What if Drake was from Toronto, South Dakota? Seriously. There’s more to the question than just a convenient duplication of place names. Ok, that’s there too. But driving through the murky haze of the Coteau des Prairies (Summit, SD celebrates an annual “Fog Fest”), listening to “Star67” undergo one of those signature-Drake segues into a gloomy, purple soundscape, it’s hard not to feel an aural/visual symmetry.
Or maybe it’s not. It could just be me.
I asked Ms. Gerelyn Moberg, a teacher at Deubrook Area Schools (which serves Toronto students) if any of the students in her freshman creative writing class had thoughts on what a Toronto, South Dakota Drake might be. One student wrote that, “If the ‘Drake’ was from the small town of Toronto, SD, population 212, I don’t think he would be considered a rapper. I think he would be a country writer and singer. He would write about all of the wonders of the small town life.”
That’s feasible given popular themes in contemporary country.
Sioux Falls rapper Carvey Milk (yes, the name is a play on the name of the San Francisco gay rights leader and politician) wasn’t really making the whole Drake/Glacial Lakes gloom connection either, “Except for the weather and kind of relating music to moods. I don't think it's crazy but also I think most of the qualities he has are that of his own personal character rather than just the city he is from and reps.”
“I think relating weather and environment definitely has an impact on the type of music that is made but I also think that artists and musicians have to keep in mind that they make music based on what's ‘hot’ right now and what genres they are really aiming for. There's such a broad spectrum of music out now that you can basically create your own genre every time you release a song. I'm more on the side of the fence to where your actual upbringing and who you surround yourself with molds you a little more than your surroundings.”
Am I crazy to see the connection?
That a dark undertow lurks barely beneath the surface of the 6 God’s swagger is hardly a revelation. He’s not the only artist that laces hip hop's Horatio Alger trope with a sense of emptiness. Rap's story of fiscal triumph has embraced a melancholia that wouldn’t have made sense when Biggie’s timeless come-up anthem “Juicy” hit the airwaves. Artists like Drake, Future, The Weeknd — and producers like Metro Boomin, Mike Will Made It, Nard & B, Childish Major and Lee Bannon have pioneered a new goth for the “urban” market with much further reach into town and country then Bauhaus ever had.
As an aging aesthete masquerading as a regular dude, who came of age in the Biggie era listening to Black Moon and Joy Division — never suspecting that those two sonic spheres could ever have coitus — even though goth hop is a surprise, I still feel like I get it, somewhat.
Questions linger, but it’s all starting to make more sense now, under the cloud canopy of the Coteau des Prairies, slowing down for single stop sign towns — not ghost towns, but ghosts of themselves, long past their zenith. Maybe it’s not about the atmospheric haze (well, for me it is, partially). But if you drive the Plains enough, yes, there’s spartan beauty in the open spaces but it’s also possible to read the byways of the Midwest as a scattered network of municipal Baby Janes, clutching desperately at a mythic past.
Most of us have always had a complex relationship to the dominant narratives in hip hop. You didn’t have to be a gangster or a billionaire to understand that the gangster come-up could be a metaphor for “stealing” a living in the post-Boomer era of shrinking real incomes. The hyper-masculine playspace hip hop provided could simulate some of the rush of being a soldier, or a cowboy or something of the un-cubicled, un-desked days when freer existences abounded, if that was ever truly the case.
I suspect that most of us don’t relate in any literal sense to the cloudy linings on Drake’s fancy silverware. We aren’t brooding over the vapid asepticism of making our birthdays into a lifestyle, or the emotional vacuity of our romps with supermodels.
My generation doesn’t own houses any more. How much more house-poor and unmoored from the American Dream will the Drake generation be? We live in an America of posts. Post-family farm. Post-industrial. Post-recession. The sunny spots, like Manhattan and Silicon Valley, exist for an exalted few. The rest of us, if we’re on the cusp of something, it might not be sunset drives in Bugattis. Politicians promise returns to the past, not a future. Whatever happens come November, we can bet who ever lords it over us won't be subject to the same rules as us pissants from the South Side of Chicago to the East side of Sodak.
Studies show that millennials are hesitant to trust others, that more young people are moving back in with their parents than buying Bentleys. Gens X and Y are pessimistic about their financial futures. Young people have low levels of trust in the federal government, Wall Street and the justice system, and are losing trust in media and religion.
The only thing we seem to be on the cusp of nowadays is the next tragedy to up the ante on how fast the news cycle can move past a catastrophe.
You can feel the triumph in B.I.G.’s voice on “Juicy.” The keyboards on the Mtume sample are buoyant, if surprisingly thin after all these years. When Big rapped about going from "birthdays was the worst days" to sipping "champagne when we thirs-tay" — at the time it seemed (from these younger eyes) like we all might have clinked our glasses with him, like we might have come from a myriad different starting points but America was together on that trajectory.
Things done changed. Flash forward to Drake's “Started from the Bottom.” The narrative trajectory is the same — the come-up. But it doesn’t feel like one. Mike Zombie’s menacing beat conjures a sense of dread. Maybe this is why the the disconnect between the track and Drake’s real-life bio never mattered.
He’s taken the artifice of the player’s anthem and infused it with a feeling of futureless-ness — a come-up that unravels on itself even as it asserts its invincibility.
Drakes are songs that accept thematic straitjackets, only to struggle against them, and we need that. Because hearing the unvarnished truth would just bum us out. That kid in Ms. Moberg’s class thought that if Drake was from his Toronto he’d do country odes to the small-town life. You probably know the kind. They don’t make much mention of diabetes or meth labs. And maybe he would. But if Toronto, South Dakota Drake was still Drake he’d find a way to subvert the medium and speak to reality.
Why do we need our artists to speak to us furtively through apparatical devices? Is it because we’ve lost our regional art forms? Have we in the American hinterland been colonized by a pop monoculture and lost the will to resist?
Aatish Taseer wrote in the New York Times that, “In America, one rarely hears about what the transmission of global culture — which is in fact American culture — feels like on the receiving end.” That’s true. We don't really hear about that. But isn't it possible that many Americans also know what that feels like? Do our cultural gatekeepers really care what the receivers feel, whether in Toronto, SD or Surat, so long as they receive. Does Middle America's closer geographical proximity to the nerve centers of Big Culture make us stakeholders, or just accentuate our outsider status.
Taseer writes of Bollywood, probably as formally restrictive a popular medium as any that, “What I love about Bollywood is that it is the only popular medium in which I can see these concerns reflected. We live in an age when civilizational anger has been so taken over by Islamic extremism that it has been rendered untouchable.”
On the Bollywood blockbuster “Sultan,” Taseer writes that, “The word ‘confidence’ comes up again and again… and it speaks to the trauma an old society undergoes as it tries to absorb the appeal of a foreign culture, while at the same time trying to remain true to itself and its genius.”
Doesn’t half or more of America also struggle with some version of that "trauma"? Is Toronto, SD not an old society compared to Silicon Valley? Are the distances between the mass of American, or global, humanity and the powerful, pretty, popular elites at the levers of the machine so different? Can a young electrician or R.N. in the American Midwest keep up any better than their counterpart in Jaipur with the pace of change and fashion acumen demanded by the smart set?
If we don't have our own crisis of confidence, why do we listen to pop stars, country singers, and rappers that perpetually tell us that they’re better than us, have better stuff, better sex, better drugs, more defined abdominals?
Drake does some of that too. We expect him to. The difference is that he deploys the confident facade as a vehicle to denude the crisis.
A consummate hitmaker, he can step outside the black forest of his creation to add another platinum record to his portfolio at will. His genius has been in the prescience to know that taking such a gamble on breaking all the pre-Drake rules of the genre would pay off, knowing that people moving back in with mom or re-upping on unemployment, or filling out another application needed a way to acknowledge our anxieties and anger, our doubts that we'll ever be among the fortunate few, or even close, without just pulling the plug altogether on pop culture's 24/7 livestream of The Dream.
While he invokes penthouse views of “the 6,” the anger beneath the braggadocio, and the sense of foreboding, feel like an easy pair with any semi-ghost town in the 605. He hasn’t abandoned the artifice of aspirational rap, but he’s stripped it to the studs. He’s selling us a picture of a lavish life, but more than that he’s selling us the sublime regret that comes with realizing just how out-of-reach it is for us. In Toronto, or Toronto, or anywhere else.