Drake could go down as one of the most successful musical artists of all time. Over a span of a decade, he’s demonstrated his superb instinct for making hit records, earning over 100 (and counting) Billboard Hot 100 singles and even at one point, had 14 songs simultaneously on the chart. Additionally, Drake has brought the spotlight to his hometown of Toronto, helping local artists like The Weeknd, Majid Jordan, PARTYNEXTDOOR, and dvsn launch their careers, as well as enhancing the city’s identity as a influential cultural hub. Include his involvement with the Toronto Raptors, Jordan, Apple Music, and his own OVO brand, and Aubrey is sheepishly grinning all the way to the bank. He currently has fans anxiously counting down the days to his new album, Views From the Six, which is set to drop April 29th.

So how did Drake develop this Midas touch? There are three main factors:

  1. He has an impeccable talent for crafting sonically pleasing melodies
  2. He’s been able to evolve his sound to not only appeal to current musical trends, but also create new ones
  3. He lets his music do the talking for him

If you closely evaluate Drake’s career, you’ll notice that he’s progressively changed as an artist and individual, and this flexibility has fueled his lasting success. Who would’ve thought, 10 years ago, that a middle class, half-Jewish Canadian who starred on a teen TV show would someday be the top rapper in the game? By understanding Drake’s evolution, you’ll see how he transformed from being an unlikely rapper, to an accepted rapper, to eventually the hip-hop’s biggest star.


Room for Improvement & Comeback Season

Drake dropped his first mixtape Room for Improvement in 2006, followed by another, Comeback Season, in 2007, and both were strong projects that displayed his genuine skills as an emcee. He proved that he could actually rap and wasn’t just a teen actor casually experimenting with hip-hop for fun. Back then, Drizzy’s flow was much quicker and he utilized a lot of witty wordplay, which reminisced the “backpack” rappers of the late 90s/ early 2000s (Drake did say that he was a huge fan of Little Brother). Even though Room for Improvement and Comeback Season showed the Toronto-bred rapper’s legit lyrically ability, both projects felt very generic, as they lacked the “hit factor” that most of his music has now. He seemed to be playing it safe and conservative, which is understandable as he was a new artist looking to gain credibility and acceptance in hip-hop circles.

So Far Gone

Drake’s third mixtape So Far Gone (2009) was the turning point of his career. He made a risky move with the project, as it drastically deviated from not only his first two mixtapes, but also anything else in hip-hop. So Far Gone adopted an ambient, stripped down production style, and touched on more emotional subject matter. His best friend and trusted producer Noah “40” Shebib revealed that Kanye’s 808s and Heartbreak was a major inspiration, and you could hear the influence. Drake revamped his musical style, electing to sing on many songs, expressing vulnerability, empathy, and heartbreak. This melodic hybrid of singing and rapping became his differentiation point. Hip-hop is typically associated with machismo, and this new emo individual rapping/ singing about feelings intrigued me. Not only did it sound different, but it was also something I, a kid from the suburbs, could actually relate too.

Thank Me Later

Building off the immense success of So Far Gone, “Champagne Papi” released his highly anticipated official debut Thank Me Later in 2010. The album featured big names including Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj, and Alicia Keys, which created significant hype for the album. At the time, Drake was the LeBron James of rap, the young phenom who was going to shake up the game. Thank Me Later had the same ambient and moody vibe as So Far Gone with Drake splitting time between singing and rapping about love, personal struggles, and newfound success. Like many, I expected a lot from this project since most legendary rappers’ first album tend to be their best, but Thank Me Later was a bit underwhelming. That’s mainly because the bar was set so extremely high that it created lofty expectations. It didn’t revolutionize rap, but it was probably one of the better project released that year. Drake officially became one of the biggest names in music, however his “nice guy” persona also made him the butt of many jokes (e.g. “Drake is the type of…“)

Take Care

With the release of his second album Take Care in 2011, Drake had built up a significant amount of confidence with his growing success, and you could hear and see the changes in his demeanor. Imagine if you were flourishing, yet people were still clowning on you; you’d eventually want to snap back.  On Take Care, Drake is more boastful in his lyrics and somewhat toughens up his tone. In the song “Headlines”, Drake raps “You gonna make someone around me catch a body like that”, which is saying that he’ll have one of his associates to kill somebody, and in the music video, Drake hangs with a group of intimidating goons. This tough persona is somewhat contradictory as he still has poignant songs like “Marvin’s Room” and “Take Care” on the album. To me, Drake has always been somewhat of a contradicting persona, conveying a cocky playboy in some scenarios, or an emotional simp on others. Persona feelings aside, I think Take Care is probably his best work in his catalogue.  Drake reaches his prime in rapping and singing, alternating between the two effortlessly across deep, lush production throughout the album. He could also be credited for influencing a new wave of rappers who adopt the same singsongy approach.

Nothing Was The Same

“This album is not some straight rap album, I’ll never do a straight rap album. That’s not how I came into this and that’s never what I’ll do. I make songs for the people.” Nothing Was the Same is my favorite Drake album, but it took some time before I became a fan. Initially, I didn’t think it was that good because I felt that Drake subdued his lyrical skills. He’s a pretty clever emcee, but Drizzy utilized more “simpler” bars, chants, and hooks on the project (e.g. “Worst Behavior” and “Started From the Bottom”) and that drop-off affected my critique. But once I grasped the musical aspect of the album, I eventually like it a lot.  In Nothing Was the Same, Drake was a master in leveraging different melodies, marking a major evolutionary step in his musical direction, as he seemed to uncover the blueprint to saying the right things in the right way to sound sonically pleasing. From a personal standpoint, Drake became more calculated with his image, being more selective with public appearances and interviews. I think that it’s part of a strategy to diminish his past “soft” reputation by making his music the focal point.

If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late

When If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late dropped, it set the Internet ablaze, as the surprise album was unexpectedly released on February 12th, 2015 (which coincidentally is the 6th anniversary of So Far Gone). Even with no promotion outside a tweet from Drake, the album sold over 500,000 copies in in three days and also broke Spotify’s first-week streaming record with over 17.3 million streams in the same time span. If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late was simply Drake’s presumptuous way of proving that he’s the current king of hip-hop. It felt like a “casual” project for Drake to play around with raps and hooks. The production is a blend of the moody Toronto aura that he helped create and trap sound that’s popular at the moment. In comparison to prior albums, it lacks topical substance, but at this point, Drake can say anything he wants and it’ll still be considered hot. Constantly winning could make anyone get comfortable and lose inspiration, and I think that Drake has become somewhat lazy due to all his success.

Leading up to Views From the 6

Drake is a smart guy who knows how to maintain a buzz even without an album out. He occasionally remixes other people’s songs (e.g. “Tuesday”, “My Way”), which is a smart strategy to stay relevant without having to do much work, as he’s just putting his touch on an existing song. Drizzy also leveraged Future’s buzz by collaborating with him on a joint mixtape, which sounded like Future project guest starring Drake. And he also released “Hotline Bling” which is highly catchy interpretation of D.R.A.M.’s “Cha Cha” (plus making a music video that is intended to full of memes is brilliant). Again, this goes back to the notion that he’s getting a bit lazy because he hasn’t suffered many miscues in his career. Drake did regain some fire when Meek Mill dissed him, but that was a short live, as Meek Mill suffered a quick and major loss.

As a rapper, Drake has nothing left to prove and that’s why I think Views From the 6 is going to be a very eclectic music project that features new sounds inspired by global music. Drake has shown a lot of interest in Jamaican dancehall culture and on If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, he samples it on some songs. His latest single “One Dance” is a great example of his foray into the genre. He has also been frequently seen hanging out in the London grime scene, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of that influence on Views. I want to say that this upcoming release is going to make the 6 God a bigger global star because he’s going to present some new sounds into the mainstream.

Longevity comes down to reinventing yourself, but still holding onto your core values. Drake understands music. Be it through singing or rapping, he knows how to put together a song that could get people from all walks of life reciting and dancing to the words. His body of work has become so prolific that people have shrugged off his former persona as Wheelchair Jimmy on Degrassi. I had one personal encounter with Drake a few years ago on a set of a music video, which tainted my opinion on him, but I can admit that he’s one of the greats, and at the end of day, talent speaks for itself.

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Rex Pham

Originally from the Bay Area, who then moved to Los Angeles, then out to New York City. NYU Stern MBA c/o 2014. Inspired by the grind of NYC to create something that has value. Lover of all things digital, culture, and brand strategy.

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