OVO Sound is excellent at the business of making Drake albums, but not yet the no-brainer star-making force up North it could be.
Late last month Toronto R&B/house duo Majid Jordan gave an interview at New York rap radio staple Hot 97’s Ebro in the Morning show about the advancing profile of new Canadian hip-hop and their own ascent on the heels of Drake’s “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” the 2013 hit single they co-wrote and co-produced for their label head’s Nothing Was the Same. A quirky tidbit about the creation of the song and album immediately made the rounds. Singer Majid Al Maskati described the studio as a “camp”: “I slept in a tent in the studio.” Round-the-clock recording sessions are by no means out of the ordinary in hip-hop or elsewhere. Think of Kanye West flying a confederation of stars out to Hawaii to assist in the making of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
But OVO feels different in that so far it is serving the inverse function of a rap label. Young Money and Cash Money—the Birdman and Lil Wayne imprints to which OVO Sound counts itself as a descendant—became Southern rap supernovas by sharing and spreading star power; Mannie Fresh used his production talents to bolster the career of B.G and Juvenile, who in turn lifted up Lil Wayne, who brought up Drake, Nicki Minaj, and Tyga. OVO Sound, on the other hand, is stacked with good talent dangling in the orbit of their benefactor. It’s almost more of a Brill Building for Drake records than a hip-hop label.
From the late ‘50s through the early ‘60s, New York music publishing firm Aldon Music enjoyed unprecedented success thanks to partnerships with a roster of songwriters that ranks among pop music’s greatest: Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Paul Simon, Neil Diamond, Neil Sedaka, the list goes on. From an unassuming building on Broadway in Manhattan, the Aldon team manufactured a steady stream of timeless hits like the Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and Ben E. King’s “Spanish Harlem” and “Stand by Me.” With certain exceptions, the best tunes cooked up by the Brill Building writers would be farmed out to more easily marketed acts, who shot up the charts, often leaving the writers’ own singing careers lingering until they moved into a different work arrangement. Sound familiar?
As the satellite of one of the best-selling artists of the era, OVO Sound has enjoyed a curious dual legacy. The breadwinner of the batch, Drake consistently logs gold and platinum records in a time where hip-hop album sales are in decline. In employing an ever-evolving roster of young, hungry talent to help with production and writing, he gives crucial exposure to artists from Toronto and beyond that they wouldn’t get from toiling away on their own. That said, when you scan the individual plights of artists who’ve received the prestigious 6 God cosign over the years, it’s questionable whose end of the deal is sweetest.
For many, Drake’s evergreen hunt for new talent is more about self-preservation than the elevation of his art form. A spat arose last summer when “Hotline Bling,” first loosely advertised as a remix to Virginia rapper D.R.A.M.’s ascendant “Cha Cha,” eclipsed its source material without sampling or even referencing the original. D.R.A.M. publicly expressed his displeasure, tweeting “Yeah, I feel like I got jacked for my record, but I’m GOOD.” (Drake later offered a slippery explanation to The Fader, saying he took cues from dancehall, where “you’ll have a riddim and it’s like, everyone has to do a song to that.”) In October, after Drake was seen dancing to rising rapper Kodak Black’s bubbling street hit “SKRT” on Instagram, Earl Sweatshirt snarked “Drake found Kodak Black? SMH welp,” clarifying shortly after that “Drake can be a bit of a vulture on young rap niggas.” (Ontario OVO Sound signee Roy Wood$ has since released his own version of “SKRT.”)
R&B megastar the Weeknd knows the feeling; many of the best songs on Drake’s 2011 high watermark Take Care were originally intended for the singer’s 2011 House of Balloons mixtape. “I gave up almost half my album,” he told Rolling Stone last year. He was appreciative of the opportunities Drake’s friendship afforded but also noted, quite darkly: “You never know what I would say if this success wasn't in front of me now.” The Weeknd shocked the hip-hop world when he signed with Universal Republic instead of his friend and collaborator, but the separation ultimately paid off handsomely with last year’s soon-to-be-platinum pop pivot Beauty Behind the Madness. One wonders how far along he’d be right now if he took the other path.
OVO signees typically get a boost when Drake pops up on their singles, but it’s rarely enough to create a lasting chart impact. Atlanta trap cherub iLoveMakonnen’s 2014 hit “Tuesday” notably went platinum and scored a shock Grammy nomination off a Drake remix, but his iLoveMakonnen EP, admittedly a commercial repackaging of a pre-existing free product, stalled out at #72 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. The excellent follow up iLoveMakonnen 2 hasn’t had the same fortune. Singer and producer PARTYNEXTDOOR’s debut studio album PARTYNEXTDOOR 2 opened at a respectable #15 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, with first week sales nearing 16k units, but slipped precipitously out of ranking in three weeks’ time, failing to rebound even after the release of a video for the Drake-assisted “Recognize” with cameos from Kendall and Kylie Jenner. Roy Wood$’ Exis EP was a blip on the R&B and hip-hop charts for a week last August. Everyone gets a darkly seductive video treatment and courtesy digital EP or two and a moment in the periphery of Drake’s spotlight, but no one has matched the success of other artists signed to rappers’ labels like Wale of Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group and G.O.O.D. Music’s Big Sean.
The lack of chart traction here is doubly confusing in light of Drake and go-to producer Noah “40” Shebib’s undeniable fingerprints on the landscape of mainstream hip-hop. The spectral organs, snapping drums, and plaintive vocals of Kentucky singer Bryson Tiller’s top 20 debut single “Don’t” adroitly ape the sound of Drake’s breakthrough Trey Songz powwow “Successful.” Tiller’s debut album T R A P S O U L opened at #11 on the albums chart and, two more Hot 100 entries later, nears 200k units sold. (Tiller, it should be noted, once got a text from Drake offering to sign him but passed.) Toronto singer/rapper Tory Lanez, who once pretended to be Drake’s brother as a gimmick and recently found himself in Aubrey’s crosshairs on a diss track, has a hit with “Say It,” a sultry synthesis of ‘90s R&B you wouldn’t crane your neck at hearing on a Drake Pandora station. The OVO sound is enduringly popular, but outsiders are beating Drake’s own artists to the charts.
Perhaps the trouble is marketing. Drake frequently deals in mysteries and surprises, and while it’s thrilling for an artist of his stature to drop a fully conceived project out of the sky, as he did with last year’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and attempted again with the Future mind meld What a Time to Be Alive, it’s not the best plan of attack for lesser known properties. PARTYNEXTDOOR’s 2013 signing was revealed when a track from his self-titled debut popped up on Drake’s October’s Very Own blogspot. The tape appeared in the iTunes Store a week later and pushed 2,000 units week one. Roy Wood$ and Drake’s “Drama” was featured in the first edition of Apple Music’s OVO Sound Radio, but Wood$’ signing wasn’t pieced together until a fan forum noticed the official label Twitter account had begun following him. Two weeks later Exis’ street date was abruptly announced three days out from the drop. Maintaining an air of mystery around new signings and releases might sustain the label’s cultivated cool, but it also limits a young artist’s reach. OVO Sound banks too heavily on the magnetic pull of the Drake association in its moves with new artists while the competition blitzes print, blogs, and radio all the way to the charts.
OVO Sound seems anxious to change its luck with the rollout of Majid Jordan’s self-titled debut album. Their three stylish music videos, Drake feature, and recent hour set on OVO Sound Radio (the same night the combative Views from the 6 single “Summer Sixteen” premiered) constitute the most involved launch for any OVO release barring Drake's, and the duo certainly deserves the push. Majid Jordan is a sturdy batch of catchy songs and a far less tricky sell than PARTYNEXTDOOR’s goon lullabies, Roy Woods’ unsteady warble, and iLoveMakonnen’s stoned glee, but there is still a sense that they gave up their best song to earn their platform. Al Maskati was optimistic with Ebro about turning “Hold On, We’re Going Home” over to Drake: “The way we approach music is: never feel like the idea that you have today is gonna be the last idea you ever have.” The swanky “Something About You” has a good amount of Youtube views and is creeping up the Rhythmic Songs chart, but Hits Daily Double posted sales projections for the best selling releases of the last week, and Majid Jordan was conspicuously absent. Drake's Twitter account has yet to mention that it came out.
In the delightfully smarmy summer 2015 Meek Mill diss “Charged Up,” Drake famously quipped “Come live all your dreams out at OVO,” but after three years, it’s looking like the dream they’re selling is sexy art direction and clutch credits on the boss’s albums. OVO Sound is excellent at the business of making Drake albums, but not yet the no-brainer star-making force up North it could be, possibly because the tightest songs get run up the pipeline and placed at the feet of the 6 God. Until the label sharpens its promotional strategy and finds its own Meek—a rapper captivating enough to use the Drake co-sign and OVO Sound resources as stepping stones to greatness, as Drake himself did with Lil Wayne and Young Money, and Wayne did with Birdman and Cash Money—it’ll remain a pretty museum of collaborators Drake likes who don’t blow up.
Craig is listening to "Love Is Always There" on repeat all year. Follow him on Twitter.