“Thought you had it all figured out back then girl, but how ’bout now?” asks Drake on How About Now, a track from his If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late mixtape, which leaked in October 2014. “‘Cause I’m up right now,” he swipes. “And you suck right now.”
These three bars tell us everything we have needed to know about Drake as an artist, and as a concept, over the course of the last year. Isolated, they speak to his personal idiosyncrasies (from which he has built a brand) and touch upon his broader lyrical concerns. In particular, they expose his current temporal standing. On each of these lines, for example, Drake uses the word ‘now’, revealing his most major preoccupation; that is, the present moment. On the first line he references the past – ‘back then’ – gesturing towards what I would deem his romantic fascination with what has gone before. But, with all this talk of the present and the past, Drake leaves no space for the future.
This ignorance of the future in How About Now, I would suggest, is symptomatic of Drake’s current relationship to the future in general, both in terms of his catalogue of work, and when we consider his specific position in popular culture. For this reason, I want to argue that as a cultural concept, Drake cannot be conceived of as existing in the future – he is too entirely owned by the present moment, too nostalgic for the past, and too slow to conceptualise his own future, at least in his public output. The outward persona of Drake, then, usually struggles to assert itself past the moment in which it exists, both for its audience and, I would suggest, for itself: if Drake cannot place himself in the future, then neither, as those who consume him, can we. In order to illustrate this position, I will provide closer analyses of Drake’s relationships with the three prongs of linear temporality (that is, past, present and future) and work through some examples which highlight what I see as his very particular handling of time.
It is important to note that Drake’s attitude to the future has not always been this way. This can be observed even on a very superficial level, through a look at his recorded output, and the titles he has given each of his pieces of work. Drake’s back catalogue can be divided into two significant sections: those albums and mixtapes released between 2006 and 2012 (a time-frame which I will call Drake’s “Ascendent” period), and those released between 2013 and the present day (the “Risen” period). During the “Ascendent” period, Drake released two albums, 2010’s Thank Me Later and Take Care in 2012, as well as three mixtapes (Room for Improvement (2006), Comeback Season (2007), So Far Gone (2010)). In the “Risen” period, he has so far released one album, Nothing Was The Same, in 2013, and two mixtapes – If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late (2015) and What A Time To Be Alive (2015), the latter in collaboration, ironically enough, with the rapper Future.
As we can see from the titles of the works released during these periods, there is a marked shift between attitudes to time in each. The “Ascendent” titles (that is, the titles of those works which were released whilst Drake was on his way to becoming the musician and public figure he currently exists as), have a general trend of reference to the future. The album titles imply especially extended timelines – there is the idea that Drake will be around “later” for us to thank him; that we ought to “take care” until he sees us next –
whilst those given to the mixtapes also signal growth or development or change, all of which require a conceivable future at least at some point.
The “Risen” titles (that is, those given to works released since Drake has become so astronomically famous, and has developed a clearly identifiable brand), fairly obviously, seem temporally stagnant by comparison. “Nothing Was The Same” is a phrase in the past tense; “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late” is concerned with present time, and, most tellingly of all, “What A Time To Be Alive” refers specifically to the present moment, Drake’s playground.
As Drake has become more famous – that is, as he has “risen” – he has also become a brand, as most musicians who become as popular as he now is do, too. However, in Drake’s case, I would suggest that his brand has been so successful that it has gained a life of its own: it has been so successful that ‘Drake’ is no longer Aubrey Graham. Today, then, Drake is simply an idea – one which is embodied by Graham, certainly, but which no longer necessarily needs him to exist. And if Drake now exists as an idea, rather than as a person on the same temporal trajectory as all other people, then it is difficult for us, and moreover, for himself, to conceptualise him past the present moment – for how can an idea, in and of itself, have a tangible future in the same way that a person does?
A past for Drake, however, can be conceived of. This is due to the fact that we have the “Ascendent” period as a point of reference, and also because even in his current output, Drake appears to be fixated on days gone by (I would argue that this is due to the ideation of Drake which somewhat eliminates him from the future, as outlined above). A useful example of this can be taken from the late 2015 single Hotline Bling, on which he discusses an ex-girlfriend and her late night bootycalls. The song has a three word refrain which is repeated frequently: “you used to.” This repetition demonstrates that here, and often elsewhere too, Drake is caught in the past. As so much of his material focusses on ex-lovers this is unsurprising, and his approach to discussing these exes on his tracks has evolved into an important part of his brand (in this way, Drake’s past feeds into his present, but yet again there is no place left for the future.) Curiously, Drake has built a reputation for being ‘petty’ – that is, for taking something of little consequence and making it into something more. In his mentions of ex-girlfriends, this often takes a specific shape, involving a framing of himself as an important part of experiences which otherwise belong solely to the women he discusses. On Hotline Bling, he complains that “ever since I left the city, you/started wearing less and going out more”, and on the aforementioned How About Now, he implores his ex to “remember when you had to take the bar exam?/I drove in the snow for you.” This ‘pettiness’ exposes not only Drake’s hang-ups, rooted in the past and aired in the present (Drake is not at all afraid to wear vulnerabilities, however minor, on his sleeve – this is another crucial part of his unique brand) but also his very specific kind of misogyny. And because this misogyny usually appears to emerge from a place of caring rather than a place of pure objectification, and also because it is so very petty – laughably so, in the case of the How About Now lyric I cited – it often only serves to endear him further to fans, who accept his (at this point) knowing pettiness as an expected part of the Drake model.
Indeed, a crucial factor in the separation between the man (Aubrey Graham) and myth (Drake) has been Drake fans, specifically in terms of their use of the internet, and Drake’s subsequent responses to them. Drake is potentially the most quintessentially 21st Century recording artist currently working – his understanding and manipulation of the internet as a method of building reputation is second to none. For example, the rise of the “Drake the type” meme (whereby fans would tweet about overly sentimental or, that word again, petty behaviours, stating that “Drake the type” of man who would act in these way, due to his unusually sensitive lyrical content) in his early career may have been a death knell for a less shrewd rapper, especially considering the traditional hyper-masculinity of rap music. Drake, however, used the meme to his advantage, and instead of working to subvert its portrayal of him, he played up to it in his both his lyrics and his public actions (the internet took particular delight in seeing photographs of him using a lint roller on his clothes during a basketball game). This is just one of the many ways in which Drake engages with the fast pace of the internet, and fully embraces and understands the importance of the present moment.
As I stated when introducing this essay, I would suggest that Drake’s relationship with the present is one where he is now completely defined by it, to the point where he is unable to exist meaningfully outside of it (that is, he is unable to be conceived of in the future, because he is so deeply ‘of the present’), other than when he is recalling the past in a manner which, as we have seen, resonates with the current state of his brand. His brand, in turn, is constantly re-enacted in the present moment, largely via Drake’s own output on social media and his fans’ reactions to it, or vice versa.
The significance of the present for Drake can be demonstrated variously, however I plan to use two examples, both from 2015 – so far the height of Drake’s “Risen” period. The first takes root in the beef between Drake and Meek Mill. After Mill tweeted accusing Drake of using a ghostwriter, Drake responded with a diss track called Charged Up. This is a pretty standard response from a rapper to someone who has fired shots at him. However, three days later, Drake released another diss track, Back To Back, thereby sending the internet into a further frenzy as many commentators suggested that he was suffering from a case of espirit de l’escalier (that is, ‘the spirit of the staircase,’ or, the feeling that occurs when you argue with someone and, just as you’re leaving, you think of the perfect comeback despite being too late to deliver it). Such a case it may have been, but I would suggest that it was also very carefully calculated, and used to strengthen the Drake brand. By looking as far as he could into the future (a few days), Drake showed an understanding of what I will call the “future-present,” that is, the present moment as it will exist in the near future on the internet and social media: by releasing the second diss track, and being accused of espirit de l’escalier, he only served to underline his “pettiness” more, to the great pleasure of fans who largely found the episode extremely funny.
This idea of the “future-present” is also relevant to my second example of Drake’s ‘of-the-moment-ness’ – that is, the October 2015 release of the music video for Hotline Bling. The clip involves a number of prolonged shots of Drake dancing, un-choreographed and, for most people’s money, kind of badly. These shots serve two purposes, which are to some extent interlinked. First of all, they seek to underline his sometimes corny persona (as previously expressed by fans through the “Drake the type” meme), and secondly, therefore, they are crying out for the internet to respond to them. And respond it did – as Jon Caramanica writes in his New York Times feature on the music video entitled Drake: Rapper, Actor, Meme, the video is “important at its full length, but even more so in the screenshots and few-seconds-long GIFs that it’s designed to be broken down into. It’s less a video than an open source code that easily allows Drake’s image and gestures to be rewritten, drawn over, repurposed.” Thus, yet again, Drake’s engagement with the present moment, and particularly with the “future-present,” allows him to conceive of his reception in terms of how it will happen in real time via the internet, rather than on the level of legacy.
Drake opens 2011’s Make Me Proud with the lyric “I like a woman with a future and a past.” It is ironic that on the cusp of his “Risen” period, Drake should be so specific about his preference for the potentiality for long-term development in a girlfriend, when his own, as ‘Drake,’ at least, was soon to disappear. These days, when Drake refers to a future, it’s an immediate one – whether this be in the sense of a “future-present”, or explicitly, on a song like Hold On, We’re Going Home. There is little sense from his public persona that he is planning for the future, because he is far too ‘of-the-moment’ and draws most of his material from the past. Perhaps, then, what we can hope for Drake is that his unique engagement with the present, and the influence of the past on that engagement, will be what he is remembered for in the future.