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Drake and the Rise of the New Pop Melancholy

In May 2012, GQ ran a profile of basketball überstar Derrick Rose. The article was a curiously moving piece of journalism, depicting Rose as a sort of cloistered figure, standing alone at the floor-to-ceiling windows of his condo on the 84th floor of Chicago’s Trump Towers, staring out at a city that he rules but no longer inhabits. The article is a fine portrait of the alienation that comes with being mega-rich, a window into a world where too much is never enough. This is a world that is appearing more and more in pop music… which brings us to Drake, the avatar of this new pop melancholy.

About halfway through Drake’s third studio album Nothing Was the Same, which leaked last night and has been fighting with Breaking Bad for attention ever since, we find him sitting in a similar place to Derrick Rose. Drake’s hugely successful these days, of course — he didn’t really start from the bottom, but he started from Degrassi, which as far as street cred goes is basically the same thing, and now here he is, at the top with his whole team here. And is it enough? No, of course it isn’t. “I search for something I’m missing,” he sighs, “and disappear when I’m bored.” It’s hard being Drake.

But still, while it’s easy to needle the idea of a guy who earns more money in a day than you will this year being sad and lonely and bereft of meaning, there’s something really interesting about the way Drake’s career has played out. Hip hop has always venerated success — as discussed here a while back, it’s unashamedly and unabashedly materialistic, a legacy of its roots in a culture where financial deprivation was the norm. The trappings of success are as important as the success itself — what’s the point of having money if you can’t splash it around?

Drake has embraced that lifestyle as much as anyone else, but the triumphalism seems to crumble more with every record he releases. Part of what makes hims such an interesting figure is that even his braggadocio is shot through with self-doubt; his boasts have the air of a man repeating self-help mantras that he doesn’t really believe. This album features plenty of lyrics that exhort its creator’s successes. It starts with the line, “Comin’ off the last record/ I’m gettin’ 20 million off the record” and a declaration that “My life is a completed checklist.” But the abiding feeling is one that’s always characterized Drake’s career — a sort of privileged alienation, a sense that completing the checklist only leads to a new, blank page.

You can find this sort of alienation manifesting throughout pop music these days, and I mean “pop” in its most literal sense here: popular, squillion-selling artists, most of whom are rappers. It comes through in the casual nihilism of Drake protegé and collaborator The Weeknd, in the Hummer limo rap of Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail, in the cocaine anesthesia of Frank Ocean, in the late-night despair of Kanye West’s “Hold My Liquor” and the coruscating rage of “New Slaves.” You can probably trace its roots back to the R&B of R. Kelly, et al, but its first great expression was Kanye’s 808s and Heartbreak, an album that pretty much defined the idea of being alone in the marble palace of fame, as well as the musical aesthetic that accompanied it — icy synth sounds, echoes, and general minimalism.

But the holy trinity of post-millennial hip hop alienation is Thank Me Later, Take Care, and this record. Drake’s entire musical career has been defined by this aesthetic, and he continues to refine it on Nothing Was the Same. It’s a sound that has very little connection to hip hop’s past — Kanye deliberately set out to deconstruct hip hop with 808s and Heartbreak, and the music that Drake makes here is very much in the same vein. (This is something he makes clear with “Wu-Tang Forever,” a track that sounds nothing at all like the Wu-Tang Clan and has apparently upset at least one of its member.)

But then, even though this melancholy feels like something new in hip hop, I’d argue that it’s actually always been there — or, at least, the potential for it has always been there, because it’s a manifestation of the individualism that’s always characterized America’s most successful genre. The Manic Street Preachers once sung that “self-disgust = self-obsession,” and they were right. As someone who’s got rather more experience of depression than I’d like, I can certainly attest that there’s something inherently self-centered to self-analysis. In this respect, the introspection of Drake, et al is the logical flip side to the braggadocio that has always characterized hip hop: they’re both manifestations of narcissism, where one involves defining your value by your net worth and the other involves questioning the wisdom of doing so.

Part of what makes Drake’s work so interesting is that his records do both of these things at the same time, which perhaps explains why they have such resonance. After all, America is a society as deeply grounded in individualism and self-regard as its favorite genre. It’s also a society that’s now confronting the limits of that individualism. You could probably make a convincing argument tying the rise of a new melancholy ambivalence in pop music with the general mood of America these days, and in particular with the slow decay of the optimism that followed Barack Obama’s victory in the 2009 presidential election — a victory, of course, that was very much identified with the world of hip hop. In this respect, it mirrors the descent of Britpop from the Cool Britannia years of Tony Blair’s ascension to the heroin-muddled miserablism that paralleled Blair’s decline.

But even beyond immediate cultural context, there’s something interesting about the way his records embody the contradiction at the heart of hip hop, and at the heart of America. “Started from the bottom now we’re here” is as snappy a summation of America’s cultural mythology as it is of hip hop’s, and yet it’s chimera. Drake’s not from the bottom, any more than Rick Ross is a genuine thug or Tupac was always about that life. He’s not even American, bless him — famously, he’s from a pleasant suburb of Toronto, a fact that he acknowledges on “Wu-Tang Forever”: “I find peace knowing that it’s harder in the streets/ I know, luckily I didn’t have to grow there.”

Nope, he never did. And now we find him moving into that room at the top of Trump Towers… and finding it empty. In this respect, you can make another interesting argument — that as a society, we’ve arrived at the same place, at the limits of individualism, at a recognition that no matter how much we tell ourselves that self-interest and competition is good for everyone, it builds as much alienation and despair as it does anything else. I don’t for a minute think that Drake’s chosen to weave all that into the fabric of his work, but the fact that it ended up in each of his albums makes them perfect records for this age. Once you’re in that room, it’s not so easy to leave.

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