With the announcement this past week that Drake will be hosting the ESPYs, ESPN’s award ceremony for the top sports performances of the past year (airing July 16th at 9:00pm), we at JP Lime Productions got to thinking about how Drake, in his own way has become a polarizing figure within the Hip Hop community and across pop culture as well. Drake the rapper is loved by many and not-so-loved by many others. But whether you love him or hate him as an emcee, if you’re a sports fan you should check out the ESPYs.
Undeniably talented, Drake is a skilled songwriter and emcee with a penchant for delivering hit records. Hitting the mix-tape circuit hard back in 2006, cresting with 2009’s critically acclaimed ‘So Far Gone’ which would catapult him to his major label deal with Young Money, Drake seems to have a new track on the radio every few months. He works hard and refines his sound constantly to keep delivering chart-topping records and, as such, merits all of the success he’s received.
Despite his accomplishments and a loyal fanbase, Drake has his detractors. These detractors come from all demographics, however in my experiences it’s typically O.G. / True School 80s and 90s Hip Hop heads who spew the most venom Drake’s way: ‘He’s wack,’ ‘he’s cheezy,’ ‘he’s corny,’ ‘I don’t believe him’ or, to borrow a Jay-Z line, ‘he’s alright, but he’s not real.’ To older Hip Hop fans who feel that unless there’s an authentic, urban edge to the artist and his/her music, it’s just not Real Rap, Drake tends to fall short.
His parents divorced when he was five resulting in his being raised predominantly by his mother, splitting time between Ontario’s West End and nearby Forest Hill. And while Drake has said that they didn’t have a very large living space, Forest Hill is one of the more affluent neighborhoods in Canada. At 15 he landed a role on the Canadian teen drama, Degrassi where his earnings allowed him to contribute towards the household, but were not outlandish.
To the True School camp, however, all that typically matters is that Drake wasn’t from the streets. Real Rap heads identify with artists like Grandmaster Flash, Run-DMC, Public Enemy, NWA, Biggie, the Wu-Tang Clan, 50 Cent, and even Eminem in large part because of their perceived humble beginnings. I say “perceived” because whereas a young Eminem was indeed very poor, Biggie’s mother Voletta Wallace has mentioned in the past that she was able to provide for Biggie very well compared to a lot of his peers in the neighboorhood, suggesting that if nothing else they weren’t completely broke. But again, at day’s end all that matters to the Real Rap camp is the perception that these other guys grew up in the streets with humble beginnings and therefore the tales they tell, though often exaggerated for entertainment purposes, come across as authentic. So despite the fact that Drake has never publicly claimed to be anything he isn’t, and his lyrical content for the most part reflects that, the ‘Real Rap’ camp has no sympathy for the guy who had an acting gig and grew up in a ritzy neighborhood in Canada before he gained any notoriety in Hip Hop.
From a personal standpoint, I come from that camp that respects Drake for all his skill and accomplishments but consider him a little corny (or a lot corny depending on the moment). For example, as much as I like ‘Started From The Bottom‘ , the Real Rap camp in me just doesn’t believe that he, in fact, started from the bottom. Not like Redman, or Nas, or Snoop Dogg did, no way. Even on the Drake track I enjoy the most, I can’t help but to question his authenticity, or at least what a big part of me considers Hip Hop authenticity to be.
Another example of this is on YG’s ‘Who Do You Love‘ which features Drake. Compton’s YG (short for Young Gangsta) follows in the tradition of Ice T, NWA, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Game with a brand of gangsta/reality rap that comes across as believable in no small part because these guys all grew up amongst Los Angeles’ Blood and Crip gang culture. YG does his G-Thang on verse 1 with Drake doing the honors on verse 2. His verse features images of partying in the studio with groupies, a shout-out to his own OVO Crew and to the aforementioned Compton gangsta rapper Game (you know, to show us all he’s down with the West Coast), verbiage about him being a general amongst his crew of soldiers, and the obligatory homage to Lil’ Wayne and Young Money. All this, while not necessarily overtly gangsta in nature, works for the track right up until he closes with a cornball gem of a bar, “I would pinky swear, but my pinky ring’s too big.” I still like the track a lot. The last line doesn’t completely ruin it for me, but really? You’re on a gangsta rap track with YG and you close it with pinky swear / pinky ring wordplay? Meh. Eazy & Pac must be turning over in their grave…
All that said, the purpose here is not to bash Drake’s Hip Hop authenticity score, nor to come to some middle-ground conclusion that Drake supporters and detractors can agree upon. I once again implore those of you who may turn away from the ESPYs this year because Drake’s hosting to reconsider. We mentioned earlier his acting roots from Drake’s time spent on Degrassi. While I’ve never seen an episode, anytime someone does over 130 episodes on any show, you’re gaining valuable acting experience. Drake’s comfort level in front of the camera was evident recently when he hosted Saturday Night Live. I watched, as a Drake detractor mind you, and by the end of the show I couldn’t say anything bad about the guy’s acting ability, on live television at that. He didn’t take himself too seriously, connected with the crowd, and all things considered did a pretty good job. This past week, Drake was featured on Jimmy Kimmel’s late night bit, ‘I Witness News‘ where in disguise he fake-interviewed regular people, asking them absurd questions about their feelings on, you guessed it, Drake himself. Once again, he was funny, self-deprecating at times, and never broke in front of the camera. He nailed it.
Drake might end up being this generation’s Will Smith. Their rapping/acting careers aren’t exact parallels with Will kick-starting and perfecting the rapper-turned-actor phenomena while Drake’s path thus far has been closer to actor-turned-rapper-turned-part-time-actor-again. Their detractors, however, have some similarities. As is the case with Drake, OG Real Rap camp types often hate on Will Smith (the rapper) for being corny and cookie-cutter (an article for another day – I promise). More importantly as far as their acting prowess / potential is concerned, parallels between Will and Drake can be drawn in their clean-cut looks and on-screen appeals that transcend Hip Hop. Method Man and Redman have been in movies for example, but you can’t really picture them having too much acting range outside of playing some variation of themselves. By comparison, Will Smith has become one of Hollywood’s top draws in large part because of his versatility, having played a wide range of characters that include an openly gay con-artist, a ladies man, an intergalactic super hero, and a rogue cop to name a few. Drake has all the necessary tools to become a versatile and successful actor. He has acting experience, comfort in front of the camera, built in Hip Hop & Pop fan bases, and a safe, non-threatening persona. And thus far, he’s been pretty good. And that’s why those of us who aren’t necessarily fans of Drake the rapper shouldn’t count him out in front of a camera, whether he’s acting or hosting an award show. So f you’re a sports fan who doesn’t like Drake, we at JP Lime Productions say to you, watch the ESPYs anyway. You might actually enjoy his performance.