So Far Gone Turns 10
Today marks a decade of Drake domination. On this date 10 years ago, Aubrey Graham released So Far Gone, the mixtape that transformed him from an obscure teen soap opera actor into a cataclysmic force in popular music. Within a couple years he rode the momentum from this release to a position of centrality within rap, R&B, and eventually even pop that he has yet to vacate. Whatever your feelings about Drake, the length of his run at the top of hip-hop is virtually unprecedented — and given that last year he spun off three #1 hits from 2018’s most popular album, it shows no signs of slowing down.
By this point, Drake’s personal ethos has become so ingrained in popular music that it’s easy to forget how unconventional So Far Gone sounded upon arrival. It was a new style even for Drake, who on two previous mixtapes sounded like any other struggle-rapper hoping to be posted on Nah Right and The Smoking Section. Suddenly he was fluidly sliding between singing and rapping in a moody soundworld equally fit for flirting, flexing, and diaristic emotional expression. Soon enough, he would remake hip-hop in his own image, but at the time all anyone could talk about what an unlikely rap star he was — this sensitive, Canadian, half-Jewish Degrassi cast member who carried himself more like an R&B singer.
Before, he had been one more MC tossing out clunkers in Kanye West’s shadow. Now he seemed to have inherited Kanye’s ability to make seemingly disparate worlds fit together. To quote Drake himself, “Me doing them shows gettin’ everyone nervous/ ‘Cause them hipsters gon’ have to get along with them hood niggas” — or maybe more relevantly, “When my album drop, bitches’ll buy it for the picture/ And niggas’ll buy it too and claim they got it for they sister.” On So Far Gone, he duetted with Trey Songz and sampled Peter Bjorn And John on back-to-back tracks. With the Jay-Z flip “Ignant Shit” and the R&B ballad “Sooner Than Later,” he demonstrated the same artist can confidently rap and sing hooks. Breakthrough hit “Best I Ever Had” proved he could do both on the same song. Few others at the time had the vision to harmonize with Lykke Li samples and trade bars with Bun B on the same record. Even fewer could pull it off. Drake made it work.
More than making it work, he made it pop. If one skill has defined Drake’s career, it’s his talent for identifying the sound of rap’s vanguard and rendering it smoother, more accessible, easier to consume. On So Far Gone, he pulled that trick with 808s & Heartbreak, the chilly and abrasive 2008 album that redefined Kanye’s career and, largely by virtue of its influence on Drake, altered the trajectory of rap itself. Reviewing So Far Gone for Pitchfork, my colleague Tom Breihan called Drake “a post-808s & Heartbreak artist, possibly the first.” Noah “40” Shebib, the fellow child actor who’s been Drake’s sonic consigliere since the beginning, later confirmed the project’s influence on So Far Gone — as if Drake rapping over the beat from “Say You Will” wasn’t confirmation enough.
808s had hits; “Heartless” and “Love Lockdown” both peaked in the top five. But the project’s bitter intensity and the detached, alien quality Kanye achieved by slathering his voice in Auto-Tune rendered it an anti-pop move after his initial trio of blockbusters. So Far Gone dialed back that wintry desolation to a light drizzle but kept the laments about the steep price of fame — never mind that Drake wasn’t actually that famous upon the tape’s release. (“I exaggerated things, now I got it like that,” he rapped two years later, when he was settling into his longstanding role as rap’s center of gravity.)
More importantly, So Far Gone built upon 808s & Heartbreak’s suggestion that there need be no distinction between rappers and singers. Drake wasn’t excellent at either discipline, but he had a gift for gliding between the two at just the right moment. Weaknesses like highly imperfect pitch and an abundance of eye-rolling punchlines were glossed over by an intuitive mastery of cadence and melody. As Tom put it at the time, “When he swings from rapping to buttery teen-idol singing, it feels organic and effortless, like he’s just doing whatever makes the most sense at any given moment.” Even after several years of T-Pain saturation, this felt novel. He had molded the raw materials from 808s into a sleek new archetype.
Two months ago, in the heat of conflict, Kanye declared, “There would never be a drake without a Kanye west.” He isn’t wrong, but even on So Far Gone, at the height of their similarity, there was more to Drake than mere Kanye mimicry. His savvy trendspotting has always involved absorbing a hot new sound into his skill set and re-creating it in his own image. On this tape that meant positioning core elements from 808s alongside other Drake fascinations such as screwed Houston rap, ’90s loverman R&B, and the wispy Swedish indie-pop that was blowing up on blogs like this one at the time.
Due to natural evolution and Olympic-level wave-riding, Drake’s sound has morphed quite a bit since So Far Gone, but the ethos established here has largely remained. There are references to homes away from home Houston and Miami. There are passive-aggressive references to relational drama: “Every time I call you just tell me I don’t call.” There are solipsistic reflections on how fame has or hasn’t changed Drake: “And life is so insane/ Look what I became trying to make a name.” There are condescending tributes to strippers, including this bit on “Houstonlantavegas” that would raise a lot of eyebrows today: “Ass low, ass low, I always request you/ You go get fucked up and we just show up at your rescue/ Carry you inside, get you some water and undress you/ I give you my all and the next morning you’ll forget who.” There are twinkling dreamscapes (“Lust For Life”) and Southern-fried bangers (“Uptown”) and crossover-ready pop tracks (“Best I Ever Had”) and foggy state-of-Drake confessionals (“The Calm”).
Yet this was clearly a different time. So Far Gone was released as a free download at Datpiff, where you can still nab it today. Lil Wayne, who’d soon sign Drake to his Young Money label, is all over the tape, blacking out over beats from other people’s hits, the way he did on his own legend-making aughts releases (and the way hardly anyone does anymore because even “mixtapes” are released through official streaming platforms). No one blinked at the presence of Lloyd and Omarion on the tracklist. “Best I Ever Had” peaked at #2 between two Black Eyed Peas songs.
When you stop to think about how much music has changed since this project dropped, Drake’s longevity becomes astounding. He’s never been the Best Rapper Alive, but he’s been the biggest for longer than anyone else in hip-hop history — Jay, Wayne, and Kanye included. Since probably 2011, when he correctly concluded, “I’m just feeling like the throne is for the taking,” he’s been the integration point: the most popular and influential figure in his genre, and one of the few who truly transcends it. Every time it looks like he’s about to decline, he gets bigger. Meek Mill’s 2015 charges of ghostwriting didn’t undo him. Neither did Pusha T’s multi-tiered evisceration last summer. None of his many children have yet unseated him: not Future, not Travis Scott, not even Post Malone. As we look back on the moment Drake’s rise properly kicked off, wondering how much longer he can possibly hold onto hip-hop hegemony — maybe even rooting for him to finally fall off — we must admit he has more than exceeded the expectations he set for himself back then: “I just wanna be successful.”