Started from "Started from the Bottom:" On Listening to Drake for the First Time
"I know Drake likes sweaters."
[Editor's Note: Nick Greene usually writes for about Adult Contemporary, but this week he is writing about Drake. Who he has never listened to before.]
Until last week (Friday, to be specific), I had never heard a Drake song.
Okay, that’s inaccurate. I’m sure I’ve heard one of his songs played over the PA system at a basketball or baseball game or piped through a bar’s bathroom speaker. I’ve also listened to him guest on other artists’ tracks, but I couldn’t give you the slightest gist of one of these verses even if you paid me—and you’d be surprised at how often strangers come up to me on the street offering me money to describe Drake verses.
I don’t live under a rock, nor am I some cultural snob who only listens to Danish children’s choir covers of Edith Piaf tunes. I’d say I’m “with it,” but I’d say so in a tone of voice that makes it evident I know the phrase is dated and self-defeating and therefore, after all the ironic double-negatives are tallied up, an actual signifier of my comfortable proximity to “it.”
If you’d be so kind, please agree that I’m too cool to have never listened to Drake and we can move along at a better pace.
Drake is someone who seems to have a legitimate shot at becoming the biggest recording artist in the world. I know this isn’t laughable because I’ve actually made this argument to friends and colleagues and they didn’t laugh at me. They also were unaware that I hadn’t the slightest clue about any of his music, but that’s beside the point.
Because Drake is someone whose popularity and importance is so great he demands an entire week’s worth of dedicated coverage on this website, it’s only fair to ask why someone like myself—who we’ve both agreed is cool—has never heard a single one of his songs before. And, maybe more importantly, why this has been so easy.
We’ve reached the part of the essay where I talk about how immersed we are in information and cultural attitudes on Twitter, Facebook, etc., because every essay about any kind of contemporary trend takes this route. This argument has passed cliché and has become understood as fact. But this kind of networking and supposed communal back-and-forth isn’t really immersion. It allows us to passively skim the events, characters, and feelings of the day. It’s like a train passenger gazing out the window: He sees factories go by, but he couldn’t tell you what they make or if they are even operational. He does know that there are definitely factories there, and if he sees enough of them he becomes pretty confident in his knowledge of factories.
This is how I’ve come to know Drake so well that actually listening to his music never really struck me as something I should perhaps give a shot.
I know Drake likes sweaters, and that Drake is sometimes sad, or that he’s Canadian and portrayed a wheelchair-bound high schooler on a Canadian television show. I know he’s half-Jewish and plays FIFA and has an obsession with Aliyah. I know all of this through Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and television commercials, and I know all of this without actually making an effort to know it.
This is what cultural osmosis looks like in 2013. It’s fun and easy to a fault. I know Drake the meme, and that’s it.
Being plugged into networks and passively soaking up cultural trends isn’t anything new, but the process has changed. Had Drake been around 25 years ago, I would have heard one of his songs on FM radio. From there, depending on how much I liked (or hated) that song, I’d try to find out more about him. I’d put myself in position to have more information about Drake transmitted to me. I’d listen to the radio at times when I knew he’d be likely to come on. I’d buy magazines if they teased an interview with him on the cover. I would watch him on television if I heard he was scheduled to appear.
I would find out about everything else—the Canadian stuff and sweater stuff and the being sad stuff—to buttress the disembodied music that originally came my way. Today, this entire process is reversed.
And so, despite being able to listen to Drake without leaving my computer—a location where I spend far too large of a percentage of my days—I remain completely and totally ignorant of his music. That is until I was asked to write a review of Nothing Was The Same for Noisey. (Yes, they intentionally commissioned someone who hadn’t so much as heard a Drake single to write about his newest album. They are stupid and I thank them very much.)
Nothing Was The Same, or #NWTS, as I repeatedly saw on Twitter after it dropped, may or may not be a good introduction to Drake.
The first track, “Tuscan Leather,” is named after a cologne, includes a sped up Whitney Houston sample, and packs so many references that he manages to fit one in about Memento. It seemed like this was all going to be too much. By verse three he jokingly wonders how long he’s going to spend on the intro, and I began to realize why music writers seldom go one hundred words about Drake without using the term “self-aware.”
The album progresses confidently, and the stand-out tracks (“Too Much,” especially), are the ones where he gets autobiographical without posturing too much or trying to be funny. Elsewhere, Drake tries very hard. Whether he’s trying to be tough or trying to be humorous, he approaches everything within the album with with an overachiever’s evident need to please.
Still, it’s kind of nice to listen to someone like this, especially if you are expecting a lot (as I was). On the whole, I am impressed at how talented a lyricist he is. This may sound patronizing—hell, it may be patronizing—but to someone listening to Drake for the first time this is what really stands out. It becomes even more evident when juxtaposed with Jay-Z’s awful verse on “Pound Cake.” (Seriously, they’re going to have to go back and scrub this album of Jay like Spielberg removing all the guns from E.T.)
Nothing Was The Same is long and varied; some tracks are pared down and stark while others, like the lush R&B throwback “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” are super-polished. Besides just being “polished”—which is a stupid way to describe a song but still less douchey than “clean”—“Hold On, We’re Going Home” is a total jam and prevented me from listening to the album in one unbroken take because I kept replaying it. I think I’ll be replaying a lot of songs off Nothing Was The Same for a while.
There are going to be billions of words written about this album. That’s how things operate now, and all of these reviews and think pieces and “takes”—of which this is very much included, no matter how under-informed or naval-gazing it is—are going to add to the steady stream of information that will continue to define and project itself upon a very popular artist.
But for once, it will be nice to absorb these things actually knowing what Drake’s music is like.
Oh, and he’s not nearly as sad as you all made him out to be.
Nick Greene must be sadder than Drake. He's on Twitter — @nickgreene
As part of Drake Week, yesterday we pondered "What If Every Song on Drake's New Album Was an Episode of Seinfeld?" in a new piece by @Seinfeld2000. Drake Week continues tomorrow.