Faded Signs

The Political Economy of Drake

There’s an overlooked detail in Aubrey Drake Graham’s much-told rise from obscurity to the height of pop-culture visibility: the fact that he worked as a telephone scam artist in the mid-2000s. When his run as a child actor on the Canadian TV show Degrassi: The Next Generation came to a close in 2005, Graham was desperate for funds to help his mother pay rent on their shared home in the affluent Toronto neighborhood Forest Hill. Backed by a criminal cohort of “woes”—who were later immortalized in his 2015 anthem “Know Yourself”—the soon-to-be-crooner embarked on a career as a white-collar hustler. Graham used his not-yet-famous voice to trick unsuspecting strangers into transferring their cash to him via a shady Money Mart service that eventually became synonymous with identity theft and predatory lending.

From the scattered references Drake has made to this period of his life in the songs “Star 67” and “0 to 100/The Catch Up,” it’s hard to know how successful his career as a scammer was; on the former, he rapped that he “couldn’t do it, had to leave that shit alone.” But as the monumental-event release of his fourth studio album, Views, makes clear, Drake has moved on to better things than using his voice to exchange false promises for cash.

Or has he? For his droves of detractors and comments-section critics, Drake’s stint as a scammer serves as a microcosm of everything they loathe about him: the materialism, the manipulation, the fraud. Drake is a singer who cites a voice coach as one of his closest creative confidants; a rapper who recites ghostwritten verses. He found his creative comfort zone in a syrupy sincerity that’s both seductive and self-interested—a lingering style point, perhaps, from his days a telephone scam artist.

Across four studio albums, a collection of accomplished mixtapes and dozens of Billboard #1 hits, two of Drake’s most resonant singles are 2011’s “Marvin’s Room” and 2015’s “Hotline Bling.” Both are confessions of horny uncertainty aided by the alienated intimacy of 21st-century technology. In her 2010 study Blog Theory, political philosopher Jodi Dean writes that “the contemporary setting of electronically mediated subjectivity is one of infinite doubt and self-reflection.” By centering these themes in his music, Drake—who enjoys corporate sponsorships from Apple and T-Mobile—is one of late capitalism’s most conspicuous narrators. It’s not a mistake that the cover of Views shows him seated atop an antenna.

Released on April 29 to much anticipation by millions of listeners in the digital stratosphere, Views finds Drake at the height of his meme-ness—a towering symbol of sentimentality for a TMI age of quotable tweets and Facebook rants. Like the album cover, the lofty sound of Views is frequently cloudy and desolate. Drake bookends storms of competitive fervor (“9,” “Hype,” “Weston Road Flows,”) withy brief sunbreaks (“With You,” “One Dance,”). In an interview streamed on Apple’s Beats 1 Radio the night of the release, Drake told journalist Zane Lowe that he sequenced the tracks on Views to simulate Toronto’s bi-polar weather patterns. The album flaunts a fight-or-fuck energy that is encapsulated in its title track: On “Views,” a sultry Mary J. Blige sample gives way to boom-bap braggadocio. Throughout, Drake performs like a phone scammer who is convinced by his own self-proclaimed “far-fetched story.”

Drake’s voice on Views is preoccupied with cadence—an obsession he explained in a Fader article last summer. Outside of Kanye West and maybe Future, no one in rap has the same knack for folding relatable verbal fragments into melodies that sear their way into the subconscious of pop culture. On the catchy “Childs Play,” Drake sings along to a memorably off-color sample before mirroring its rhythmic bounce in his own verse. This karaoke crooning is a rare window into the rehearsal of rap’s rhythmic calculus. Most of us hang up when we’re dialed by a scammer but a documentary about the performance art behind the business could be a smash on Netflix.  

“Your voice is the entirety of your instrument as a rapper,” writes Pitchfork‘s Jayson Greene. On Views, Drake uses his to reflect what he calls the “mosaic” of race, class and nationality in his hometown. In 1998 Toronto expanded to include five surrounding suburbs, lumping affluent residents together with racial minorities, immigrants and the working poor in the city’s core. Two decades later, the sonic expansiveness of Views—encompassing everything from R&B ballads to dancehall to hardcore rap—is a reflection of this state of affairs. Drake shows verbal dexterity, adding jazzy phrasing (“Feel No Ways”) and patois slang (“Controlla”) to his well-established talent for transitioning seamlessly from singing to rapping (“U With Me?”). When you’re phoning strangers for money, you never know which lingo you’ll have to channel.

On “Keep The Family Close,” Drake sounds like a Millennial Sinatra—world-weary and sick of climbing the social ladder. And climb he has. Billboard charts in the year of Drake’s birth (1986) saw 31 number one records by 29 separate artists. Thanks to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, radio stations and record releases were vertically integrated into a stratified world of standardized playlists and media mergers. As a result, the range of options available to listeners significantly narrowed. Nobody has won more on this playing field than Drake, who saw all 17 songs from 2015’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late chart on the Billboard Top 50 for Rap/R&B. Views shows Drake reflecting on the price he’s paid for joining the cultural elite. Was his life easier when he was “in the basement, working on the phones”?

Any successful scam takes two parties: a liar and a mark. On Views, Drake holds up his end of the bargain brilliantly. Drake’s music is for neoliberal egoists who want to believe that nothing more than resilience and “putting in work with a purpose” will lead to success; it’s for wronged romantics who want to believe their exes are still daydreaming about them. To everyone else, he’ll never be anything more than a phony. But in a smartphone age where we all float fake online personalities, that might be the highest praise possible. When the air is clouded by mass media’s endless messages, notifications and signals, the shortest distance between two points is a straight lie.