It's impossible to dismiss a solid collection of songs, even if it's an obvious attempt to fatten the wallets of everyone involved.
"The more money we come across, the more problems we see." – "Mo' Money, Mo' Problems", The Notorious B.I.G.
Clearly, the concept of fame and wealth bringing equal amounts of pain and pleasure has been studied previous to 2009. But more and more, rappers in particular are speaking or spitting on the anguish associated with fame. Lupe Fiasco has said his next album – a triple-disc broken up into three separate records – will be his last. KiD CuDi only had mixtapes and guest features on his resume and was ready to throw in the towel. Some call it the Kanye West effect. Obviously, it's a reference to his last album, the somber, woe-is-me 808s & Heartbreak. Feelings on that album aside, it is interesting to see how emcees have adapted to a world where you get the fame first and then release an album. Few know that feeling better than our host for the So Far Gone, Drake.
The seemingly straight-to-the-top rapper/singer has actually been around before your girlfriend was blasting "Best I Ever Had". Prior to dropping the very solid So Far Gone mixtape earlier this year, the former Degrassi actor (affectionately known as "Wheelchair Jimmy") released a couple of projects many traditionalists believe show just how talented he can be. Those were Room for Improvement and Comeback Season, more hip-hop-centric efforts when compared to Drake's latest work. And yes, they were noteworthy, full of reasons to wish he would stop singing so damn much. But they obviously weren't full of hits like So Far Gone, a mixtape packed with enough gunpowder to make even the most average rapper blow up. Drake isn't average, though, and that could be what has led to his feelings of overwhelming popularity. It seemed like just this past January when I was reading Twitter comments about how this "new" cat was co-signed by the likes of Lil' Wayne, Kanye West, and Jay-Z, ll of whom Drake has worked with in one capacity or another.
Now, many months later, we have the condensed EP version of his acclaimed third mixtape. Musically, there is really only one weak link on here: the annoying-as-hell "I'm Goin' In". It might feature some solid bars from Weezy and Drizzy, but damn, that hook is like nails-on-a-chalkboard times infinity. While the true new cut, "Fear", is definitely worth hearing, you can find that on legitimate blogs as a free download. With a snazzy beat from relentless hitmaker DJ Khalil, "Fear" is very much in line with what makes Drake appealing: his honesty. Perhaps it's the fact that his singing voice is so, for lack of a better term, genteel. Or maybe it's just his lyrics, which sometimes ride a fine line towards being corny and superficial. But, for some reason, you are able to feel a sense of pain and desperation in the hook from "Successful", another huge single. Trey Songz assists Drake in expressing that they want "the money, the cars and the clothes, the hoes." Sounds typical right? Well, it is. Then you hear, "I just want to be, I just want to be...successful," sung in a way that oddly leaves you cheering for Trey, Drake, and Lil' Wayne.
The rest of the EP is essentially more of the same. "Uptown" is easily the strongest track on here in a traditional hip-hop sense. Bun B and Weezy assist in making the already-stellar cut even better, as they all rap their asses off over a beat straight from Texas. "Best I Ever Had" has been played to death at this point, but if it's new to you, then congratulations. Have fun listening to it until every bar is stuck in your brain and you wonder why the hell you have played it so much. "Houstatlantavegas" is Drake showing off how he could have murdered every track on 808s & Heartbreak. Over a sparse, albeit engaging, beat from Noah "40" Shebib, Drizzy expounds on an exotic dancer who is stuck at her gig in a city of bright lights. He endearingly waxes poetic on her daily life. And just like him, she's more than just fame-hungry. Although she embraces the lifestyle, she is torn. It's a bit strange to hear him put himself in the shoes of a stripper, but, again, it's all in the execution. That also goes for "The Calm", which is backed by another mild beat from Shebib. Drake spits more soul-bearing bars in his almost-awkward, somehow-fitting flow about how the fame continues to hound him. His sentiments are perhaps best summed up by the lines: "They love it when you smile / unaware that it's a strain / It's a curse you gotta live with when you born to entertain."
There are two obvious catalysts behind this once-free project hitting shelves now. The first is for monetary reasons. And who can blame Drake for wanting to get some more of that "magazine paper", based off his never-ending hype and buzz? "Best I Ever Had" remains a gigantic single, even after it has bounced around the web and radio for many moons. Based off just that track, this EP is going to easily move units, though it's likely most fans at least purchased it via iTunes or other digital retailers. Or they grabbed it for free when So Far Gone dropped in February. But when you consider the kind of following Drake possesses, you know people will rush out to buy this.
If you are somehow not aware of his buzz, I can give you a prime example. Drake traveled to my alma mater, the University of Rhode Island, this past spring to perform at a reasonably-sized hall/auditorium. I didn't know what to expect for the night. I rarely listen to the radio so I was unaware of just how often DJs were spinning "Best I Ever Had". I figured a skilled newcomer with a trio of mixtapes and a successful (no pun) single would draw a moderate crowd. I could not have been more wrong.
Before arriving, he had a security team sweep the entire building while I, the other performers, and their entourages waited outside. And when he did show up, his security kicked most of us out of the performance space so he could do his sound check in peace. That easily lasted 30 to 40 minutes. The show was slated to begin at 9 p.m. By that time, no one with a ticket had made it through the front doors, which were guarded by more security. You would think this level of "prima donna-ness" would have upset his fans. I think the only people it pissed off were my friend and me. We left after filming a local emcee's set, which was reduced to six minutes. Drake's loyal followers, many of whom were shivering because their warm-weather clothes were no longer applicable, flooded the auditorium and drooled in anticipation for his set.
Luckily for me and anyone else not in attendance, a relatively local blog filmed part of his performance. You would have thought Jay-Z or someone at his level was onstage. Everyone in the building appeared to know each and every lyric. "Best I Ever Had" turned into an epic sing-along. Females swooned. Dudes were likely jealous, but you couldn't tell from their equally giddy behavior. Drake, from what I heard, killed it. And his hype, which some have likened to a conspiracy, continued to grow.
That is exactly why this retail release of So Far Gone is somewhat laughable. It is essentially useless. One of Drake's best lines in "Best I Ever Had" mentions his buzz being so big that he could get away with selling a blank disc. And, in a way, that's exactly what he has done here. Hell, he should have just sold a CD-R, Sparklehorse & Danger Mouse style, with a link in the liner notes to download the mixtape. Not only could it be done cheaper and perhaps further propel his hype via a clever publicity stunt, but more of his fans would know about the superior version of this product. Instead, you get a greedy sampling of just why Drake is undeniably talented. It's his skill that makes it impossible to dismiss this completely.