Ten years ago, none of us had any clue just how big Drake would be, but some had an inkling. Specifically, those rap fans who bombarded the offices and website of XXL magazine with angry letters in January of 2009, baffled that the then-burgeoning young star from Toronto hadn’t made the list of 10 “Freshman” rappers the magazine certified to blow up in the coming year. Then-editor-in-chief Datwon Thomas defended the decision to exclude the former actor from the list by maintaining that he nor anyone on his editorial staff had ever heard of Drake prior to the deluge of disgruntled responses.
Now, we can’t be sure what discussions might have been had about whether or not to include Drake on that first, explosive list, but it’s hard to envision a world where anyone with an internet connection in 2008 didn’t know who he was or that he was poised to blow up in the coming months. His track “Brand New,” initially a reference track for a song Drake was co-writing with an unnamed R&B singer, had taken Myspace by storm after leaking to one of the dozens of rap forums that made up the online hip-hop community at the time (before the advent of social media largely replaced them). The buzz surrounding the leak was so great, Drake wound up adding it to his own Myspace page shortly after, extending its reach by incalculable amounts.
He’d used his role on the popular teen drama Degrassi: The Next Generation to attract young fans with his magnetic personality and an early performance as “Wheelchair Jimmy” to prove that he had the chops to back up his aspirations. Before that, his collaboration with Trey Songz from the mixtape Comeback Season, “Replacement Girl,” had made it to BET’s 106 & Park music video countdown, even though it wasn’t as warmly received as his next single, “Best I Ever Had,” would be. By the time the December 2008 issue of XXL — the first official Freshman issue — had gone to print a month before, all of the pieces had been put in place for a breakout year.