This week, Drake’s “Toosie Slide” debuted at number one on Billboard Hot 100, marking his third appearance on the summit of pop music. The moody single is notable not just because it’s a dance track unabashedly aiming for TikTok supremacy, but because grandmothers and kids are dancing to a track with lyrics like, “two hundred shooters on my brother’s block” and “Nike crossbody, got a piece in it.”
In 2020, hearing Drake drop gun references like he’s 50 Cent no longer moves the needle. America is so violent that his tough talk doesn’t register as abnormal. Our President has set the precedent that anyone can say anything they want nowadays. But it wasn’t always like this with Drake. He wasn’t always so unabashedly menacing in his music.
When he debuted in the mid-’00s as the rapper-singer from Degrassi, taking pictures in front of autumn leaves like he was Jon B, few could foresee a day where he was channeling his inner Vito Corleone on every other record, rapping about “Louie bags for body bags” and how he’ll “call up GiGi, do him up neatly.” Drake has many modes and characters he channels on the mic. Where did “Mob boss Drake” come from? Maybe we can thank Rick Ross and Common.
Eight years ago, the video for Rick Ross’ “Stay Schemin” debuted. The stellar Rich Forever single is revered for an aggrieved verse from Drake aimed at Common, who he had been beefing with over their shared attraction to Serena Williams. Common took a thinly veiled shot at him on “Sweet,” rhyming, “singing all around me man, la la la / You ain’t muthaf*cking Frank Sinatra.” He later confirmed to Sway In The Morning that the line was about Drake, noting, “he opened his mouth and said some things, so if that’s what he want — all that subliminal [talk]…you could do that too, but say it now.”
Drake said it and then some on “Stay Schemin.” Though he didn’t mention Common’s name on the Beat Bully-produced track, it was clear who he was talking to with biting lines like, “back when if a n**** reached it was for the weapon / nowadays n****s reach just to sell their record” and “you and p*ssy identical / you like the f*ckin’ finish line; we can’t wait to run into you.” The verse was widely regarded as one of the best of 2012, if not the best 16 of Drake’s career. For all of Drake’s introspection, his most memorable verse may be a diss record.
The irony of Common being the foil for Drake’s moment of truth can’t be lost on anyone with an understanding of hip-hop history. Before Drake, Common had occupied a place as an amiable, left-of-center alternative to gangsta rap who made thoughtful, introspective music. But that doesn’t mean he couldn’t hold his own against the competition. On 1994’s “Used To Love H.E.R.,” where Common metaphorically framed hip-hop as a woman, he rapped “I wasn’t salty she was with the boys in the hood.” Boyz N The Hood star Ice Cube and his Westside Connection crew took offense to the line and fired back on “Westside Slaughterhouse,” which beget Common’s “B*tch In Yoo,” a scathing diss where he certified himself as an MC that’s not to be f*cked with. No one dissed him from that point on — until Drake.
And while Common had his one schoolyard dustup and went back to being a nice guy, Drake’s “Stay Schemin” takedown turned him into a bully. He wasn’t Degrassi’s Wheelchair Jimmy anymore. For a former child actor who blogger/producer Big Ghost Ltd. wrote was responsible “the most b*tchmade songs known to man,” the feeling of drawing figurative blood in a rap beef was a rush. And he wasn’t couching his superiority in just being a better rapper; he ideated himself a tough guy. Consider the following 4 bars from “Stay Schemin:”
“Spaghetti bolognese in the Polo Lounge
Me and my G from D.C., that’s how I roll around
Might look light, but we heavy though
You think Drake will pull some shit like that? You never know”
The greatest artists know that when it comes to artistic license and hip-hop’s over the top braggadocio, it’s not about what you can prove, but what you can sell. It’s fitting that “Stay Schemin” was a Rick Ross record, because Ross was then in the midst of punching through damaging allegations of being a corrections officer (a literal antithesis to his drug kingpin image) with great music that doubled down on the crime rhyme narratives.
Like Ross, Drake was grappling with identity issues that sabotaged his place in barbershop discussions — and hence his bid to join the rap pantheon. But they were devout enough students of the game to realize that all they had to do was write their way out of the criticisms. Common’s diss was timely justification for Drake to tap into his purple devil emoji energy, as were Meek Mill’s ghostwriting allegations, the late XXXTentacion saying his mother “could get it,” and Kanye West letting Pusha T’s “The Story of Adidon” get released. Who knows how “diss me and you’ll never hear a reply for it”-era Drake would have handled any of those conflicts, but mid-2010s Drake had leaned all the way into his mafioso persona to air his gripes with the rap game and assert his authority over it. “Stay Schemin” was the start of that cycle.
That’s not to say that suspending disbelief of his steely on-mic character isn’t hard when you consider that he’s the same man who got discombobulated when a woman flashed him at a show. But those who bemoan that he hasn’t yet gotten back into acting haven’t been paying attention. Today, aesthetics are everything, in any industry. One must merely look the part to dupe someone into buying into it. Drake is a multi-talented shape-shifter, capable of portraying a yearning lover or an all-powerful syndicate head, depending on what cohort he wants to indulge. Mainstream rap success is dependent on what you can sell, and he’s a master pitchman. It’s fitting that he first tapped into those skills on a track called “Stay Schemin.”