Seemingly overnight, Drake has joined the ranks of Jay-Z, Kanye West, Eminem and Lil Wayne as the major players in hip-hop's landscape. But how exactly did a former child actor from Canada become rap's new big thing?
Yes, he raps and sings, offering a new artistic wrinkle compared to MCs who only rhyme. But beyond being able to carry a tune and his lyrical agility, it's the candor and introspection that underlines Drake's words that enables him to connect with fans on a deeper level.
"I think he's a true artist, honestly, to the purest definition," XXL magazine's Bonsu Thompson told MTV News. "But he's also young. I think his biggest strength, to me, is with his pen, I think he rhymes like someone 10 years his senior. Not only does he have an interesting perspective on life and where he's at in life, he also has an interesting perspective on women, and he's able to cater to them.
"It's all a learning process. This guy is young. He's still learning his way," Thompson continued, emphasizing the Toronto rapper's youth contrasted with his maturity level. "[On Thank Me Later] he's exorcising these demons with these women from his past but also apologizing for women in the future. And I think that's a very mature stance, like, 'I've done some bad things, I've done my loves wrong, and I'm actually probably gonna do these groupies a little wrong too tomorrow, so let me apologize for now.' Call it foul, call it life, but it's also a very mature place to be that aware of where you are at in life."
Drake's ability to articulate these experiences powered his breakout mixtape, 2009's So Far Gone, a moody collection of songs that reveals the story of a young man's ascent into adulthood. Growing pains, women trouble and uncertainty are the emotions captured on the set. It was a rare piece of art, as he and producer Noah "40" Shebib sampled from familiar rap tracks and obscure hipster sounds to create a pop sheen that was digestible for the masses.
It was clearly inspired by Kanye West's 808s & Heartbreak, but rather than use Auto-Tune, Drake kept it personal with his unmasked singing voice. The combination of his abilities — rapper, singer, songwriter, composer — left many questioning how to classify the young upstart.
"He's doing things that we don't expect one person to do," New York Times music critic Jon Caramanica explained. "So we start looking for reasons, like, 'What does that mean, exactly? Are we projecting things on him? Is he actually not embodying any of those things because he's embodying all of those things?' But I think he's actually representing a new generation of people who don't see the boundaries that older generations do. It's not weird for him to do all those things. And I think given his experiences in his childhood, he's used to doing a bunch of different things at the same time and basically playing a lot of roles at the same time. So given that, I don't think it's unusual that he's been able to pull it off."
With the arrival of his debut, Thank Me Later, Drake is continuing the narrative he introduced on his mixtape. Only now, his experiences are amplified by fame and maintaining his sense of self in a world of excess that's largely new to him. Drake has cunningly straddled multiple fences — between rapper and singer, underground rapper and pop star — but for all his earnestness, it's primarily his raw talent and gift for catchy vocal rifts that has helped him ascend from "on the come-up" to "next to blow up."
"I don't see how you could not see him as special," Vibe editor Jermaine Hall said. "I'm gonna put the rapping aside. I don't think anyone is gonna argue that the kid can rhyme. He has great punch lines. But taking the rhymes aside, the dude sings for real. He's not play-singing. He's taking singing lessons. He sings incredible melodies.
"He has that down pat, to a science," Hall continued. "That's a hell of a talent."
What do you think makes Drake special? Let us know in the comments below!
Don't miss the "Drake: Better Than Good Enough" documentary, airing Wednesday, June 23, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on MTV!