Black leather gloves no sequins
I wrote this nearly 4 years ago about what Drake and Kendrick Lamar represent in today’s pop culture reality: the yin and yang of the People’s Champ and the Pop Auteur. It wasn’t a perfect comparison, but to ignore the parallels of that rivalry to Michael Jackson’s subtle beef with Prince would be to have no historical perspective at all.
Since Drake dropped the algorithmic gem of a video for “Toosie Slide”—the mansion, the dance, the seamless song and video structure, it’s truly a science—that 4-year-old piece of mine has seen a bump in traffic. I wanted to add some more thoughts to it as an update on a pattern seen in Drake’s work for some time now.
The way Drake has gone about connecting his legacy to Michael Jackson’s since his lead-up to Views gives me the visual of two potential teen lovers on a park bench, the classic set-up where the boy (i.e. The Boy) feels pressure to make his move on the girl.
The quick shoutouts to MJ (e.g. “Big Amount,” “9“) are Drake walking his fingers along the back of the bench behind the girl. His posthumous “Don’t Matter To Me” collab with Mike was successfully landing his hand on the girl’s shoulder. The “When To Say When” namecheck was a gentle rub, and the “Toosie Slide” rollout is the all-out move in for the kiss.
If you care enough to pay attention to Drake’s career arc, the increased focus on making pop-friendly records starting in the mid 2010s has nothing to do with a loss of ability to make a great rap record. The move is very intentional.
I’ve whined about Drake’s lack of growth in artistic perspective. Ultimately, that comes from changes made in an artist’s life. I can critique the music all day, but I can’t invest in the possibility of Drake getting over his many grudges or stepping away from this great desire to run the numbers up.
So, until Drake has his own 4:44 moment, we have to talk about this unstoppable pop run in his discography and how he’s slowly framed himself as today’s Michael Jackson.
Here’s What I’m Not Doing
Weighing the artistic profiles of each artist.
As was pointed out by an angry commenter in my last piece on this topic, Michael Jackson was one of the most progressive music visionaries ever. As much as he was a spectacle, he was a detail-oriented orchestrator of every sound, dance move, and lyric in his body of work. That earned him his spot in the mainstream. The rest of what kept him famous only sustained what his brilliant artistry started.
That being said, he was bigger than Prince because he was more of a spectacle. It didn’t matter what people thought of Mike, they wanted to look at him more, hear him more, and talk about him more.
Likewise, you can say what you want about wave-riding, the ghostwriting saga, or how much he can’t sing or doesn’t rap. Drake is where he’s at because of his uncanny ability to refine innovative techniques, make them broadly appealing, and put his stamp on them. Only several major artists could make anything out of Kanye’s 808s and Heartbreak blueprint, but thanks to Drake, any hip-hop or new-age R&B artist can now make a radio-ready sing-rap sad-brag record with a cookie cutter template.
In the same way he was able to make melodic raps and the Toronto sound the law of the land, he’s been able to take distinct influences and own them rather than be overshadowed by them. Whether it’s the screwed Houston sound, UK Drill, Afrobeats, or New Orleans Bounce, the lack of recent rappity-rap highlights is made up for by the unparalleled flexibility of Drake’s technique. Even if we come to the flawed conclusion that Drake is merely a wave rider, there isn’t an artist in history that can surf quite like him.
What I Am Doing
Comparing the position of Drake among millennials to Michael Jackson’s position among Gen Xers.
Despite the singularity of his technique, songwriting ability (a brief sample) and sonic tastes, Drake remains on top because of his spectacle.
The courtside lint roller is just as important as a loosey like “0 to 100/The Catch Up.” The Views cover memes are just as important as “One Dance.” The Degrassi reunion in a music video for lesser Scorpion single “I’m Upset” helped the performances of the actual #1s like “Nice For What” and “In My Feelings.”
Spectacle. I keep saying this damn word because a pop artist’s awareness of this in themselves is what keeps them at the center of it all. It is in this constant tweaking and polishing of his image—with fingers pressed so hard on culture’s pulse they’ve left a bruise—that Drake is our Michael Jackson, no matter how much or little he can dance or sing like Mike.
Some rap fans still care about this aging idea of Drake needing a traditional rap classic to solidify himself in history. He doesn’t.
His reputation as a rapper is arguably more rooted in his collection of non-album singles than his major-label LP performances.
He won a rap beef without saying his opponent’s name.
He makes global dance trends by slapping his face and voice on dances he didn’t come up with.
That last sentence isn’t even a knock. He’s just moving different.
Drake has blurred the rap/pop line so badly, the line has become its own space. And unlike other pop-friendly hip-hop artists, he hasn’t just moved out of hip-hop, nor does he just visit the pop realm. He has permanent homes in both spaces, traveling between the two frequently to flex on each world with the clout he gets from the other. He uses hip-hop to fuel his #1 hits and his pop victories to fuel his cult classic rap moments. With regular dashes of memeable moments, the recipe for Drake’s Mike-like stature won’t have to change anytime soon.