We all know Drake wasn’t shooting for an instant classic when he made Views. Or More Life. Or Scorpion. We also know he’s become so disillusioned with the music industry that the only place he finds solace in it are Sandra Gale Studio and the number one spots on the Billboard Hot 100 and 200 charts. But once upon a time, Drake did care about what critics and the rap community thought of his projects. Like, really cared. And he wasn’t shy in expressing it either:
I’m out here messing over the lives of these niggas
That couldn’t fuck with my freshman floater
Look at that fucking chip on your nephew’s shoulder
My sophomore, I was all for it, they all saw it
My junior and senior will only get meaner
– The Ride (2011)
He’s thinking of signing me, I come home
We make a mixtape with seventeen songs
And almost get a GRAMMY off of that thing
They love your son, man, that boy gone
– Look What You’ve Done (2011)
Drake’s deep desire to produce a universally-acclaimed darling of an album was most apparent in his lean, 13-track offering Nothing Was The Same, the supposedly meaner “junior” album he foreshadowed on “The Ride.” Though fans will recognize the hits, the album was overshadowed at the 2014 GRAMMY Awards by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ Best Rap Album win with The Heist and the snub of actual instant classic good kid, m.a.a.d. city, Kendrick Lamar’s major label debut.
Since the GKMC snub is among the most notorious moments in hip-hop history, no one cared enough to notice that Drake, too, felt slighted that year. In fact, Drake was so offended, the perceived snub of NWTS drove him to a breaking point that is apparent in his discography post-NWTS:
Your content so aggressive lately, what’s irkin’ you?
– 6PM in New York (2015)
I could give two fucks ‘bout where the GRAMMYs go
I just gave out GRAMMYs on my Instagram
– Blessings (2015)
Man, I’m back on this again, I’m here again
I didn’t do this fuckin’ tape for CNN
I am not tryna win awards, that shit looked forced
– 6 Man (2015)
So, what exactly happened after NWTS? Even the most veteran Drake fans were caught off-guard by the mad king vibes found on surprise release If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. Perhaps he was tired of the ridicule. Maybe he was too deep in his vices. Maybe he ended it with one fake friend too many. While it’s likely the draining nature of fame and fortune contributed to this negative shift in Drake’s artistic demeanor, something just as damaging hit him in the obvious sore spot we didn’t care to notice.
it was clear the title Drake was dying to own was “Best Rapper Out”
Let’s take it back to 2013, an exciting time in hip-hop. “Fuckin Problems” was ringin’ off, Tity Boi was reborn as 2 Chainz, and there was a legitimate scramble for the rap throne, with Cruel Summer and GKMC testing Drake’s staying power. Coming off of a triumphant 2013 GRAMMY campaign, in which Take Care won for Best Rap Album, a then-26-year-old Drake was starving for critical acclaim. He needed it, badly. Not even a verse like his “Stay Schemin” feature could keep doubters from loudly doubting him as a rapper. So when the buzz surrounding Kendrick’s GKMC and his verse on Big Sean’s “Control” began to die down, hip-hop’s collective attention once again shifted toward Drake and whether or not he could top Take Care.
Based on his media run leading up to the release of NWTS, Drake genuinely believed he blew it out of the water. I mean, look at this coy smirk he gives Angie Martinez, failing to hold back the bursting pride he feels about NWTS being the year’s best album, period.
In hindsight, it’s somewhat shocking and equally comedic that in that same interview, Drake suggested he was more of an “album artist” than Kendrick. That’s how serious he was about framing NWTS as his magnum opus.
As far as Drake went, the project had every answer to every question we had about him as a hip-hop artist after Take Care.
“Tuscan Leather” was Drake rapping-rapping, “the shit to stop all of the talking” about what he was in the game to do. Between “Wu Tang Forever” and samples/references littered throughout the album, we heard Drake illustrate his own unique place in the rap family tree. “Worst Behavior” gave us inventively sparse ear candy and yet another tough verse harkening back to more NY rap legends. He gave us the best of H-Town Drizzy with “Connect,” slick shots and a masterful contemporary flow on “The Language,” and he wrapped it all up by getting Hov on his outro and matching him bar-for-bar (whatever you may think of Jay’s 2013 form). And just to irk rap purists after such a display, he threw in the quintessentially soft “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” a single that has stood the test of time and is now a pop-Drake essential. Even Big Ghostfase had to fuck with that joint. All that in a run time of just under an hour.
NWTS was Drake’s most earnest attempt at giving us his version of a rap classic. It was the last album in which he felt he and Kendrick Lamar were fighting for the same space in hip-hop: the diligent student of the game who can compete with the Ed Sheerans and Taylor Swifts of the world. While he still flexed his mainstream appeal, he made it apparent that his latest effort was “nothing for the radio” straight out the gate. He made it clear what kinds of artists he felt descended from and elevated above. And with the angsty dismissal of people who still tried to “lil’ bro” him in “Paris Morton Music II,” it was clear the title Drake was dying to own was “Best Rapper Out.”
Just think about it from Aubrey’s perspective: “I was the #1 unsigned artist on MySpace off of classic mixtapes. I’m 2-for-2 with the platinum albums. And now my moment is being robbed by fucking “Thrift Shop” and a guy who took a shot at me after I GIFTED an entire song on my album and a spot on my tour to him.”
As big as Drake already was, NWTS simply wasn’t good enough to outclass GKMC, nor infectious enough to out-trend The Heist. It’s no surprise, then, how hurt and petty he was about Kendrick being the only artist to receive an awkward snub apology from Macklemore. Now all of a sudden, he goes from drinking out of his trophy and reveling in it on The Ellen Show to not doing interviews, limiting tweets to promotional content, and popping back up with a blown fuse and anti-academy bars.
Drake has slyly been shifting the conversation surrounding him as an artist since the overlooked snubbing of NWTS
Whether or not Meek Mill hastily calls Drake out on Twitter in 2015, Drake’s increased focus on making pop-oriented bodies of work post-NWTS was inevitable. For someone “too worried about being the best out,” NWTS’ GRAMMY loss is what finally showed Drake he couldn’t earn that title purely through academy accolades. The numbers kept going where critical acclaim stopped for Drake’s case as GOAT. And even if he wasn’t blatantly telling us in his verses, the narrative flatline in Drake’s music since If You’re Reading This is a telltale sign that he hasn’t let go of NWTS’ underappreciation.
Drake’s commitment to detailed autobiographical raps—with state-of-affairs intros, outros, and feature verses as crucial staples—gives us an easily traceable path from wide-eyed Canadian boy to brooding industry titan. While one could say it’s impressive how long Drake has been mired in the “brooding industry titan” chapter of his life, the downside to his pop star longevity has been a complete stall in who he is to the culture.
“Tuscan Leather” informed us he was “on a mission tryna shift the culture” and still hungry to prove himself to us. But when he wasn’t validated with the acclaim he desperately looked for, he leaned into the other ways in which he was winning. While If You’re Reading This was a legitimate rap offering, it was meant to be seen as a PSA from an artist angrily switching gears rather than a technically-exquisite body of work.
Before we knew it, we had a haphazard Future x Drake album. Less than a year later, we, the rap community, collapsed under our own expectations and the bloated nature of the highly anticipated Views. And where we exasperatedly asked questions like, “20 songs??” and “What’s this fucking accent he’s got on?”, Drake was on IG praying “Hotline Bling” finally gave him his first Hot 100 chart-topper, a feat he later achieved with “One Dance.”
We knew he wasn’t washed, but it was hard to accept the same guy that gave us “5AM in Toronto” allowed a bar like “Got so many chains call me Chaining Tatum” on his fourth solo album. Clearly, this horse wasn’t running the race he was previously running. The race we wanted—and some still want—him to run. And just in case we didn’t get it with If You’re Reading or What A Time, Drake’s marketing and subsequent rap status updates following Views made it clear his priorities changed a long time ago.
Got the Billboard melodies
Rap is somethin’ I do on the side
Crossed over to the other side
And I didn’t even have to die
– Big Amount (2016)
Along with the changing musical approach, Drake has slyly been shifting the conversation surrounding him as an artist since the overlooked snubbing of NWTS. While we don’t give him enough credit for being an awestruck backpack rapper child at heart, he began to do two key things with his lyrics: 1. increasingly associate himself with Jay/Ye and non-rap musical legends (or simply dub himself one) rather than acknowledge his rapper peers. 2. Slowly distance himself from the title “rapper”:
I’m just here for the bucks and the billi’s, nigga
Don’t make me kill one of the GOAT’s for it
Fuck all that rap-to-pay-your-bill shit
Yeah, I’m on some Raptors pay my bills shit
– 0 to 100/The Catch Up (2014, the year after NWTS in which he put out no project and just 2 singles)
I got a backyard where money seems to come from the trees
And I’m never ever scared to get some blood on my leaves
– 6 PM in New York (2015)
– All of “Legend” (2015)
Michael Jackson talkin’ to me in my dreams
And he say, “You bad and you know it”
– Big Amount (2016, precursor to the “Don’t Matter To Me” power move)
Jimi Hendrix with the solo
Those the strings that you can’t pull
I used to wanna be on Roc-A-Fella then I turned into Jay
– Summer Sixteen (2016)
And adding to my point about a sly distancing from the “rapper” title, well, he’s also done it more explicitly, like in this interview with DJ Semtex in a passionately frustrated comment about “Hotline Bling” winning GRAMMYs as a rap song:
I’m a black artist, I’m apparently a rapper, even though ‘Hotline Bling’ is not a rap song…The only category that they can manage to fit me in is in a rap category, maybe because I’ve rapped in the past or because I’m black.”
“Maybe” because he “rapped in the past.”
Damn man, it’s like that to you?
The question of who Drake is as an artist these days is tricky yet easy to answer if you just refer to the music. He’s always left everything we need to know in it. And what’s been apparent for some time now is that nothing was the same only after NWTS. This jaded, recluse, high-strung version of our favorite artist to talk about puts his faith in numbers, raps the important parts of his story on principle, and defends his ego from pain by constantly asserting he’s above the rap game’s standards—which, despite the obvious roots of wounded pride, is fairly accurate.
Niggas want a classic, that’s just ten of these
– Sandra’s Rose (2018)
Drake knows he doesn’t have a conventional classic. Drake also knows he’s too big of an artist to stay boxed in by our GOAT standards when he can just make pop music and rap often enough to remind us of where he started. We’ve known this, but we haven’t collectively acknowledged NWTS as Drake’s turning point.
At a time where the integrity of hip-hop culture is being tested by its increasing popularity, Drake is the face of this mighty balancing act. He’s always known it, but like any rapper serious about their craft, held onto the belief that he could earn everyone’s respect with the right album. But we told him Thank Me Later was juvenile, Take Care was too long and sing-songy, and good kid was just too damn good for us to take NWTS—Drake’s claim as the best rapper out—as seriously as Drake wanted us to. A perfectly balanced Drake album will never happen because we can’t agree on what a perfectly balanced Drake is, even when he appeases fans with a rap/R&B double-album one song away from being split 50/50.
So, on Drake goes, providing the necessary evil of his ubiquitous hits and torrid feature verses that make many a fairweather fan say, “why don’t he rap like this more?” He would, random YouTube commenter, he would. But the truth is, we like him more as a crossover punching bag than we do as a pure rap star. It’s a reality that we, the culture, are still mired in debate about, but took Drake just three albums to accept.