by Emma Carmichael
Aubrey “Drake” Graham released his sophomore album, Take Care, the other week. On it, Drake talks about many women, and sometimes a single woman, and all the ways they’ve hurt and mistreated the rapper-singer from Toronto. And, of course, there is one song on the album he reserves to sing directly to the ladies. It’s called “Make Me Proud” — and it’s his requisite Song for Women.
It’s hard to think of a current rapper who’s gotten as much out of this tradition as Drake, the 25 year old who is “hip-hop’s current center of gravity.” The Song For Women is not a new staple in hip hop — go back to LL Cool J’s breathy “I Need Love,” Eric B. & Rakim’s “What’s On Your Mind” or ATCQ’s whimsical “Bonita Applebum” for a basic tutorial in the craft — but Drake is just especially good at it. If there is one thing that no one does better than he does, it’s the Song For Women.
Drake writes songs like “Best I Ever Had” and “Fancy.” At concerts, he uses lengthy interludes to point at female fans in the audience and say what he likes about each of them: Her pink shirt, her smile, her poster. It doesn’t really matter what it is. Sometimes, he invites one of the women up onstage so that he can kiss her.
“The biggest thing about that song,” Drake said of “Best I Ever Had” just a few years ago, “is that a lot of women come up to me and say, ‘That’s my song, because it really makes me feel special.’”
Surprisingly, there’s one moment on Take Care that actually addresses the Song For Women, and the way women are treated in albums like Take Care. It’s not Drake who acknowledges it, but Kendrick Lamar, a rapper from Compton who just released his first major album, Section.80, last July, and who is currently opening for Drake on tour. The song, “Buried Alive,” is a brief addendum to “Marvin’s Room,” Drake’s ode to the desperate drunk-dial and all of the bitches in his old phone.
On “Buried Alive,” Lamar raps in a halting flow about giving up his old narrative to “go and get some head off the strength of my music.” He remembers having drinks with Drake in Toronto before he’d signed a deal and talking “casually about the industry and how the women be the tastemakers for the shit we making.”
After wrestling with this idea, Lamar decides at the end of the track that he’ll give in to the industry’s needs: “So dig a shovel full of money, full of power, full of pussy, full of fame/And bury yourself alive.”
Then, buried alive, he dies. Blame it on the tastemakers.
Destined for Top 40 radio at the moment mixing ends, the Song for Women always has a nice-sounding hook and lots of compliments about a particular woman. The rapper sometimes make an attempt at convincing said woman that her mind is just as sexy as her body. (This is often done clumsily.) Generally, the woman is celebrated for having some careful balance of “street” and “class.” She can have “brains” so long as she also give “brain.”
The music industry (and Kendrick Lamar) inform us that female listeners are hip hop’s main consumers, so artists like Drake feel a compulsion to write the track that makes doe-eyed, sing-a-long fools of us all. It’s proven to move units, after all. So the Song For Women is also very condescending — not necessarily to the woman it claims to be about, but implicitly so to the women who will buy the album and sing along to the song in the shower.
I’ve resisted Drake’s music for a long time, and I’ve done so in part because I think there can be a stupid, righteous honor in resisting those Songs For Women. Take Care is the first Drake album that I’ve ever liked. The album, most of which is produced by Toronto producer Noah “40” Shebib, is full of angsty pianos and sparse drum lines. It often sounds beautiful. Drake has even ditched the hashtag rap construction (“two thumbs up/Ebert and Roeper”) for a more fluid narrative in his rhymes. I get it now, I think: Drake’s life is complicated because Drake is rich and restless and eternally heartbroken and bitter about something a woman has done to him, and that’s his story. And that’s fine. At least on Take Care Drake’s complications have become somewhat interesting.
On the album, he finally sounds comfortable enough with (if also deeply critical of) himself: “I’m hearing all the jokes, I know that they tryna push me,” he raps on the Just Blaze-produced “Lord Knows,” “know that showin’ emotion don’t ever mean I’m a pussy/Know that I don’t make music for niggas who don’t get pussy/So those are the ones I count on to diss me or overlook me.” Drake’s learned how to deal with his haters; he’s learned to celebrate his boys from Toronto; he’s learned to celebrate his wealth and his fame. He sounds a little bit older. At times — listen to “Look What You’ve Done,” his tribute to his mother, uncle and grandmother — the album is even genuinely moving.
But the king of the Song For Women still doesn’t really know how to deal with his female tastemakers — even if he did want to find a way to critique the music industry on this album, he made sure that he didn’t have to do it himself. Drake certainly raps about women, but that’s a different construction entirely from writing to women. Instead, outside of the Song For Women construct, Drake writes mainly to other young men who have had bad breakups with women they might have loved, and he uses the words that those men would like to use with one another when they talk about those women in public. He says “ho” and “bitch” just as much as every other rapper in the game, and still gets away with lots of music critics celebrating his emotional depth and self-awareness because he’s often singing while he says it.
“Bitch I’m the man, don’t you forget,” he reminds exes in “Shot For Me.” “The way you walk, that’s me/The way you talk, that’s me.” He sings it in a soft, affecting voice, and it sounds nice. It’s something you want to sing along to.
Earlier this year, Frank Ocean, the singer-songwriter affiliated with the group Odd Future, released his debut mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra. It includes a track called “Songs For Women,” which has its very own intro, “Bitches Talkin’.” On the intro, Frank and two girls argue about what tape to put in the deck; the bitches want some Jodeci but Frank wants Radiohead.
“What is a Radiohead, anyway,” one of the women says disinterestedly as Frank cuts off Kid A’s “Optimistic” and “Songs For Women” comes in. The track is a genius parody of songs like “Best I Ever Had” and “Fancy.” And it’s just as catchy.
Ocean chronicles a relationship with an old girlfriend who’d once gotten “chills” when he harmonized to “Otis, Isley, Martin.” After a while, she “don’t even listen to” his songs, “but she be bangin’ that Drake in my car.” Over the course of the song, Ocean progresses from singing an intentionally clumsy “la da da da da” to “get at women” to singing an emotional “la da da da ah ah/’bout heartbreak” and “love lost.” Ocean creates a mindless radio song — “la da das” and all — that serves as a winking critique of the form. Drake’s Songs For Women have none of this complexity, and that has much more to do with the artist’s ability than he, or Kendrick Lamar, might care to admit. “See, I just don’t play fair/but it’s fair enough,” Ocean sings, as the song winds down.
On Take Care, Lamar (and, by extension, Drake) admit that the Song For Women requirement isn’t fair to the performer. But it’s also not fair to the listener. On Yelawolf’s new album, Radioactive, the Alabama native gets in a nod to the agreement as well. After “Throw It Up,” a wonderful track with guest verses from Gangsta Boo, a woman, and Eminem, there’s a brief interlude before the start of “Good Girl.” Eminem gets a call from Yela, and fields some advice: “You know what I was thinking, man? I think that the one thing that the album don’t have that it might be missin’, is like a song, for like, for girls.”
“What do you mean, for like, bitches?” Yela responds. The conversation sounds awkward, like a father explaining female anatomy to a young son.
“Nah, girls,” Em explains. “Like a love song… Yeah, man! Bitches like love songs.”
The wink doesn’t change the content of the song, but it makes the entire two-step of the Song For Women more conspiratorial. It lets us believe that by singing along, we’re both playing the industry in equal part.
On Take Care, Drake’s Song For Women is “Make Me Proud,” a duet with his label mate, Nicki Minaj. On it, Drake delivers the worst, most basic Drake verse in recent memory, and that’s coming from someone who considers most Drake verses to be, basically, the worst.
The track is condescending to an almost satirical extent. There is no wink. Drake drops the natural beauty lyric (“I love it when your hair’s still wet/Cause you just took a shower”), the body image lyric (“Running on a treadmill and only eating salad”), the brains lyric (“Sounds so smart, like you graduated college/Like you went to Yale, but you probably went to Howard”), and he closes with some nonsensical interpretation of female protest (“That’s why you wanna have no sex/Why you wanna protest, why you wanna fight for your right”).
Take Care’s Song For Women is padded with the usual inanities, a tribute the feminine qualities he thinks women want to hear him care about in a song. In the remainder of Take Care, though, when the Howard grad happens to become the bitch or the ho that won’t text him back, Drake stops addressing women, even in this rudimentary form, and turns toward his “soldiers” to rap to them about women.
In an interview with Stereogum earlier this month, Drake said that the music he’s making now has a “sex-driven chauvinistic undertone to it” because “that’s just where I’m at in my life.” There’s an appreciative level of self-awareness there, especially for a young artist who’s probably only going to get smarter as he gets older. But we’re already accustomed to chauvinism in hip hop; on Take Care, the women who are not Drake’s matriarchs are either treated like impassive, mindless listeners who need to be told they’ve made someone proud, or they need to be put in their place for doing him wrong. The “la da das” are only so distracting here.
In an unreleased verse from “Aston Martin Music” off of Rick Ross’ 2010 album, Teflon Don, Drake raps that he “hate calling the women bitches, but the bitches love it.” It’s one of many places where Drake, who’s changed a lot as an artist since we first heard him, gets tripped up in his own duplicity. “Sex-driven chauvinism” is the basis for a lot of other rappers’ narratives in hip hop. For Drake to conflate this new persona with the one who tries to make women “feel special” is an abuse of the privilege, and of the tastemakers’ tastes.
Drake’s not the prototype for the sensitive rapper anymore. He just plays one on his Songs For Women.