The "Headlines" Effect: Drake and the Uncanny Valley of Success
“You know they ain’t even got it like that / you gonna hype me up and make me catch a body like that / cuz I live for this, it isn’t just a hobby like that / when they get my shit and play it, I ain’t even gotta say it – they know”
- “Headlines”, Drake
Say what you will about Drake, but the man knows what he’s doing. For nearly a decade, he has been at or near the top of the hip-hop pyramid along with such names as Jay, Ye, and Kendrick – and he has done it by pioneering a sound of his own that he developed by siphoning the work of others across many genres and creating something that has profoundly affected hip-hop, such that things wouldn’t be where they are at this moment in time (for better or for worse) if not for his influence. His work has shaped the sounds and motifs of artists who came along behind him, both from within and without his “October’s Very Own” (OVO) brand name – without his aesthetic and monetary success, we don’t have The Weeknd, or PARTYNEXTDOOR, or Playboi Carti, or any number of also-rans in hip-hop. His impact is uniquely traceable over and across the fabric of the genre, from ambient pad and string backgrounds to Noah “40” Shebib’s signature hard-hitting percussion and trap-indebted beats.
An artist in Drake’s position of perennial poster-boy and culture-barometer has no shortage of fans and critics, and as a result there’s no shortage of ink given to his rise, his plateau, his style, his beefs, his hang-ups, his releases, and his fashion sense. But can any of that give us a sense of what actually makes him unique? Surely a successful run of releases is a result of him having a relatable style that resonates with listeners, but it’s not the reason for it. What are the things he does that give him so much cachet with certain groups of listeners that run the gamut of ages and backgrounds? “Headlines” from 2011 offers a good chance to consider exactly these questions.
The declarative above, that Drake “knows what he’s doing”, isn’t merely a vague way of saying something that's generically obvious, it’s a statement of fact. Part of what makes Drake so successful is that he is well aware of what has come before, and he manipulates pieces of rap history into his songs. In “Headlines”, a recurring vocal theme ends with the adverbial phrase “like that” which in the lyric reprinted above becomes “they ain’t even got it like that” – a subtle but deft nod to the famous Jungle Brothers anthem, “Because I Got It Like That”. Additionally, we find the narrator of the song “yelling out ‘money over everything, money on my mind’” – a playful homage to Snoop and Dre’s “Gin and Juice”, along with a host of other possible points of reference. This stuff isn’t rocket science but it serves to ground his music in the well-worn territory of previous rappers, hence bolstering the sense of Drake as a traditionalist in some ways.
Another thing that he knows well is his target demographic. At the end of the naughty aughties, Drake was savvy to the moment in a way that many artists have either failed to be or have knowingly not embraced. Part of what made Drake so successful at a certain point was his ability to deliver “tough” or “hard” sentiments in ways that served the dual purposes of 1) making him seem more “real” to his fanbase and 2) being approachable enough to not scare off suburban kids. Look at some of the slang used here: “catch a body”, refers to being charged with murder, but Drake never explicitly talks about violence in the song – he uses slang that keeps him topical and relevant but that can get played on the radio and be appropriated by 14-year-olds. But, importantly, he doesn’t lose a significant amount of cred for his “street” sensibilities either, because the imaginary intent toward imagined violence is there and it sounds vaguely believable in a fantastic way. There is just enough chest-puffing to please everyone without being “scary”, "off-putting", or "too urban", and this sort of euphemistic wordplay is at or near the very core of Drake’s commercial success.
But where Drake really excels and where his mastery really comes through has more to do with how he delivers than with what he says. Put simply, Drake’s sense of vocal melody throughout his meteoric rise (and largely still today) is, in a word, impressive. Again, “Headlines” shines in this category. The vocal melody rises and falls throughout, independent of a beat that is actually pretty standard. While this writer is lacking in the musical knowledge to fully diagram how it flows in a way that would translate, the beat is essentially comprised of a loop of just a few rising chords before a fluttering carriage-return of synth notes – Drakes vocal, however, is all over the tonal map: drawing out words, speeding up and slowing down, changing on a dime through different repetitions and rhyme schemes; each pause is measured and considered and each change in dynamic plays against the last brilliantly, from a pop-songwriting standpoint. Even for dedicated Hater-Ade drinkers, to say Drake isn’t at least somewhat musically gifted feels, at best, like a criticism without any real substance.
“Headlines” is a culmination of all these components, which makes it a great pop-rap song. Whether or not you consider it to be a full-fledged jam without that classification qualifier, it speaks to several of the things that Drake perfected while he was rising to mega-star prominence over the course of his first few records. We get “Drake, the melodically gifted pop-rapper”, “Drake, the shady street guy who might go off”, and “Drake, the next artistic generation of rap”. Each part is played simultaneously, each role given the focus necessary to project forcefully from behind the mic. This particular combination has sold a lot of music over the years, and the self-awareness Drake routinely displays gives cause to think that he always knew it would do exactly that.
Or, like the man said: “I guess it really is just me, myself, and all my millions...”