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The Drake Paradox

“No Drake.”

This was a strict law between me and my friends in college. The Canadian crooner was an easy target for our ridicule — a mainstream, mega-popular cornball who was anything but authentic in our eyes. A softboy masquerading as a macho man.

We’d roll our eyes when one of his songs would come on at a party, make fun of kids on opposing baseball teams who had a Drake walkup song, and would rather be caught dead than accidentally letting a Drake track play while on AUX duty.

But try as we could to avoid him at all costs, between the years of 2012 and 2016, Drake was omnipresent. Take Care was still dominating airwaves as I entered college, Nothing Was the Same was the backbone of just about every party soundtrack sophomore year (making for plenty of eye rolls), If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and What a Time to Be Alive were undeniably two of the biggest releases of 2015, and the incredibly catchy “Hotline Bling” and the rest of Views were a fitting cap to my college years with Drake.

Looking back five (!) years later, I stand by a lot of my Drake dismissal, but I failed to appreciate how difficult and impressive it is to dominate a four-year run like that. Except Drake has now been doing that for over a decade.

Equal parts meme, punchline, and icon, there has never been a figure in rap akin to Drake. His career probably should’ve ended three or four times now, yet he still remains the biggest rapper of his generation — and perhaps of all time.

Drizzy’s unprecedented reign over hip-hop may be an anomaly, but it’s definitely no coincidence. The rap game is notoriously fickle. Like NFL running backs, most mainstream rappers have a 3-5 year prime window before they become forgotten or branch off into other art forms or behind-the-scenes work as executives and studio heads. You can luck yourself into one or two years on the rap throne — but a run like Drake’s is carefully crafted and maintained.

Drake’s run is even more impressive when you consider that he’s far from the most talented rapper amongst his peers. Sure, he’s got chops on the mic, but there are loads of other artists who could out-rap Drake bar-for-bar. Yet, very few if any are even in the same conversation when it comes to their clout.

So how has Drake been able to keep his spot atop the rap game? It basically boils down to two things: his ability to manipulate his image and market himself, and his keen ear and awareness of what’s hot.

I’m going to ignore the latter attribute, because I absolutely cannot stand hearing or even thinking about Drake’s fake Jamaican patois or British accent, bruv. From Latin America to the Middle East, there isn’t a sound that Drizzy has tried to co-opt for himself and it’s objectively reprehensible.

Let’s instead dive into Aubrey’s marketing abilities. He’s always directing the narrative around himself in a way which people can buy into, which has led to an army of die-hard fans that come out of the woodworks to defend his honor any time someone comes for it.

Probably the most evident way Drake has marketed himself is through the contradicting personas he’s created. On one hand there’s the untouchable mob boss doused in opulence (aka Hardo Drake), and on the other, a perpetual hopeless romantic dealing with endless bouts of unrequited love (aka Heartbreak Drake).

These dueling alter egos allowed him to wiggle out of what would’ve otherwise been two career-ending blows — the famous “you’re hiding a child” line from Pusha T, and Meek Mill’s mic-dropping revelation that Drake didn’t write his own raps.

After Meek hit Twitter with allegations of Drake having a ghostwriter, Drizzy fired back with a pair of diss tracks, “Charged Up” and “Back to Back.”

I went back and listened to “Charged Up,” and had absolutely no recollection of it whatsoever. It’s not that it’s bad — he gets some solid jabs in about coattail grabbers — it’s just “Back to Back” completely overshadows it.

The much more uptempo cut saw Drake in full Hardo mode, making vile comments about Meek’s then-girlfriend Nicki Minaj, and the now famous “Twitter fingers turn to trigger fingers” line. But Drake does a bit of self deprecating too, to my knowledge the first time that’s ever been done on a typically ultra-masculine diss track.

“You getting bodied by a singing n****” may be some of Drake’s best work, and it helped the general rap public forget about or at least live with the credible allegations of Drake using ghostwriters. Anyone who’s done any kind of public speaking knows that self deprecation is the quickest way to get the audience on your side.

While Drake needed his Hardo side to come out of the Meek beef on top, he wouldn’t have been able to do it without his Heartbreak side either.

Drake follows a similar arc in the next major beef in his career. Pusha T had been sending out shots towards Drake for years, even going after his mentor Lil Wayne back in his Clipse days with “Mr. Me Too.”

A few back-and-forth jabs were thrown in the early 2010s, but things came to a crescendo in 2018, starting with Pusha T’s “Infrared” on his Daytona album. Drake responded once again in Hardo voice, claiming he was the only reason Pusha T was relevant, even sending a $100,000 invoice to G.O.O.D. Music for “promotional assistance and career reviving.”

Four days later, Push drew what should’ve been a fatal blow with “The Story of Adidon,” revealing to the world that Drake had a son and painting him as a deadbeat dad. The track also threw a wrench into an entire adidas campaign the brand was reportedly centering around Drake and his son, and all of a sudden Drizzy became Mr. “Checks Over Stripes.”

Drake went to his Heartbreak side as a response, going on LeBron’s The Shop show to stutter about how he never wanted to disappoint the GOAT, and how Push went overboard with his diss. He also apparently had a response that was so vicious, so nasty, that rap OG J. Prince had to come in as a mediator to call the beef off. I’m sure Drake’s girlfriend that he met at camp last summer that goes to the high school across town has a copy of that MP3 stashed just in case.

Pusha T is a rapper’s rapper, and many accused Drake of ducking his jabs for years because he knew he couldn’t handle a beef with him. He evidently could, even though Push lyrically got the better of him. Why? Because at first he was able to claim that he was too big to even warrant a response to a rapper with lowly numbers like Push, and when things got too hot, he used his position of power to get his godfather J. Prince, a universally respected name in hip-hop, to cool things down.

It’s a win-win formula, and if he could get out of that beef relatively unscathed, he can make it out of anything. adidas sponsorship ruined? No problem. Drake went on to film his “Laugh Now, Cry Later” video at Nike HQ, and is reportedly getting his own signature sneaker. It seems as if every L he takes comes with a side of bigger Ws.

As much as I hate to admit it, it looks like Drake has become too big to fail. It doesn’t matter how the rest of his career plays out. Whether he becomes an actor, fashion mogul, or the new face of rap snacks, he’s done something only a handful of other rappers have done — enter the GOAT conversation.

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