Shea Serrano points out in The Rap Yearbook that Drake is “the first (and thus far only) rap giant that the Internet actualized, and from there it was fine if the Internet was part of your origin story.”
Drake’s fame stems from his internet-popularized persona; a sensitive, confident, and lovably corny hip-hop artist cut from a different cloth than the stereotypically hyper-masculine street artists. The maintenance of this persona is directly tied to Drake’s actual music; solipsistic accounts of Drake’s personal emotions as a consequence of his relationships with other people. Combine this with Drake’s internet ties, and you get a reflection of the egoistic base that charges social media interaction.
Self-worth and success are measured by the perception of outsiders. The actual relationships that still dominate the majority of life are now compartmentalized due to our social media habits. People choose their relationships based on how another person gratifies their need for positive attention. These attitudes inform Drake’s music, which has successfully transferred the role of egoism in popular hip-hop from an attempt at uplifting the morale of oppressed minority communities into the maintenance of people who look to others for approval and self-gratification.
The relationship between egoism, misogyny and hip-hop is widely known, but not well understood. Though it’s easy to dismiss the majority of rap music as sexist and self-interested, to do so would also dismiss rap’s expression of African American attitudes from the end of the 20th century to the beginning of the new millennium, and onward. Much of the egocentrism in rap stems from The Five Percent Nation (aka the Nation of Gods and Earths), a branch of the Nation of Islam centered in Harlem whose main focus was the uplift of black self-esteem. Five Percenters referred to their men as Gods and their women as Earths. These terms seem blasphemous, but in reality, they’re based in an ethos that sought to wash away the lingering effects of white oppression and white supremacy.
Black men and women were struggling to respect themselves day-by-day while worshipping a white Jesus. The Five Percenters worked to change African American’s self-perceptions and had a notable influence on renewing a sense of pride in Harlem youths, many of whom were the future progenitors of East Coast rap. Rakim, Nas, Erykah Badu, Jay-Z and The Wu-Tang Clan were all affected by the teachings of the Five Percent Nation and spread Five Percenter teachings either indirectly or directly through their music. They took on personas of young black men and women who were confident and successful despite their harsh upbringings in ghetto communities.
Mafioso and braggadocio rap, as popularized by Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and perfected by Biggie Small’s Life After Death, showcased characters who were wildly successful both commercially and on the streets; black superheroes who were invincible, sexual, rich and successfully violent. As a consequence, women were often exploited as a means to express a rap artist’s success and sexual proficiency. But art reflects reality, and artists are expressers of their communities. ‘90s street rap is a record of black America’s struggle for self-actualization, showcasing the fact that years of subjugation led to black communities attempting to recover a sense of confidence while simultaneously suffering from misconceptions of what success and the value of women really were. Albums like Biggie’s Ready to Die explored these very themes through the artist’s personal introspection, as well as through examination of the psychologies of African American communities. They balanced hedonistic pleasure, actual emotional connections, and the deep existential dread that shadowed it all.
Contextually, the sexism and violence that were central to the formation of rap music are, in reality, an accurate expression of the very real pain and social struggling that has hampered black communities for hundreds of years. The best rap artists don’t shy away from that pain. They use it as a way to express how they’ve been hurt and to offer commentary. Rap music brought black issues to the forefront of cultural conversation while also being entertaining and influential. Contemporarily, rap heavily influences pop music, but the internet revolution in combination with the increased importance of social media perception has shifted the expression of the ego in hip-hop music. Many modern rap artists’ sense of self-importance is not a spirited response to attempted oppression so much as it is a reflection of new social attitudes.
The internet offers compartmentalization, and compartmentalization allows us to pick and choose entertainment without having to wade through hours of syndication. That much we understand. Less well understood is how the internet also allows for a similar compartmentalization of human relationships. Social media sites are landscapes of specific interactions, allowing millions of people to pick who they want to talk to whenever they want to talk to them.
This has had a direct effect on romantic relationships. The internet revolution essentially compartmentalizes the self-actualization and sexual awakening that was started by the baby boomers, allowing people to pick and choose potential romantic partners based on the personas perceived on social media profiles. That’s why people invest so much in their social media personas; a lot of self-worth stems from how you’re perceived on the internet.
Because other people are needed to gratify this narcissism, we form online relationships as a way to gratify our own self-perception. We tailor our personas to what we think other people will like. These new, contemporary attitudes towards seeing relationships as tools for the fulfillment of our own personal wants has been well reflected in Drake’s music for years.
The song that first notably linked the relationship between Drake’s music and contemporary attitudes regarding relationships is “Marvin’s Room,” off of Drake’s second studio album, Take Care. The song recounts a depressed Drake drunk dialing his ex to talk down her current boyfriend. Drake’s actions in the song are self-interested, a fact that’s acknowledged and then brushed to the side within the song itself, “The woman that I would try is happy with a good guy/But I’ve been drinking so much that I’mma call her anyway and say.” Troubling selfish themes aside, the use of Ericka Lee’s voice talking through a phone gave the song a millennial touch. It was the first potent display of Drake’s ability to tune into the current social zeitgeist.
In Views, contemporary selfish attitudes regarding relationships informs Drake’s attitudes towards women. In the album’s opening track, “Keep the Family Close”, Drake laments that his exes are no longer his friends. The song balances a sense of ego with the vulnerability that comes from wanting his ex-girlfriends’ validation. Drake criticizes his exes for not meeting his expectations, while simultaneously guilting them for not serving his interests. Drake wants their attention and devotion but only if they align with his preferences. Basically, he’s treating them like different personas on social media sites. A similar sentiment can be found in the song “U With Me?”: “On some DMX shit, I group DM my exes/I tell em they belong to me that goes on for forever”.
Drake is selectively possessive of the women in his life, and desires their complete devotion. But he doesn’t want to have to reciprocate the same conditions.
Drake also blames the women in his life for the problems and/or dissolution of their relationships without taking any of the emotional responsibility. He might note other outside factors, like the demands of his career in “Feel No Ways”, or the greed and jealousy of other women in “Controlla”. But when it comes to the direct relationship between Drake and his girl, the girl is always at fault.
Drake’s ex-girlfriends are perceived as mutineers who lost faith in Drake despite the fact that in many cases, he wasn’t even offering them any attention at all: “Sydney gave up on me when I went missin’/Syn had a baby and treated me different.” This view of women as betrayers is amplified in Hotline Bling, “Ever since I left the city you/Got a reputation for yourself now/Everybody knows and I feel left out/Girl you got me down you got me stressed out.” Drake is absent from ex’s life but still jealous and controlling of her actions. He exerts that control by shaming his ex for moving on and enjoying her life without him.
Drake’s perception of women is a reflection of the kind of narcissism that informs a generation who use relationships as a way to earn gratification for their customized representative personas. The music is a reflection of a culture that has a difficult time seeing beyond themselves when it comes to the people they form their ties with. While self-confidence has always been a key element of American ideology, that confidence should be used as a way to strengthen relationships through a shared sense of interdependence. In other words, being confident should make it easier for others to have confidence in you.
But with the advent of social media, people now pour their sense of self-worth into the outside validation of their online personas, and form one-sided relationships that use other people to gratify their need for attention. Drake sees the women in his life not as partners, but as a means to gain the social gratification that he craves.
This view of relationships is immature. It lacks empathy. Relationships, whether they’re romantic or not, are mutual affairs that require the support of both parties to maintain successfully. The fact that Drake can so successfully market music that describes one-sided relationships is troubling, especially when the women are also blamed for the division of those relationships. Drake is confused why his exes don’t want to remain friends with him. He doesn’t seem to realize that it’s because he was never actually friends with them in the first place.