This is what Drake-mania looks like up close: It's just after 10 p.m. on a balmy Tuesday night in May and downstairs inside the cramped confines of New York venue SOBs, Drake is receiving what feels like a hero's welcome. Kanye West, Ryan Leslie, Talib Kweli, the Alchemist and Bun B (who'll later join the upstart MC onstage) are all here to acknowledge the much-hyped rapper before his performance, Drake's last before he'll officially begin work on his debut LP, Thank Me Later.
Upstairs it's more of the same. The rap media cognoscenti are all present, as are the executives who have been bidding for Drake's services, including a high-ranking Universal/Motown chief and Warner Music Group Chairman Lyor Cohen. And don't forget the girls. Soon-to-be shrieking girls are lining up just in front of the stage, ready to scream at a moment's notice. It's hard to believe it, but tonight's performance is a part of the New York radio station Hot 97's Who's Next showcase. It's not even a proper Drake concert.
"I'm a new artist, by the way," a cheeky Drake told the packed house when he finally made it onto the stage in designer duds, a striped Commes des GarÃ§ons shirt and crimson Nike Air Jordans. "I don't know if you can tell by this show."
Just one month earlier, Drake (born Aubrey Graham), was another buzzed-about rapper on hip-hop blogs, in the class of Asher Roth and Kid Cudi, but not among the newcomers picked for XXL magazine's "Freshman 10" cover last December. His mixtape, So Far Gone, released in February of this year was critically lauded for its mix of melody and deft lyricism. But some derided the work as a knockoff of West's 808s & Heartbreak due to Drake's crooning and female-flavored numbers.
But then the Toronto rapper blitzed through the Big Apple last month — performing at a local college, making a club appearance with Cam'ron and doing interviews on the radio with Power 105's DJ Clue and Hot 97's Angie Martinez. He also freestyled on Funkmaster Flex's show: "I'm in the Aston doing donuts/I will kill the game and never send it my condolensce/ taught to never love the chick and only love the moments/ New York City I can tell the people want it," he furiously spit over the instrumental to Jay-Z's "You, Me, Him, And Her."
"That was probably, to be honest, the first time in a long time I was nervous," Drake says now, recalling the moment. "I don't get nervous for much. But it was like the first time I was like, 'Wow, this is a legendary moment and a legendary opportunity that I'm being given.' It was crazy to be standing in the Hot 97 radio room looking at Flex in the booth. Doing what I seen him do for so many years, for some of the greatest artist to ever be in this business. And to think it was just me there and it was all happening for me, it was definitely ... Surreal is the word."
To say the experience has been surreal only for Drake would be an understatement. Back in 2006, he was better known as a child actor from the N's Degrassi: The Next Generation, where he played hoopster-turned-wheelchair bound teen Jimmy Brooks for seven seasons. But Drake, a high school dropout born to a Jewish mother from Canada and African-American Memphis man, decided to invest his earnings from acting into jumpstarting a music career.
First, he reached out to popular mixtape maestro DJ Smallz, who helped Drake put together his first project, Room For Improvement. Traces of Drake's style were evident back then. He rhymed alongside some unknowns and recruited R&B singer Trey Songz to appear on the collection as well.
"Rappers hit me up all the time and big themselves up and I don't believe half of them," Smallz says. "When he told me he was on a TV show, I didn't really research it. But I listened to the music and I thought it was great. I worked on the tape and thought it was crazy."
The following year, Drake poured even more of his assets into himself as he independently released his second mixtape, Comeback Season. He even financed a video for one of the songs, "Replacement Girl" featuring Trey Songz. The clip received a few plays on BET and briefly landed on the network's flagship show 106 & Park, but ultimately fell short of producing the desired results.
All wasn't lost, however. Comeback Season showcased Drake coming more into his own as an artist, from the braggadocio freestyle over Kanye West's "Barry Bonds" track to swooning intro of "The Presentation." "That was when I was becoming more comfortable and saying, 'OK, we really have something,' " Drake says of the mixtape. "I was just like, let's make it more like an album."
The mixtape, though, was most notable for its final track, "Man of the Year," featuring Lil Wayne. The superstar lyricist got wind of the rising talent when veteran rap impresario J.Prince's nephew urged him to check out Drake's MySpace page. Shortly after Weezy recruited Drizzy into his Young Money fold. Later Wayne's manager (Cortez Bryant) and one of Kanye's West's managers (Gee Roberson) would assume co-managerial duties for Drake.
Under Wayne's tutelage, Drake's rhymes took a steroid-like leap in potency. "Wayne told me to just remember it's about your thoughts, you got to think about what you want to say beforehand," Drake says of Wayne's mentorship. "And then from there, you make it rhyme or you make it connect. But the more important thing is, What's your message, What's your point. And that should be the bare essentials of a line or a verse — what do you really want to say and what do you want to say about yourself?
"I think he gave me that advice truly for me to set myself apart as a rapper," he adds, "because I know Wayne sometimes raps for the sake of being a phenomenal rapper. And other times you'll get a song where he tells a story and gets personal. But when he gave me that advice it was almost like him giving me like a cheat code. Here, I'm gonna give you something; I'm gonna give you a piece and see what you do with it. And So Far Gone is what I did with it."
So Far Gone is the dark and sometimes moody narrative of Drake's journey into adulthood that's been powered by the upbeat "Best I Ever Had," where he not only raps on the track but sings on the song's chorus. The track has landed in regular rotation on Hot 97, Los Angeles' Power 106 and Philadelphia's the Beat, among other cities' stations. But it's the collection's triangulation of lady-endearing songs, gutsy displays of lyricism and the usurped hipster sounds of Peter Bjorn & John, Lykke Li and Santigold that have paved the way for Drake's 50 Cent-like ascension from fringe artist to bonafide star.
"It's just one of those moments in time, where the right person comes with the right music to the people," Bun B explains. "Everything is working in his favor. He's obviously very talented, I don't think anyone can dispute that."
As of press time Drake still remains unsigned. Rumors have swirled that he's set to join Lil Wayne at Universal Records. But industry insiders believe he'll eventually land at Atlantic Records where one of his managers is also an executive.
In any event, in the week since his SOB's performance, the rapper's buzz has again shot up yet another notch. Speculation has run rampant about his relationship with Rihanna after Page 6 reported the pair were spotted kissing at a Manhattan night spot; he's now in London with her working on her next album. He won't confirm who will be working with him on his album, although Wayne will executive produce and Drake has said he hopes Kanye West and Jay-Z would contribute.
For all the drama following Drake around these days, he's decidedly grounded. He jokes that he still has to overcome the three strikes against him — being an actor, light-skinned and Canadian. But his easygoing nature and articulate thoughtfulness conceal a silent confidence that just might hint that this whole mania thing could be a brewing pandemonium.
"I still have people who are finding out about me, who are still going through that process," Drake says. "And they may have to go back and discover a Comeback Season or a So Far Gone. I know the process they have to go through. But I know that eventually they're gonna love it, the music, so that's why I say, Thank Me Later."