Or why we can’t have nice things, or why it’s impossible impossible to talk about why you like something.
A dialogue in one obnoxious voice.
If you’ll allow me to wax post-modern in this post, I think we can really uncover a lot about Drake as an artist by examining the month-old video for “Headlines”, which is really just a way for me to freak out about how soon his new album Take Care comes out (Nov 15).
Here we go:
So basically there’s something about Drake’s self-awareness that is incredibly disarming and off-putting. At times he’s obsessed with who he used to be, who he is now, and who he is going to be. There’s a certain fracture that comes out in the way that Drake experiences himself as an artist and as an individual. The numbing emptiness he finds himself experiencing in the successful accomplishments of his goals despite the ego-boost he feels himself craving. These conflicts come out in spectacular ways lyrically on Thank Me Later, but on a different level there’s some pretty amazing ways that his tracks, musically, bring out the underlying contradictions in Drake’s persona/life. I’m thinking specifically of “Miss Me”, whose musical heart is a stuttering sample that sounds like a record skipping in the most obnoxious way: it’s just enough sound to be intelligible but that moment of recognition is always interrupted by the sequence beginning itself again. It’s a process of always instantiating itself without ever having content in its own right. In a way, Drake’s performance of his star persona follows this pattern. There are the flashes of pure pop brilliance, but pride in the mastery of his craft is almost always subordinated to anxieties over its reception. The moment that Drake makes music we want to hear, it’s snatched away; the same sound we want to hear is asserted anew. In this way, Drake creates himself as something that is identical to itself only in the fact that it is always in the process of rejecting itself in its manifestations. The formation of Drake’s sense of self as an artist/persona is always predicated on nostalgia for a lost simplicity and the rejection of that simplicity as something that is, now, no longer him. This is the egoistic conflict on Thank Me Later.
But even on Thank Me Later there is a sense that the rejection of the past is not a rejection of the past from which Drake emerged, but rather a rejection of the Drake that emerged from that past. Lyrically, Drake is obsessed with his friends and family on Thank Me Later and is always positing himself as in conflict with some critical other that is at times a ghost of a past relationship or a voice of authority in the world of hip-hop stardom towards which Drake strives. So Drake is caught in the present, left with the money and the fame but with nothing with which to ground himself. Surrounded by a social group constituting the core of his present identity, Drake is willing to “burn it all,” to engage in passionless and cursory sexual relationships, to “Do Right And Kill Everything” (DRAKE). The euphoric emptiness is contrasted with moments of agonizing, depressing fullness. Immersed again in the real world Drake finds himself haunted by ghosts of himself. Out of this emotional turmoil we get the video for “Miss Me”.
A cursory viewing of the video for “Miss Me” gets across the visual connection between violent, fiery destruction (Drake lighting a Molotov cocktail, Drake setting off firecrackers, Drake emerging from/dancing in the sparks from a flaming wall) with distorted, almost surreal images of strippers. In Drake’s enjoyment of the ends of his labors all of the hard-working and pro-social effort he put into attaining this position in his career is destroyed in moments of ecstasy and destruction. Visually, the video cuts rapidly and is rarely in good focus for an extended period of time, and the insistent, fractured sample that constitutes the heart of the beat chugs away, drowned out by Drake’s self-conscious musings on his own fame. Is Drake, like all of us, a fractured inner spirit, or is he the fractured inner spirit that he says he is. Can we give a name and form to our own unspeakable formlessness?
The new video for “Headlines” takes the visual motif of rapid, geometrical visual overlays and goes way the hell to its extreme end. We hear in “Headlines” the classic Drake gripes, “people don’t understand me,” “I’m not who I was/It’s still me”, “I’m going to do what I want when I want but I’ll never actually feel good about it.” Drake lives in a world whose value, to borrow from the existentialists, is ambiguous. Drake has lived through the realization that there are no fixed values, that all meaning is contingent on certain frames of reference to his own human freedom. In and of themselves, a fortune, cigars, cars mean nothing. But these are the images we are presented with in “Headlines”. Drake goes through several video clichés, being alone in front of an abandoned building, being alone inside a sports stadium, being surrounded at a party by his friends. This is nothing new. But this images are always incomplete, like the incomplete fulfillment Drake experiences in his “real life” ownership of these status symbols.
By far the most striking visual image in the video are the shots of Drake, alone, in an elevator rising against the background of the Toronto skyline. Whereas the rest of the video imposes horizontal fractures (that is to say the editing interrupts images and disrupts the logico-temporal flow of visual information) the elevator scenes offer us an image of Drake as an unchanging human, rising against the background of his past (Toronto). Drake isn’t what changes. He is always himself! That’s the beauty of being Drake. It’s a beauty we don’t understand and that he himself doesn’t understand, and that’s why, though his highs are ecstatically high, his lows are crushingly, embarrassingly low. But Drake always owns these lows. They are his lows. Drake sometimes seems to whine about how he feels bad his parents weren’t together and other “uncool” things like that, but he does it with such bravado that it says “this sad bullshit isn’t me, but neither is this happy bullshit.” What I am is ultimately what organizes the affective response that we generally consider to be ourselves as such. Drake is in some ways his own super-ego. But to claim to be the maker of one’s own meaning is something incompatible with life as we know it, and as such, Drake’s insistence on accepting all of the miscellany that constitutes his life is nothing more than the mere performance of the subject flailing desperately to recognize itself in an otherwise alien and alienating world. The radical acceptance of everything that constitutes self is, paradoxically the radical rejection of the self as it exists as an incomplete complex of outside factors that I cannot control. The assertion of the free assumption of one’s own inessentialness and mere existence is a bold move, and it’s one that clearly gives Drake a lot of grief.
All of the songs that have come out so far from Take Care are obsessed with following up the success of Thank Me Later. Artistically the challenge is to make something that is a Drake album but isn’t all of the Drake releases of the past. Moving forward as an artist is impossible without moving forward as a subject, but Drake’s movement is never forward; it is always upwards. The final shot of the stadium roof retracting to open up the endless possibilities of being-Drake, though striking, is not the only indication that Drake can only move up and not forwards. This shot is preceded by the image of a motorcycle burning rubber, stalled in place. Drake is constantly burning, constantly in the process of making himself into something great, but that greatness is not something that is going to get him anywhere in the world. All of the worldly manifestations of his success are just so much erotic fuel to fuck and burn away. To Drake, there is a sublime self, the only thing worth the sacrifice. As in “Up All Night” from Thank Me Later, the libertine debauchery is given meaning in the presence of Drake’s “team”. The cult assembled around him, the only thing that Drake would die for. To sacrifice the contingent and ultimately empty physical manifestations of what success means is one thing, but in expressing a preference for the ideal-Drake, that sublime self around which a reliable group of others functions to create meaning against which Drake can himself reject the values of others, over his actual life is only, finally, a manifestation of Drake’s fractured inner self. There can only be the death of Drake-as-we-know-it in order for Drake-as-he-knows-it to truly become himself. As an artist, Drake is capable of producing a product that constantly pounds this message into the public consciousness. But to what end? Is it for us or for him? And is it possible that there is only an us because there is a him? In order to put himself fully into the sublime realm of fame, Drake would have to die, for us.