Earlier this week I came across a disorienting essay: Tahira Hairston’s “Sorry, but Drake’s obsession with good girls is sexist.” It was strange to me not because I disagreed with the thesis — Drake’s music is sexist as an Etruscan pope — but because it was a subject that someone evidently felt required an entire thinkpiece just to point out. It struck me a bit like titling an essay “Bruce Springsteen’s hidden leftist agenda” or “You guys, the Weeknd is a fucking date rapist.” It seems like a notion that, on its own, is obvious enough not to require further scrutiny.
On the other hand, I’d say that half or more of the people I’ve ever had a conversation about Bruce Springsteen with didn’t know that “Born in the U.S.A.” is about a disenfranchised Vietnam War veteran, and a sizable portion of the Weeknd’s current fanbase wasn’t around for his nightmarish sexual assault suite “XO/The Host/Initiation.” We’re not great at talking or thinking about pop music; people miss “subtleties” simply by virtue of not listening to the lyrics, and when an artist’s motifs contradict each other over the course of a career many music critics are content to throw up their hands and label the suspected delineation a mistake or a bout of confused themeing. But what if that were too easy? What if Drake’s erratic displacement of values were not a mistake or even a mere intention, but the point of the entire enterprise?
Musically, Drake occupies a comfort zone that has made him wildly successful. He doesn’t reside full time in Future’s gilded kingdom of Xanax and whores, but he also doesn’t talk much about police brutality or troubled school systems. He calls women bitches a lot, but he doesn’t mention skeeting on them and only seems to use the term to refer to them in the plural at the club, where all bets are off. He seems like a fairly regular man who wants to get his bone on, and he’s coupled that aura with phenomenally witty lyrics, okay singing and singularly luminous production from collaborator 40 to the tune of wild financial success. The problem is that Drake is more self-aware than most fuck-hungry regular men, and this leads to situations where deeds and principles don’t match up. But this isn’t a flaw or a discrepancy in his public image; it’s the whole key to his appeal.
From the very beginning, Drake’s music has been about his carnal desires leading him into and away from tenderness in equal measure. We can see this as early as his breakout 2009 mixtape, So Far Gone, where he explains the origin of the release’s title to Complex:
The whole tape extends from one of my closest friends Oliver. One night we were having a discussion about women and the way we were talking about them, it was so brazen and so disrespectful. He texted me right after we got off the phone and he was like, ‘Are we becoming the men that our mothers divorced?’ […] We’re good guys, I’m friends with some real good people and for him to even text me after we got off the phone it just showed we have a conscience. But sometimes you just get so far gone, you get wrapped up in this shit. The title has a lot of meanings—as the way we carry ourselves, the way we dress, the way people view us, not to sound cocky, it’s just that feeling that we’re just distanced in a good way. You’re just elevating past the bullshit and past all the shit that you used to be a part of and you’re not that proud of, you’re just so far gone.”
This sentiment is a far cry from that of the man who raps “She sent me a text, but I ain’t even read it/’cause pussy’s only pussy and I get it when I need it” right in the middle of the album that paragraph is describing. For that matter, the second half of his very explanation doesn’t match up with the first-how far gone could he possibly be from a conversation he can’t have had that long before he started working on the album? Either he’s lying, he’s deluded, or…
Drake is not better than us. What makes him unique in this regard as a pop/rap star is that he is also not worse than us. We don’t understand the child-diddling scumbag hedonism of someone like Tyga; if there’s something to admire there, it’s from a distance. Gucci Mane kills people, Danny Brown is a crack-addled maniac and Kanye West lives in a crystal pyramid orbiting Saturn’s rings. What Drake does, who Drake is — someone who puts his best foot forward even as he debases himself for the umpteenth time — is relatable, and more to the point, who he is and how he acts makes men feel comfortable with their own foibles.
Drake is not a role model, nor is his music made to fill this role. He is more like a cipher, a musical avatar for a certain kind of urbane young man who wants a sweet girlfriend, but also wants to be tempted away from her by a duplicitous minx. That’s not to say he’d cheat on his woman, but knowing he could if he wanted to makes him feel powerful, darkly electric.
There’s a comforting if not sociopolitically sinister familiarity to Drake’s way of interacting with women. Not everyone wants to date a stripper, but we’ve all been compelled to at least think about cheating, and many of us see the urge as part and parcel with the struggles of romantic life. We want to be conflicted over our need for the Good Girl versus our lust for the Bad Bitch because the very idea that we could have the option to choose gives us self worth. We look at Drake and think, “that’s the kind of guy I’d be if I were rich and famous, too.”
This is why we like Drake; this is why many of us feel we share his struggles even as his stripper rendezvous and stories of sharing tea and breakup woes with Erykah Badu inhabit a world most of us only get to hear about on his sing-a-long rap stories. He makes the mistakes we think we would make in his shoes, and values the ideas of romance we find seductive.
Hairston’s essay claims that Drake’s misogyny is hidden by his nice guy persona, but the truth is far more insidious. The misogyny is not hidden in the least; it is open, bold, and familiar, communicated in the language of the times. The sexism is not the nightshade secretly crushed in our wine; it is the main course, succulent to the tongue and warm in the stomach. We are ill, and that’s the way we like it. At least we don’t go to bed hungry.
Christopher M. Jones once wrote a comic about dogs people liked a bunch. He ostensibly does other things too. You should follow him on Twitter.