Drake, LeBron James and The Greatest Summer [Article]
4:32 left. A raucous American Airlines arena is on its feet with a mixture of urgency and terror. Their beloved Miami Heat are down by 7 points with ball in hand. The Heat have struggled to penetrate Dallas’ exemplary perimeter defence so far with LeBron James limited to just four points in the fourth quarter. The ball swings around the outside of the key as they look for the extra pass and a mismatch. It lands in the hands of James, his 6ft 8″ frame towering over the diminutive but calculating J.J. Barea. In any other game, James would have spun by him into the lane and attacked the rim, but when it mattered most, he passed. The resulting play ended in a turnover and helped crown the Dallas Mavericks as the 2011 NBA Champions. James finished the game with his head in his hands, surrounded by a cacophony of criticism. The “next Jordan” had failed in the clutch. There was no “next Jordan” about it. At this stage, he’d be lucky to be the “next Paul Pierce.”
As Dwyane Wade’s little brother trundled off the court, his #6 jersey in his face, he knew the questions that were going to be asked in the press conference, even before he took his seat. He knew them because he’d positioned himself to face them. The commercials, the press junkets, ‘the Decision.’ All a concerted effort to create a legacy his back wasn’t ready to carry. Hip-hop and basketball, bedfellows for the better part of two decades, bear many similarities- If not only for the simple vicariousness of ballers wanting to be rappers and rappers wanting to be ballers. Magic, Bird, Hakeem … the list of players immortalized in verse is endless. Then Shaq came and athletes started to become rappers… the myth always did work better in metaphor. And Jay-Z. Jay-Z was Jordan. The self-proclaimed greatest of all time who thought retirement was synonymous with recuperation and came back to find the game had changed. But unlike his idol, who hung his Nike’s up with fatigue, Jay has continued to deliver to an industry ill-equipped to manage a new generation. In 2001, the new class was Joe Budden, Grafh and Saigon. When New York ate itself in a conniption of self-hatred, those names fell by the wayside and were replaced by the ringtone rapper. A brand of junk and jingles. Out of the ether sprung Lil’ Wayne, a name many heads were familiar with since his pubescent Hot Boys days. He declared himself “the best rapper alive since the best rapper retired.” That was, until the best rapper un-retired and the two engaged in friendly subliminal warfare.
Biggie had Junior Mafia, 2Pac had the Outlawz and Jay-Z had a bunch of guys who, depending on your perspective, either inspired him to enhance his lyricism or acted as fodder from which he leeched his post-Blueprint styles from. Lil’ Wayne has Young Money. A motley crew of hangers on and genuine artists, the bastard children of Kanye West, hipster fashion and Weezy himself. The most talented of the lot is unquestionably Drake, an inoffensive Toronto rapper with a terrific range of sometimes polished, often immature talents. As a fledgling artist, he drew from more seasoned rappers such as Nickelus F and Chuck Inglish to help construct a style. The resulting mixtapes gave Drake a Toronto foundation; a basecamp from which he established a reputation for affable music and collaborations with recognizable American artists. It also licensed him an inflated ego. A brash, almost dismissive attitude permeated his interviews as he sought to validate absent street credentials by affiliating with mediocre gangsta rappers or picking fights with other Toronto artists, sometimes simultaneously. Regardless, his efforts attracted the ears of Lil’ Wayne and after becoming initiated in the Young Money family, Drake dropped his most impressive project yet, 2009’s So Far Gone. A flawless fusion of rap and R&B, the mixtape introduced him to an American audience through grand slam singles like “Best I Ever Had” and created a seismic buzz around a full-length debut unheard of since Doggystyle.
The manifestation of the hype was Thank Me Later, a sprawling smorgasbord of foreign influence littered with the memorable (“The Resistance,” “Fireworks,” “Shut it Down“) the forgettable (“Up All Night“, “Show Me a Good Time“) and the downright disappointing (“Light Up“). The latter came as no surprise, collaborator Jay-Z similarly shit the bed when he joined then-next big thing Lupe Fiasco for 2006’s aptly named “Pressure.” In the lead-up to the debut, Drake described it as a “solid hip-hop album,” and while he openly admitted to taking cues from mentor Lil’ Wayne, he yearned for the abilities of Nas and Andre 3000. “Nas was somebody that I used to listen to his raps and never understood how he did it,” he told MTV. “I always wanted to understand how he painted those pictures and his [rhyming] bar structure. I went back and really studied Nas and Andre 3000 and then came back with this album.” Curiously, the LP heralded none of these proclamations. Throughout the album he laboured lyrically with cliché crises of fame and tired punchlines while crooning insipid, if catchy, R&B hooks. More Dream than DMC. More Jodeci than Jay-Z. His music no longer held that inimitable fusion as the mosaic became a melting pot, too sugary for consumption.
For fans of his earlier work, it was an unmitigated disappointment. Which isn’t to suggest it’s a bad album, it just failed to scale the tower of hype that had been created. Some pointed out that it would have been a foot too far for anyone to climb, which seems a tad oblivious to records like Illmatic, the Marshall Mathers LP and Doggystyle, all of which arrived tied to relatively similar expectations. As some observers pointed out, Drake is a very gifted rapper. When he applies himself, he’s capable of digging out the mazed psychosis of a conflicted man- a vulnerability few emcees are capable of exploring. Drake’s issue is that he either doesn’t understand or simply doesn’t appreciate that before Nas turned Rastafari and Dre decided he was Prince without the Revolution, the pair earned their stripes delivering a string of undisputed hip-hop classics. Granted, almost a decade has passed since that era, but the criteria remains; you cannot hope to become one of the best rappers of all time if you don’t rap. Rather than deliver a hip-hop classic, Drake simply gave the fans what he thought they wanted and to be fair, that’s where the album succeeded as it pulsed past platinum within months. But musical enthusiasts knew the score. He’d played it safe, stuck to the pre-arranged formula. This acerbic truth became all that much harsher when five months later, Kanye West released My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It was artistic, it was challenging, it was hip-hop in its purest format; a perfect riposte to ‘Ye’s detractors and those who questioned his direction. Critics and consumers alike fawned over the masterpiece, Drake himself telling The Source “it’s a great project and it’s definitely given me something to strive for, because perfect scores are hard to come by nowadays and I’ve seen a lot of them on that album. That definitely lets me know what I’m gunning for on this next project.”
The project in question, Take Care, is timetabled for a late October release, but what remains to be confirmed is which type of Drake we’ll be getting. In conversation with MTV, he revealed: “I been rapping a lot lately. Me and 40 have been doing some great rap music, so I sort of took a hiatus on the R&B for a second. It’s cool to do R&B, I love it, but it’s just hard for me to always commit to it. Because some nights, I get in there and 40’s beats, as melodic or R&B-driven as they may be, just have that right pocket that I just wanna spit.” Yet the two tracks we’ve heard thus far give no indication of a more lyrically-inclined approach. Is there simply just more to come or did Lucy move the football again? “Dreams Money Can Buy” delivers a solid, if unimpressive rendering of the alpha male fantasy, replete with tales of cars, cash and cuckolding. Its wavering synths rise and fall at the feet of a pedestrian chorus, bookending unspectacular rhymes. “Marvin’s Room” plays antithesis to Nas’ “Black Girl Lost” as Drake maws over an ex in an attempt to (wait for it) take her away from her current boyfriend. Intoxicated, he ignores the rebuffs by serenading her for the better part of two verses, telling her she could do better. Maybe the pigskin we keep hoping to kick is simply good PR copy, maybe Drake tells us what we hope to hear or maybe he just doesn’t want to do what it takes to graduate from promising rapper to great emcee.
At the 2009 Toronto launch party for So Far Gone, Drake stood victoriously with LeBron James by his side, representing two young men on the verge of conquering their respective professions. In the ensuing two years, neither reached the competitive goal they sought, arguably regressing in the process. LeBron wants to be Jordan, but doesn’t want to put in the work necessary to become Jordan-esque. Having watched him shrink in successive playoff years, this can no longer be disputed. He wasn’t there to witness Jordan struggle against the Detroit Bad Boys, forcing him to develop a fall-away jump-shot. Or in the summer of 1995 when he took to the gym, motivated by his defeat at the hands of the younger, more athletic Orlando Magic and developed a post-game. All he saw were the endorsements, the highlight reels and the trophies. In this year’s finals, he watched in ignominy as Dirk Nowitzki hoisted the MVP trophy and his first NBA title. His friend Drake had his own embarrassment as he sat, confined to his seat while Eminem and Shad collected their Rap Album of the Year prizes at the Grammys and Junos respectively. At his post-game press conference, LeBron clumsily passed the buck, reminding all the “haters” that he was considerably richer and enjoyed a better lifestyle than them. Yes, the jeers and the cat-calls hurt, but if he doesn’t develop some new weapons during the break, he can expect the same taunts next season. Similarly, Drake has a busy two months ahead also. Given the ever-blurring line between mixtapes and albums, optimists can pass Thank me Later off as neo-sophmore jinx. Take Care will get no such courtesy, nor should it. Whether it’s a simile slash-move or a storytelling spin-hook, he needs to review his arsenal and seriously step his game up. This summer, it’s time for Drake to take the necessary steps to enter the pantheon of great hip-hop emcees, or settle for alternative prize: 2nd best R&B rapper.
Written by Chris Cromie
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