“Before I ever got the chance to meet him, Kanye West shaped a lot of what I do, as far as music goes,” Drake told MTV News back in May 2009. "I’d even go as far as to say he’s the most influential person, as far as a musician, that I’d ever had in my life.”
Over the next seven years, that influence has morphed and taken on new shapes: a relationship, both friendly and working, and a rivalry, both cordial and real.
The latest chapter of the Drake and Kanye story came Tuesday, in the form of "Pop Style," Aubrey's new single, which features both 'Ye and, briefly and meme-ably, Jay Z. But many ebbs and flows in their relationship preceded it.
Getting To Know You
Long before "Pop Style," on 2007's Comeback Season, released just six weeks after Graduation, Drake rapped over that album's "Barry Bonds." A year later, he'd rap over Kanye's "Swagger Like Us" beat. But the starkest early example of an influence came a few months later, with 2009's So Far Gone.
The 2009 release arrived just three months after Kanye's 808s & Heartbreak, an album that, at the time, was jarring for many -- in its use of Auto-Tune and singing, in its deviation from Kanye's previous sound, in its dark ambiance -- but whose impact has become undeniable. An early marker of that impact was So Far Gone, Drake's breakout opus, mixing rapping, singing, self-assuredness and emotional rawness. Included was the standout "Say What's Real," a four-minute lyrical outpouring over 808s' "Say You Will."
The tape's hit, though, was "Best I Ever Had," and its video, directed by Kanye, was the first taste of the working relationship between these two. And it fell short.
"Best I Ever Had" played into a tired rap video trope -- large-breasted women bouncing around as the objects of an artist's affection -- when its lyrics, if they were to be represented visually, suggested a more tender, less misogynist approach. But these two took a different route, and Drake found himself needing to defend it, given the reaction.
Hits and Misses
"That career move was very important to me," he told MTV News, of Kanye directing, following the backlash. "I guess one thing I didn’t consider is what the song personally means to a lot of women. To those women, I apologize."
To round out the year, the two appeared on two songs together -- Jamie Foxx's "Digital Girl" remix and "Forever," a re-release of a Drake song whose new version now included 'Ye, Eminem and Lil Wayne. The latter, especially, highlighted their potential together -- but neither felt like a true collaborative effort.
That came the next year, as a lead into Aubrey's debut album. "Find Your Love," an 808s leftover, was produced and co-written by Kanye, and positioned Drake into full singing mode. Though relatively well-received at the time, it felt a little forced, even for a guy with no qualms about crooning or sharing feelings, and no longer quite stands up in Drake's catalog. Their working relationship was off to a curious -- if not quite bumpy -- start.
Kanye's reflection on this moment, in 2013, proved telling for what was to come. "I was fine with writing 'Find Your Love' with Drake on his first thing," 'Ye said on Juan Epstein, "until he got too big. And that was the moment where I had to adjust, and deal with this new energy that's taking over the room."
Drake, too, was sensing a change in energy between the two around this time. You can read into it on Thank Me Later's closer, "Thank Me Now."
"I can relate to kids going straight to the league
When they recognize that you got what it takes to succeed
And that's around the time that your idols become your rivals
You make friends with Mike but got to A.I. him for your survival"
The reference seems most clearly pointed at Jay Z -- the self-professed "Michael Jordan of recording" -- but it also gives a glimpse of a burgeoning star's view of his place in the context of his predecessors-turned-peers.
As the year came to a close, Drake was taken off the final version of Kanye's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy hit "All of the Lights" (after an earlier leaked version included his vocals), though he was still given a writing credit. "The change was to put all those people on it, and I wasn’t one of them," Drake told Shade45 two weeks after the album's release. "That’s completely OK.”
He added, in a nod to the energy that Kanye would reference in that Juan Epstein interview years later, "Whatever energy I've ever felt [from him] is irrelevant. When you ask me, 'What do I think of Kanye West?' I'm going to always have something positive to say."
Still, in 2011, on multiple occasions, they each began to acknowledge the budding rivalry.
When asked, that January, about a potential joint album between himself and Tunechi, Drake roped in the rumors of Kanye and Jay's Watch the Throne, which would drop later that year. "There's two other rappers that are coming out with an album together," he told Tim Westwood. "I don't know where they got that idea, but..."
A few months later, the rivalry moved to wax. "I'm just feeling like the throne is for the taking, watch me take it," Drake rapped on DJ Khaled's "I'm On One," about as clear a mention as you can get of The Thone, Watch the Throne, and Kanye and Jay's claims of rap supremacy.
That same month, Drake posted "Dreams Money Can Buy" on his blog, and packed in this subliminal: "I never seen the car that you claim to drive/ Well, shit, I seen it, you just ain't inside/ And I feel like lately it went from top five to remaining five/ My favorite rappers either lost it or they ain't alive."
The line was coded, but 'Ye may have provided some clarity about its intended recipient -- or, at least, who he thought it was -- when he seemed to respond on WTT's "Otis" that August: "They ain't see me 'cause I pulled up in my other Benz/ Last week I was in my other other Benz."
In that November's cover story for The Source, Drake openly admitted (after saying comparisons between the two were "an honor") what had become clear.
“I would say, he is [a] really great...competitor...and friend, at the same time. My goal is to surpass everything he’s accomplished. I don’t want to be as good as Kanye, I want to be better.”
Communication And Conciliation
By 2013, though peripheral spats had continued to bubble -- involving affiliates like Wayne and Pusha T -- the tension seemed to be easing. And there was something to that.
"Me and 'Ye just fell into this thing where we hadn't actually talked to each other in so long that all this stuff got built up," Drake told Billboard that August. "Sometimes you just have to find the opportunity to tell someone that you really like and respect them. After that, everything can move forward."
And move forward they did. Kanye showed up at OVO Fest that same month, for what Drake said "was probably the most important moment in my career to date."
The love was mutual. Onstage at OVO, 'Ye confirmed what Drake had insinuated years earlier to Tim Westwood: “Me and Hov would’ve never made Watch the Throne if this n---a wasn’t putting pressure on us like that, so I just wanna pay my respects."
The public displays of affection, though, looked poised to change after Drake's February 2014 Rolling Stone interview. “There were some real questionable bars on there,” he said of the Yeezus track “I’m In It.” “Like that 'Swaghili’ line? Come on, man. Even Fabolous wouldn’t say some shit like that.”
Yet, that slight -- the most direct of their entire ongoing tap dance -- was swiftly suppressed. Perhaps, with the lines of communication now open again, they sorted it out behind the scenes. Or perhaps their collective distrust for the media made it easy to drop.
"I never commented on Yeezus for my interview portion of Rolling Stone," Drake tweeted in the article's wake.
Kanye's response, meanwhile, was predictably impassioned -- but not directed at his fellow rapper. “They always be trying to pit n---as against each other and it ain’t going down no more,” he said during a concert a few after the quote surfaced online. “So, tonight, it ain’t none of that. We love Drake, we love every motherfucker that put their heart into this motherfuckin’ music.”
The friendship spilled over into 2015 and again reignited into a working one, with the February release of "Blessings," their strongest musical moment to date. That same month, Drake showed up in the crowd at Kanye's outdoor performance in New York City, and then brought him out during his own show at Irving Plaza. Then, over the summer, Kanye headed to Toronto for another OVO Fest appearance, which included lots of backstage laughter (with Will Smith).
Yet, there's still -- and, likely, always will be -- an element of rivalry. A friendly one? These days, it seems, yes. But an actual one, nonetheless.
'Ye brought it up last year, though he was particular about the semantics -- preferring "competition" to "rivalry."
“I look at Drake as an amazing sparring partner. Someone who’s like, ’Come on, man, get back up!’ Bow! ’Get back up! What’s up, bro? What you doing?'...I was sitting there getting fat. Sitting back, just knocked everybody out. And then this guy hits the gym, he’s just running around like, bow, 14 hits, same as Paul McCartney. I’m like, Whoa. OK. Let me go to the studio, then. Let’s see what’s happening. Let me get these lyrics up.
I think healthy competition is better than rivalry. I think rivalry becomes a cancer; it becomes like termites in your health. I think healthy competition is something where you appreciate how hard this person goes.”
Rivalry. Competition. Whatever it is, there's something here, just like there has been for years.
On "Summer Sixteen," Drake put Kanye's name in his verse: "Now I got a bigger pool than 'Ye/ And look, man, 'Ye’s pool is nice, mine's just bigger's what I’m saying." This evolution from subliminal to direct -- rather than a sign of battle -- reflects the comfort they've developed with each other through the years.
Kanye's response? “I have three pools.”