Drake: more than famous

EXCLUSIVE: Maclean's talks to hip-hop's biggest star

Alex Hoerner/Icon International

The trappings of fame aren’t that hard to get used to. Aubrey Drake Graham was driving a leased Rolls-Royce around Toronto even before he signed one of the richest first-record contracts in music history. For more than two years now, he’s been hanging out with sports icons like LeBron James, partying with Jay-Z, Kanye West and other rap royalty, and making the gossip rags for his “romances” with Hollywood starlets (rumoured) and pop divas like Rihanna (confirmed).

There’s been a No. 1 single, a couple of nominations and an on-stage performance at the 2009 Grammys, and the inevitable deal to shill for a soft drink. It’s a heady life, but to hear the 23-year-old tell it, it’s only now that he’s realizing what it means to be a global celebrity.

Late last week, the rapper and his entourage, which boasts three bodyguards, dropped into a St. Louis shopping centre to buy some tea. The crowd trailing them around got so large and frenzied that mall security asked them to leave. “I feel like maybe two months ago, I still had a bit of anonymity. Now it’s a hassle to do regular things,” Drake says from backstage as he prepares for an evening performance in St. Louis. “I don’t know if it will ever feel normal. But I’ve accepted my responsibility—it’s what I wanted, it’s what I dreamed about. I don’t dispute it.”

The ride is about to get wilder with the June 15 release of his first full-length album, Thank Me Later. The new single, Miss Me, featuring Lil Wayne, his hip-hop mentor, is the hottest track in the Billboard Top 100, debuting at number 15. Two other songs, Over and Find Your Love, sit at No. 3 and 4, respectively, on the R & B chart. Demand for his music seems so insatiable—the video for Over has racked up more than 12 million YouTube hits so far—that there is optimistic talk of selling a million copies in the first week. In the last 30 days “Drake” (he now goes by his middle name) has been googled more than Patrick Kane, Kobe Bryant, Oprah, Cristiano Ronaldo, or Barack Obama. On this trajectory he will rocket straight past famous and be nearing inevitable by summer’s end.

Betting against him would seem a mug’s game; his rise to hip hop’s heights so far proving as unstoppable as it was improbable. The product of a brief marriage between a Jewish Toronto school teacher and a black Memphis musician, Drake was raised on the far-from-mean-streets of Forest Hill. A natural flair for performance and cute looks earned him childhood spots in print and TV ads. At 13, he landed the role of Jimmy Brooks on CTV’s Degrassi: The Next Generation, surfing a story arc that took him from basketball star to wheelchair-bound school-shooting victim in the course of seven seasons. Off-camera, he dropped out at the age of 16, devoting his free time to music and filling notebooks with page after page of scribbled lyrics. In 2006, he posted an album of self-penned raps—recorded and produced in a friend’s Toronto condo—on the Web, giving it away. Encouraged by the response, he released another collection of free music (known in the business as “mixtapes”) the next year, earning some airplay south of the border.

In the spring of 2008, a friend slipped that tape to Lil Wayne, rap’s biggest star and current kingmaker. Drake was getting a haircut at a Toronto barbershop when the call came in on his cell—Wayne enthusing about his music and demanding he board the next flight to Houston.

The following day, there was a surreal meeting in a tour bus, where the New Orleans-born rapper, high as a kite while a tattoo artist inked wings on his back, held court and played tunes for six hours. “Next thing I knew the bus started moving and I didn’t go home for a week and a half,” says Drake. “It was like that movie Almost Famous where the journalist gets swept up into the whirlwind of the rock band.” Within days, he and “Wheezy,” as Wayne is known to his fans, were trading rhymes on their first collaboration (the pair have since recorded more than 15 tracks). And Wayne was including shout-outs to “Drizzy Drake Rogers” in his own songs. “My email was,” says Graham. “He didn’t know it was an Internet company.”

Drake had already been anointed as rap’s emerging star by the time he released another mix, So Far Gone, in early 2009, with both Chris Bosh and LeBron James in attendance at the Toronto party. Kanye West volunteered to direct the video for the bawdy Best I Ever had—an epic 5½-minute basketball-themed jiggle-fest—that helped propel the song to No. 1 on the R&B charts, and No. 2 in the top 100. The free mixtape was downloaded more than 30 million times, and record companies were slobbering over themselves to sign him. Universal Music, the eventual winner, paid out a US$2-million bonus, and agreed to just 25 per cent of sales as a “distribution fee”—an unheard-of deal in an age where labels usually demand “360” agreements, taking a cut of everything from touring to merchandise revenue. “The record company doesn’t have any ownership of Drake,” Cortez Bryant, the manager he shares with Lil Wayne, boasted to the Los Angeles Times last summer. “The label does not have participation or profits. They don’t have ownership of his masters. We control his entire career. These deals don’t happen anymore.” (Don’t cry for Universal. When So Far Gone was released as an EP, it sold 500,000 copies, despite having been available for free for more than a year.)

Tyrone Edwards, a long-time Toronto friend who goes by the moniker T-RexXx, says the appearance of overnight success is only that. “The thing about Drake is that he doesn’t do anything half-assed. He works really hard,” says Edwards. Where other rappers treated mixtapes as throwaways, Drake and his friends poured their hearts and souls into his. “Everyone close to him has always believed in him and known his talent.” And through it all he has remained the same person. Edwards, who organizes Drake’s Toronto parties, says the budgets have become bigger—the post MuchMusic Video Awards bash will be at the CN Tower—but the vibe hasn’t changed: no paparazzi or hangers-on, just a select circle of good friends, having a good time. Last Halloween, a visiting Jay-Z took a turn mixing cocktails at a Queen Street bar. “It was all under the radar, just a perfect night.”

The rapper has also been munificent, bringing many of his Toronto buddies along for the ride. Noah “40” Shebib, a fellow child actor, now his main producer, signed a deal with the same management firm. Another, Matthew Samuels (aka Boi-1da) was behind the controls for Eminem’s new single Not Afraid. Other friends have been given titles like “creative director” and “personal assistant,” mostly, Drake admits, so he could put them on the payroll.

But as large as the pie is, not everyone got a piece. Drake was recently quoted in the New York Times as saying he feels “unsafe” in Toronto at all times. Part of that stems from a May 2009 incident where he was robbed at gunpoint at a College Street eatery. “I feel like in Toronto—from a rap standpoint, or even from being a young, black kid—I’m the only one to achieve this level of success,” Drake told Maclean’s. “Those individuals who hate to see a person succeed, those are the individuals I fear, because in this city I would be their No. 1 target.” A couple of months ago, another Toronto rapper and former collaborator, Big Page, labelled Drake a “snitch,” accusing him of helping police put the robbers behind bars. With his mentor Lil Wayne currently serving a one-year sentence for gun possession in a New York City jail, and his own Forest Hill “street cred” in chronically short supply, it’s a sensitive subject for Drake. “It’s public record that I actually never co-operated. I didn’t show up for the trial,” he says. A PR rep steps in to close off the line of questioning before it can go much further. “It was just something that I wanted to leave behind. They gave me my life that night.”

Overcoming adversity—and the jealousy of rivals—is a well-worn theme in rap. But Drake’s new album perhaps takes it to a new level. From the title on down, Thank Me Later has the feel of an artist who wants nothing more than to justify, and at times reconcile with, his phenomenal success. “Money just changed everything, I wonder how life without it would go?” he sings in Fireworks. There are winks at his endorsement deal, worries about how his fame is affecting friends and family, and sly references to past flashes in the pan in The Resistance. “Did I just trade free time for some camera time? Will I blow all this money, baby, Hammertime?”

But for all the lyrical ambivalence, one gets the sense that it’s mostly for show—the 23-year-old is right where he always wanted to be. “People ask me if I’m surprised by his success,” says Lauren Collins, a long-time Degrassi cast mate. “Not really. I always saw how talented and ambitious he was. He believed in himself more than anybody I’ve ever met.” Marvin Karon, a former acting teacher, still remembers a 13-year-old with a preternatural sense of self, and buckets of easy charm.

He’s also a quick study. Prior to So Far Gone’s release, he had never given a live performance. Within weeks he was tearing it up in front of 20,000 people a night, and gaining a reputation for his jokey between-song patter. For Thank Me Later, he made a deliberate decision to add singing to the mix, undertaking months of intensive voice training. (These days, his vocal coach is travelling with him on the road, working with him before and after every show.)

And in a part of the music business that is generally recognized for its excesses, there is a sense—from a distance at least—of discipline. The plan for the money, beyond “to make a lot more,” is to start investing in real estate. Already a silent partner in a Toronto eatery, Drake wants to open his own upscale Italian resto—envisioning a sanctuary for him and his celebrity friends. And while the Internet is littered with videos of female fans launching bras at him during concerts (he drapes them from his mic stand) Drake swears he’s not filling up hotel rooms after shows. “Women are very approachable these days,” he laughs. “They’re not necessarily shutting me down left, right and centre. But I’d much rather be with one woman, and take it easy, or go for dinner.”

U.S. journalists in particular seem surprised to encounter a rapper who is articulate and polite, qualities Drake attributes to his prior career. “I think acting readied me for being this person,” he says. “I witnessed what it is to be humble, to really listen to people, to look them in the eye.” Although from a Canadian point of view you might best describe him as bilingual—the kind of guy who can rap about his Bubbe entering a nursing home just as comfortably as he boasts about making a certain part of a woman’s anatomy “whistle like the Andy Griffith theme song.” “Even if I say the word ‘bitch,’ I always try to say it in a coy, witty way,” he explains.

At this point, the success of the new album has become weirdly irrelevant. The self-imposed goal is to become a “timeless artist,” defined in rap terms as someone with a career that spans seven, eight, maybe 10 years. Then a return to acting, following the Hollywood path blazed by Will Smith, the former Fresh Prince. In the last six months alone, the press has labelled Drake as “the new face,” “future” and “religion” of hip hop. What does he call himself? “Mr. Got-a-lot-of-work-to-do.” Only a couple of years removed from singing along with CDs in his mom’s basement, Aubrey Drake Graham is now in a position to snatch the crown. “I still get very scared and nervous because I’m competing with my heroes,” he says. “These guys are scary individuals to be wanting to outsell or outdo.”