by Laur M. Jackson
Somewhere between Azealia Banks’ unfiltered stream of broken-clock consciousness and Sean Carter’s online (almost) non-presence lies an entire industry of musical artists who engage with social media with all the colorful distinction of eggshell white. Sure, interspersed between musical promotions and product announcements, many artists tweet and ‘gram with a casualness that suggests a unique voice or persona. But to compare and contrast the online presence of say, Ariana Grande and Gwen Stefani, as cultivated by the artists themselves, even the truest stans might have difficulty differentiating them on any sort of non-convoluted terms. The hashtags are too on point, the display just too prettily arranged, such that even the touches of internet vernacular — superfluous exclamations, a reckless lowercase — cannot prevent celebrity accounts from appearing exactly as the analytics-driven, corporate-approved productions that they are.
But then there are the artists whose online voices are so particular as to be almost an extension of their own creative work. Nowhere is this more readily observed than in hip hop culture. The prevalence of social media in hip hop is hardly surprising — as a culture driven most potently by creators’ abilities to invent a visual and vocal trademark, a style and presence all one’s own, the opportunity to expand into the virtual realm just makes sense. In rap, as one expansive genre within, this presence is substantiated by the individuated personal pronoun “I.” The “I” is an anchor, a liberating one, that allows variation and experimentation while maintaining the brand identity of a still-recognizable artist. The “I” of rap, Katja Lee explains, is made of “both reality and myth,” inclusive of the rapper’s own multiple voices (Busta, Kendrick) and multiple personalities (Eminem, Nicki) retained within the singularity. Slim Shady is still Eminem, but also Eminem is Eminem and Marshall Mathers; Nicki Minaj is Roman is Barbie is Martha is Nicki is Onika. Though arguable, a rapper’s ability to develop a recognizable and authoritative vocal persona may even supercede lyrical expertise in delineating the Greats from the “who is this?”-es.
The internet demands inclusion as a way to distinguish individuals in our contemporary rapper genealogy for this reason. “Old school” and “new school” as style categories are generally limited to evaluations of whether a rapper represents a resurrected likeness of the Greats of old (or not) — contemporary rappers who “take us back” and inhabit a “classic” sound versus those whose artistic commitments lie elsewhere (for better or worse, depending on who you ask). But old school / new school acquires better coherence for consideration of how new(er) artists utilize the internet (or don’t) to constitute their voice.
Though perhaps not in terms of monetized spread, the new school reigns online, headed by rappers whose style can best be described as internet-extraordinaire: Tyler, The Creator; Childish Gambino; and others for whom persona seems as influenced by the internet as the other way around. Those two especially have, it seems, built their millennial-heavy following through their adroit manipulation and exploitation of internet culture.
If asked to describe Gambino, Tyler, Earl Sweatshirt, or Lil B to someone who had no clue who they were, my guess is that most would begin, justifiably, with their various internet-related antics: from Lil B’s curse to Tyler’s early penchant for all caps, to Gambino’s most successful album to date, Because the Internet — which, despite numerous listens, I can’t seem to describe in any way but “internet sublime.” But even as these artists are in fact incredibly invested in internet culture, they have a nonchalance about their craft that feels just as much so us as the ability to flawlessly incorporate meme’d lingo in their lyrics. Gambino allegedly selected his name from a Wu-Tag Clan name generator — exactly the bittersweet mixture of nostalgia and irreverence — and Pitchfork’s Mike Powell’s assertion of Lil B’s disinterest in anything like an artistic legacy might be correct.
A photo posted by Nicki Minaj (@nickiminaj) on Dec 24, 2014 at 4:39pm PST
In some ways the ascendant, afro-futurist final evolution of internet weirdos Gambino and Tyler (who are moreso overwhelmingly afro-present), Nicki Minaj absolutely revels in all things social media. A culture of memes, clapbacks, emojis, photo responses, selfies, screenshots, and shitpics are all raw material to be reposted, repurposed in the sonic particularity of her persona. In effect, social media temporality only intensifies Minaj’s own instantaneity, as a rapper with an affinity for shock and disturbance who punctuates her work with all manner of growls, pitch changes, chuckles, tongue rolls, and others sounds that defy my descriptive capabilities.
Stan that I am, I ever remain in a follow/unfollow relationship with Nicki’s Twitter account, annoyed by the borderline breaches of netiquette, the flood of replies offset for all to see, yet amused in spite of it all. Finding out Nicki has a ghost tweeter would be more devastating than Drake’s ghostwriter revelations because her online persona seems to be a 1:1 match for what she puts out there as a performer. Follow Minaj, and she holds court on your timeline; follow Minaj and never question the glorious, flawless, monstrosity of her rapperdom.
By comparison, someone like Drake, despite his occasional playfulness on social media, has often seemed earnest, almost to the point of vintage. He’s a rather odd fit in the old school/new school matrix of contemporary rap. He has the resume to fulfill the quirky, hipster-ish type: His core fan demographic (people my age?) remember him well on Degrassi. Though Drake doesn’t hide from Jimmy, he also hasn’t really parlayed that role into any sort of guaranteed millennial-cosign via nineties-kid nostalgia. His lyrics display a fondness for analogies legible to we raised on the Frat Pack (“race for your love, shake and bake, Ricky Bobby”) and Pixar (“swimmin’ in the money come and find me: Nemo”), but he is no Gambino, whose flow literally thrives on punning (look no further than “Sweatpants”). Gambino disowned his 2005 The Younger I Get in part because of criticism that it was “an overly-vulnerable Drake-lite,” as if too much raw investment, is, in his metric, indeed a bad thing. If Gambino is the irreverent internet mad scientist, Drake is the very serious scholar: the hip hop historian.
In a mixture of appeals to an established industry apparatus and flippancy about rap’s conventions, Drake released a mixtape on iTunes and charged for it. And yet, he also uploads tracks to Soundcloud, an indie-ish venue shared by artists of local celebrity and oh-god-no-why amateurs alike. In the currency of track features, Drake distributes his voice widely, but has never appeared super hungry for guest spots from established giants to validate his own work in exchange — a youthful arrogance much akin to another peer, Kendrick Lamar. His rise, however, is quite old school: introduction via an uber popular mentor — Lil Wayne — within a crew of similarly positioned apprentices, a loyalty to whom he maintains, irrespective of success.
Part of Drake’s mixed musical heritage includes an openness to pop’s conventions to validate himself as an artist within hip hop. Though Beyoncé is not a rapper, Drake has, it seems, learned much from her — how an acquired prestige allows for a certain abstraction on social media, even the withholding of one’s own vocal signature. Especially in this most recent era, Bey is every bit the visual artist, whose voluminous vocals are reserved for the stage and track alone. Even her Tumblr, substantiated by an “I Am” reminiscent of a lyrical speaker, is an image-first enterprise. Her “seen, not heard,” “art first” campaign remains topical since that world-stopping album release, reignited with her appearance in the prestigious September issue of Vogue sans interview, quip, or signature. Anyone in the BeyHive can point out her preference for handwritten messages — some even saw her typed out congratulations to the recently wedded Kim and Kanye as a snub — as if even her text must prioritize a visual eminence. The intrigue is masterful and something only an artist at her level could achieve — as Yale professor Daphne A. Brooks describes, an at-once “hyper-visibility and inaccessibility,” cultivated in the past by others like Josephine Baker but overall not a privilege generally available to Black women, celebrity or not.
Leon Neyfakh, in as comprehensive a character study can be found of Drake, observed in his performance at this year’s OVO Fest the final notch in an ascension from hip hop personality to virtuosic pop god — on par with Kanye, Swift, and of course the Queen B herself. Much like the Queen, Drake has an uncanny affinity for anticipating the activity of his audience, providing what we want most to latch onto before even thinking to ask. Neyfakh likens Drake’s attunement to superpowers, to which I’ll add another — a trending clairvoyance, if you will. Beyoncé launched “to the left,” “put a ring on it,” and “flawless” (honorable mention: “surfboardt” and its various derivations). Drake gave us the Motto — YOLO — but that was only the beginning.
Insanul Ahmed wrote last year that Complex has long speculated that Drake “wrote all his lyrics with social media in mind.” Even those deterred by certain lyrical red herrings as recent as “Energy” (“Fuck goin’ online, that ain’t part of my day” is an easy catch, but how mocking are those stretched vowels on “Wi-Fi,” “timeline,” and “friends”?) must now disabuse themselves the pre-beef notion that Drake is anything but the ultimate hip-hop technocrat, the anti-managerial flipside to Jay-Z’s practiced stewardship. He is the foil. Hip hop’s Night’s King. In Drake’s case, the “I” online was very very silent and we were never so ripe for manipulation as when we mistook that silence for absence, though anyone who’s been paying attention long realized he has been among us all along.
As relayed by — yes — Meek Mill, “This social media world was,” according to Jay-Z, “created for people that wouldn’t even speak if they wasn’t present.” The “they” here is ambiguous. It is unclear whether, as translated by Meek, it is an accusation of cowardice or voicelessness, bravado or non-persona. AAVE allows us the slippage. The former — “if [social media] wasn’t present” — implies a demographic emboldened to the point of disrespect. Those who are truly, in the words of Hov, “loud as a motorbike / But wouldn’t bust a grape in a fruit fight.” Irony not lost that the message resonates with Meek. But the latter insertion — “if [people] wasn’t present” — somehow is more characteristic of a rapper of some sort of old(er) school, potentially past his lyrical prime, yet as virtuosic in voice and character as ever.
I’ve seen it said more than once that nobody can clown Drake more than Drake himself, which remains ever true. He takes in memes, mediates them in lyrics, and produces a new meme regime. Out of Drake’s rumored preference for bigger women (from partners who aren’t quite as reserved on social media) and jokes at his expense, the rapper made “the type to want to suck you dry and eat some lunch with you” a repeatable category, with a knowing nod to the phraseology of the many “Drake the type” memes out there. Out of his Canadian roots came 6God. To claims that his softness (by virtue of a supposed deviation from black heteromasculinity) makes him rapper-ineligible, he put out “Started From the Bottom” and had a whole nation of white kids pasting the lyrics on #TBT uploads, yearbooks, and graduation photos. His latest solo-mixtape-slash-album-or-who-knows-what-to-call-it, released the Beyoncé way, features album art with the punctuation removed — as my colleague Jean Thomas Tremblay observed, If Youre Reading This Its Too Late is preemptively hashtaggable, trendable, thus begging to be circulated. The font is easily replicable: Less than 24 hours post-release, designers Rik Lomas and Simon Whybray put up a site allowing users to create their own IYRTITL parodies.
From YOLO to “woes” Drake has understood his position as a persona readily meme’d, gif’d, and packaged for circulation on the internet. The adaptive quality of his image knows itself as ripe for rumor and memeification. He is, arguably, the most memeable rapper of all time.
(Soon to be supplanted by DJ Khaled? The differences between Drake’s and DJ Khaled’s memeability is certainly worth thinking about. Both are certainly interested in monetizing memes in some way, though Drake seems to be reaching more towards a cultural omnipotence undergirded by assets, while DJ Khaled is more content to sell gear and (maybe?) endorsement deals — Dove and Listerine as the key to success? But also people are already starting to get burned out; bound to happen to a character that deals in stock phrases versus adaptivity 🔑)
Drake, too, is very much art first in voice, yet remains tuned in enough to transcend the internet as an entity that always seems to be accumulating the means to make him a mockery. How much Drake actually enjoys the internet was an undecided question when I first set to write on this subject early summer, long before Meek’s mouthiness forced the technophobic facade to drop, before our first undeniable instance of Drake interacting with the internet on a memeified level. Since then, the proverbial curtain pulled aside, we now get to see a Drake totally involved in internet play. And it’s great! He posts memes! Like, often. Shitpics, too! Screenshots! And whatever we call those photos where you use a still image or gif to illustrate affect.
Nothing yet indexes Drake’s transition better than the release of and subsequent mania over the music video for “Hotline Bling” (which refuses to die). The video’s choreographer Tanisha Scott — a very Drake choice in vein with the rapper as historian, which says “I’ve done my homework” — describes Drake as “borderline brilliant,” a genius the fellow Toronto native anchors to his (meme instincts). “We were looking at playbacks, and he was like, ‘This is totally going to be a meme.’” And it totally did.
A photo posted by champagnepapi (@champagnepapi) on Dec 18, 2015 at 8:20am PST
Another Toronto institution almost in his own right (if the ability to siphon Drake’s language through a dad-like, politics-obscuring charm counts), city councillor Norm Kelly has been enfolded into Drake’s world for real, a development that feels more a part of the fun of shared nativity and ascendency than some sort of career maneuver on behalf of either. This is where I bow to Toronto writer Amani’s expertise on Drake as an artist whose creative attunement is irrevocably substantiated by his Torontoness / Blackness in ways often overlooked or clumsily excused by critics. To avoid doing the former at least, I’ll note that an acuity of the networks that constitute Aubrey Graham’s diasporic hybridity must be woven into any forward-thinking analysis of Drake-the-rapper.
So there is of course a risky flipside to all this fun. My mom uses “oversaturated” to describe celebrities whose everywhereness has overstepped the bounds of relevance into the realm of nuance. Oprah, Beyoncé, and more recently Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift have all — for her — fallen prey to a presence that doth protest too much, that tries too hard — that, in other words, reveals a little too much the churning involved on behalf of a superstardom’s corporatized underbelly. (Think she’s coming around on Bey, though, through no small effort of my own.) Even well-orchestrated memes depend on at least the illusion of spontaneity. Someone has to be the loser, caught off guard and unawares. Where “too good” actually becomes a liability, overexposure to Drake’s meme genius could see him divested of trickster status for real. From jokester to clown.
I am wary, but trusting. To say Drake takes himself less seriously or to call this relax-mode would be foolish. For it is in fact this most recent levelling up that allows room for a revelry not previously made visible. Maybe Drake is a pop superhuman — only, what other genre but rap is expert signifyin’ the ultimate power move? Even a casual Bergsonian reading of the comic knows the very event of humor involves the equivocal superpositioning of parties involved, with Drake as one constellary persona in a solar arena of performers needing to eclipse each other by any means necessary.
The counter-intuitive bottom line is that he has passed a threshold of his own making and can now truly embed himself in the internet low: Be one of us, reachable by virtue of untouchability. No longer the panopticon — yet as panoptic as ever — this emergent-era Drake knows his always ever-eminent triumph on the internet and as such, transforms what that space means for him as an artist and for us as an audience. Not an arena or even a stage any longer, the internet is his playground and we’re all invited.