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.
Those pieces came together to form a downright alchemical reaction when So Far Gone, Drake’s third mixtape and his first to achieve widespread notoriety, was released on February 13, 2009. “Breaking the internet” is a dumb phrase that gets tossed around a lot to represent extremely viral moments and memes, but on that day, it was pretty much literal as thousands of fans rushed to download the tape from the few file-hosting sites that had it. Servers crashed. Download status bars crept and crawled sluggishly toward the right sides of screens. Fans scrambled for illicit links, desperate to be one of the first to hear this new project from a promising talent that would blur the lines between albums and mixtapes forever.
So Far Gone, and the massive response to it, shifted the way fans perceived what was then identified as “blog rap.” Suddenly, this quirky trend of releasing music straight to the internet through file sharing sites — for free, no less — seemed like a viable business solution. The rappers who’d been scoffed for existing primarily online with no real-world followings became legitimate artists in the eyes of many, and Drake, who until then had faced the skepticism of rap’s established fan base as an outsider and privileged actor with no business pursuing a rap career, became one of rap’s biggest and best-known stars.
While other artists and albums laid the groundwork for Drake’s emotional, regular guy formula to attain its success, So Far Gone helped make that formula the industry standard. It opened the doors for the new business model of releasing music directly to fans for free to become the default for dozens of rappers to follow. Sonically, it changed the way producers approached hip-hop, prompting them to mine unconventional sources for inspiration and wash out their ever hazier instruments with a wave of filters in an effort to imitate the So Far Gone sound. And it proved that the fans, not labels, media, radio, or television, are the elements that make or break artists in the digital era — at least for a little while. Years later, when Drake said, “Dropped a mixtape, that sh*t sounded like an album,” it was a unique flex of epic proportions. Now, because he did just that, no other rapper can ever make that boast again, because that’s just the way things are.