This essay on Drake was posted on Rhapsody.com’s Music Stuff Place blog on June 15. It analyzes Thank Me Later‘s mix of hip-hop and R&B. Obviously there’s a lot more to be said about Drake’s rap and vocal performance, the production, and specific criticisms and praise. In the meantime, check this out.
Rap Is Not Pop: A Brief History Of Rap And B*llsh*t
Hip-hop and R&B share a history fraught with musical romance and cultural tension. There have been successful marriages — Diddy, Faith Evans and 112â€™s massive â€œIâ€™ll Be Missing Youâ€ tribute to the late Notorious B.I.G. comes to mind — the two cultures remain suspicious of one another. R&B fans often claim that rappers are just entitled industry thugs that perpetuate noxious ghetto stereotypes about people of color. And hip-hoppers claim that R&B singers are just bougie careerists whose babymaker blandishments are far removed from the halcyon days of sweet, socially-relevant soul.
Drakeâ€™s new album, Thank Me Later, revisits those fault lines. Merging introspective lyrics and emotive (and, yes, occasionally Auto-Tuned) vocals, he has become something of an overnight superstar. But it has also led to accusations of being an industry product cynically designed for radio hits. Some rap fans complain that heâ€™s more concerned with wooing teenage girls with lovey-dovey vocal hooks than spitting deft rhymes for the hardcore faithful. Or, to paraphrase as De La Soul once put it, itâ€™s whether his mix of rap and R&B simply translates into â€œrap and b*llsh*t.â€
The cultural divide dates back to the mid-80s, when the hip-hop sound evolved from freestyle, disco and electro to hardcore 808 drums and James Brown samples. Industry veterans argued that hip-hop was displacing musicians that played â€œrealâ€ instruments. On The Black Album, Prince mocked rappers with â€œDead On It,â€ singing, â€œSee the rapperâ€™s problem usually stem from being tone deaf.â€ By 1988, Public Enemy was shouting, â€œBring the Noiseâ€: â€œRadio stations I question their blackness/ They call themselves black but weâ€™ll see if theyâ€™ll play this.â€
Some historians claim that rap music was shut out of urban radio in the late 80s, but that wasnâ€™t necessarily the case. N.W.A.â€™s â€œExpress Yourselfâ€ and got some spins, as did LL Cool Jâ€™s â€œI Need Love.â€ Hurby the Luv Bugâ€™s crew (Salt Nâ€™ Pepa, Kid-N-Play), Heavy D. and the Boyz, Kool Moe Dee and, of course, MC Hammer were huge. These artists were part of â€œnew jack swing.â€ Pioneered by New York producer Teddy Riley, â€œnew jack swingâ€ muted the hardcore 808 sensibility with daffy synths, light drum machine rhythms, and sometimes even hip-house beats. Urban radio, retailers, and even video channels like MTV and BET wanted party rap for shaking your rump. Fiery agit-pop statements like Public Enemyâ€™s It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back and X-Clanâ€™s To the East, Blackwards didnâ€™t fit.
Hence â€œrap and b*llsh*t.â€
Not every merging of rap and R&B â€“ a new term for soul music that emerged in the late 80s, and was codified when Billboard magazine changed its soul charts from â€œBlack Musicâ€ to â€œR&Bâ€ in 1991 â€“ aspired to The Arsenio Hall Show props and HBCU infamy. Everyone has a soft spot for New Edition and associated projects like Bell Biv Devoe. (Remember â€œS-C-H-O-O-L/ Youâ€™ve got to go to school and ring that bellâ€?) Miâ€™chelleâ€™s singles with Dr. Dre, particularly â€œNo Lies,â€ were funky excavations of post-electro gangsta funk. And the Jungle Brothersâ€™ Done By the Forces of Nature presented Afrocentrism, UK soul and acid house as a revolutionary force. â€œWell my family sets all the trends/From Soul II Soul large to Loose Ends,â€ raps Afrika Baby Bam on â€œDoinâ€™ Our Own Dang.â€ Then he adds, â€œYeah, the industryâ€™s filled with sloppy cats/ R&B mixed with sloppy raps.â€
For the Jungle Brothers, thereâ€™s an aesthetic difference between Soul II Soul and â€œR&B mixed with sloppy raps.â€ Soul music is classic, the stuff of Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye, while R&B is trendy, just gimmicks made by Riley and his modern equivalent, Timbaland. And itâ€™s not just intellectuals making that distinction: when interviewed, modern-day R&B stars like Ne-Yo and Trey Songz inevitably give props to Stevie Wonder, not Jodeci and R. Kelly, even though they sound more like the latter.
Fairly or unfairly, R&B has become a euphemism for mass-market gentrification. Urban radio programmers havenâ€™t dispelled this perception, either. After all these years, theyâ€™re still more likely to play rap with an R&B vocal and/or dance element over a straight-up hip-hop gem. Itâ€™s been a winning combination for self-described D-boys, gangsters and thugs ever since Diddy paired the Notorious B.I.G. and Total for â€œJuicy,â€ and some rappers like Plies have built entire careers out of playing the sensitive thug looking for an R&B â€œhoodâ€ chick. The fact that Plies spends the rest of albums like Definition of Real pushing â€œweightâ€ and busting shots at â€œn*gg*sâ€ makes radio-pandering gimmicks like â€œBust It, Babyâ€ seem like a depressing charade.
However, R&B has also inspired challenging works of art. On 808 and Heartbreaks, Kanye West uses the genre to explore his breakup with a longtime girlfriend and the death of his mother. The production, full of quantized machines and Auto-Tuned vocals, turns the familiar babymaker sound of thrusting drum machines and eerie synth lines into a lonely crying jag. Although he mostly sings (the hit single â€œHeartlessâ€ being a notable exception), the tone merges R&B and hip-hop sensibilities (as well as electronic pop like Depeche Mode). It underlines the best of both (musically at least â€“ Westâ€™s singing is another matter).
Even though he raps much more than West, Drakeâ€™s Thank Me Later follows in the 808s and Heartbreaks tradition. His lyrics are full of introspective thoughts, whether itâ€™s fame and its aftereffects or the lack of a steady girlfriend. And his achingly light and melodic vocals exemplify R&B as a kind of aching need for love, companionship, and personal validation. Not surprisingly, he references the late Aaliyah Haughton, one of R&Bâ€™s undisputed queens, and her sublime â€œLet Me Knowâ€ on his â€œUnforgettable.â€
If some regard Thank Me Later with suspicion, itâ€™s only because we the audience have come to expect less. Rap should consist of hot bars and coke raps; R&B is supposed to re-invent sex, and their merger should be a pancake melding of the two. When the combination exceeds our expectations and sounds better than the sum of its parts, weâ€™re reminded of how good it should be.