Drake has gone from rookie rapper to hip hop hierarchy in a matter of months; after making his name on the mixtape circuit, the Canadian recording artist has become the hottest debut rap act in 2010. Signed to Lil Wayne’s label Cash Money Records, he’s worked with Jay-Z and dated Rihanna, yet he remains, so far, one of the most humble, ordinary and modest musicians you might ever meet. i-D salutes the power of keeping it regular...
“Oh my God, is that Drake? It is! It is! OHMYGODDRAKEILOVEYOU!” The whole of Trafalgar Square tops as a group of school-kids race towards a medium built, 6ft tall figure dressed casually in a blue hoodie, white trainers and tan trousers. Rather than turning on his Nikes and sprinting off the other way, Aubrey ‘Drake’ Graham stops suddenly and breaks into a big grin. “Hey, what’s going on,” he says in his low tones, managing to simultaneously calm and excite the teenagers all at once. Everybody chill and I’ll take some pictures, whatever you want.” After, as he walks off, one boy shouts, “When’s the album out bruvva? I’m gonna buy it, I promise you. Thank Me Later, yeah?” With over 100 million plays on MySpace, it’s not like Drake necessarily needs to win over anyone, yet, within the space of three minutes, the kids in Trafalgar Square are unquestionably fans for life. It’s this easy-going nature and sense of normality that has, in some ways, helped make Drake’s name. An outsider in many respects – he’s the first Canadian rapper to see significant success in the US-dominated land of hip hop – it’s his foibles, fumblings and quirks, explored openly in his music, that have helped hip hop – and the world beyond - fall in love with him so hard. Yet while he might be modest and unassuming in person, he also possesses a strong sense of self-ssuredness, thanks, he grins, to his various idiosyncrasies. “My confidence comes from years of insecurity, yeah, that’s where it came from,” he decides, settling into a sofa at St Martins Lane hotel. “Confidence comes from a lot of character building - being mixed race, being Jewish, going to a predominantly black school, going to an all-white school, having things happen with my father through my childhood… Acting, but being the only member of the cast that was a minority, at first. I’ve got a lot of unique layers to my life and I just had to push my chest out and smile. That’s all I do.” After making his name on Canadian kids TV show, Degrassi Next Generation, Drake broke into the world of rapping in 2006. Stirring interest with his first two mixtapes, Room For Improvement and 2007’s Comeback Season, it was the latter that caught Lil Wayne’s eye in 2008, and to whose Cash Money Records Drake signed to in 2009. But it was his third mixtape, the seminal So Far Gone that really captured the attention of hip hop heads, not to mention the hundred million people who have since played it on Drizzy’s MySpace. As well as features from hip hop heavyweights Wayne and Bun B, Drake and his musical director-slash best friend and art director, Oliver El-Khatib chose to sample the decidedly unhip hop likes of Lykki Li, Santigold and Peter Bjorn and John. What also struck hip hop heads was the brooding intimacy of his lyrics, which introspectively contemplated his impending fame, a challenging childhood and the many mistakes he’d made with women. “I’m about making music that people can connect to, because that’s what people want to listen to,” he says of his truth-serum similes and occasionally morose metaphors, punctuated with witty punchlines. Similarly, Thank Me Later brilliantly sidesteps the posing and pretense of some rap records; sonically and lyrically it’s a dark, and at times, intense album, yet there’s a lot of humour to be found too. “Life is ever changing and it’s interesting being 23 years-old trying to find yourself amidst this whirlwind of chaos,” he points out of performing at the Grammys, dating Rihanna (she dumped him though he insists she’s “truly a phenomenal woman”), and making hit singles with Eminem, Kanye West and Lil Wayne. “It’s difficult enough to try and find yourself at 23 when you have nothing to do, but when you have everything to do and people look to you, and take their cues from you for inspiration or to set trends, it’s definitely an interesting process. That’s what the album’s about,” he decides. “It’s just about being young and I hope that through my messages - I know that I say some ignorant things sometimes - but I hope I’m leading my generation in the right direction.” In what way ignorant? A wealth of female artists – Mary J. Blige and Alicia Keys among them – have openly applauded Drake for his (generally) un-isogynistic wordplay. “Well, I’m a rapper and I’m young and I’m naïve - I’m definitely aware of myself,” he laughs of other not-so-modest moments on the album. “I know I’m impulsive and all those things that a young man is, so you can hear it in my music sometimes. I can specifically hear it in the song I did with Jay-Z called Light Up where I rap for a whole verse about who I think I am and what I have, and then in the next verse he puts me in my place! He tells me ‘I’m here and in ten or fifteen years later this is how it’s gonna be.’ I think the album is a phenomenal time marker. It really represents where we’re all at in our lives right now.”
“My confidence comes from years of insecurity and a lots of character building - being mixed race, being Jewish, going to a predominantly black school, going to an all white school…” Drake
While he’s had an unquestionably incredible two years, things haven’t always gone entirely smoothly. In March, his mentor, label boss and close friend, Lil Wayne, got sent to jail for a year for possessing a loaded gun; he’s due out early 2011. Seeing Weezy imprisoned at Riker’s Island put things into perspective for the rapper. “It’s not glamorous, I’ll tell you that. He’s not at a country club right now sitting on a patio, he’s definitely in one of the most real prisons in the world,” says Drake of visiting the New Orleans rapper in the notoriously tough jail. “I tore my ACL (the knee’s Anterior Cruciate Ligament) at one point in my life when things were just going a little too fast for me and I had to sit down,” he remembers of the recovery period he was forced to take after falling over during a performance. “I’m not trying to compare that situation to the situation Wayne’s in, cos obviously Wayne’s is more drastic, but at the same time I feel that sitting there, it’s a sobering humbling experience. As much as it ate me at the peak of my career, I mean at that time that was the highest I had ever been, to sit down was very frustrating and I thought it was the end. I couldn’t perform for two months plus the world has just seen me fall over… I thought my career was over, but it was a blessing in disguise. I got to slow down, I got to watch a lot of movies, and I got to really think about my life so I could write Thank Me Later.” With the No.1, million selling album out and a certified success - expect Grammy nominations in abundance early next year – Drizzy is about to focus forward on his next project, album No.2. “I want it to be new,” he insists. “I’m reading this book on Jimi Hendrix, just trying to get into a nice place before starting work on it. Now that I’ve cleared my mind of this first task, my first album, and I’ve got a bit more time, I’d love to come out here to the UK and work with people.” A “huge fan of The Streets”, the alternative music fan, who had Francis of Francis And The Lights produce a track on Thank Me Later is also working with Camberwell art kids The xx. “That’ll be on my next album or it might be something I just put out to the UK,” he announces. “I love their stuff.”
For now though, he’d like you to listen to his latest triumph; the album that solidified his status as one of rap’s most realest, while delivering on the hype of the last two years. “It’s a very musically complex project, I know that I didn’t dumb it down for my listeners cos I believe in all of them and it’s going to take some time to catch all the moments,” he concludes of the record. “There’s a lot to discover on there, so take your time. You don’t have to say on the first day that it’s great; you don’t have to say the first day that it’s bad. You don’t even have to say anything the first day or the second day you hear it. Just take your time and I know that eventually you’ll say it’s a five out of five, so thank me now, or thank me later.”