Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Mixtape to Milli

Today, Drake finally signed to Lil Wayne's label, Young Money, as part of Universal. This deal, after a massive bidding war, is not only a milestone in his relatively young career, but a picture of the music industry today. In the past 3 years, this Canadian rapper has steadily built a successful underground following with his four mixtapes, culminating in this year's So Far Gone. An incredible mixtape, and one of my favorite albums of the year thus far, So Far Gone has helped launch him into almost unprecedented unsigned stardom. His current single, Best I Ever Had, could potentially become only the 2nd #1 song in history by an unsigned artist (he currently has songs at #3 and #10). So far this year, he's performed on various TV shows, awards shows and on tour, selling out shows all well before the release of his first studio full-length album.

The situation is unprecedented, but I foresee it becoming more and more common. With an increasing divergence from an upfront consumer exposure being controlled by corporate music industry, the underground indie artist is gaining power (albeit still relatively capped). This is evident in Drake's success with So Far Gone. As a free album, the buzz that it's generated and the opportunities that it's led to demonstrate the power of the listener to reward quality material as well as the true money-making potential for an artist in everything but album sales.

All that said, it's impossible to notice two things. Firstly, Drake was basically adopted by some powerfully mainstream mentors. Along with getting public praise and facetime with Jamie Foxx, Kanye West and Jay-Z, Lil' Wayne has been grooming him for success for several years now. This manifests itself in So Far Gone with four songs featuring Weezy himself. It's close to impossible to avoid success when your chummed up with the best-selling artist of last year. Most recently, the two performed two songs and sat together on the front row of the BET awards.

I'm excited to hear his upcoming major label debut, but I'm nervous. Part of what has made Drake so interesting for me thus far has revolved around his ability to speak openly and smartly. Amidst hints of the nonsense of a stereotypical hip hop extravagance, he always mixes in reflections on something of emotional depth. In the same verse that he talks about a freak-show tour bus, he details crying with his mother after he catches her trying to literally desert him as a young boy. This is all coupled with a great restraint in the musicality. Much of So Far Gone is slow and moody, finding ways to re-imagine popular indie songs from the likes of Lykke Li and Peter, Bjorn and John. I hope that his marriage to Lil' Wayne doesn't begin to corrode this style. Weezy, although somehow managing to make almost any song sell, has a tendency to digress into a cracked-out randomness in his lyrics in a way that bends more towards disturbing than metaphor to me. Insert "A Milli" here.

Can an artist really have a chance at consistent mainstream success without eventually being tied to a major label?

Drake - Say What's Real (Warning: Explicit Lyrics)
Drake - Successful (ft. Trey Sonz & Lil' Wayne)(Warning: Explicit Lyrics)

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