At just 23 years of age, Canadian rapper Drake is learning all about the slings and arrows of outrageous expectations.
Just a few short years removed from his first foray into the music business, Drake has been embraced by Lil’ Wayne and his Young Money crew, become the subject of a multimillion-dollar record label bidding war, released a series of hit mixtapes and singles, and earned a pair of Grammy nominations — all before even releasing his official, much-anticipated debut album, Thank Me Later.
The record — which has been delayed a couple times — will finally hit stores on June 15. It features a guest roster that includes Lil’ Wayne, Jay-Z, Alicia Keys and Kanye West, among others.
Despite the star power, most of the focus will fall on Drake, and questions of whether he’s worthy of being hip-hop’s next anointed one.
There’s gonna be the people who can’t
wait to get the CD in their hands just so they can say it’s everything they didn’t want it to be,” Drake says with a laugh. “I know there will be people who’ll get the album, skim through it and be like, ‘Nope, that’s not it. Now on to the next person, ’cause he didn’t do it.’ But I feel like those people will eventually come around; that’s kinda where the title comes from.
On Sunday, Drake brings his first solo headlining tour to the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts, and it will be a homecoming of sorts for the Toronto-bred but Memphis-rooted rapper.
Although he launched his career as a child actor, starring on the teen drama “Degrassi: The Next Generation” for eight seasons, Drake’s destiny always seemed to lie in music.
Born Aubrey Drake Graham, Drake’s dad was Memphis drummer Dennis Graham (who played with Jerry Lee Lewis for a time), and his uncles include Sly & The Family Stone bassist Larry Graham and Hi Rhythm guitarist Mabon “Teenie” Hodges.
Although he was raised by his mother in Toronto’s affluent Forest Hill section, Drake’s musical education came in the Bluff City, where he spent his summers with his father.
“I’d never fly to Memphis; my dad would always pick me up in Toronto and we’d drive, and it was like 21 hours,” says Drake. “On that drive he would just play me the greatest music, and then bring me to Beale Street and drive around the city, and I started to understand what it was about Memphis.”
“It’s really the first place that I discovered what I love about music, which was the soul, the melody and the message in the lyrics.”
Drake’s father would press his young son — already an aspiring young rapper — about becoming a singer. “He’d say, ‘I know you want to rap, but you gotta sing.’ I told him, ‘I can’t sing; it’s not my thing,’” Drake recalls. “As much as I loved the music he would play, I fought singing for so long. But it wasn’t until I started incorporating singing in my music that my career really took off.”
Drake’s ascent came in 2006 with the release of his first mixtape, Room for Improvement, and the laid-back swagger of the song “Replacement Girl.”
His hooky, soulful style found further favor in a series of follow-up mixtapes and a Top 10 Billboard chart EP. In 2009, Drake’s “Best I Ever I Had” — which sampled ’70s soft rocker “Fallin’ in Love” by Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds — became a No. 2 charting single, earning him a pair of Grammy nominations and a several BET hip-hop awards honors.
Despite his impressive connections and out-the-box success, a certain segment of hip-hop purists have grumbled about Drake’s radio-friendly rap. For Drake, it’s an ironic position to find himself in.
“Early on in my career I was fighting anything that was mainstream,” says Drake. “I was only listening to Little Brother, Slum Village, J Dilla, Talib Kweli. But as I started to expand my mind, I felt like there is a way to make great music that moves the world, that can go No. 1 on the radio, but still have the integrity of the music that I once lived by.”
“Sure, some people will sit there and say, ‘You’ve gone too mainstream’ or this and that,” adds Drake. “But, to me, having a record go No. 1 doesn’t mean you’re not hip-hop.
“Hip-hop is about having records with a message behind them that are lyrically strong. I just happen to incorporate melody in my music and people can sing along to the songs — and that’s when you start getting that chart success. But I feel like I do it for hip-hop in general, all across the board.”
With his current 25-city tour doing strong business and his debut about to drop, Drake is eager to prove his bona fides. “I am getting that first album under my belt, and I need to do my due diligence on the touring side,” he says, adding that he plans make time for a couple of film roles in the fall, before beginning work on a follow-up album.
Despite the lofty expectations placed on his forthcoming debut, Drake hopes that Thank Me Later will be just the first chapter in a long and continuing story.
“The most important thing for me to remember is that I have five or six more albums to make, hopefully. So I really just wanted the album to capture this particular moment in my life,” he says. “If anything, I just want it to be good enough for people to say, ‘Man, I can’t wait for his second album ’cause his first one was crazy.”
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