A couple of years after he broke into the mainstream with 2009’s So Far Gone, Drake was browsing art in Los Angeles when a piece caught his eye: a big neon sign that read, “LESS DRAKE, MORE TUPAC.” For a minute, he felt angry, embarrassed—he wanted to walk up and rip the sign off the wall. Instead, he bought it. After all, he figured, you get someone hanging your name next to Tupac’s, even if it’s only to take a shot at it? You must be doing something right.
Born Aubrey Drake Graham in Toronto in 1986, Drake became—like Tupac—something of a generational voice, a prism for his pop-cultural moment. Was he an R&B singer who rapped or a rapper who sang? Was he really that sad, or just doing a bit? And if it wasn’t a bit, how could this guy—talented, intuitive, hardworking—really be so down?
From minute one, there was something a little different about him: He could be confessional, vulnerable, but also incredibly coarse; he could make an earnest commitment one minute (“Take Care”) and be drunk-dialing the next (“Marvins Room”); he could convince you he was an underdog from his perch on top of the world (“Started from the Bottom”). Critics—and he’s had plenty—like to point out that he started as an actor: He played Jimmy Brooks in the Canadian teen show Degrassi: The Next Generation. But most of all, he felt like a person—someone who isn’t canceled by his paradoxes, but defined by them.
Though the feelings remain (always feelings, big feelings), the sound—for the most part, courtesy of longtime affiliate Noah “40” Shebib—is always changing: a little dancehall here (“One Dance”), a little house there (“Passionfruit”), some old New Orleans bounce (“Nice for What”), a bit of Wu-style boom-bap (“Started from the Bottom”), some smooth, to-the-minute trap-soul (“Hotline Bling”). Like Kanye, Drake is as much a curator as he is a creator, an artist capable of arranging collaborators from a universe of styles and making them all fit into his personal vision—an approach that has made him one of the most definitive rappers and pop figures of his era. “I obviously spend a lot of time in my own world,” he told Beats 1 host Zane Lowe in 2016. “But when I do take a look at the broader scope of things, it’s often [in the studio]… Even though I don’t directly, literally address things in my music, I’ve always tried to make music that transcends gender, nationality—to try and unify people. Because that’s really what it’s about.”