Aubrey Drake Graham does not have a cool stage name. He did not pick a movie character, or a superhero, he has no hyphens or dollar signs. There are no numbers, or contractions, or any honorary regional slang. He just plucked his middle name, and built an empire around himself. William Leonard Roberts needed “Freeway” Ricky Ross, Robert “RZA” Diggs needed ’70s kung-fu cheese, but Drake has remained very comfortable being Drake. He loves the attention, and he has no desire to reflect it elsewhere. If we’re addicted to Drake’s solipsism, he’s addicted to our curiosity. It’s hard to think of a songwriter whose legacy is more entwined with a desire to tell his audience the ultra-specific details of his personal life.
Drake has been so convincing in his vulnerability, that he’s actually been able to convince the world that it’s all accidental. From bedazzled slogans like “YOLO,” to the way his romances seem to bubble up from his songs into TMZ headlines, he is aggressively transparent and desperately candid because that’s what his branding relies on. Steven Hyden, writing for Grantland, said that “The ‘real’ Drake is situated somewhere between a self-consciously constructed and self-aware avatar and the handpicked highlights of interpersonal drama he has chosen to share with strangers.” That’s where Drake stands in 2013; he’s either brave in earnestness or a master of the message, an honest over-sharer or a cognizant tragic-hero. If you’re a fan you might be inspired by his sincerity. If you’re a critic you have to be careful not to underestimate his intelligence. All of that adds up to an artist who’s become especially difficult to critique.
The only thing we’re guaranteed with any artist is what they’re willing to expose, but Drake’s done a phenomenal job in convincing us that he’s completely candid. Somehow Take Care and Nothing Was The Same sound like private admissions, not pop songs, and his reputation has mushroomed in their wake. Drake is perhaps the first rapper to turn broody, lovelorn damaged goods into a shtick. In opening his life to his audience, he’s created an airtight persona.
At this point Drake relies on his claims of transparency to perpetuate his own legacy. His brand requires him to present himself as a guy who’s really laying it all on the table. That’s why “Marvins Room” exists. That’s why “Too Much” exists. Those are the songs that make him famous. It’s hard to reconcile. We all know brands are lies, but it’s a lot more exciting to convince ourselves that Drake is accidentally letting these thoughts slip, that he’s forced to tell the ugly truth every time he’s in front of a microphone. The same could be said for a guy like Kanye West, whose manic id can make his records a lot more culturally prescient. If we’re being honest, both of these men have the cognition to know how their music and actions play into their brand, and those thoughts can be pretty depressing.
But does that really matter? At a certain point, does questioning the relative self-awareness of an artist make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things? We will never know who the real Drake is, just like how we will never know who the real Kanye is. (Or the real Lou Reed, PJ Harvey, or Tom Waits.) It’s quite possible that Drake might not be questionably self-obsessed, or vain, or overtly needy, or have a nasty misogynistic streak. In fact all of the qualities he willingly surrenders may be hilarious exaggerations designed to promote his own icon, but all that really matters is that they’re on record. The Drake on Nothing Was The Same will long outlive whatever the real Drake happens to be. For better or worse, that will always make the music better.