In the Spin magazine review of Drake’s latest mega-hit album, Views, Rebecca Haithcoat writes “there are two kinds of people in the world: those who listen for lyrics, and those who listen for beats.” This is a common, but mistaken, belief about rap.
To be considered rap, a song needs to contain both literature (in the form of spoken lyrics) and music (at minimum a drum beat, otherwise it’s spoken word). That’s a pretty open constraint: even the “spoken” part is not a cut-and-dried rule: a hybrid form of sing-rapping has become more and more prevalent, with Drake among its practitioners. The form’s openness means that a rap song can emphasize its poetic possibility while downplaying the music, or vice-versa. It can also emphasize both — and in any case both the lyrics and the music need to be accounted for. Haithcoat’s claim ignores that necessity.
A rap song seeks balance among its different elements, and because there are so many ways to achieve that balance, rap contains multitudes of formal and aesthetic possibility. One way to start mapping that possibility is to imagine a spectrum that runs from rap that demands close listening, to rap that is better appreciated from a distance. The former often relies on rap’s literary potential, like meaning and language play, while the latter relies more on musical elements, like rhythm and melody. This is a blunt tool for analysis that fails to capture the many ways a rap song might blend and manipulate its constituent elements, but it gives us a place to begin.
Rappers like Eminem or Kendrick Lamar fall on the close-listening side of this spectrum. Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly behaves more like a piece of literature than a music album. The head-bobbing hit “King Kunta,” is an exception to this, but for the most part Butterfly is the kind of album you pay close attention to so you can catch the intricate work being done.
“How Much a Dollar Cost” exemplifies the need for such close listening. The song depicts an encounter with a homeless man that challenges Lamar’s belief in a version of American self-reliance. It opens with Lamar getting gas for his luxury car, a symbol of his wealth and investment in “the liberal concept of what men’ll do.” Lamar at first ignores the beggar, but then is given pause:
Something told me to keep it in park until I could see
the reason why he was mad at a stranger
like I was supposed to save him
like I’m the reason he’s homeless and asking me for a favor.
Lamar could take the easy high road here, and have his speaker come to a quick realization of the selfish error of his ways, but instead he doubles down on his individualistic stance against charity: “I never understood someone beggin’ for goods/ asking for handouts, taking it if they could.”
The anger in Lamar’s rejection of the beggar belies self-doubt. He’s overreacting, even wishing he could beat the man with a bat, until the second verse ends with the beggar evoking Moses to criticize Lamar’s lack of modesty. Again, this doesn’t convince the fired-up young rapper. He is instead made “frustrated, indecisive and guilt-trippin’” and spends the rest of the song convincing himself that he’s right to “lack empathy” and covet his every nickel. The song ends with the rejected beggar revealing himself to be Jesus Christ in disguise, and revealing the song as a parable about charity and self-pride.
The beggar captures the song’s central tension in his claim that Lamar’s “potential is bittersweet.” That thematic conflict is matched by the song’s subtly complex music and jaggedly organized lyrics, which are delivered quickly and flat, without melody. This is not a catchy tune, which means it must rely on its poetry to be compelling enough to carry the song. That poetry, in turn, must yield an interpretative depth that rewards the close listener. Lamar has made formal choices that increase the importance of the song’s literary elements relative to the song’s musical elements, so he can hardly get away with presenting the listener with non-compelling poetry. The music still matters, for sure, but the lyrics must be on point.
By comparison, Drake’s songs fall toward the pop side of the rap spectrum. While not devoid of poetic merit, they are designed to be hits that can bear repeated, but not necessarily close, listening. The question with such a strategy is to what extent lyrical content matters. Are we willing to let lines that would stick out like sore thumbs on the close-listening side of the spectrum slide on the distant-listening side? To some extent, yes. “It usually doesn’t rain in southern California / much like Arizona” isn’t genius lyricism, but it also doesn’t hurt Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, because at that moment in the album your attention isn’t aimed at the lyrical content, but is instead being carried along at arms-length by the song’s wandering, suggestive melody.
Much of Drake’s rapping has a similar effect.
“Started From the Bottom” (Nothing was the Same, 2013) finds Drake claiming his place in the rap world through a traditional method: the boast-rap. For better or worse, rap is a climber’s game, driven by capitalist competitiveness. That motivational drive has been challenged and complicated, but it has also been a constant force behind much of rap’s explosive output. Like jazz in its early days, rap harnesses a competitive-battle framework that has pushed the form forward. So while Drake may not have started from the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, the song’s competitive theme is still well in line with rap convention.
The song’s core message is nothing new. It rarely is in boast-raps, where rappers cast themselves as self-made strivers with skills to burn. The value’s all in the music, the delivery, and the individual twist a rapper puts on the verses. Eminem’s “Rap God,” an extended showcase of sheer chops and elaborate allusions to rap tradition, is an extreme example. Aside from jokes and (mostly) aimless and harmless shit-talking, the song doesn’t yield much semantic meaning: so much is happening in the rhythm, rhyme, pacing, and delivery that an argument or narrative would just get in the way of the song’s other effects.
“Started from the Bottom,” in contrast, is pedestrian, but that’s also what it’s going for. Eminem built his career on virtuosic lyricism combined with disdain and a dark, intelligent humour designed to provoke. Drake has built his career on what Eminem lacks: melody, smoothness, and likability.
If nothing else, Drake can deliver a catchy vocal hook. In this case, it’s simple but, like the music, precise. It establishes the theme — climbing the rap ladder — as well as the form (rhyme, rhythm, and pace). Each line in the song is delivered as its own discrete unit, building to a hard stop and pausing before the next line begins. Drake, as he often does, uses the track’s silence to lend emphasis to each line.
He’s also keeping it symmetrical. The song’s two short verses are divided into four couplets that closely follow the patterns established in the hook. The first lines are mostly perfect rhythmic matches:
Started from the bottom now we’re here. (Hook, L1)
I done kept it real from the jump. (Verse 1, Line 1)
These are both in perfect trochaic pentameter, with the final unstressed syllable lopped off, so that stresses begin and end the lines, cordoning them off from the silence that surrounds them. The second lines of both the hook and the verses are longer and allowed to vary slightly before an emphatic return to the established trochaic rhythm:
Started from the bottom now my whole team fuckin’ here (Hook, L2) =
Livin’ at my momma’s house we’d argue every month (Verse 1, L2)
Having established these lineations as his formal base, Drake allows other lines to push ever so lightly against that foundation. In the fifth line of the first verse he adds a sixth foot. He also crams even more into the fourth line of the second verse, forcing a quickening of the pace in his delivery: “There ain’t really much out hear that’s popping off without us.” That’s followed in the next line by a return to the pattern established in the first line of the hook, making the preceding variation all the more apparent and effective.
Drake’s tight control over the song’s rhythm is paralleled in its rhyme scheme. The hook ends each line with “here,” and the verses follow an A-A-B-B pattern, with slight variations. Though he makes use of slant rhyme (“jump”/”month”; “at”/ “back”), this is a simple scheme, and for the most part Drake’s rhymes hover around this level of complexity. That’s not a negative attribute, but rather evidence of Drake’s ability to make his lyrics conform to a strict poetic framework that ultimately serves the song as a whole. Indeed, it takes skill to produce lyrics that can add to, but not interfere with, the catchiness of a song like “Started From the Bottom.”
This isn’t groundbreaking lyrical work, but there’s something to be said for the way these lines help frame the song’s strengths, including Drake’s delivery. He performs the song with the characteristic smoothness that has made him a global symbol of cool. His confident performance supports his argument that he’s already at the top, looking for “credit where it’s due.” He doesn’t alter or vary his pace very often in any of his rapping, but he has a good ear for sound patterns that can carry a short song like this. This is Drake at his best as a rapper – a mode he successfully recreates on later tracks from the same album, Nothing Was the Same, and on much of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late.
But even at his best, Drake often undermines his cause. “We just want the credit where it’s due” is followed by “I’mma worry about me, give a fuck about you.” These competing interests — wanting outside credit while rejecting outside opinions — are, again, nothing new. Rap has been, among other things, an underdog form, a scapegoat, a sincere political vehicle, and a great commercial success. It’s not a surprise, then, that rappers seek recognition as much as they reject it, often simultaneously. That tension is one of rap’s most fascinating aspects.
Drake, however, fails to capitalize on the conflict he has identified. Instead, he regurgitates two contradictory clichés without giving the listener any way of resolving them. The rest of the verse doesn’t help: “just as a reminder to myself / I wear every single chain even when I’m in the house.” Here, we get another rap cliché: my wealth, apparent in my bling, proves my worth.
Drake’s logic soon gets messy: he’s aiming this reminder of his worth at himself, because he doesn’t care about anyone else’s opinion, but he’s also telling us about it so we can imagine him privately drowning in chains. Just as he rejects outside recognition, he’s also boosted by it. How exactly these two things can coexist we have no way of knowing. The verse fails to resolve. Such a failed resolution could be interesting, but the trope Drake’s playing on here is so well-established — or played out — that it hardly warrants an investigation. That’s not a deal breaker in a song that’s otherwise nice to listen to. We can let it slide. But it also returns us to a key question about Drake as a rapper, and about the form more broadly: what lyrical transgressions can a rap song away with?
Consider “Lord Knows,” from Take Care. Drake’s verse there is similar to, but more impressive than, “Started from the Bottom.” It’s longer, more varied, and the obstacles he’s explaining are more specific. Drake’s not wasting lines here, at least not blatantly. We can pick at talk of his “bracelets and rings,” or his claims to be either a version of Hendrix or Marley (he’s neither), but in the context of the song such seemingly banal lines are overshadowed by the overall vocal delivery, the music, and the relatively more interesting — if not mind-blowing — lines that inhabit most of the verse.
That said, “Lord Knows” opens with a depiction of women that immediately forces the audience to let it slide, or not. Drake goes for the tried-and-true offhand, almost requisite, rap misogyny: “I don’t trust these hoes.” This can be read as yet another lame and, to say the least, problematic cliché, or you can argue that the abrasiveness makes narrative sense because the surrounding lines clearly show that the paranoid speaker (“I’m goin’ through her phone if she go to the bathroom”) has a chip on his shoulder.
The verse quickly moves on to position Drake in the rap world, naming allies (like Lil’ Wayne) and responding to criticism (that he’s “a pussy” for rapping about his emotions, for instance) before claiming success through other rappers’ use of “a style I made up” and the fact that wherever he is the “drinks are on the house like Snoopy” (Snoopy being wont to sleep on his doghouse). In the middle of the verse we get a seemingly random drug dealing tangent. But we might let this slide, too, on the grounds that it falls in line with another well-established rap tradition: comparing the drug hustle to the rap hustle.
Again, nothing too new here. But despite the lyrics’ lack of originality, the song succeeds because its total package is compelling. “Lord Knows,” like “Started from the Bottom” is much more than the sum of its parts, meaning one of its parts — in this case the lyrical content —need not meet that high a standard in order for the song as a whole to work. In these songs, Drake is given a budget for lyrical transgressions. Let’s call this rap phenomenon “getting away with uneven poetry.”
There are, however, limits to the lyrical transgressions a rapper can get away with, even on the pop end of the rap spectrum. Those limits are on display in Views. Haithcoat, in her Spin review, claims that “those who listen for beats” will enjoy Views while “those who listen for lyrics” will not. There’s an important difference, though, between a way of composing that downplays the importance of lyrical content, and a way of listening that ignores lyrics altogether. Haithcoat is referring to the latter. In the case of Views, this is a theoretically defensible position because it allows a listener to transcend the lyrics in order to appreciate the music. It also describes a very impressive feat of selective listening, one I’m not convinced is possible.
It is possible with sung lyrics. If the music swings and the melody catches, who really cares about lyrical content? That’s an overstatement — beautifully sung lyrics can contain meaningful content. But once you move from sung to spoken lyrics, the words are decoupled from melody’s smokescreen, and are thus more exposed to the listener’s attention. It follows that you have to listen to rapped words at least somewhat closely, because all the tools poetry uses — wordplay, argument, jokes, etc. — are now in play, demanding attention in order to be appreciated.
Take “Keep the Family Close,” the first song on Views. Drake is sing-rapping here. The music is sparse, so the listener has very little to distract from the lyrics. Drake’s voice is out there, alone, vulnerable. You cannot listen to this song without paying attention to the lyrics. It opens with the hook:
All of my ‘let’s just be friends’ aren’t friends I have any more
How do you not check on me when things go wrong
Guess I should’ve tried to keep my family closer, much closer
All of my ‘let’s just be friends’ aren’t friends I have any more
Guess that’s what they say you need family for
Cause I can’t depend on you anymore
Drake is sad here, feeling let down by ex-lovers, and vaguely longing for family. The waywardness of his sadness is matched by the sloppiness in his lines. The first line sounds purposely clunky: why include “I have”? Cutting it would achieve the same meaning, without the clumsy sentence structure. Same goes for the third: “should’ve kept my family closer” would be much more succinct. The hook seems bent on being un-catchy and awkward. Perhaps it’s an attempt at stretching beyond the pat, symmetrical songs of his earlier work, but what, exactly, he’s stretching toward isn’t clear.
The first verse has Drake addressing his ex-lover, with the first line claiming he “always saw you for what you could’ve been.” Drake compares this to “when Chrysler made that one car that looks just like a Bentley.” Let’s move beyond this confusing analogy for now. The first line is repeated in the fourth, then we learn that Drake’s ex-lover turns business relations personal and that he knew her “before you made ends meet” and that “now we’re meeting our end.” Again, pretty straightforward: Drake’s using simple wordplay, and feeling let down.
As a listener, I’m also feeling let down, and we’re not yet two minutes into a twenty-track album. So far, only one line merits close examination; the rest are essentially pre-digested for the audience. But that one line, the Bentley one, is frustrating. He’s saying that a woman who failed to live up to his expectations is like a non-luxury-brand car that’s made to look like a classic luxury-brand car, which suggests she’s like a knock-off-brand version of the woman of his dreams.
Beyond the troubling woman-as-product motif being dredged up here, the metaphorical logic also doesn’t stand up. He’s saying she didn’t live up to her potential, that she was an actor who failed to take certain actions. A car made to resemble another car, on the other hand, does not fail to live up to the car it aims to emulate. It just isn’t that car, and it could never have been that car. And a dude as rich and famous as Drake can certainly tell a true Bentley from a fake — so is his real disappointment that women aren’t more like cars? Did he expect them to be?
The car-woman comparison would be less annoying if Drake didn’t return to the subject of his would-be lover’s failures (such as giving advice at all the wrong times), which further drives home the agency that sets her apart from the car. This past love takes up about a third of the song, and the rest is filled in with random thoughts, like how Drake’s sick of LA and how everyone wants a piece of his fame pie.
I’m trying to give this track its due. This is the opening of an album hyped as Drake’s epic achievement. In an era where Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé, etc. are making ambitious, meticulous masterpieces, the opening lyrics of Views should matter. But they don’t. They’re utterly vacuous and uninteresting. Drake sets this up like it’s a one-man play. If so, then that one man should be dynamic and engaging. Instead, the close listener’s experience aligns with Drake’s critique of his failed-lover: “You’re so predictable.”
Predictability can be a good thing. A treasured ritual is reassuring in part because it is predictable. Pop thrives on predictability, and Drake depends on his pop sensibility.
That tendency has not endeared Drake in some rap circles. On 1991’s “Check the Rhime,” Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest laid down this tenet: “rap is not pop, if you call it that then stop.” Before we can decode that claim, though, we should clarify what he means by “pop.” Q-Tip understands pop as materialistic, commercial, and fake, whereas rap is from the underground, pure and authentic. He is flirting with the sanctimonious here, but he’s also genuine. Tribe comes from a part of the rap tradition that rejects the materialistic celebrity culture Drake embraces. So in that sense, Drake is thoroughly pop.
The distinction threatens to break down, though, when you consider the formal implications of the word “pop.” Tribe, after all, made some very catchy and popular songs, like “Award Tour.” Can that be considered a pop song? In terms of formal characteristics, yes. It’s a boast rap, like “Started From the Bottom.” Tribe’s boasting style is distinct from Drake’s, and of course not all boast raps are equal. “Award Tour” is not particularly heavy or inventive in a literary sense, though it does feature a level of formal dexterity and wit that Drake rarely approaches. Still, it depends on its music (including vocals), with lyrical content playing a supporting role. So, like “Started from the Bottom,” “Award Tour” falls toward the musically dependent side of the rap spectrum described above. The sentiment and execution of the two songs are very different, but there is no discernable difference in terms of formal characteristics.
Drake should be commended for his ability to bring pop elements into his rap songs. “Worst Behavior” is a repetitive song made mostly out of disjointed chunks of language, but as a jaunty, lyrically minimal piece that simultaneously produces fragmentation and symmetry, it works. You probably won’t find yourself mulling over the lyrics, but they contribute to a worthwhile effect. The same goes for “Know Yourself,” “Energy,” or a number of Drake’s rap songs. I don’t think that makes Drake a great rapper, but it proves he can rap well enough to make songs like these succeed.
Drake’s sung pop songs, like “Hotline Bling,” work similarly, but with the difference that the form doesn’t demand that you pay close attention to the lyrics. It would be wrong to assume inherent valuation in that difference. Q-Tip claimed a higher artistic plane for rap than pop, but sung pop can be just as masterful, complex, or bad as the most literary rap. As a practitioner of both genres, Drake proves as much. In fact, Drake as pop singer is in many ways preferable to Drake as rapper. When Drake isn’t pretending to rap greatness or moping about the travails of fame and fortune, he can be an enjoyable pop entertainer. It’d be nice to see more of the humour and self-awareness that goes into that leak into his rapping, which is so often bent on aggressively defending his rap credentials (what better way to dismiss criticism than to have fun with it?).
“Hotline Bling” gave Charlie Harding and Nate Sloan, the songwriter-musicologist team behind the podcast Switched on Pop, plenty to dig into (episode 23). They were even more excited by “One Dance,” Drake’s collaboration with Nigerian DJ Wizkid (episode 40). Harding and Sloan praise “One Dance” for mixing Western and African music without degrading the latter or failing to credit the non-Western musicians involved. I agree. “One Dance” highlights one of Drake’s laudable characteristics: his willingness and ability to branch out musically. And his lyrics are predictable in a good way, in that that they get out of the way and blend into the song as a whole.
“Take Care,” off the album of the same name, offers a contrast. It’s unquestionably a catchy song, and through the first verse and hook Drake executes the rap-singing thing passably well. Then, at the start of the second verse, we get this: “It’s my birthday and I’ll get high if I want to.” I hesitate to quote anything after that because this first line is so inane that it takes me completely out of the song. It has nothing to do with the rest of the song’s content and the play on “It’s My Birthday” is so corny and obvious that it’s offensive. If this were a parody song, that’d be one thing, but it’s achingly sincere.
Drake’s body of work is riddled with such ruinously bad lines. For a pop singer, that might not matter. But with rap it inevitably does. The title track on Views houses some of the album’s best rapping. It also offers this: “the paranoia can start to turn into arrogance / thoughts too deep to go an’ work ‘em out with a therapist.” As a listener, I’d welcome evidence that such deep thoughts exist, yet none is forthcoming.
Maybe I’m overthinking this. Rap is so well established that you could spend your whole life pointing out lazy, throwaway lines. It’s so big and diverse that you could devote years to it without paying Drake more than casual heed. But Drake demands to be heard.
Rap is a form with great artistic potential. Drake, meanwhile, has been posited — by himself, critics, fans, and sales — as one of its top practitioners. So to consider him in that light, I have to consider how well he takes advantage of what a rap song can do, including in terms of lyrical content.
Or maybe I’m missing an emotional bond Drake’s forming with his audience. Beyond its blending of literature and music, rap is a dramatic form, and Drake is an actor with a likeable presence. Given the audience engagement that likeability enables, perhaps his sloppily applied clichés are a vehicle to express the sloppiness of emotion in a manner so vague that the listener can slide right into the moments he describes. Maybe I’m just not caught up in a carefully placed emotional net that’s genuinely ensnared others. I can respect that.
I also respect that Drake’s backstory is novel to rap. To his credit he openly embraces his Canadian and Jewish heritage as well as his child-star cred. His willingness to show vulnerability, however corny, is also out of step with traditional rap machismo. For all its achievements, rap has always been limited by a narrow vision of masculinity that precludes a whole range of emotional expression (as well as women, gay men, and others). Maybe the world is just ready for a half-Jewish Canadian rapper with a well-honed pop instinct who’s also in tune with his feelings.
Still, it’s not hard to imagine someone achieving all that while displaying a much higher level of lyrical mastery. Drake does a lot of things well — like branding, social media, the delivery of his lyrics — and it’s gotten him far. His weakness, though, is in a critical area: the content of his lyrics. In his earlier work, he was able to make up for that by playing up all the other elements available to him as a rapper. But Views has fully exposed that shortcoming. It’s hard to imagine him pushing his art any further without developing that aspect of the form.
But while Drake is no longer young for a rapper or pop star, he is for a poet. If he plans on sticking around, he might take a cue from A Tribe Called Quest. After a sixteen-year hiatus, they released “We Got It from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service.” The album showcases the benefits of experience and maturity, two attributes that are often underappreciated in rap. Part tribute to a recently deceased founding member, Phife Dawg, part political call to arms, the album showcases a Tribe crew that can still bring the wit and formal dexterity, but with a level of nuance and gravity that wasn’t always present in their content before. Perhaps Drake, too, will one day find a deeper trove of meaning with which to fill the ample linguistic space a rap song offers.
—A CNQ Web Exclusive, December 2016