Free Spirits: The Mutual Mystique of Drake and Sade's Mirrored Careers

While fundamentally different artists, the two have developed unique brands of mystique that have compelled as well as frustrated their legion of fans.

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Oct 25 2016, 2:05pm

Since her eponymous band's inception with the 1984 debut album Diamond Life, singer Helen Folasade "Sade" Adu, through a combination of jazz-infused pop and disinterest for media spectacle, has cultivated an aura of mystique that has granted her eternal currency with listeners for over three decades. When we use the word mystique in reference to an artist, its meaning is the combination of secrecy, presence through talent, and power to attract intense scrutiny for doing nothing. According to Robin Millar, producer of the group's first two efforts, Diamond Life and Promise, Adu understood the importance of cultivating this image: "Sade [Adu] just liked everything the way it was; she didn't want to change anything... Her attitude was 'we don't need to change the music; we just need to change how cool we are and then the music will be fine.'" This cool can be found in artists like Frank Ocean and Beyoncé—both have named her an influence—who act behind these figurative walls of silence, breaking only for curt and sneakily delivered grand statements. Another who follows in a somewhat related vein of using silence and presence, albeit through the sphere of rap, is Drake.

These artists all utilize an air of secrecy to stir up interest that gives them a sense of weight and significance to their very action. Inactivity is activity. Silence speaks volumes. Nevertheless, there is a point where mystique runs its course and the act of looking in from the outside starts to feel uninviting. Speculation and rumours get churned over and over until they become truth. As Adu once poignantly stated "If they don't have you then you'll be invented completely" and that sentiment has followed both her and Drake's careers.

In a 2010 interview with MTV, while explaining a turned down collaboration with the elusive singer, Drake outlined her influence on him. "To me, Sade is one of the strongest brands out right now, period. Her brand is always protected, and I think that's why… like stepping out of your zone can jeopardize your brand and bring you down as opposed to bringing you up," He added in a subsequent chat, "'Lust for Life,' the 'Houstatlantavegas,' 'The Calm'—those all remind me of… I'll call them 'Sade moments'... When Sade's 'King of Sorrow' comes on, you feel it, consistently. So I just want to try to experiment and see if there's a way to bring her into the hip-hop world." And he has: Drake's album work is also rooted in a singular atmospheric-specific sound (Drake: "night-driving music," Sade: "quiet, authentic nightclub atmosphere of 30s and 40s") and oft-time melancholy stories that are continuously distilled with each subsequent release rather than altering it entirely. And as of late, he has similarly taken on the role as an ever-present yet elusive character, where secrecy and puzzling intentions follow at every turn. Different in their motivations and execution, both artists have developed a recognizable brand of mystique in and out of music that has resulted in commercial dominance and fall-out.  

Since the 80s, Sade defined themselves musically as unknowable entities. Initially members of British Latin soul group Pride, Adu, Stuart Matthewman, and Paul Denman, broke off to form a group of their own. The pleasing and soothing tone of Adu and her detailed stories of city and country life would sit as emotional centre within their realm of soul tempered pop with seams of jazz. Still, in an era where the excess of disco pop ruled, the band's music were a risky proposition. In response, Millar told Red Bull Music Academy Daily, Adu and then partner, journalist Robert Elms would use their connections and get her on the cover of "very hip" monthly magazine, The Face. In retrospect, the photo would be a blueprint of sorts for Adu's image emphasizing simple, one-colour backgrounds as her face takes center frame looking almost militant in her appearance. Her mixed-race appearance—then, not as prominent in mainstream North American culture compared to now—drew further fascination and was even fetishized as "striking, Afro-Asian features" despite being of British-Nigerian heritage. Per the suggestion of Millar, and through word of mouth courtesy of Elms large network base in media, the group's hype-building gig at London's Heaven nightclub would draw a sold out crowd leaving a line of 1,000 people unable to get in. To want to be 'in' you have to feel left out and together the band's lack of accessibility cultivated the attention of labels and an already growing fellowship of fans. They'd extend it into the release of their debut Diamond Life as Adu oversaw photography, outfits, and discuss strategies with promotion. The no-frills presentation of the group, along with the success of singles "Smooth Operator" and " Your Love Is King," would make the album a hit and its follow-ups critical and commercial successes.

Not unlike her peers during that time, Adu's mystique is underlined by a theme of restraint.  An intensely private person, she has remained famously distant from media and as result her music is by and far the only insight into her "colourful life." Because of this, her work and writings have come to personify her, turning her into an avatar of sorts. Through longtime collaborator and primary co-producer Matthewman's stylish sax and guitar renderings, the music itself calls back the imagery of a detective film or noir with its world-spanning locales and cast of characters in both hopeful and horrific settings. From the story of an emotionally torn war veteran in  "Like A Tattoo," or "Sally", which spins the story of a woman on Bowery and Third [New York] and deftly doubles as a possible story about a sex worker or a caregiver, she gives the sense every single lyric has been lived in. The consistent tonal mood through each album creates an emotional engagement and charm that is wholly unique to Sade. "I'm not over the top;... I'm fairly understated, and that reflects in the way I sing. I don't necessarily think that you have to scream and shout to move somebody," she explained to Rolling Stone  "... I don't think that to overstate is the best way of putting something across. The same applies to everything: to clothes and design and architecture. It's now so acceptable to be wacky and have hair that goes in 101 directions and has several colors, and trendy, wacky clothes have become so acceptable that they're... conventional." These principles inform the ways in how she's been able to present herself as a unique entity while using discretion as a point of intrigue.

Restraint, however, is antithetical to Drake's approach to music and business. Where Adu has always been averse to "TMI," his approach is built, at least initially, on the theme of transparency in every possible medium. "Free Spirit," the closest thing to a collaboration between the two—produced by Drake's own 'Matthewman,' long time partner Noah "40" Shebib—highlights their differences as he raps over a sample of Sade's "I Will Be Your Friend" turning the original's sentiments of devotion into a referential, personal chronicling of his fast paced life and plea to tattoo oneself out of love. Contrary to the various narratives laden in Sade's music, Drake says himself, "I can't write fiction, I can't do these themed story songs...about someone else. It all directly has to do with me or else I can't make the music." Still, he has always navigated his career with a sense of secrecy characterized by "Scary Hours" to court anticipation for a surprise song drop. However, that's a far cry from the rapper today who  speaks in allusions, coded words, and private likes over Instagram.

While in due part to being an artist at the height of his powers, Drake's pivot is also birthed from a general frustration with media, voicing as far back in his interview for the show Q before coming to a head in the now-infamous Rolling Stone interview.  Declaring "I'm done doing interviews for magazines" after his displeasure with being replaced last minute with deceased actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman was taken out of context. And though he's since compromised on that stance his presentation of himself has shifted. Complete restraint from media is a foreign concept to Drake but he understands the importance of being a constant talking point. His answer then is engaging in this sort of "secretive hustle"—where it's important that you know he's up to something but you don't know what it is. Elevating mystique into a sort of omnipresence where he is everywhere and nowhere. For example, a seemingly random post of a ping pong paddle hints at a then to be released Drake and Future release while a city plays host to a months-long billboard campaign with vague statements like "four plus two equals 6." He's also extended this model onto his roster of artists on label OVO Sound who operate similarly to him using slick presentation and choice interviews. Drake's public persona is a natural evolution in the presentation of mystique, stirring public discourse with easter egg like hunts for what's next.

While Adu initially embraced visibility and fame during the early stages, she'd quickly bristle at its response for the rest of her career. Admittedly, naive to the negatives of stardom, her penchant for privacy post-Diamond Life was an anomaly to the aggressive celebrity cycle and theatrics of that era. In an interview with the Fader she recalls one of her first instances that soured her relationship with the public: "[The doorman] he said to me, 'Why did you do such a shit version of "Why Can't We Live Together?"—also famously sampled in "Hotline Bling"—Why did you destroy that song?'" Subsequent years following the success of second effort Promise and the lengthy absence between it and Stronger Than Pride would be marked with persistent rumours of drug abuse and stories of onstage breakdowns. Her silence was seen in some parts as an admission which she addressed, saying on The Today Show:  "I don't necessarily believe you have to share every intimate thing with the world. I wouldn't get on a bus and tell a stranger personal things about me and if I did I would be telling one person. That's what strange about interviews is that I'm talking to you but indirectly I'm talking to hundreds and thousands of people." Her aversion or  distrust for those on the outside puts in perspective why she turns down collaborations— which only adds to the air of unattainability that follows her. However, spurned by artistic ambitions, she can't completely disengage and it's this conflict of interest that lies at the center of her appeal. This is best summed up in this passage from an interview with the UK Daily Times: "Artistically, I have high aspirations. I don't want to do anything less than the best I can do,' she says. Yet she spurns the promotional rigmarole of the industry, despite knowing that it's hard to win the public's sympathy if you ignore them."

Drake now finds himself and his brand at a critical point. Six years strong into his pop culture reign we've now reached the point where he's overexposed. Tales of his failings with family, friends, enemies and women have seen little change since his debut and once poignant lyrics like "I had to let go of us to show myself what I could do" now feel disingenuous. Even so, the opposite has been the case for OVO Sound. As Craig Jenkins mentioned in 'Is OVO Sound a Hip-Hop Label or Drake's Personal Hit Factory?' "Drake frequently deals in mysteries and surprises, and while it's thrilling for an artist of his stature… it's not the best plan of attack for lesser known properties." Playing mystery as cool points relies on already vested interest on the part of the artist. So when you try to have everyone else do it it doesn't work. Still, the greatest crutch lies in the "secretive hustle" he's helped patent. His reliance on announcing and hinting of what's to come whether that's a new project or collaboration has dulled any sense of anticipation. The best example of this lies in the aggressive nearly two-year campaign leading up to Views, whose hype through literally every facet of advertising was doomed to fall short of expectations. And new 'playlist' More Life looks determined to continue the tradition . Drake has always understood the need to distance himself to spark a yearning for more. But his new strategy seems to be in favour of doling out as much of himself as possible until he lands on a proper finale that's satisfying to him.

On  "Nothing Can Come Between Us," the third single off Sade's album Stronger Than Pride, Sade sings, "Always hope that you remember/ We'll never really learn the meaning of it all/ What we have is strong and tender/ So hold on." Though the remark describes an unwavering love or friendship it also rather earnestly speaks to the essence of Sade: we'll never truly know nor understand the woman behind the music and that idea has started to pervade Drake's music. Less surprising considering the mutual admiration between the two as Sade has publicly voiced her love for Take Care, the anthemic "The Motto,"  and most recently sent well-wishes for his 30th birthday. Nevertheless, while both have perfected in their own ways a constant image of mystique it's ultimately their consistency that separates them. Sade remains a sought after entity because she is untethered from trends, her sound and presence is so singularly hers and instantly recognizable it's been able to endure. Drake pursuits, on the other hand, for the very pinnacle of stardom has always been clear. However, in achieving this he's become a living one-suit-fits-all artist—malleable to any and all changes that can further his cause. How often do we see, this article included, stories like Drake is King Millennial, Drake is Taylor Swift, Drake is Hillary Clinton, Drake is 'Breaking Bad', and that's because of his ever shifting curation and absorption; an individual made up of so many moving parts that are visible but the person behind it is unknowable. And therein lies the mystery.

Jabbari Weekes hasn't gone a month without listening to 'Promise.' Follow him on Twitter.
Artwork courtesy of Haley Eder