Here's something that sounds like a joke but isn't:
Drake walks into a bar. He's supposed to play FIFA against a stranger while 50 people yell obscene soccer chants behind them like it's a real soccer game. But the PlayStation breaks, and Drake can't play videogames anymore. So instead, he goes up to the bartender, buys a beer, uses it to salute the crowd, then leaves without taking a sip.
It's the day before Drake's third LP Nothing Was the Same is set to hit stores, and I'm following him around as he kisses babies and shakes hands in New York City. Ostensibly, he's promoting the impending release of the EA Sports title FIFA 2014 (Drake is a FIFA obsessive and is endorsing it), but in actuality, Drake is simply pushing Drake, because the dude can't help but carry himself like he's running for President of the Universe.
Luckily for all parties involved, the aborted gaming session happens only once. There's another party later that night, at another bar, where a working Xbox 360 has been installed. Following a DJ set by Swizz Beatz, the main event is a quick FIFA match between Drake and MLS star Tim Cahill. Drake does not emerge from the green room before the match, and leaves promptly after he loses to Cahill 0-1. Watching people play videogames is always kind of boring, and there's not much either party can do other than bask in the oddity of the situation, but at this point in his career, Aubrey Drake Graham has become the sort of person that people just want to be around, regardless of the context.
The line works like this. The people closest to the door all raise their hands and yell to get the door guy's attention, until one of them gets picked to enter the store. After about five minutes, they emerge clutching an Alife bag to their chest, and then the process repeats itself. Because everyone at the front of the line keeps freaking out, it makes everyone in the back of the line think that Drake's shown up, which then causes the mass to periodically lurch forward, creating a social shake-and-bake that ends with a woman at the front of the line attempting to stab a man while a bunch of people chant, "WORLDSTAR!" The cops come and calm everything down, but half an hour after the hullaballoo, an officer announces, "There are no more t-shirts! You can go home!" In the face of both logic and authority, few budge. An errant streetwear rat passes by on a skateboard. After a few minutes, the Alife people shutter their store, and the line dissipates.
This crowd is a microcosm for whom Drake speaks. He might not be the sole voice of our generation, but he's definitely a voice of our generation. He's postcategorization in a way that suggests he grew up with unlimited access to data, absorbing and synthesizing disparate scenes and eras and spitting out a product that feels unique to him. The age of information, meanwhile, has added to the problem of most young people being a bunch of narcissistic assholes by giving them a broader platform to act out in public than ever before. In this way, he is the leader of the new school of performative introspection.
"One of the last verses I did was on 'The Language' where I say, 'been working so hard on the album / I missed the whole summer.' I think that actually was the last line I recorded for the album." This is the essence of Drake: acute self-awareness combined with a crushing sense of the literal, slamming together in the Large Hadron Collider that is his brain. He possesses the emotional honesty to say what he means, coupled with the insight to render his feelings in broad, radio-ready strokes.
Following the aborted FIFA bar session, the next stop is a high school soccer practice in midtown, so that Drake can hand out copies of FIFA and scrimmage with the team. As he emerges from the fleet of murdered-out SUVs up to the team, he carries himself like the world's swaggiest spy, somehow shirking the eyeballs of strangers as if he vibrates on a different frequency than the rest of humanity, one that confuses the eye and tricks you into thinking you're not actually looking at him.
When the huddled-up players realize that Drake is in their presence, they begin a process that, throughout my day of shadowing the 26-year-old rapper, is the standard operating procedure for humanity when they first see him in person. First, incredulity. The players cover their mouths, or say, "That CAN'T be DRAKE!" Many of them do both. Then it's on to the screams, which, from the mens' soccer team are more like whoops of elation (later, when a soccer team full of tween girls shows up to practice at the field, their screams are Beatlemaniacal). This leads to Engagement, the final stage of Drake Recognition. People feel like they know him, and therefore, can go up and talk to him. Throughout an afternoon spent in the trenches of Drake Fever, I never see him turn someone down when they ask for a picture, or a dap, or a whatever-else-the-fuck they want from him.
After he greets every single player on the team, a penalty shoot-out is held. The players, eager to show off, unilaterally bury the ball in the back of the net, creating what must have been an awful dose of psychic trauma for the team's lanky goalkeeper. Imagine being a teenager and giving a famous rapper reason to assume you suck at something. By the time the last teammate scores on him, the keeper has been shown up at least 15 times. Drake tells one of his boys to go fetch his Nikes. It's his time to take a shot.
One of the things that people both love and hate about Drake is that he seems almost too good to be true—too charming, too adept at fulfilling cultural archetypes, too skilled at making music that sounds like a godless 69-ing between art and capitalism. Drake contains within his Canadian veins the exact combination of nonflaws that feels ominous, carrying with it the subliminal stench of evil, the sort that might make a dog in a Flannery O'Connor story piss itself in a fit of pure instinct. The truth, however, is there is nothing despicable, or detestable, or even dislikable about Aubrey Drake Graham. He is a man without affect. It isn't a schtick, or if it is one, he's comfortable enough to wear it as a second skin. But for all intents and purposes, Drake is just like this, and that drives people nuts.
However, for those who are frustrated by his icy veneer of pure aptitude, it will be comforting to learn that he sucks at soccer. From the moment he lines up to take the kick, it becomes overwhelmingly apparent that he doesn't know what he's doing. He approaches the ball like he's trying to sneak up on it, shimmying towards it with an uneasy hesitation until he plants his left foot, opening his hips so he can strike the ball with the side of his foot like his leg is a gigantic putter. The ball travels so slow that it feels like the keeper has time to go get lunch and come back before he'd need to react. He jumps at the ball, grasping it with an indignant fury that can only come from a lanky teenager with Rec Specs strapped to his face. Teen: One. Drake: Zero.
Drake wants another chance. He shoots right. The keeper dives left. Paydirt. "I really thought on that first one I had a curve going, and then I realized how good those kids are. Their shots were like rockets into the corner and mine looked like slow motion. Terrible," he says. As for the shot he did make, the keeper "took the most dramatic flop to make me look good," he says. "I'm not a soccer player. I'm a rapper. I always tell people, 'All I do is rap; don't expect anything out of me.'"
"It's tough," Drake says. "Some people's jobs are to come and find me and expose my life. And I get it, we all have jobs to do. I have sacrificed things like the mall. But I've sacrificed it for this," gesturing to the party whirring around us. "What more could I ask for?"
"It's crazy to think that Take Care was almost, like, two years ago," he says a moment later. Though he'd been a significant presence in hip-hop since his 2009 mixtape So Far Gone, the sophomore album was a sprawling opus, stuffed with stylistic bells and whistles ranging from hyphy tributes to Juvenile rewrites to Rick Ross guest verses to Stevie Wonder harmonica solos to a straight-up house song, that cemented him as a legitimate force in pop culture.
"Take Care was critically acclaimed but also scrutinized in a lot of ways for being 'too soft' or all these different things that people have to say—not that it matters." Drake's understanding that the idea of toughness in hip-hop is a false construct has allowed him to essentially have it both ways: continually breaking the fourth wall and acknowledging mainstream rap's inherent absurdity while simultaneously stepping himself in it. The fluidity of his public image allows him to goof around on TV with Ellen DeGeneres, drop a verse on a Migos remix, then call in a Cappadonna adlib for his album and have it all feel like a natural extension of our understanding of him.
If Nothing Was the Same sounds more insular than Take Care—a record that took pains to impress its diversity upon the listener—that's a side-effect of the monastic approach he and his chief producer Noah "40" Shebib took to knocking out the bulk of it. "We rented out a whole building and just did the record there. It was like a factory. We literally had air mattresses in the studio," he says. "The feeling of working was so addictive this time around, it was almost like I didn't want to be anywhere else. It was exhausting." Each song on the album slithers along, rarely ending where they begin, with Drake continuing to perfect his role as something of a spork in the hip-hop landscape—he's not quite a singer, not quite a rapper, a little awkward, but his ingrained flaws somehow become endearing positives. Nothing Was the Same is a concept record in a sense, except the concept is just "Drake."
"I asked someone, 'What do you wanna hear?' and they were like, 'I know so much about you, but you're not telling people the story. Give them more details, talk about these individual women, talk about your family.' So I really tried to tap into that."
Still, one of the things that people find both equally engrossing and just plain gross about his music is how he reinterprets the stories of others, dragging them into his own narrative without their consent. I ask how women react to him when he mentions them. "They love it. I'll get girls that hit me up like, 'Oh, that's how you feel?' Whatever. They love it. They hang up the phone and be like, 'Ah, I'm hyped!" When I compare this practice to Cam'ron's old tactic of repurposing voicemails from angry ex-lovers as skits on his albums, Drake cuts me off. "That's different. That's malicious. I never do that to girls. Every girl, there's some heartwarming sentiment there, even if it's talking about how we didn't work out. It maybe jogs their memory. It's a good thing. My phone starts blowing up every time an album comes out. Tomorrow will be one of those heavy AT&T days for me, for sure."
This is the core of Drake: he's right, but only because he's him. Yes, some people would sell their organs to be mentioned in a Drake song, but that doesn't mean it's okay to do it. And yet, he can and will. If that sounds a bit like the snake eating its own tail, then that's sort of the point. He embraces contradiction: taking the universal and making it feel personal, painting himself as both the underdog and big boss, playing the jilted and the jilter, rejiggering the codes of masculinity in hip-hop while also reifying the unwritten laws of bro-dom, using his music as an intimate diary while carefully guarding his life outside the booth. Perhaps the greatest contradiction of all is that Drake makes it so there isn't one.
When I ask Drake to reveal something about himself that he never has before, he pauses. "Damn, that's tough. I don't know. I'm pretty open about everything, you know?"