Drake's "Omertá" reminded the masses what he's capable of, but is it enough?
The best lyricists of the past decade can perhaps be summarized within Kendrick Lamar’s “Control” verse, in which J. Cole, Big K.R.I.T, Wale, Pusha T, Meek Mill, A$AP Rocky, Drake, Big Sean, Jay Electronica, Tyler The Creator, and Mac Miller are established as the benchmark of excellence. Insofar as pure “bars” are concerned, Kendrick’s assessment is rather well-balanced. Fans can likely make a viable case for each of the invoked, though some arguments might hold more water than others. In truth, Drake’s inclusion might spark the most heated discussion. Despite having exorcised his phantoms on numerous occasions, ghosts of accusations past still haunt his attic. For that reason, many are simply incapable of respecting Drake’s pen game, having already brushed him off as disqualified.
Yet to completely discredit Drake’s lyrical prowess is, quite simply, a foolish endeavor. One that might harm the credibility of a given source, should they truly prove unwavering in adamance. As Jay-Z once said, in what may very well be his most brilliant fragment of lyrical insight: “do you fools listen to music or do you just skim through it?” Given Drake’s sheer ubiquity, it’s easy to succumb to the skim; his most successful mainstream hits are seldom lyrical, least of all his massive, melodic Scorpion singles like “In My Feelings.” Even tracks like “God’s Plan” tend to find Drake on cruise control, allowing his charisma and swagger to speak in lieu of actual words. In that context, it’s easy to catch someone off guard with the suggestion of Drake as the game’s current best lyricist. Especially while he remains in contention with his come-up classmates Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole, both of which have garnered respect from old-heads and new alike.
Yet Drake has indeed earned a place in the greater discussion on upper echelon hip-hop writers. There’s a reason why one of the greatest lyricists of all time, Ghostface Killah, recently named Drake within his personal Top 5. Such co-signs do not materialize off the strength of character alone. Those truly parsing through Drizzy’s writing have likely come to understand his strongest qualities. His intellect makes for the biggest weapon in his arsenal. With a penchant for eloquence and the vernacular of a practiced nerd (likely a takeaway from his “Silver City Indigo” days), Drake can make a throwaway observation shine through his clever hold on syntax and imagery. “My enemies send each other the texts that they could never send me,” he raps on “Omerta,” flexing worldbuilding chops on an otherwise typical “opps” bar. Even his threats feel more creative than most, employing more imagination than the average call to violence.
The only thing I see is custom owls from Tiffany
And some gunner that'll hit you outta nowhere like epiphany
Really, that’s it to me
Aside from the obvious, man, it changes in scenery
Testin' me gon' have my n***s testin' machinery
His storytelling prowess should not go undersold, unconventional though it may be. Where many rappers opt for a “third-person” approach, recounting on the experiences of an alternate protagonist, Drake tends to operate comfortably within the first-person. Given the extensive scope of his life experience, it’s no wonder he tends to favor auto-biography. If a total lyricism score was amassed through a variety of skill sets in a 2K-esque, create-a-player fashion, should factors like self-awareness truly go unmeasured? “I was never on the path to get into Cambridge / I mean, I was good at doin' math, but I'm better with language,” he raps, in one of “Omerta’s" smoothest segments. “Borderline dangerous, approach with caution, I plan to buy your most personal belongings when they up for auction.” There’s a reason Drake can call himself “the petty king” with a well-earned aura of menace, given everything he’s publically experienced the past year or so. He’s astutely attuned to his own narrative. A master of perception. Even when his secrets are exposed on wax - when he’s, by his own estimation, “told on” - he’s capable of spinning the tale in his favor. Case in point, why else is he still prodding Pusha T for another go-round?
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Though he’s developed into a larger than life persona, Drake has remained a student of the game, drawing influences from greats like DMX and Biggie before him. For that reason, his flow and lyrical structure are built on sturdy foundational pillars, which come alive when Drake feels compelled to prove a point. Of course, some might point to a recent spell of inconsistency as a detracting point. Quality control has been an arguable point of contention where Drizzy’s output is concerned, and his stylistic duality occasionally leads his bars to feel sheltered. Can one simultaneously be the biggest and the best, when all signs point to the masses seeking a dumbed down variation? To once again invoke the wisdom of Jay-Z, look no further than “Moment Of Clarity:” truthfully I wanted to rhyme like Common Sense, but I did five mill, I ain’t been rapping like Common since. So when “best rapper alive” talk kicks off, where does Drake fall in the grand scheme of things?
Perhaps it comes down to expectation. Should the expectation be a multilayered conceptual album, Drake will likely falter in that regard. Should it amount to double-time, multisyllabic, lyrical wizardry, such ventures have never been his style. Yet if “Omerta” has proven anything, it’s that the Canadian thrives when unfettered by traditional song structure, given ample space to marry the many tendrils of his personality. From the opulent hedonist to the intellect, the hopeless romantic to the doomed cynic, the mafioso don to the inadvertent father. When each element coalesces, the true extent of Drake’s skillset reveals itself. Whether that’s enough to reserve him a seat at the table is up to you.