Drake: High Times at the YOLO Estate

How did a half-Jewish Canadian child actor reinvent hip-hop? The improbable, slightly vulnerable, often tuneful, highly driven rise of Drake

Drake
Peggy Sirota
Drake
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Drake is worried that his waterfall is too loud. He rises from a wicker armchair and walks toward a control pad in the corner of his flagstone patio. "I want to be sure your tape recorder gets everything," he says, fiddling with some settings. It's a sunny January afternoon in Hidden Hills, California, a gated community where Drake owns a three-acre compound, 30 miles up the 101 from Los Angeles. A hundred feet from the patio, across his enormous swimming pool – the rippling waters of which contain two very big statues of voluptuous women, on their knees, in bikinis – what was a pummeling cascade becomes a whispering drizzle. Behind the falls, you can now see a man-made grotto, tricked out with a wet bar, illuminated wading pools, flatscreen TVs and a dozen other details that take time to register fully. Are those iron torches, affixed to the grotto's interior walls, belching flames? They are. Is that a pair of majestic elk, fashioned from stone, standing sentinel up top? Yes – they match the stone giraffe you may have noticed out front, next to the driveway. Off to the right is a standalone, 25-seat movie theater; a combination tennis-basketball court; a mechanical bull; and a half-dozen stables for horses that Drake does not own. "That's a water slide that comes from the top," he says. "I'm obsessed with, like, residential pools. One of my goals in life is to have the biggest residential pool on the planet."

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Back in his native Toronto, Drake is in the early stages of building a place on the city's outskirts that will include "an Olympic-size pool inside the house," he says. Until that's done, this is his pleasure pad; built in the 1970s, with 12,500 square feet of space, the property is as eccentric as it is grandiose. The vibe inside is part dude ranch, part gentleman's manor, part Medieval Times: rustic wooden beams stained a deep chocolaty brown; marble-top side tables; vaulted fireplaces; craggy, cavelike walls. "Originally, I had a sign outside that said the yolo estate," he says – he popularized the acronym, which stands for You Only Live Once, in a single – "but it got stolen three times, and it was getting a bit costly to replace it, so I just changed it to the street number. I love that some kid has that sign in his bedroom."

When Drake, who's 27, brings women here, he delights in flipping a switch beside a bookshelf, which swings open to reveal his bedroom. "This house was the desktop image on my computer years before I bought it," Drake says. He's wearing black basketball shorts, red socks pulled up to the knees and a black T-shirt decorated with white spiders; his beard is landscaped just so. "I was like, 'What are the world's craziest residential pools?' and when I searched online, this came up." In 2007, a then-unsigned Drake tried, and failed, to hunt this place down during an L.A. trip. In 2009, the compound hit the market with an asking price of $27 million. The seller, a steakhouse-chain restaurateur, "was at a low moment," Drake recalls. "He needed money." In 2012, Drake snagged the property for $7.7 million. "I stole it from him!" he says.

A running theme when Drake discusses himself is that if he dreams about doing something, it's only a matter of time till he gets it done. In 2001, lacking any professional acting experience, he went from being the only child of a grade-school-teacher single mom who was subsisting on disability checks to a nationally known TV star, landing a lead role on the Canadian teen drama Degrassi: The Next Generation. In 2009, having gravitated toward music, Drake knocked the American hip-hop mainstream askew, rewriting the genre's emotional and musical vocabulary with a combination of ferocious rapping and supple singing, blowout bravado and flaying self-doubt. Drake, whose full name is Aubrey Drake Graham, cleared a path for category-busting R&B artists like Frank Ocean, Miguel and the Weeknd, and in the process he became the biggest Jewish rapper since the Beastie Boys. Bar mitzvahed in 1999, Drake must be the only pop artist alive who can both recite from the Torah and get away with constantly using the word "nigga" in his lyrics – his mother is white; his father is black.

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Drake's coup, building on the example of Kanye West, was to flout prevailing notions about what sort of background a rapper should come from and what kinds of things he should rap about: On one typically candid song, he drunk-dials a former flame and makes an ass of himself trying to woo her. Such vulnerable displays have invited mockery from old-guard hip-hop gatekeepers (including, oddly, Common, who called Drake "soft") and anonymous online hordes. "There's these GIFs about me, these stupid stereotypes people have of me as this overly emotional character that cries in his room every night," says Drake. "There are jokes because of Degrassi, because I'm Canadian, because I make music for women. There are memes of guys crying to my music." He scowls, then shrugs. "I love it. I heart those photos when I see them on Instagram."

Drake just finished a national tour for his platinum third album, Nothing Was the Same, and he's got some downtime before heading out to New York, where he'll perform at a Super Bowl concert organized by Diddy. Two nights ago, Drake blew off the Grammys even though he was up for three awards, including one for Best Rap Album. He partied instead at a West Hollywood nightclub where Rihanna was also hanging out, which prompted a round of online gossip – Rihanna and Drake were romantically involved years ago, but Drake says they're not anymore: "She's the ultimate fantasy. I mean, I think about it. Like, 'Man, that would be good.' We have fun together, she's cool and shit. But we're just friends. That's my dog for life." He says he doesn't have a girlfriend. "I'm not after pussy like I was three years ago, when I was trying to make up for all the years when no girl would talk to me," he says. "But I haven't met somebody that makes everybody else not matter."

He had different reasons than Rihanna's company for skipping the Grammys. After he won Best Rap Album in 2013, for his second album, Take Care, he uploaded a video of himself jubilantly swigging booze from the statuette, here at the compound. His view of the awards has grown darker since. "It becomes more apparent how irrelevant our genre is to them," he says. "They were trying to utilize me to sell the show, requesting me to come and perform 'Hold On We're Going Home'" – his smash ballad – "but they didn't nominate it for anything! They're calling me, e-mailing me every day to do some elaborate performance and bring them viewers, but I didn't get a nomination for Album of the Year. I didn't get a nomination for Song of the Year."

Even if he had attended, he says, he'd have come up empty. Macklemore swept the rap awards this year, then made public an apology that he'd texted to Kendrick Lamar, whose album Macklemore insisted was better than his own. "That shit was wack as fuck," Drake says. "I was like, 'You won. Why are you posting your text messages? Just chill. Take your W, and if you feel you didn't deserve it, go get better – make better music.' It felt cheap. It didn't feel genuine. Why do that? Why feel guilt? You think those guys would pay homage to you if they won? This is how the world works: He made a brand of music that appealed to more people than me, Hov, Kanye and Kendrick. Whether people wanna say it's racial, or whether it's just the fact that he tapped into something we can't tap into. That's just how the cards fall. Own your shit." Drake felt slighted by the apology too. "To just name Kendrick? That shit made me feel funny. No, in that case, you robbed everybody. We all need text messages!"

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Drake wants to focus on milestones other than Grammys, like his recent stint as the host and musical guest on Saturday Night Live. "I hope it opens up some doors back into acting," Drake says. He hammed it up winningly on the show, delivering inspired impressions of Lil Wayne and Katt Williams, and poking fun at his own biography: He rapped in one sketch about sipping Manischewitz. In another sketch, the show's costume department outfitted him with tiny khaki shorts in order to portray a dorky theme-park employee. "When they showed them to me, I was like, 'These need to be five inches shorter, because if we're gonna go in, let's go in – I'm not embarrassed,'" Drake says. For him, giving SNL his best was a chance to present himself as an all-around entertainer, and a chance to thumb his nose, in a whole new way, at the hip-hop cred police. "I wanted to prove that there's distance between me and the people you consider to be my peers," he says. "I have something special."

Drake's background isn't hardscrabble, but it's not without struggle. His parents divorced when he was five; he says that his father Dennis Graham's troubles with the law were the cause: "My dad was messing up pretty bad." Drake says Dennis was arrested on a couple of occasions, once right in front of his son, for "drug-related stuff or, like, theft. He was a mover and a shaker, a hustler: If you had it, he could sell it for you." In a song from 2009, Drake describes visiting Western Union to wire money to his dad, and wondering whether his father's professions of love are sincere or opportunistic.

Drake's mother, born Sandi Sher, moved with the young Aubrey to several rented apartments around Toronto, finally settling in the bottom half of a town house in the upscale suburb of Forest Hill. Sandi slept on the first floor and Aubrey slept in the basement; they depended on financial help from her brother, who had taken over the Sher family business, manufacturing baby mattresses, car seats and cribs. It was important to Sandi to raise Drake in a nice neighborhood, but, she says, "we were poor. I wasn't working, because I'd developed rheumatoid arthritis. I think Aubrey realized that he didn't have an inheritance he could depend on, and that he was going to have to do it himself." She recalls being fairly hard on her son, always driving him to try harder. "We're probably the only family that had four thesauruses in the house," she says. "I'd tell him, 'When you're expressing yourself, try and find other words you can use.'" One day, when Drake was about 10, Sandi entered his bedroom and saw a harbinger of things to come: "Aubrey was standing on the mattress, pretending that a toilet-paper roll was a microphone, rapping these lyrics he'd written." When Drake hit it big, he bought Sandi an apartment downtown; for her birthday this year, he scored her an appointment with Beyoncé's personal hairstylist.

At Forest Hill Collegiate Institute, a public high school in his neighborhood, Drake considered himself an outcast. "It was all white Jewish kids, and it was tough," he says. "I didn't have the worst time, but I did have a hard time. I was always the last kid to get the invite to the party." He says he's "proud to be Jewish – not on some Orthodox shit, but I celebrate holidays with my family." Classmates, however, lobbed the word "schvartze," a Yiddish slur against blacks, at him. He transferred to Vaughan Road Academy, where he says the student body was more diverse. "There were kids that were stabbing each other and kids that were equestrian champions," Drake says. "Actors, skiers, rappers. It was great."

Sandi enrolled Drake in tap and ballet courses as a little kid; later, he performed in youth-theater productions of Les Misérables and The Wizard of Oz. One of his high school classmates was the son of a talent agent, who helped Drake book his Degrassi gig, playing a popular jock called Jimmy Brooks. His salary was modest by showbiz standards, but good money for a teenager: "Between 40 and 60 thousand per season," Drake says. "As soon as he walked in, there was something interesting about him," recalls Stephanie Cohen, who was a Degrassi assistant director. "He had a confidence and a charm, even though he wasn't experienced. His early episodes weren't the most incredibly accomplished, but he got better. He was open to notes. He would listen."

Drake threw himself into acting, but music was in his blood. His father had been a session drummer who once played with Jerry Lee Lewis; his uncles include Larry Graham, the bassist for Sly and the Family Stone, and Mabon "Teenie" Hodges, who co-wrote "Love and Happiness," among other songs, with Al Green. "I've got crazy family history – my grandmother used to baby-sit for Aretha Franklin," Drake says. During summer breaks, Dennis would drive Drake down to Memphis in a cloth-upholstered Mercury Cougar, introducing him to classic soul and R&B on the car stereo. It was Dennis who first told Drake to develop his singing in addition to his rhyming, giving him an edge over the competition.

As Drake's interests swung toward hip-hop, he began booking studio time. He refined a musical style influenced by the boisterous sonics and hypnotic -cadences of Dirty South rap, immersing himself in Three 6 Mafia and Yo Gotti mixtapes he bought during Memphis vacations. Around 2008, Jas Prince, a Houston hip-hop impresario, found Drake on MySpace and passed his music to Lil Wayne. Impressed, Wayne put Drake on a plane for a meeting. He met Wayne on his tour bus, Drake says, "and I never got off."

"Please put your boots and any loose objects you're carrying into this bin, and lie down," a woman in a white lab coat instructs Drake. He's been wanting to check out the James Turrell retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art while he's in town, and his people have booked him a guided visit. The septuagenarian Turrell is a masterful manipulator of optical phenomena: He'll remove chunks of wall from a room to frame the sky in startling ways, or create illusionistic space using projections. "I fuck with Turrell," Drake says. "He was a big influence on the visuals for my last tour." Drake kicks off his Timberlands, preparing to enter a piece called "Perceptual Cell," in which lab-coated "technicians" slide the viewer on a horizontal bed into a sealed metal globe, inside which high-pitched, atonal sound plays through headphones and a psychedelic splatter assaults the eyes.

Twelve disorienting minutes later, Drake emerges wide-eyed. "All my questions about life are answered!" he says. "I made this joke beforehand that I should have smoked a blunt first, but I'm glad I didn't. I would have lost my shit." Drake's co-manager Oliver El-Khatib, a lanky Canadian of Icelandic and Lebanese descent, is up next. Drake gives him a tip: "Yo – at the beginning, take off one of the headphones, just so you know it'll be all right and that you're not gonna lose your mind." Drake turns to me. "I really wanted to take a picture in there. Instagram it, like, 'Perceptual Cell' selfie! That would have been the ultimate stunt."

Drake is interested in art, but he scoffs at how trendy art shout-outs have become in rap. "It's like Hov can't drop bars these days without at least four art references!" he says. "I would love to collect at some point, but I think the whole rap/art world thing is getting kind of corny."

Inside the next installation, a LACMA guide named Jason says something like, "If you look long enough, you'll notice that your sense of depth begins to . . . ," but Drake is busy having his assistant snap pictures of him. In one shot, Drake throws up his arms in a crucifix pose; he gazes off morosely in another. When he's done, we make our way through the rest of the retrospective. Museumgoers stop and gawk as Drake drifts past. One security guard calls out, "I love your shit!"

"How much would it be to get a 'Perceptual Cell' for your house?" Drake asks Jason. "Twenty million?"

"Wow, I don't know," Jason says. "Turrell does do residential commissions, though."

"I'm gonna find out," Drake says.

On Wilshire Boulevard, outside the museum, a chauffeur in an SUV is waiting to take Drake to a West Hollywood tattoo parlor. "People don't know I have tats, because I keep them hidden," he says. On his left inner bicep he's got the CN Tower, hallmark of the Toronto skyline; across his back are large portraits of his mother, his maternal grandmother and Aaliyah, on whom Drake modeled his own early approach to singing. At the parlor, Drake's tattoo artist is Doctor Woo, a handsome Chinese-American guy with a rockabilly haircut. Drake presents Woo with one of his father's mug shots, which he believes is from the Seventies. The picture is amazing: bushy handlebar mustache, huge eyeglasses, lady-killer grin. Drake wants it inked on his right tricep. "I love this," Woo says. "He's like, 'Yeahhh, I did it.'"

Drake describes his current relationship with his dad with a kind of enlightened weariness. They hang out – at restaurants, at strip clubs. Drake has rapped about sharing a drink with Dennis, despite preferring his company sober. "With my dad, it's a tossup," he says. "We're gonna spend some time. Could be better, could be worse, but I love him, so whatever it is, I'll deal with it.

"If he walked in here right now, he'd light up the room," Drake tells Woo. "He'd be laughing before he said anything, dressed to the nines, color-coordinated." He smiles at the thought. "I think that's where I get it from."

At the southern edge of Drake's patio lies a pair of French doors covered by a thick, black curtain. Behind them is his home studio, where he and his longtime collaborator, the Toronto-born producer Noah "40" Shebib, get work done when they're in town. Every Drake album starts with a conversation between the two. "I look to 40 to spark the album off," Drake says. "Give me a beat. What does this album sound like? Then we start getting beats and session files from other producers and pick them apart, taking the bits and pieces we like."

Unlike, say, Lil Wayne, who usually extemporizes on the microphone, Drake writes out every word of his rhymes. "I'm very particular about bar structure, where something ends, where it begins," he says. Drake might "go on Wikipedia and research my shit," to ensure that a reference is correct. He composes on his phone, where he keeps a document with every promising idea that occurs to him. 40 says that when Drake is working, "he'll sit in the studio by himself with his laptop open and his BlackBerry in his hand. The beat's on, maybe an hour goes by, and suddenly, he yells out, '40! 40! I'm ready!'"

For Nothing Was the Same, after starting here in Hidden Hills, Drake decamped to Toronto, where he booked four studios and put a team of songwriters and producers, many of them Canadian up-and-comers, into motion. "It was a constant factory," he says. Working in his hometown helps to ground him, he says, and lends a crucial atmosphere: "Hell must feel like how Toronto feels on any given winter day, and winter lasts seven months. It's my favorite place in the world, but there's this cold, gloomy, dark vibe. It produces a certain sound."

Rather than enlisting marquee producers, Drake prefers working with relative unknowns, like Mike Zombie, who produced the album's snarlingly indignant lead single, "Started From the Bottom." "It's about finding what's next," Drake says. A loyal in-house crew also offers him secrecy: "I'm hesitant to let people know what producers I'm fucking with, what I'm rapping about. I'd rather drop that winning hand out of nowhere." Drake admires the way that Beyoncé kept everybody in the dark about her recent album. He co-wrote and sang on one of its tracks, "Mine," and even he had no idea that the LP was coming anytime soon. "They were totally vague about it," he says. One Thursday last December, a member of Beyoncé's team flew to Chicago, where Drake was performing, to play him the "Mine" video and get his approval. "I said, 'That's cool,' she closed her laptop real fast, walked off and got on the phone," Drake says. "By the time I came offstage, the album was out. Beyoncé was like, 'I'm so sorry I couldn't tell you!'"

When Drake hears a song he wishes he'd made, "I get physically sick," he says, adding, "It doesn't happen often." It happened in 2011, when he heard Jay Z and Kanye West's "Ni**as in Paris," from Watch the Throne. "I was like, 'How did I not think of that?' – 'Ball so hard, that shit cray!' It was real rap shit, but it felt melodic; all the cadences felt so good." The song directly inspired "Started From the Bottom," he says, challenging him to come up with a rapped hook just as catchy as a sung one.

Drake is on good terms with Jay Z and Kanye. "Kanye and me are friends; we're plotting on getting some work done together," Drake says, and Jay, who will text him words of encouragement, recently called him the "Kobe Bryant" of hip-hop. Not long ago, though, the air between the three seemed cooler, with Drake and the pair trading thinly veiled barbs in their music. "I'm just feeling like the throne is for the taking – watch me take it," Drake rapped in one such moment of provocation. (Hov-baiting emphasis added.) "It was a lack of communication paired with natural competitiveness," Drake says, explaining the friction. "When something monumental is happening in front of me" – i.e., the Throne album – "and everyone's paying attention to that, you gotta say, 'I'm still here.' But those two are gods to me." What smoothed things over with Kanye was a favor-trade: The Chicago MC asked Drake to perform at a private birthday party for "some kid," Drake says; Drake, in turn, asked Kanye to drop in on OVO, Drake's annual Toronto festival, where they exchanged praise, and a big hug, onstage.

Their patched-up friendship doesn't exclude criticism. For instance, Drake says that he was ambivalent about Kanye's last album, Yeezus. "There were some real questionable bars on there," he says. "Like that 'Swaghili' line? Come on, man. Even Fabolous wouldn't say some shit like that." But Drake says he speaks from a bedrock of deep respect: "Kanye's the reason I'm here. I love everything about that guy."

In a few days, Drake will take a private jet to the freezing East, to perform at Diddy's Super Bowl concert. It's going to be hard to leave California. The sky over Hidden Hills right now is a cloudless blue, the weather is warm, and the not-unpleasant aroma of dust and horse manure floats in on a gentle breeze. "There are a lot of horse owners around here," Drake says, sitting in his yard.

The setting is calm, but there's an antsy energy about Drake. Next month he'll launch a European tour, but, he says, "I'm ready to go to Europe now. I could go right now and do 10 nights at the O2 Arena. I'm hungry!" He nibbles on a piece of banana. "The other night, one of my good friends, Terrence Ross, scored, like, 51 points for the Raptors. People were going crazy, rejoicing: 'This guy is up next!' I was that guy at one point – refreshing and new and people wanted me to win. But it's like, there are guys that do that every night, and people get tired of them doing it. I feel like people are tired of me doing 40, 50 points. I gotta go put up 100 in one night for people to say, 'Damn!'"

Whether Drake's thinking about mean-spirited GIFs, Grammy snubs or 100-point games, he seems to feed off a deep inner well of indignation – a sense that, for all his success, he's still underappreciated. "It's funny. I remember I used to have this mentality where I'd be at the Grammys or at the MTV awards, sitting at my seat, saying, 'Oh, God, I hope they cancel my performance, or maybe the stage will break and I won't have to do this tonight – I'm nervous.' Like, on tour, I'd say, 'I hope something happens where they have to clear the building, and we'll get one night off.' This was early on, around the first album."

He leans forward in his chair, thwacking a palm against the back of his other hand for emphasis. "But now I'm just like, 'Man, I hope they give me five extra minutes.'"

This story is from the February 27th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1203: February 27, 2014
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