Because I am a woman in my 30s, a feminist and a hip hop fan from Toronto, I’ve obviously been thinking about Certified Lover Boy since it dropped last Friday. Wait, actually, that’s a lie. CLB is… fine, but since there’s not one of the 21 tracks that I like as much as the entirety of Dark Lane Demo Tapes, much less actual bangers like “Laugh Now, Cry Later,” “God’s Plan,” “Worst Behaviour” or “Nice for What,” it’s not the music that has been on my mind.
The ways Drake says he’s for women without ever proving it, though? Yeah, I’ve been all over that.
The example that's been getting the most airtime is that R. Kelly writing credit, of course. Kelly, who is currently on trial for racketeering and sex trafficking, is credited as a writer on “TSU.” Since you can’t hear him on the song, there was speculation that he was a co-lyricist, which would mean Drake chose to work with someone who has almost certainly committed horrific crimes against women, but according to Noah “40” Shebib, Drake’s longtime producer and collaborator, the credit is a technicality.
“On a song called tsu at the beginning is a sample of OG Ron c talking. Behind that faintly which you can’t even hear is an r Kelly song playing in the background,” Shebib commented on an IG post by Toronto activist Ravyn Wngz. “It has no significance no lyrics are present, r Kelly’s voice isn’t even present but if we wanted to use Ron c talking we were forced to license it.”
Which, you know, I’m not sure I buy. I’m not a producer, but the girls on Twitter have been isolating Whitney Houston’s vocals for years now, so are we sure there was no way to avoid crediting Kelly? Also, OG Ron C is now an OVO artist, so I feel like Drake could have called him up and asked him to re-record with little to no issues.
But it wasn’t just the writing credit. It was also, in some cases, the actual writing. As Craig Jenkins points out in his review, “'Race My Mind' seems to be about doting on a crush until the last verse explains that she doesn’t strike him as wife material, but she’s drunk, and he’s just giving her a chance to change his mind — truly romantic stuff... A relationship hits turbulence in 'Pipe Down,' and he asks: 'How much I gotta spend for you to pipe down?' On Certified, the Boy’s truest loves are family, wealth, and self.” Also, if straight cis men can stop saying they’re lesbians too, as Drake did on "Girls Want Girls," that would be great. It’s annoying and more importantly, inaccurate. Words mean things!
As my friend Katherine pointed out, he also barely worked with women on this album. Brampton-born producer WondaGurl is credited on “Fair Trade,” Tems and Yebba are featured, and Nicki Minaj contributed background vocals but… I’m pretty sure that’s it.
This isn’t a new conversation, of course. In episode three of CBC’s This Is Not A Drake Podcast, which focuses on Drake’s role in ushering in the era of the ‘nice guy’ rapper, host Anupa Mistry pointed to what, in retrospect, was probably the impetus for widespread conversations about the disconnect between his persona and his behaviour: the 2016 MTV VMAs. That was the awards show when Rihanna received the Michael Jackson Vanguard Award; it was a huge deal, and Drake made sure the world understood how proud he was. First, he paid for what Mistry describes (accurately, I think, considering their are-they-or-aren't-they-status at the time) as a “grand romantic gesture,” a huge billboard in L.A. that said, "Congratulations to Rihanna from Drake and everyone at OVO.” Then, at the show itself, he introduced her with an effusive speech where he publicly proclaimed his love, giving serious pregnancy announcement at someone else's wedding vibes.
“Fans began talking about how Rihanna's big moment felt overshadowed by Drake. He was being way more public about whatever was going on between them than her, and his celebrity seemed to benefit from that, too,” Mistry says. “I thought this was interesting. I mean, on the surface, these were nice gestures by an artist who is the nice guy of hip hop. Hardly anything to write a think piece about, right? But it's not just that fans were reacting to Drake being Drake. I think the reaction signalled a shift in how Drake fans and pop music fans who are primarily young women are responding to the broader shifts in gender dynamics that are taking place.”
At some point after those VMAs, many of us began to see Drake as a problematic fave. As Martenzie Johnson pointed out in The Undefeated in 2017, “Drake’s corniness, outward kindness and lack of sexual aggression has been misinterpreted as an overarching respect for women. He’s even been referred to as a feminist. But Drake is as much a feminist as Rachel Dolezal is a Black woman. His entire catalog is steeped in respectability politics, accepting women so far as their body count goes.” His lyrics have disrespected his son’s mother, regularly classify women as ‘good girls’ or hoes and slut shame those who have the gall to get over him. (What exactly is the problem with wearing less and going out more, Drizzy? Sounds like Nebby was living her best life to me.)
But then, “Nice for What.” You remember “Nice for What,” I certainly remember “Nice for What,” because it’s one of my all-time favourite Drake songs. I’ve probably listened to it once a week since 2018, and yes, that’s partially because the lyrics nod to the “female struggle,” as Paper magazine put it at the time. The video, which was directed by a then 22-year-old Karena Evans, is also pretty great thanks to its focus on excellence and empowerment and cast of powerhouse women, including Olivia Wilde, Misty Copeland, Issa Rae, Rashida Jones, Tracee Ellis Ross, Tiffany Haddish, Yara Shahidi, Emma Roberts and Michelle Rodriguez. Truly, what’s not to like?
Drake went from “Used to always stay at home, be a good girl” in hotline bling to “And you showin' off but it's alright” in nice for what. Character development. Wow.— biryani rani (@partypatil) April 7, 2018
Well... as Janessa Williams, a music writer and academic who analyzed the song and its reception for her master’s thesis, pointed out on This Is Not A Drake Podcast, “Nice for What” was a follow-up to “Hotline Bling,” a song that was mostly comprised of slut-shaming. “That to me, just suddenly felt like just a very, very summative point of everything that I was trying to say in terms of whether he genuinely was this nice guy or whether it was something that he realized he should drop because the #MeToo movement was just picking up pace,” Williams says. “I guess I started to question whether he was just adopting it as another marketing move.”
That’s something I’ve wondered, too, especially in the wake of CLB. I mean, so many of the things he does to signal his niceness and emphasize his appeal to women (getting a tattoo of Aaliyah, being in love with Rihanna, making one song about how great women are) are undermined by his artistic and professional decisions (working with R. Kelly, working with Chris Brown, working mostly with men). Kinda fucked up, Drake.
But there is one part of the current Drake discourse that I feel conflicted about: the resurfacing of grooming allegations against the rapper. In case you haven’t spent quite as much time on the Drake beat as I have, in 2018, controversy swirled after Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown, then 14, told Access Hollywood that she and the rapper, then 33, were friends. "I love him. I met him in Australia, and he's honestly so fantastic… We just texted each other the other day and he was like, ‘I miss you so much,' and I was like, ‘I miss you more.' He's great," she said, adding that Drake sometimes gives her boy advice. Then, the following year, a then 17-year-old Billie Eilish told Vanity Fair that, "Drake is like the nicest dude I've ever spoken to. I mean I've only like texted him, but he's so nice. Like, he does not need to be nice. You know what I mean? He's at a level of his life where he doesn't need to be nice, but he is. You know?"
Many people did know about older men texting teenage girls, and they wondered whether there was something more sinister at play here. Was he grooming Brown and Eilish in order to have sexual relationships with them at a later date? As proof, Twitter users pointed to a resurfaced video in which a 23-year-old Drake brings a teen girl onstage at a Denver, Colorado concert, where he proceeds to kiss and touch her. When he asks her age and she tells him she’s 17, he exclaims that he couldn’t “go to jail yet, man!” before asking her, “why do you look like that? You thick. Look at all this.” And then there were the whispers that he began dating model Bella Harris as soon as she turned 18—after meeting her years before. (Both Harris and Drake denied the rumours.)
I have written before about patterns of behaviour when it comes to predatory men, so I’m definitely not trying to deny the possibility that a wealthy and powerful rapper could be trying to exploit young women. And, I get the impulse to believe the worst of people, especially since we know there is often truth to these types of whispers and rumours—we’ve seen that with Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein and most recently, hip hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa, who is being sued by a man who says he was sexually abused and sex trafficked by Bambaataa in the early 90s, starting when he was just 12. As cultural commentator Jay Smooth pointed out, survivors started speaking out about Bambaataa years ago, but no one listened.
But… I do feel weird about how easily some people decided that the only reason Drake, a Black man, would be friendly toward children was because he was grooming them, especially considering these girls’ insistence that their friendships were totally innocent. After Millie Bobby Brown’s comments made headlines, for example, she responded on her IG story, saying, “Why u gotta make a lovely friendship ur headline? U guys are weird … for real. I'm lucky to have people in the business extend their time to help me further my career and offer their wisdom and guidance. I'm very blessed to have amazing people in my life. U don't get to choose that for me. It's nice to have people who understand what I do. Now get back to talking about real problems in this world other than my friendships … jeez."
Of course, children who have been groomed don't always recognize that's what was going on, so if either Brown or Eilish ever say they feel differently about those interactions, or other young women come forward with their own allegations, I'd unequivocally retract this newsletter with zero hesitation. But a lot of the concern I'm seeing seems to stem from the fact that they were interacting at all, even though that's not necessarily creepy. I think it’s worth noting here that the reaction to Brown and Eilish’s interviews has been quite different from the reactions to Christian Combs’ reveal that he and Rihanna started texting when he was 11. They met at his dad, P. Diddy’s, annual New Year’s Eve party, and apparently stayed in touch before eventually collaborating on a men’s collection for her Savage x Fenty lingerie line. In this case, an adult and child texting reads as a cute story about a boy’s precociousness that turned into a business opportunity when he grew up.
To be clear, I’m not conflicted about the direction this discourse has taken because I’m worried about Drake. According to Forbes, CLB’s debut was the biggest in Spotify history and broke Apple Music’s single-day streaming record for an album. Aside from music, he has other lucrative ventures, including his business relationship with the Raptors and DreamCrew, his production company. And, he just announced he’ll be partnering with ESPN to curate music for some Monday night football games. From both a financial and reputational perspective, he’s doing just fine. Instead, I keep thinking about what these allegations say about the ways we understand masculinity when it comes to the men we know in real life. If we believe that men cannot be kind or nurturing without a frightening ulterior motive, how does that impact our relationships, and who we trust to care for our children, and what we think half the population can do and be?
In a way, this conversation reminds me of the one around Aziz Ansari, post-babe.net exposé. In January 2018, the now shuttered website published a piece about “Grace,” a pseudonymous young woman who was excited to go on a date with the comedian, but soon became alarmed at the way he ignored what she thought was clear discomfort and then pressured her into having sex. It was unlike the other #MeToo stories that were being published at the time, because it didn’t report on workplace harassment or show a pattern of behaviour. As feminist writer Anna North pointed out in Vox, it could have been a useful addition to the discourse because, “while few men have committed the litany of misdeeds of which Weinstein has been accused, countless men have likely behaved as Grace says Ansari did — focusing on their own desires without recognizing what their partner wants. It is the sheer commonness of Grace’s experience that makes it so important to talk about.”
Instead, writers and commentators seemed fixated on situating it among those other #MeToo stories, which meant we kept having the same simplistic debates about whether Ansari's actions counted as assault or not. Looking back, I wish that we’d delved into more nuanced conversations about consent instead, including how normalized it still is for young men to believe they may have to, and in fact should, convince their partners to have sex—and how often that leads to unintentional but real harm for those partners.
This is obviously not the same situation, but I do wonder if there’s a common dynamic at play here, where the desire for clicks and internet clout are encouraging people to conflate Drake’s actual misdeeds with speculation about predatory behaviour, as if one is indistinguishable from the other. Here's the thing though: we don’t actually need to make a very serious accusation with little to no evidence to think critically about Drake’s actions. We can literally just talk about the annoying things he actually does—there’s plenty to choose from.
Two smart reads about the Kardashian-verse. First, The Cut’s article on the women who love Skims, but not Kim Kardashian. And second, Buzzfeed’s thinkpiece on Kylie Jenner’s pregnancy announcement, and how it signals a shift in how the fam controls their narrative.
The capital-D Discourse around John Mulaney’s announcement that he and girlfriend Olivia Munn are expecting a baby.
This hilarious, perfect trend piece about rich people’s kitchens.
GQ UK’s profile of Regé-Jean Page, which I like because it’s revealing without being mean. (Also, the photos 😅)
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