He will not be as revered by history as Tupac and Biggie. He’ll never capture hip-hop’s collective consciousness the way Wu-Tang did in the mid-90s. He won’t be defended as fervently as Nas will always be. He’ll never be considered a creative genius the way Kanye is. He won’t be as loved by White people as Snoop continues to be. And he (probably) won’t make as much money as Jay Z and Dr. Dre have. But after watching his performance during last night’s ESPYs, I don’t have much doubt Drake may end up being the most successful rapper ever. Barring a Penny Hardaway-sized drop-off (or, well, death), I can’t imagine a future where Drake does not have a prominent place in pop culture for the next two decades. He, not Jay Z, not Kanye, not Weezy, is rap’s biggest star right now, and he’s still growing. And this is largely due to a simple fact many — myself included — are somewhat reluctant to admit.
Drake is the most talented rapper, ever.
Now, what constitutes “talent” is subjective. Actually, that’s a lie. It’s objectivity coated in subjectivity. There’s really nothing subjective about talent. You have it, or you don’t have it. The subjectivity comes with how we assess it. Recognizing it — which we all tend to do rather easily — isn’t the same as appreciating it.
Anyway, calling Drake the most talented rapper ever isn’t the same as calling him the best. Although his rap talents remain severely underrated by grouchy 70s and 80s babies who scoff whenever the words “Drake,” “good,” and “rapping” are in the same sentence — basically, people like me — there are several of his contemporaries who are better at rapping than he is.
But there is no one — not now, not ever — who can drop a hot 16 and do what Drake did while hosting the ESPYs, as he owned a room full of superstar athletes by somehow vacillating between witty, funny, clever, mean, charming, self-deprecating, corny, and creepy. And sometimes — i.e.: “Honorable Mention” — he was all of those things at the same time. Although we think of Drake as a sports star sycophant, they consider him a peer. And they’re right.
He’s able to do these things because he is legitimately witty, funny, clever, mean, charming, self-deprecating, corny, and creepy. Oh, and self-aware. What I saw on stage and in each of those skits was someone completely aware of who he is and what he can do. He knows he can act. He knows he can sing. He knows that being biracial allows him to do a certain type of racial humor that neither a fully Black nor fully White person can pull off. His Drake vs Blake bit might have been the first time in recorded history a light-skinned Black man did Whiteface to emulate a lighter-skinned Black man. His Pacquiao skit managed to be both extremely funny and extremely racist. And no one was offended by it. Because Drake, even when crooning slightly sexist odes to sidepieces and completely creepy peons to Skylar Diggins, is somehow never offensive. And this is a talent. Perhaps his most important one. It’s what enables him to create songs possessing the perfunctory nihilism and misogyny required of rap stars while also getting invited to host SNL. He’s Tony the Tiger. A shark with Invisalign.
I’m aware there are people reading this who thumbed their nose at the title, and continued to gag while reading a piece lauding the five time winner of the Softest Rapper in the Game award. And I get it. I imagine those who dislike him are tired of seeing, reading about, and hearing about Drake. (It must really, really suck to be a non-fan of Lebron today.) That said, I have a small piece of advice for them.
Get used to it.