Contrary to revisionist history, rap music has had a soft side since its inception. Even back in the 1990s, during the genre's grittiest era, rappers still churned out ballads that would make Babyface proud—such as Method Man's "You're All I need" with Mary J. Blige or Raekwon jumping on Jodeci's "Freek'N You." LL Cool J maintained his hardcore fan base despite the fact he put out a video brushing a woman's high heels. Andre 3000 wore blond wigs with pink skirts and crooned about Valentine's Day without harming his reputation as a great rapper. And, well, Tupac took this picture.
Which brings us to Aubrey Drake Graham, a.k.a. Drake, the biggest, yet most mocked rapper today. Drake has built his career on, as he says, "being in touch with emotion"—a very lucrative decision. His latest album, Nothing Was the Same, doubled the first-week sales of Kanye West's Yeezus. And this week, he's not only performing on Saturday Night Live, he's the rare star that will host as well. But that hasn't kept the derision at bay. Drake has long been the target of an endless stream of memes, hashtags and gifs. At the end of 2013, rap's current golden boy Kendrick Lamar piled on further at the BET Hip Hop Awards, which aired on October 15th, freestyling that he'd "tucked the sensitive rapper back in his pajama clothes." Rap's biggest star was just an emotional little kid that Kendrick planned to put to bed. Since then, Drake has gone on media run, stating that he'd never respond to Kendrick Lamar via record while simultaneously throwing subliminal insults at his budding rival (rapping "I don't know why they been lying but yo sh*t is not that inspiring" on "The Language" from his album, Nothing Was The Same for instance). Drake's contradictions and unwillingness to own up to them are further alienating him from the die hard rap community.
All of which raises the question: Why could rap's forbearers get away with being sensitive but Drake can't? I believe it's because Drake's sensitivity feels so inauthentic. In a word, Drake is a simp: a man who tries to gain favor with women by being overly sensitive around them, only to assert his manhood by disrespecting them once they've left the room. And so, his music feels like a cynical ploy, something Lamar was more than happy to point out at the Hip Hop Awards: "Boy, you been a fake," he dissed.
The accusation of inauthenticity isn't any more new to rap than its sensitive side. After all, Rick Ross gets lambasted for rapping about tales of drug trafficking as pictures of his former parole officer job circulate around the Internet, undercutting any such boasts. Yet special ire is reserved for Drake because his personas feel particularly forced. He pours on his act so thick that it comes off as pandering to women—rapping about digging through a woman's purse to check her phone and make sure she still loves him on Take Care, flying his women first class to meet him on tour for a romantic getaway on Nothing Was The Same and being a lonely man who just wants love on... well... every album.
In fact, Drake is almost always trying to incite an "awww" reaction from women. Case in point: the infuriating simp anthem of 2011, "Marvin's Room," from his sophomore album, Take Care. It opens with a voicemail from a woman Drake was involved with. He proceeds to drunk dial her, pleading with her to leave her man while begging her to be with him. "You're too incredible for him and I can't stop thinking about you," he whimpers. It's all so calculated. What woman doesn't want to envision her ex sitting around alone thinking about how much he misses her? In this way, "Marvin's Room"—like almost every other Drake song—is emotional porn.
Later on Take Care, Drake creates a ballad about his hopes to rescue strippers from their profession—wishing that he can take them from the pole and into a happy life they can share together. Is he serious? It's as if women don't have their own agency and need Drake to save them. While some might fall for his bullshit, I don't. If you listen to "Drizzy" on other people's songs or in interviews, he's just as much a womanizer as any rapper.
Look no further than how Drake handled his one-night stand with Rihanna. After a much-publicized affair with the pop star, Drake dedicated the first song of his debut album to how hurt he was that she never called him back. But when it was time to bring some good old-fashioned misogyny to the 2 Chainz collaboration "No Lie," Drake rapped "[Rihanna] could have a Grammy / I'll still treat her ass like a nominee / Just need to know what that p***y like / So one time is fine with me."
Later, when trying to play tough guy in regards to his ensuing feud with Chris Brown over Rihanna, Drake not-so-convincingly acted like she wasn't a big deal by saying she just "fell into my lap." Of course, he and Rihanna went on to make music together, with Drake, back in sensitive-soul mode, singing, "I'll take care of you."
Why does Drake's oscillating matter? Because his talent makes him impossible to ignore. When given a bass-heavy, 808-pounding beat, Drake is one of the best rappers in the world. When he takes off his woman-saving cape and just raps about his genuine feelings, no one is better. On Nothing Was The Same's "Too Much," Drake goes on a truthful, scathing, personal retelling of his upbringing and how fame affected his relationship with his family: "Money got my whole family going backwards / no dinners, no holidays, no nothing there's [sic] issues at hand that we're not discussing." He raps with such fervor and emotion that his sentiment seems completely legitimate. Give us more of that. Please.
That's what's so frustrating about Drake. He's squandering his talent by desperately trying to be something he's not: a sensitive guy that women want and a hardcore guy that the cool kids of rap will revere. Ultimately, that pandering rings false and the work suffers, because the best rap—faux-drug dealing former parole officer Rick Ross aside—thrives on authenticity. And, really, Drake shouldn't worry about impressing others, because he's at his best when he's true to the most important person in his life: Drake.
Photo by Getty/Stephen Lovekin