic is really a personal question. If the heart-rending wasteland that’s laid out in “Too Much” feels like it gets paved over when Drake immediately breaks character at the song’s conclusion then perhaps his autobiographical work could read criminally as fiction, the work of acting and not living. I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t sometimes get to me too, I mean that’s why I wrote this in the first place; but, when I place that fact on one side of my scale of justice it’s still never quite as heavy as the other side, the one that’s easily brought to tears when “The Real Her” is played in an empty dark room. Yes I just admitted to crying to the music of Drake on the internet. Now who’s the, “bitch ass nigga?” (Hint: It’s the still guy who whined to his mom over not getting his tuna fish sandwich.)