Drake and the Ultimate Rap Boast: The Things I Can't Change Are the Reason You Love Me
Rap is a sport, and right now Drake is winning because he's playing the hardest.
Photo by Aaron Power
The best rap boast of all time is tucked away on the second verse of a Lil Wayne song that never saw an official release, “Something You Forgot.” Talking about how much he misses the woman the song is addressed to, Wayne says, in his most tortured voice, “what you mean to me is what I mean to rap.” The understanding, of course, is that she means everything to him, that she's the most important thing in the world, that he can't exist without her—it's beautiful and shot through with emotion, and only as an afterthought is it a giant fuck you to the rest of the rap world. Lil Wayne means everything to rap, and it's so blindingly obvious that he can use it as a true fact to back up his most heartfelt confessions. There is no amount of money or talent or intangible coolness that another rapper can share in a lyric that matches the flippant certainty there. It is the perfect rap boast.
We talk about rap in a lot of ways, but one of the most fun, one of the reasons we love to do so, is that rap is a sport. The sport is to be the best, and the genre has a sort of running internal leaderboard of every artist jockeying for position. Score a hit, and you move up the rankings. Prove you're the best lyricist, and you get a blue ribbon. Spark a funny meme, and you get to pick whether everyone goes out for pizza or ice cream after the game. Et cetera. With rap boasts, there's a degree of faking it 'til you make it, but each step up the ladder provides more real leverage and ammunition. And each credible rap boast, in turn, moves you up the ladder. With enough hits, enough artistic innovation, enough awareness of your image outside of rap, you win coveted rap points and your boasts become untouchable. That’s where Wayne was when he had that line on “Something You Forgot.” That's where Drake is right now. And it’s the reason why his new album, If You're Reading This It's Too Late, is such a success.
Feel free to wring your hands about it or try to square it with that enduring fascination of picking out the best rapper alive (which, technically, Drake is not), but here's the fact: Right now, Drake is winning the game of rap. If You're Reading This It's Too Late is explicit on that point. Its attitude is combative; its boasts verge on cruel in their dismissiveness. The central takeaway you’re supposed to have from listening to it is: Drake is dope (or Drake is an insufferable douche, depending on your interpretation). Drake is done leveraging his role as cornball nice guy for the time being because that’s no longer what fits with the greater goal of sitting atop the rap leaderboard. Drake is relentless, whether because of some deep personal drive to win or simply because he understands that playing the game is what drives conversation—and conversation is what determines careers in an internet era in which attention is our most coveted resource.
Not only does Drake play the game, he relishes pushing its levers and manipulating it, carefully engineering each of his rap boasts. He offers up subliminal jabs in his lyrics that are just enough to get people talking but never so much that they don’t leave people guessing. He changes the rules around so that his perceived weaknesses on the rap leaderboard become strengths—call him soft and emotional, and he’ll flip your script by making sure the only thing you hear on rap radio is a song like “Hold On, We’re Going Home.” Criticize him for complaining about success, and he’ll turn his whining into a classic album like Take Care. Furthermore, with the constant subliminal shots and script changes and—let’s not lose sight of what we’re talking about here—the boasts, Drake makes it clear that he’s always playing the game, thereby endearing himself to the type of rap fans who do the scorekeeping. That’s a substantial difference between Drake and his closest competitors at the top of the rap world—Kendrick Lamar, Jay Z, Kanye West, Nicki Minaj—who do weigh in but don’t generally give the impression they’re interested in sorting out the pecking order (hence the excitement around Kendrick’s “Control” verse, which explicitly confirmed his tacit claims to rap’s throne).
Drake relishes the game of rap in a way that an artist like, say, Lil Boosie—whose music is entirely unconcerned with the minute dramas of celebrity life—does not, and both his fans and the media reward him for it (I mean, we literally made a flow chart about it). One thing he recognizes is that the qualities for which one can climb rap’s ranks are essentially endless and constantly in flux—and that any legitimate player needs to dominate a few of them. Rappers can be rewarded for having the tightest rhymes, the best flows, the hottest songs, the most album sales, the most awards, the funniest punchlines, the most street cred, the most respect of other artists, the best grasp of themselves as memes, the best style, the most inspirational story, or just about anything else. Coin a new slang term like YOLO, and that’s worth crazy amounts of rap points (with an insane multiplier bonus when the president uses it).
Kendrick Lamar has a claim to being the best contemporary lyricist, the best bridge between classic and current sounds, and the artist with the genre's last universally agreed-upon classic—he’s the dude sinking three pointers no matter how you guard him. Jay Z has a legacy of dominance, which is like winning one of those cash for life lotteries but with rap points. Nicki Minaj raps with more personality and versatility than anyone alive and has the broadest fan base, plus she’s managed to subvert sexist arguments against her and turn them to her advantage at every opportunity. That’s like bowling a strike in rap points and unlocking the extra frames that let you drop a boast like “big titties, big butt too” on your next album. Conversely, you’re going to be throwing up bricks if you talk about crazy conspiracy theories on Twitter, you pedantically obsess over technical acrobatics, or you have the personality of a bowl of rice. This is why no one believes J. Cole when he boasts about being a classic artist—he hasn’t stacked the Wayne or Kanye-level rap points earned from doing lots of things well that you need to make that kind of claim.
Drake has worked a ton of angles, whether he’s establishing himself as the sensitive everyman who just wishes he could make out with a girl in his dorm room, making sure that every song “sounds like Drake featuring Drake,” or putting out singles like “0-100” where he’s just baring his teeth rapping. What do these claims add up to, in his case or anyone else’s? They’re the chips you can cash in for rap boasts. They’re what give you the leverage to say what someone means to you is what you mean to rap. Cash them in too early, and you might look a little desperate (cough, Tyga, cough). Time it right and you get to cash in gleefully, like Drake on If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. Stack them deliberately and play with the right strategy, and you might hit a genuinely memorable payout, like Drake eventually does on his best rap boast, his Lil Wayne moment, on “You & The 6.”
If You're Reading This It's Too Late is pretty much nothing but Drake claiming how great he is. It's packed with great boasts and jabs and gamesmanship. There are lines about things that other rappers wouldn't even think to point out—“got bitches asking me about the for the code for the wi-fi”—as well as implicit boasts in the way it's constructed. There's a different flow—often a crazily innovative one—on practically every song, and the engineering is crisp to the point that other rappers should be jealous of that alone. But the album's greatest flex is that it saves its most pointed boasts for the most heartfelt song, “You & The 6.” Drake's talking on the phone with his mom in an exasperated tone, complaining to her about how great he is:
I really hate using this tone with you, mama
I really hate getting aggressive on this phone with you, mama
I really hate wasting your time to check a clone or two, mama
It's just they're cloning me, mama
Them niggas wannabes, mama
It's like (pfff) I'm the one they wanna be, mama
I just, I can't be out here being vulnerable, mama
I mean I kill 'em every time they do a song with me, mama
I do the hooks they sing along with me, mama
What more they want from me, mama?
Like that Lil Wayne boast, what he's saying as far as his status in rap barely even registers at first because his tone of voice and the way the verse is structured puts an emotional narrative—that of the son reassuring his mom everything is OK—before the content of the words. But when that content sinks in, these bars resolve themselves into a crushing put-down. This is Drake crossing up his opponents and dunking on them while they're still staring at the floor in front of them trying to figure out how he got by. This is him unlocking a x6 bonus with his finisher move. It's an excellent rap boast. It is another example of Drake changing the rules mid-game to score points other rappers didn't realize were being left on the court (the table? the ring? I know we're juggling a few different game metaphors here, but bear with me).
There's been a lot of discussion in the week since If You're Reading This It's Too Late came out about how to square this album with the Drake we all know and love. Others have rightfully pointed out that this album feels less relatable than his old work, that it's “soulless” and “emotionless,” that it shows a Drake who is “a composite of aspirational projections that has taken control of his host body” as well as a Drake who was secretly like this all along. I agree with all of that to some extent, but I don't think any of it necessarily detracts from the album's value even though emotion and soul and relatability were the things that made Drake compelling in the first place. If You're Reading This It's Too Late is Drake cashing in his rap points in the form of boasts, just like Wayne was doing when he ran rap so thoroughly he could use that fact to make statements about other parts of his life. This album is Drake’s latest and grandest move in the game, and it's a necessary one. It may not win much sympathy, but it will win points. It's rap designed for scorecards and gossipy blog posts and settling Twitter arguments with lyrics. Sports and music may be grand theaters in which we hope to see our greatest dramas enacted, but both often come down to petty technicalities and cool but pragmatic performances. Then again, as they say, hate the player. This is the game.
Kyle Kramer never ever thought he'd see these takes in his life. Follow him on Twitter.