Monday, September 29, 2014

In Defense Of: Drake, or "Dirk Nowitzki Forever: A One-Year Nothing Was The Same Retrospective"

This In Defense Of was contributed by Chris Tracy, a Brooklyn noise rocker with a mithril shirt, a first pressing of So Far Gone, and a skyhook like Kareem.

It was at some point in early-to-mid September 2013, one of the first really autumnal feeling evenings, when the rain started. It was the sort of rain that I love, the kind that puts a spike in your back when you've spent all summer waiting for it to cool rather than choke you, the kind of rain that only happens at the siege of Helm's Deep or the drowning out of some lycanthropic moors, the kind that only comes under cover of darkness. Needless to say, I went to the pub — St. Dymphna's on St. Marks, my favorite actual pub in the city — for a couple pints of plain, some soup, and stout bread after a day of my meaningless job and even more meaningless existence, milling in recent post-grad school, post-birthday malaise, feeling completely alone.

It was while sitting toward the back of the bar, scrolling through my Twitter timeline, that I saw the link — another one had dropped.

Another new Drake song from the forthcoming Nothing Was The Same. My signal was weak, so I waited and refreshed while the load bar trudged through the din of disruptive service, digging for my earbuds in my bag, waiting to hear this new what-the-fuck-is-this-thing-"Wu-Tang Forever"-potential-flamesfest that Drake had proffered upon us mortals. There are many artists I love in this world, but if a new Converge song had come to my attention, I would have waited to get home to check it out. Drake doesn't allow for such lassitude, because when Drake does something, it becomes part of our greater pop-cultural lexicon so quickly, that to ignore it for even a moment is to cede control of your timeline forever. You're outside of the pub in all that cold rain. I'm inside and my soup just came up out the kitchen.

So I sat there in the swirling soft candlelight of the pub, earbuds locked into my skull, listening to this new transmission from the Sin City Toronto Drake has carefully constructed with Noah "40" Shebib, and, after a couple load attempts, got to hear the full thing through. Fuck. This was fate. The Norns had sent me a clarion call for this exact moment in the deluge sheets — the sad jazz piano loop washed out like Hopper's Nighthawks seen through the streaks of rain on a backseat car window, driving home from a wake at fourteen, seeing grown-ups cry. The Raekwon sample buried under turf to age for the perfect smoky bite as it grew through your body. The bass, stalwartly anchoring you to the seabed as the storm surges on. And then Drake himself enters, as only Drake can, with a line sickeningly simpering in its directness and pleading in its coo — "I just love when I'm with you.'" I was all in, because everyone's been a rain dog like Drake, unable to smell their way home in the storm, and just wishing for that "you," that person whose mere presence gives you purpose. RIght then, I was Drake, "you"less and cold, and this song was the fire, out there somewhere on the horizon.

Of course, after the song dropped, the thinkpieces started, and perhaps the best one I read was on Noisey by Drew Millard. He got it all — the rain over New York that night, how "Drake makes feeling shitty feel awesome," and how Drake is a maverick, like John McCain (heh) or Maverick from Top Gun, because only Drake has the audacity to take something as sacred as Wu-Tang for totally unrelated source material, and not only to do it right, but make it his own. While Millard said Drake was "in a Jordan-level zone where he can't miss" when the song came out, there is a ballplayer and a Maverick that Millard doesn't mention that I think is the closest to Drake's actual place in hip hop and how he might be remembered — Dirk Nowitzki. Nowitzki is a living legend of the NBA, a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer, a regular season and finals MVP, and one of the icons of the rise of relevance for players outside the US from burgeoning to essential in the new millennium (along with, you know, the goddamn Spurs). How Dirk has gone about all this is very similar to how I see Drake rising to dominance in hip hop.

Drake is from a musical family — his uncle is Larry Graham, the legend credited with inventing slap bass and breaking concrete for Sly Stone, and his dad was a drummer who played with Jerry Lee Lewis. Drake was also Wheelchair Jimmy on Degrassi. We can leave that there. And Drake, based on the strength of some mixtapes and knowing the right people, got the backing of Lil Wayne, Birdman, and the Iron Bank of Cash Money to force him to stardom before we were sure that he was the talent we were told. Dirk was from an athletic family — according to Wikipedia (because, c'mon), his mother was a ball player too, his father played handball on the international level, and his sister was a track star before also picking up basketball. Dirk toiled through various levels of German basketball before eventually being noticed and entering the NBA draft, where he initially struggled to establish himself as the star he would become.

In both circumstances, we have upstarts who eschew the narrative fans have come to love from the stars in their respective fields. Neither was looking at their craft as the only alternative to a life their societies' norms would deem unsuccessful — it wasn't making it in music, athletics, or crime as the only means to success for Drake or Dirk. But what is so essential to their respective crafts is that without the necessity of succeeding at the highest level, both have, due to persistence of style. Drake has worked exclusively with Shebib, with whom he started making music from the get-go, to produce his own albums (even if on the executive level with some tracks) as a means of establishing a continuity of sound such that, upon hearing a beat, you know it's Toronto. This has become rare for top rappers, as albums seem to be a collection of beats from the hottest production names out at the given time, so that something like Tha Carter 3 is a perfect time capsule for hip hop sonics in 2008. Nothing Was The Same, as Drake and 40's finest work yet, doesn't scream 2013 for its aural qualities as much as for the time you associate with it. Rain is eternal.

Drake also comes under fire for his content. Millard calls Drake "the best troll in rap" in the title to his piece, for taking something as eternally raw — rugged and raw, I repeat — as Wu-Tang for another #DrakeTears anthem about feelings. This has always been part of Drake's shtick — he's sensitive. In turn, that sensitivity has always been the low-hanging fruit machismo-based Drake haters gorge themselves on. But I've never seen news of a new Pusha T song, had to hear it right away in a bar to the point where I'm that guy with his headphones in at the bar, and then had it comfort me. And I love Pusha T! — I'm from Virginia, he made us a titular state anthem with his brother and The Neptunes back on Lord Willin. There's a time and a place for all feelings, and Drake saw an opportunity to soundtrack some of that territory that was untouched within his genre. Again: Rain. Is. Eternal.

So as Drake honed a sound with a partner and a vision for his persona, Dirk partnered for years with Holger Geschwindner, a former player and coach who saw his promise and developed his unorthodox style. According to Wikipedia Tha Gawd again, Geschwindner "shunned weight training and tactical drills" with Nowitzki to focus on shooting and passing, to hone the immense potential he saw Dirk had inherently for those skills. In both the cases of Drake and Dirk, the unorthodoxy of their styles eventually won out. A scoring seven-footer who trades post presence for being able to drain a shot from anywhere on the court? The fuck? Both Dirk's style of play and German wunderkind persona are as unique as Drake's sound/content pairing. No one can touch Drake now, and no one can still consistently guard Dirk's top-of-the-paint off-balance fadeaway jumper. Its like the skyhook — a shot that is timeless, and will forever be only Dirk's to execute perfectly.

So if you buy my vision of the similarities between the two, why make the comparison in the first place? Because, In Defense of Drake, we can look to Dirk as a monumental success based on the essential qualities of his supreme individuality. Ultimately, if you have respect for the game of basketball, you gotta love Dirk Nowitzki, cries of defensive fallibility and all, for the fact that he gives something to the game no one else ever has, and Drake does the same thing for rap. You might not fuck with his music, you might think he's a simp for being so emotive or a hack for claiming things like he "started from the bottom" or his success was an "all me" endeavor, but what you can't deny is that no one has done it like Drake. Give respect where respect is due — the quirky ones won. If Nothing Was The Same is Drake's MVP season, then we're lucky — he's still gonna get a ring. So here and now, at the one-year anniversary of that record, let's put it on, take a shot for Drake, and celebrate the persistence of substance in style over status quo. And pray for rain — that piano loop in "Wu-Tang Forever" will still add a tear to the storm.

— Chris Tracy

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