Status Ain’t Hood: Drake, Rap’s Leading Curator
This past weekend, I was driving my family back from the beach, where we’d been on vacation, and I had to contend with Maryland’s Bay Bridge, the most terrifying structure ever devised by man. The Bay Bridge is basically a pencil-thin piece of bent metal that stretches roughly five miles above the Chesapeake Bay. The view from the top is probably really pretty if you aren’t squeezing your eyes shut and praying to gods you don’t even believe in that you’ll make it through this. The fucking thing sways when it’s windy, and the lanes are roughly as wide as a Trader Joe’s parking space. It’s the drive I hate most in the world. So when we were coming up on the bridge, I wrestled back control of the car stereo, demanding that we stop the endless rotation of Lion King soundtrack deep cuts and asked if we could please listen to Beats 1 Radio instead. I wanted to hear some new pop music, further explore this supposedly-revolutionary radio-on-the-internet thing, maybe reengage the critic side of my brain that had atrophied after a week of doing blissful dad shit. I wanted to think about something other than the yawning chasm beneath me. What I got, when the ground dropped away like an old memory, was Zane Lowe and Ebro doing loud drive-time banter and making each other giggle with drops of sirens and eagle caws. It was fucking horrifying. The reason for all this, as far as I could tell, was that these guys were filling up airtime because Drake was late in turning in his first radio show. (I’m probably entirely wrong about this, since I was distracted by my entire’s family’s impending death, but that’s what it sounded like.) And even though it was nerve-janglingly awful, I kept listening, because maybe that Drake show would start at any moment.
There’s plenty of reason to be suspicious of the newly launched Apple Music, but after a week and a half, I like it. I like a version of pop radio that prizes Major Lazer and Jamie xx over year-old Katy Perry singles. I like hearing Ezra Koenig playing Rashida Jones’ story about being attacked by Michael Jackson’t pet chimp Bubbles like it was a song. I like Elton John getting all excited to play Ed Sheeran album tracks for tha kidz. And I like the way the station treats rap — the way it throws really good songs like Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” and Skepta’s “Shutdown” and Fetty Wap’s “679” into heavy rotation, treating them like actual anthems. There’s probably a ton of record-label strategizing that goes into the choice of every song played, but it feels fresher and more spontaneous than terrestrial radio. And it’s cool that Beats 1 isn’t archiving its shows, relying instead on the old idea that you can miss things if you aren’t listening at a given moment. Of course, enterprising internet types are archiving those shows, which is how I ended up hearing Drake’s show after it finally aired. And if anyone should be allowed to be late in turning his shit in, it’s Drake.
Fact is: Drake is perfect for Beats 1, for everything this whole enterprise is trying to do. He’s the biggest rapper in the world right now, and that matters, but it’s only part of it. Drake being on board with Apple Music means Apple gets to use things like Drake’s Family Guy-esque “Energy” video as Tidal-battling exclusives. That’s fine, albeit not particularly interesting. What is interesting is the way Drake’s strengths dovetail exactly with what Apple is trying to do. The new radio station has a huge focus on “curators,” on the idea of cool people letting you know about everything they’re into at any given moment. And that’s how Drake works as a rapper. He’s better than anyone else at pulling in all these ideas floating around and transforming them into something tangible and salable. He got famous from a mixtape that included freestyles over Peter Bjorn & John and Lykke Li songs, effectively presaging the moment when rappers made a ton of their money playing alt-rock festivals. He used a Jamie xx remix of a Gil Scott-Heron song as the backbone for a single with Rihanna. He took Kendrick Lamar and A$AP Rocky on tour when those two were barely famous. He put the Weeknd on before anyone else. He runs his career like a Tumblr, picking all this excessively tasteful shit and displaying it in the best possible light. It’s why his music works as well as it does. He’s listening. And so a regular Drake radio show is a valuable resource because it lets us know what Drake’s listening to.
It’s also a nice springboard for new Drake music. Drake’s appeared on four new songs in the past week or so, and he debuted three of them on his radio show. As such, it’s possible to imagine a day when that radio show replaces the OVO Sound SoundCloud page as the method Drake uses to throw new songs out into the world. Right now, only one of those four new songs — Majid Jordan’s slick R&B track “My Love” — was deemed worthy of that SoundCloud page, and it’s not really a surprise that it’s the only one of those songs that’s really any good. I’m guessing the other three won’t see any sort of commercial release, and that’s because they’re cutting-room-floor material. On all those songs, Drake sounds like he’s just hanging out, not trying particularly hard. But even if the songs aren’t great, they’re still interesting.
All of them take Drake out of the hard-rap style he was using on much of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. Instead, they find Drake in an floaty R&B headspace. One is a remix of new OVO associate Roy Wood$’ drama, and another is a remix of “Sweeterman,” a track from a random Toronto rapper named Ramriddlz, who might well end up on OVO Sound in the future. Since those songs were already more or less Drake songs even before Drake jumped on them, they sound like favors done for Drake’s local imitators. So the most interesting of those songs is a remix of “Ojuelegba,” a track from the Nigerian singer WizKid. Right now, there’s this whole new wave of Nigerian Afropop that’s doing interesting things with dancehall and soca and dance-pop and Auto-Tuned R&B. David Drake wrote a great FADER piece about that scene this week, and it seems poised to become a thing. And even if Drake sleepwalks his way through the track, he’s paying attention, and that counts as a validation. (Skepta, who also guests on the remix, does not sleepwalk his way through. Instead, he stays in fired-up attack mode while digging into heavy ideas about Nigerian-British identity.)
But the songs that feature Drake aren’t as good as the ones that he and his associates selected for the radio show, which is just a breezy, deeply enjoyable listen despite the glitches that come through on that SoundCloud stream. The music is all new, and it all has energy. Judging by what he played there, Drake seems to be moving away from indie-pop as a listener; the only thing that even remotely qualifies is a screwed-up OG Ron C remix of a Little Dragon song. Instead, the music he plays come from genres that never get enough burn on websites like this one: sparse club-pop, dancehall, grime, Future. And it ends with a truly great half-hour stretch, a DJ set from the mostly-unknown Austin producer Eric Dingus, who Drake found on SoundCloud. (Apparently, going online is part of his day.) I couldn’t name most of the music Dingus played, but that was a good thing; it all melted into one beautiful gloopy blob of future-soul and ambient-electronic shimmer. It sounded like things starting to move, way off in the distance. And that’s the point.
1. Future – “Blow A Bag”
Future’s recent output, especially his 56 Nights mixtape, has been easy to underrate, since it’s so chaotic and angry and freaked-out. But once you acclimate yourself to that cluttered, hallucinatory, head-fucked sound, it’s just amazing. And so it’s great to hear that Future is still in that zone now that he’s getting back to the business of releasing proper albums. If the rest of DS2 sounds anything like this, it’s going to be something special.
2. Jay Rock – “Gumbo”
For the past few years, Jay Rock has been the least famous, least expressive member of the Black Hippy crew. But this year, he’s been on a real roll, pushing his straight-ahead hardhead flow over dissolving-into-the-ether melodic sounds. “Gumbo” is the fullest realization of this new sound that he’s yet made. He’s on his way to great things.
3. Despot – “House Of Bricks”
When Run The Jewels came to Charlottesville last year, El-P made me stand there so he could get a picture of me and Despot standing together. Despot is roughly half my height, and El thought this was hilarious. I didn’t mind. Despot looked annoyed. I understand. When you can rap like this, maybe you shouldn’t have to pose for look-how-short-I-am photos. I am very much hoping that this song means the in-the-works-for-years Despot album is finally happening.
4. Dej Loaf – “Back Up” (Feat. Big Sean)
Wouldn’t it be great if the sound of Detroit rap became this instead of angry-white-people yelling? Here we have two warm, friendly Detroit rappers, both still in the upswing, talking shit over a sample of DJ Clent’s “Back Up Off Me,” a local Detroit classic that I’ve never heard before this morning. Can Eminem just fade back into his mansion and let this stuff take over?
5. The Jacka & Berner – “Whole Thang” (Feat. Cormega)
When Bay Area underground legend the Jacka was murdered earlier this year, he couldn’t have known that a mellow and contemplative song like this would amount to something like a last testament. But when I die, I hope I leave behind something this pretty. The warm, instinctive connection between the Jacka and wordy Queens O.G. Cormega has always been one of those great little under-the-radar rap stories, and it’s so great that we get to hear them on the same song one more time.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
— Susan Sarandon (@SusanSarandon) July 14, 2015