2019 has been a relatively slow year for marquee releases, but hip-hop’s burgeoning stars and sonically ambitious adherents have flourished more than ever without the overhanging presence of huge names like Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, and Drake — or have they? While rap’s A-list has been conspicuously absent, I couldn’t help noticing an uptick in the use of diaspora sounds in releases like Beyonce’s Lion King companion, The Gift, Jidenna’s 85 To Africa, IDK’s Is He Real? and Goldlink’s Diaspora. Going back a year or two, Kendrick Lamar heavily mined the styles and sounds of the continent for the Black Panther soundtrack, while Swae Lee dabbled in Nigerian Afrobeats and Caribbean styles on his solo portion of Rae Sremmurd’s SR3MM.
In trying to determine a starting point to this particular wave of an admittedly cyclical trend, I came to a startling realization. It turned out that the modern version of the trend could be traced to a specific, much-maligned release in 2016. For all the flak given to Drake for his “dud” album Views, here we are, three years later, with multiple artists, hailing from all over the map crafting albums that sound a lot like “One Dance” and “Too Good” and “Controlla.” In a year where Drake’s artistic presence has been minimal, his influence has still resonated throughout music in intriguing ways. It seems that, as always, if we want to know where hip-hop is today, we have to look at what we were all laughing at Drake for doing three years ago.
There’s little debate that the Canadian star has been rap’s number one trendsetter since he arrived in 2009 with So Far Gone and most of that comes from folks who just can’t process the cognitive dissonance between Drake’s corniness and his stunningly consistent ability to set the agenda for the culture at large. Yes, Drake is a cornball. We know it. He knows it. It’s no secret. But why should that hinder his prominence in pop culture? Lots of popular things are corny in hindsight: high-top fades, extravagantly baggy jeans with NBA logo patches, 90 percent of memes — especially ones with built-in dances. Even President Obama was pretty cheesy. That doesn’t mean we didn’t revel in their ubiquity nor that we don’t remember them fondly now.
So, now that we’ve determined that the ghosts of Biggie and Tupac won’t emerge to wreak ghastly vengeance on us all for cutting Drake a little slack, we can also admit that whenever he comes with a new sound, it’s going to be hot. Sure, you can argue that Drake doesn’t so much innovate as he does wait for someone else to do it and swoop in with his infamous co-sign. The fact remains that Drake’s got a knack for spotting emerging trends well before they surface and often has a hand in surfacing those trends. Whether he unearths some bubbling pocket of new-wave R&B or reinvigorates previously existing trends like rappers singing their own hooks, he always seems to be swimming, if not against the current, then in a deeper eddy of the stream, separate from the school — until the other fish catch on to what he’s doing and adjust their paths accordingly.
Drake has had a hand in sparking or advancing so many modern trends, from jump-starting the sad boy rapper craze alongside Kid Cudi to helping to renew stateside interest in UK grime and Caribbean dancehall with Skepta, PartyNextDoor, and Rihanna. He’s basically become a one-man bellwether of each coming wave in music. Heck, he even helped boost the craze for whisper singers, giving Jhene Aiko’s Sailing Soul(s) mixtape his big-name stamp of approval back in 2011 with an appearance on “July.” This was back when Jhene was primarily known as the overlooked opener on B2K tours in the mid-2000s. Now, her breathy vocal style has even infiltrated the upper echelons of pop music, driving Billie Eilish’s debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? to a No. 1 first-week on the Billboard 200 albums chart.
Does that mean that the rap game will collectively jump aboard the New Orleans Bounce train now that “In My Feelings” has run its course? Maybe, maybe not, but it does seem that he saw the 2019 hot girl summer coming when he recruited City Girls — a then-cult favorite duo of female rappers — to jump on that song with him, after releasing the girl power-themed video for “Nice For What.” Now, women basically run hip-hop — or are positioning themselves to do so soon, at the very least. But here’s a thing I’ve noticed in my internet travels: Numerous outlets have begun noting the rise of “Scam Rap” as the next wave, highlighting such purveyors of the “new” subgenre as Teejayx6, Guapdad 4000, and others, but here’s the thing — Drake did that first. Remember way back in 2015, when he released If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late? As he rapped on “Star67”: “Now we in the basement and we workin’ on the phone.” Four years later, “now” has finally arrived — and Drake is probably already figuring out what’s hot in 2021.