On a sunny Tuesday afternoon in southeast London, many of the 18,000 people who have paid to see Drake play the biggest concert of his career are already starting to converge on the O2 arena. It’s hours before showtime, but just knowing that the 25-year-old Canadian R ’n’ B singer-rapper is in the vicinity means the atmosphere is buzzing among the mixed throng of suburbanites and hipsters, some of whom have the acronym YOLO (it stands for You Only Live Once, from his song The Motto) tattooed on their bodies. Although how many of the devoted have it inked inside their mouths, as Drake will later explain is becoming increasingly popular in the US, is hard to gauge. One wonders how quickly the hip froideur would melt if Drake’s fans could see him backstage. In a large, empty room inside the arena, he is removing his gray tracksuit bottoms. It occurs that it might make sense, watching as he contemplates a marginally nattier pair of black trousers, to tweet this image of this “hashtag rapper” — as detractors, including his peer Ludacris, have called him — across the world.
Aubrey Drake Graham probably wouldn’t mind, either. This is someone who is happy to reveal all in his music, using it as therapy to talk about everything from the divorce of his parents and his grandmother’s illness to the bewilderment, loneliness and despair that result from being a jet-setting superstar multimillionaire. In fact, it’s his tendency to make being a jet-setting superstar multimillionaire seem like the most sorrowful, isolating existence on earth that has earned him many detractors.
Does he do so few interviews because much of what he has to say is in his songs? “Yeah,” he says. “It’s hard for me not to tell the truth when you ask me.”
Sometimes, he says, his honesty backfires, and a publication will use his candor against him. Recently he stormed out of an interview with Vibe magazine. “I didn’t like the way I was treated,” he says. “They ran this story about how I’m the most bitter guy, and my life is in turmoil. And I’m, like, a very happy 25-year-old kid living an amazing life. They tried to put a damper on my character, I guess because I didn’t play according to their rules.”
It is none the less this very quality — this sense of misery — that marks him out. Hip-hop has produced many characters — from Public Enemy’s radical militant and NWA’s police-dissing gangsta to 2Pac’s thug savant or Jay-Z’s uber hustler — but the wistful narcissist is a new paradigm for rap. To what extent is this really Drake, or a persona just as calculated as Marshall Mathers’ Slim Shady? “I don’t really have a gimmick or a ‘thing,’” he says. “I’m one of the few artists who gets to be himself every day.”
Ribbed for wearing sweaters and lacking, with his middle-class background (his African American musician father and Jewish Canadian teacher mother divorced when he was five, but he was brought up in Toronto’s affluent Forest Hill area), any ghetto credentials, Drake’s is an exaggerated, super-normality. “I don’t have to wake up in the morning and remember to act like this or talk like that,” he says. “I just have to be me. And people like that.”
Drake is every average dreamy boy incarnate, only with him the doubts and confusions of young adulthood are magnified because of his success and wealth. He recalls how, not long ago, he had an image of an LA mansion as his computer’s homepage. It was way out of reach even for a rising actor (he starred in Canada’s teen drama Degrassi) like him. “It was priced beyond my comprehension,” he says, then pauses. “Five weeks ago I bought it.”