Drake hangs around with rappers and collaborates with them, he got popular on the strength of Internet mix tapes the way rappers do, he's signed to Lil Wayne's Young Money Entertainment (a rap label), and of course he raps, capably even—but "rapper" seems like the wrong thing to call him. After all, Justin Bieber raps too—plus his recent "Drummer Boy" includes a verse from Busta Rhymes, which is far more aggressive and artful than the gig would seem to demand—and no one's calling him a rapper.
Drake is a pop star, and with apologies to the Beliebers and Little Monsters out there, he's the one who seems to be guiding pop into its next evolutionary stage. Hip-hop has long had mainstream ambitions, and over the past decade it's succeeded far beyond what anyone would've expected in the 90s. Many successful pop artists have acknowledged rap in their music, but Drake goes further—he seems to be working under the assumption that hip-hop is now the lingua franca of all forms of popular music, making the distinction between rap and pop outdated.
As fuzzy and arbitrary as that distinction can seem, erasing it has afforded Drake a flexibility that few of his contemporaries can match. When he moves from singing to rapping and back it's less a shifting of gears than it is a subtle tilt in the relative weights he gives melody and rhythm. There aren't any of the jarring and occasionally cringeworthy moments you get when, say, Justin Timberlake decides to beatbox; on his new album, Take Care, Drake often makes the transition so smoothly that it'll take you a couple of seconds to catch on.
Only a few other musicians in platinum-level circles can weave together pop and hip-hop as craftily as Drake does. The big ones right now are Will.i.am and Nicki Minaj, both of whom swing for the fences with what feels like a manic need to please—it's as though they're desperate to make a conservative middle-aged white lady from Ames, Iowa, like a song that has rapping in it, and they're willing to die trying. (Minaj is apparently putting more energy into impressing this hypothetical lady than into developing her own talents as a brilliantly idiosyncratic rapper, which is one of modern music's great bum-outs.)
Drake takes an opposite tack, cultivating a dark, complex, brooding persona that he only breaks from for the occasional borderline-bratty bout of cocky entitlement—something I guess comes with the territory when you're a former child TV star with a successful recording career and extremely good looks and millions of dollars in the bank. Like all pop stars Drake needs to be loved, but he doesn't seem to mind being disliked.
Consider "Marvin's Room," the sixth song on Take Care: Accompanied by a sparsely, unhurriedly pretty beat from producer Noah "40" Shebib, Drake sings in the first person about getting drunk and looking up "bitches in my old phone" for an after-the-bar hookup, settling on one he knows is "happy with a good guy." He calls her anyway, tells her "Fuck that nigga that you love so bad," and propositions her. It's a total dick move that's disrespectful to everyone involved, including Drake (or at least the character he's playing, if he's playing one), but somehow he sells it. Whatever it is that makes people fall head over heels for guys they know are no good, Drake has it in truckloads. Folks go nutty for Black Eyed Peas and Nicki Minaj, but they swoon over Drake.
It's not just young ladies doing the swooning, though there are lots of those in Drake's fan base. He's also become a go-to guy for harder-edged rappers looking to bring the mood down and show a little vulnerability. (This is usually for a "chick" song or one of those "weight of my success" album cuts.) Drake's original rapper-qua-rapper partner was Lil Wayne, who shows up here on two songs, "The Real Her" and "HYFR (Hell Ya Fuckin' Right)."
But the handful of tracks Drake has done with Rick Ross point toward a world-class partnership in the making. Their collaboration on Take Care, "Lord Knows," doesn't quite achieve the synergy they achieved on DJ Khaled's "I'm on One" this summer, but I could listen to Drake bounce his scrappy, pretty-boy flow off Ross's casually outsize persona—"Only fat nigga in a sauna with Jews," goes the best line in his verse—for a whole album.
From the looks of things, the next demographic Drake wants to seduce is the cool kids. In the spring he began championing the Weeknd, a group making avant-R&B whose references to things like dubstep and vintage goth-pop have endeared it to the hipster blogosphere. More recently he's been singing the praises of British postdubstep artist SBTRKT, even rapping a verse on a remix of the producer's single "Wildfire"; it wasn't actually that great, but it was at least an inspired idea.
Take Care's title track, featuring a vocal hook by Rihanna, was produced by Jamie Smith, the young Londoner behind Pitchfork-approved group the XX. (The song is actually based on Smith's remix of a Gil Scott-Heron recording, which was itself a rendition of a widely covered blues number.) Typically for Smith the beat is stylish and kind of sexily sad, but it's hard not to imagine that what Drake wanted was a house-inflected track of his own in case Rihanna's "We Found Love" sparked a craze for emotionally honest house-inflected pop (which would be prescient of him, since I wouldn't be surprised if it does). Or maybe he did it in part because he knows there are a lot of people like me, who are predisposed to like anything that involves big-time pop stars recognizing talent outside the mainstream.
The thing is, even when I suspect that Drake's manipulating me, I'm still willing to go along with it. How does he do that?