How Drake Found The Perfect Sweet Spot Between Underground Rap And Going Pop

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Drake‘s debut mixtape wasn’t So Far Gone. That was just his breakout moment. His true origin began years earlier, with a self-produced, little-heard mixtape called Room For Improvement. That first foray into hip-hop for the then-teenage Canadian soap opera star feels like it bears little resemblance to the larger-than-life, walking meme that Drake’s music and demeanor have become since. It’s an earnest effort, with flashes of the Drake we would all come to know and love (or love to hate), but with a sincere, “real hip-hop,” backpack rap veneer that tells us more about who Drake is than any of his more “confessional” and emotive recent output.

Drake’s a rap nerd (not to be confused with nerd rapper). He always has been, and it seems likely that he always will be. By blowing up and taking that underground rap style mainstream, he opened the door for a new generation of rappers who wear their hip-hop geek badges proudly on their sleeves. He found the sweet spot between the two poles, solidifying his place as a pioneer of the genre and providing the recipe for success in an arena that has long demanded artists pick a side.

There’s no singing on Room For Improvement, and very little on its follow-up, Comeback Season. On both of these mixtapes, Drake goes for broke lyrically, jumbling up complex rhyme schemes and punchlines like a late-’90s Lyricist Lounge invite dead set on impressing with his wordplay and technical ability. While his guest star, Virginia rap expert Nickelus F, handles the street talk on most of the album, Drake parses his favorite topics: Toronto and the women thereof. On tracks like “AM 2 PM” and “City Is Mine,” he juggles multisyllabic cadences, throwing out references to the twin cities where he was raised, Toronto and Memphis, Tennessee while telling tales of his nighttime exploits of sneaking into bars and clubs.

The difference between then and now is the presentation. Currently, his longtime production partner Boi-1da provides beats prototypical of his modern, more-refined style, but Drake spends most of his old tapes rapping over relatively straightforward two-track soul samples and boom bap drums. In short, it’s an underground album that makes no pretense about wanting to be one. There’s a neo-soul vibe throughout, as if The Boy were influenced as much by Dwele, D’Angelo, and Raheem DeVaughn as by the lyricists that he openly apes with his wordy flows — Lupe Fiasco, Phonte Coleman (of Little Brother) and Elzhi (of Slum Village). He does his best, but forced punchlines like, “I’m perfecting my craft using more Sess / Tryna make some cheese off a single is a process / Get it? Kraft, single, cheese, process,” hurt the image of an able wordsmith he tries to hard to portray.

It’s no great leap to imagine that these were his earlier influences; Lupe’s “Kick, Push” is one of the songs he remixes on Room For Improvement, while Little Brother and Elzhi figure prominently on tracks from Comeback Season. However, it’s also clear on Comeback Season that Drake’s rap nerdiness pushed him to branch out. He began featuring even more street-oriented rappers in Pusha T and Lil Wayne, perhaps already feeling confined by the restraints of backpack rap.

The problem is, no one was paying him any more attention than they’d paid the plethora of underground rappers who tried to cross over. Little Brother’s Atlantic Records deal fell through when they refused to create accessible, pop rap. Likewise, Elzhi is known as one of the best rappers ever, but his last two projects have flown so far under the radar that the average rap fan (i.e. the ones who still purchase albums and buy $100 tickets for arena shows) would be hard-pressed to even name them (Elmatic and Lead Poison, for the record).

Then, on So Far Gone, Drake found the perfect synthesis between the two proclivities, learning to slow his flow down and simplify his delivery without dumbing down his content. He also found a new sound, pioneered by his close friend Oliver “40” Shebib, that adapted to his newfound middle ground. It helps of course, that his content remained thematically consistent for the most part. Toronto and women are still his favorite subjects to rap about, and he still rattles off tales of club life.

The difference is, rather than crowding his bars with extra words and forcing intricate rhyme schemes, he has learned to make his style more conversational, like the best Lil Wayne verses. He doesn’t think too hard about stuffing his verses with complex punchlines that take four bars to set up. He’ll toss out a casual “Chaining Tatum” pun and move on, without bothering to stop to see if you get it. However, he still has room for a casual J Dilla reference or a “Fear” shout out to Slum Village and Little Brother.

That sweet spot between super rhymer and nonchalant conversationalist is exactly where hip-hop lives now. Contrary to popular complaints about the lyrical deficiency of acts like Migos, 21 Savage, Young Thug, or Future, they’ve all mastered the ability, to some degree, to blend those backpack rap alphabet aerobics into a more straightforward, accessible style over beats that sound great on car speakers or club PA systems, not just oversized headphones. By bridging that gap, Drake also opened the door for more traditional, late-’90s style hip-hop artists like J. Cole, Logic, and Joey Badass to find commercial success with more complex lyrical attacks.

The “underground” and “mainstream” delineations no longer apply to sonic differences in production or rap delivery. Rappers who would have been stuck toiling away on underground labels in the early 2000s are household names — and even Grammy nominees — today. The top rappers can put 9th Wonder or No ID beats on a project and no one bats an eye, because the days when it would have been inconceivable to imagine a Lil Wayne verse on a Little Brother song are long gone — even if a Drake album featuring 9th Wonder seems unlikely at the moment, despite the latter’s newfound popularity.

Of course, I don’t mean to downplay the contributions of technology to the blending. Streaming and social media played their part, as did any of the rappers who first illustrated for Drake how to put the pieces together. Kanye West was among the first backpack rappers to find a conscious blending of pop rap and “real hip-hop,” but it was Drake who kicked down the door and made it okay to be the unapologetic rap nerd who references Slum Village and Wu-Tang Clan esoterica on Billboard Hot 100 hits. While I’m sure the “backpack rapper/mumble rapper/pop rapper” pejoratives will never truly go away thanks to fans who survive on a strict diet of nostalgia and Haterade, give credit where it’s due. By opening the door for lyricism in pop rap, Drake leveled the playing field, ensuring that extra-lyrical hip-hop will always have a place on top of the charts.