Mychal Smith desperately wants to like pro-feminist hip-hop artist Drake, but something important and powerful is missing from the music.
I often have a very difficult time reconciling my love of hip-hop with all my hoity-toity ideals about gender, sex, and whatnot. However controversial it was, I’m one of those self-proclaimed feminist men who believes, as Gloria Steinem recently said, “It’s really important that kids grow up knowing that men can be as loving and nurturing as women can.” So when I’m listening to some of my favorite rappers exuberantly claim that they “don’t love hoes” or when rape imagery is used by otherwise talented individuals to affirm some sense of manhood and masculinity, I get extremely uncomfortable.
I’m enough of a hip-hop fan to know that this isn’t all the genre and culture have to offer, and I indulge the alternatives with pleasure. But even there, misogyny rears its ugly head at times, and the constraints of masculine identity limit discourse. I could use more parity.
Drake, the Canadian-born teen-TV-actor-turned rapper, is exactly the sort of emcee that a progressive, black, male hip-hop head like myself is supposed to love. He is the antithesis of every tired hip-hop trope revolving around proving your manhood through violence and sexism. He is the type of rapper of whom I should be singing the praises. I should be heralding him as the leader of the new direction hip-hop needs to take so it can grow and evolve its ideas about manhood and masculinity.
I want to love Drake and write essays about how his music opened up a whole new world for me and how it can do the same for others. But I can’t. He and his music do absolutely nothing for me.
I’ve tried to listen to the mix tape that made him a household name, So Far Gone, at least six times. And I fell asleep each time. I even took a nap before one listen, so I would be well-rested enough to finish and, well, I only set myself up for a second, less-restful nap. But I didn’t want to give up on him.
I gave his debut album, Thank Me Later, a fighting chance, and although it didn’t quite put me to sleep—there are some genuine moments where I found myself nodding in enjoyment, mostly on songs with guest stars I actually like—it ultimately fell short of hitting me in the chest and making me feel something. Anything, really. There’s a huge disconnect between where he wants to take me and the place where I actually end up.
His latest single, “Marvin’s Room,” leaves me even more indifferent. Drake tells you about emotions, but I’m not sure he actually feels them. There’s a vacancy in his voice that renders otherwise complex feelings hollow. I don’t think he’s really drowning his sorrows in alcohol. I don’t think that huge break-up that has him so torn up he’s drunk-dialing his ex and rambling on and on about how much he loved her. I don’t believe he actually had a girlfriend. I don’t even believe he has a phone.
Drake fashions himself as a hip-hop version of John Mayer, a sensitive soul in touch with the trials of love and heartache one experiences in their 20’s, but lacks every ounce of emotional integrity that gives Mayer’s music its appeal.
I can appreciate his attempts to disrupt the narrative of hyper-masculine posturing in hip-hop that often expresses itself in violent, sexist, and homophobic ways. But I make this concession on an intellectual level. I don’t actually feel like he has accomplished anything of any true value, regardless of his message. Drake’s music lacks the grit necessary to carry the themes he favors, the grit in the songs about all those things he was supposed to change. The stories don’t feel like his. His connection to them is too distant—and his talent too lacking—to breathe any life into the lyrics and give them full-throated existence.
I should be thrilled that the chest-thumping, nut sack-grabbing, false machismo that colors a lot of hip-hop music is largely absent from Drake’s catalog thus far. It should give me hope that it doesn’t sound like he hates the women he’s rapping about. His willingness to discuss feelings of vulnerability, rejection, lust, sadness, regret, and pain should be refreshing and welcome for someone who believes more men need to get in touch with these very emotions.
It should be, but it isn’t. It’s not always about the content; the messenger can sometimes be just as important as the message.
—Photo Lunchbox LP/Flickr