Of all the numerous hilarious and pernicious tropes that surround hip-hop, the most persistent are the ones about Drake. The Canadian rapper is a magnet for attention, which also makes him a magnet for as much criticism and ridicule as praise and critical acclaim.
And, of all the various memes and inescapable cultural moments Drake has been a part of, the one that’s cropped up the most lately — aside from his “hiding a child,” perhaps — is the critique that he is a “culture vulture,” the male, rap form of Miley Cyrus or Iggy Azalea, borrowing from subcultures and underground movements he can’t really claim to be a part of.
Some of the latest accusations have come from one of his most recent objects of fascination, the British grime community, by way of grime godfather Wiley, who may or may not be needling Drake mainly as a roundabout way of goading his own longtime rival in the scene, Skepta, who happens to be one of Drake’s closest collaborators within it.
Drake, who is notoriously taciturn about the various criticisms against him — again, with a big exception for the whole “secret child” in France thing — finally made it a point to address this latest imputation on the radio while in Britain on his Assassination Nation tour, calling the accusation “goofy sh*t” and prompting an even more incredulous response from Wiley.
It’s all very entertaining, but it begs the question: What, exactly, makes Drake such a culture vulture? The majority of the jokes leveled at him generally find their origin in something unusual or noteworthy he did and its relative proximity to hip-hop’s established tenets of “cool,” but culture vulture implies something in some ways more sinister.
So why does Drake fall into this category, and is it fair? The answer, as usual, is a lot more complicated than will fit into a pithy tweet.
He’s Always On The Lookout For New Artists To Co-Sign
It’s almost impossible to talk about Drake without talking about the so-called “Drake Effect.” Say you’re an emerging regional artist with a hit bubbling its way up the Billboard charts. Your single is slowly gaining traction nationwide, with steadily growing grassroots fanbase driving your streaming, but you’ve yet to break out in a significant way. Then the phone rings. It’s Drake. He wants to feature on the remix. You’ve officially made it.
This has been the story for so many artists, from Makonnen and Migos to Blocboy JB and Lil Baby. Drake has always been in the just the right place at just the right time to catch the cresting wave of a new artist’s rise to fame, which in turn has built up Drake’s own legend as owner of a golden ear and impeccable taste in underground music.
However, this has also lent him the air of a wave rider, a carrion bird circling the Soundcloud savannah waiting for the right record to drop in order to enrich himself off the potential profits of a breakout hit. While it’s true that at least some, if not most of these songs, would have become huge national hits without him, it’s also true that Drake is often the greatest beneficiary of the attention these artists and singles receive, adding to his ever-growing list of hits, plaques, and most importantly, royalty checks as he takes advantage of fluctuating publishing terms to pick up a piece of the pie.
He Samples World And Regional Music For His Biggest Hits
Although Drake received the vast majority of the criticism for borrowing from eclectic international sounds like Nigerian Afrobeats, Caribbean dancehall, UK grime and funky house on his most recent albums, Views and More Life, the truth is, his love affair with such styles reach all the way back to his initial explosion in stardom on his breakthrough mixtape, So Far Gone.
While Drake received plenty of attention at the time for the murky soul pioneered by his longtime collaborator Noah “40” Shebib, in truth, much of what made So Far Gone stand out at the time was its radical reliance on sounds that weren’t traditionally considered part of hip-hop’s canon. Rather than straight funk and soul, there was Europop featuring Lykke Li, pop rock from Peter Bjorn, and an anthemic sample of a Coldplay hit.
It also began Drake’s love affair with the cultural sounds of Houston rap, with its slurry, chopped-and-screwed sound and shout-outs to and verses from iconic Texas heroes like Lil Keke and Bun B. Drake showed off his propensity for immersing his own records in the environments they paid tribute to, like a cultural chameleon.
Of course, for rap purists raised on distinctive regional sounds, this was heresy of the highest order. Drake was from Toronto, they reasoned, so his much should sound like Toronto. What those purists often seemingly overlooked or ignored was Toronto’s status as an international mixing pot. A dozen different cultures collide and intermingle in the Queen City, and Drake is as much a product of that alchemy as he is the Tennessee roots of his dad. He was always going to be attracted to a globetrotting sound.
The criticism comes in when listeners believe he’s borrowing from those sounds without lending anything in return, or that he’s watering them down. The glitchy dancehall on Thank Me Later’s “Find Your Love” or the groovy house of Take Care’s titular, Rihanna-featuring single bear the hallmarks of their inspiration, but Drake puts his own stamp on those styles, possibly changing them in the process. By the time he leaned into rambunctious dancehall and grime on his latter albums, complete with a knockoff patois accent to boot, he seemed — to some, at least — dangerously close to parody.
He’s Got That British/Canadian/Jamaican Accent
It’s impossible to mention Drake’s flirtation with dancehall and Caribbean culture with also mentioning the somewhat cheesy accent he sometimes affects when dabbling in tough-talking like a Jamaican yardie. To American ears, it sounds foreign, and without proper context, a bit phony.
But again, that’s as easy to explain as Drake’s Toronto upbringing, where he was naturally exposed as much to traditional Arabic music as to reggae; just like nearly any Canadian youth, he’s adopted slang and vocal tics from the over 160 languages which are spoken in Toronto.
When he began to collaborate with artists across the pond like Giggs and Skepta while name-dropping Top Boy, many were skeptical of the ways in which the disparate rappers’ slang meshed and melded, but the history of grime music readily explains those similarities as well.
Grime has cultural roots, like hip-hop, in the sound system culture and dancehall music imported from Jamaica by immigrants from the island nation. Unlike hip-hop, however, which grew up alongside American styles of rock, punk, funk, and soul, grime evolved as a by-product of exposure to house music, garage, 2-step, and traditional African sounds from other immigrants.
That’s why the resulting musical styles sound so different yet share so many cultural touchstones. While hip-hop got further and further away from its dancehall roots, making room for funk breaks, electro, and disco, the sound that eventually became grime remained closer to its Jamaican roots, which is why the slang Drake picked up in Toronto so closely mirrors that of his contemporaries from the end of London. Ultimately, though, Drake doesn’t sound like an American’s conception of a Canadian, nor a Brit’s, so it’s easy for them to pick on him for trying to sound like something he’s not — even if he isn’t.
His OVO Artists Seem To Not Be “Stars”
Finally, tying back into Drake’s prescient ability to scoop artists as they’re on the cusp of blowing up, are Drake’s OVO crew of loyal songwriters and friends who seem to contribute to all of his biggest hits while being unable to secure any of their own.
In 2016, after ILoveMakonnen parted ways with Drake’s label, his description of the label’s “writers’ camps” caused a sensation online when he described a factory-like setting for their recording sessions that fascinated fans who had never before had such a window into the hit creation process.
Of course, what was left out of most of the coverage is that, despite Makonnen’s expectations — and by extension, those of starry-eyed fans who imagine a party-like atmosphere, such writers camps were pretty common practice in the industry long before Drake laid a verse on “Tuesday,” and still are to this day.
Just check out the recent “rap camp” devised by Def Jam to introduce new artists like Bernard Jabs, YK Osiris, and TJ Porter, or the infamous, viral Dreamville Records Revenge Of The Dreamers III sessions in Atlanta that invited dozens of influential producers and rising rappers to come and work for a marathon session that likely produced just as many tracks, most of which may never see the light of day.
That OVO artists like DVSN, Majid Jordan, and PartyNextDoor aren’t huge international stars isn’t a failing of the operation. Each of those artists, on their own, have had limited commercial success regardless of their association with Drake. That’s not on Drake, many are very niche artists — for instance, electronic dance pop duo Majid Jordan make a style of music that isn’t very popular with Drake’s largely urban fan base.
However, by crediting Majid Jordan on his albums, Drake subsidizes their independent efforts, ensuring they see a nice hefty royalty check for their portion of the publishing rights, which means they see income, while still maintaining the creative freedom to make music they like rather than chase profitable trends as they would be forced to do under a major label deal.
Fans often cite The Weeknd as an example of an artist who flourished by turning down Drake’s supposed tyranny, but it was his placements on Drake’s Take Care that provided the initial investment Abel Tesfaye needed to start his own label. Meanwhile, The Weeknd was already a dominant brand in itself; with his palm tree dreads and cool, aloof style, Abel had an undeniable look and star power that someone like PartyNextDoor can’t lay claim to.
The simple truth is, Drake’s probably not using Suge Knight-style strongarm tactics to keep these artists under his thumb. They stay because they recognize the benefits in doing so. That won’t stop fans and critics who may not understand the ins and outs of publishing rights and royalty checks from jumping to conclusions, but it does explain why Drake has a full staff on call to help craft hits. Still, his biggest hits are seemingly the ones that he drafts himself from top to bottom; “In My Feelings” was the most streamed song ever until very recently and thought the credits contain nearly a dozen names, most are there through the circumstance of sampling. The bars are all Drake’s.
Is Drake a culture vulture? Probably not — or at least not any more so than any other artist who finds inspiration in the works of other artists, cultures, and regions. Which is to say, all of them. If he never expanded his range, he’d be considered boring and conventional, and fans would have moved on ages ago. The artists who inspire him benefit from his association, the underground movements he borrows from receive a bump in attention, and the songwriters working under him experience unprecedented freedom under their contracts as a result of contributing to his hits. Drake is an economy all to himself, and if the price of success is an unflattering but inaccurate appraisal in the public eye, it doesn’t seem that he minds paying. After all, even vultures are part of the circle of life.