Drake’s Appropriation Ting: “More Life” and His Struggle to Connect
Not to be outdone by Beyoncé’s newfound penchant for audio-visual journeys, Drake’s latest offering, “More Life” similarly attempts to eschew the traditional studio album route and labels itself a “playlist.” Given that Drake is literally the lead writer and singer on each track, I can’t quite deem this venture a successful foray into playlist curation. However, “More Life” certainly makes good on its attempts to telegraph Drake’s fondness for the Caribbean. An initial spin easily conjures up images of Rihanna blissfully smoking a blunt somewhere in Barbados. Second and third listens further evoke the flavor of the West Indies, but like a 17$ fifth of Malibu Rum, the taste is cheap, smooth in its artificiality and accompanied by that familiarly bitter finish. “More Life’s” languid musicality is indeed quintessential Drake, but incessantly peppered with jarring “tings” and “dems,” it’s not entirely sweet.
Drake’s love for the West Indies is nothing new. His obsession with island “gyals” like Rihanna and Nicki Minaj is well documented. Drake’s debut album, “Thank Me Later” was partially recorded at Gee Jam studios in Jamaica. Take a quick glance at Drake’s frequent collaborators and OVO roster: Boi-1da, PARTYNEXTDOOR, iLoveMakonnen, Rich The Kid. It’s clear that Toronto’s prodigal son tends to surround himself with musicians who boast West Indies heritage. Sonically informed by producers who help craft his particular brand of lethargic R&B, and engaged in the grooming of promising new talent, both Drake’s present artistry and future endeavors are fixated on a distinctly Caribbean sound.
Enter the numerous chart-topping hits that Drake’s released since the summer of 2015: “Hotline Bling,” “Work,” “One Dance,” “Controlla,” “Too Good.” You could say that these songs attempt to hop on the same dancehall wave recently ridden by mainstream artists like Sia and Justin Bieber. But I’d argue that Drake isn’t merely tapping into pop’s recent dalliance with a Caribbean-tinged sound; he’s attempting to dominate it. It’s an almost logical progression of his appropriative “inspiration.” Influenced by individuals like PARTYNEXTDOOR who can more authentically claim “ownership” of the dancehall/pop/hip-hop fusion, Drake inserts himself into this burgeoning market of Caribbean-ish music. Then, following the incredible success of singles like “One Dance,” Drake releases his fourth studio album, “Views,” thereby demonstrating that not only has he successfully tapped into the market of West Indies-inspired pop, he’s cornered it. In keeping with this speculative narrative, I think it’s fair to understand “More Life” as Drake’s attempts to become the market, to assume the cultural identity from which he’s been so consistently seeking inspiration.
Consider the playlist’s opening track, “Free Smoke,” which finds Drake boasting of his rap-game dominance (he has the audacity to ignore the advice of Jay-Z). It finishes with an outro assist from Baka who proclaims, “Ya dun know, eh?/It’s a OVO ting, eh?” Drake’s use of Baka here is incredibly clever. By propping up OVO in a distinctly Jamaican patois, Baka has verbally melded two seemingly disparate entities: the West Indies and Drake. Acting as a cross-cultural barterer, Baka gives Drake permission to assume the Caribbean. It’s a moment of enabling that is important because it’s audible, in writing, and it bookends Drake’s assertions of rap superiority. Drake is power-grabbing, and the West Indies is firmly in the palm of his hand. “Free Smoke” bleeds into “No Long Talk,” an admittedly slick and biting track that features yet another Jamaican Brit, Giggs. Here, it’s clear Drake has immediately reaped the benefits of their cultural transaction. That’s not to say that Baka does not also win. His friendship with Drake gives him an incredible amount of post-prison visibility. But Drake emerges victorious in how quickly he commands Jamaican vernacular: “no long-talker,” “yutes,” “she been let me wap,” “tanned.” Perhaps most impressive is his seamless use of “ting,” and “thing” interchangeably, the former used three times and the latter six times in a span of approximately 15 lines. He’s clearly comfortable slipping in and out of this Caribbean shtick, and the remainder of the playlist demonstrates as much.
“Passionfruit” is smooth and expertly crafted. It’s likely what Drake wants to be marketed as quintessentially Caribbean. “Blem” not only borrows the patois term for too high, but it interpolates Lionel Ritchie’s own 1983 flirtation with the islands, “All Night Long.” The result is an undisputed bop. “KMT” again features Giggs and borrows its acronymic title from yet another Jamaican expression, but in this instance the cultural assist works. To kiss one’s teeth (“kiss mi teeth”) is to hold your tongue with disapproval, to seethe. “KMT’s” sound is appropriately sinister, and thus pairs well with the patois inspiration. Later on in “Teenage Fever,” Drake brilliantly samples JLo’s (another island girl) “If You Had My Love” to contrast his romantic insecurities with her assertive 1999 ultimatum. Such tracks demonstrate that Drake is capable of respectfully and artfully interweaving Caribbean influence with his usual sonic territory.
Unfortunately for Aubrey, cherry-picking from a culture’s music and vernacular never properly fits the unfamiliar appropriator. Not totally. Like mismatched socks, it always just looks wrong if you take off your shoes or inquire a tad deeper. Despite its too-obvious Caribbean-lounge vibe, “Passionfruit” works because it utilizes a simmering beat as the stage for Drake’s honest appraisal of a relationship that sours after too much distance and time. It’s smart. But a minute and 57 seconds earlier on “No Long Talk,” Drake was deliberating “chit-chat tings” and dabbling in Jamaican patois like he’s actually about that life; it’s transparent, nauseating, and sullies the successful and tasteful moments of “More Life.” Drake’s allusion to “Gyalchester” is a clumsy reach for a British-Jamaican context to which he is painfully foreign. It’s laughable enough. But by the time Drake laments the “voodoo spells put on my life” in “Madiba Riddim,” I start to tap out. Those fucking mismatched socks, man.
Drake’s “More Life” is often a cringe-worthy fantasy land in which affected, faux-island bwoys live forever. Or, perhaps as long as this Caribbean grind proves comfortable and profitable. Still, it’s tempting to give Drake a pass, to show him some leniency. As a biracial, specifically half-black, individual, Drake’s Caribbean exploitation cannot be understood in precisely the same way we would understand a white individual’s typically intrusive appropriation. That’s not to deny Drake’s undeniably white privilege. The same privilege that’s plagued his rap career with accusations of inauthenticity from the start. Drake’s whiteness lends him seamless mainstream viability, and cloaks his music in perceived “safety.” He’ll always be the same Aubrey Graham who got shot at Degrassi High School. Drake’s not necessarily immune to the familiar narrative of black culture’s imitation. Before “squad’s” ubiquity scoured the Western world, any “hip” individual referred to their friends as “woes,” a term so prevalent and over-exposed on Instagram, I struggled to remember Drake was its assumed originator. Still, Drake single-handedly made “The 6” a thing, despite his fellow Torontonians denying its legitimacy, and I have literally no doubt that Cheesecake Factory profits increased following Drake’s domestic dispute shout-out.
When Rihanna released “Work,” people laughed off or demeaned her patois as nonsensical gibberish. This was her culture. Her source of pride. It was popular, but it was ridiculed. Her collaborator on the song, Drake, notably does not speak in (faux) patois. He escaped any mainstream derision. “One Dance” was released shortly thereafter, and Drake again emerged unscathed despite his newfound approximation of Caribbean slang. Drake’s blackness inherently predisposes him to be potential a victim of cultural appropriation. His whiteness allows him to be one of its most blatant offenders. Drake’s world is not one of mutual exclusivity. But it’s certainly one in which he operates with a fuck ton of agency.
On “Since Way Back,” Drake speaks of physical and spiritual displacement: “I’ve been out in Bel-Air like Will was/These streets got so familiar/Malibu coast where I meditate/Book a plane home, then I hesitate/Scared to see what I left behind.” His allusion to “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” isn’t simply lip service to 90’s nostalgia, but a real “fish out of water” acknowledgement. Drake loves his flossy lifestyle, to be sure. But it’s also a source of insecurity. He’s trying to relate, to feel a connection. And this is why, for all of my critique of Drake’s Caribbean hi-jacking, I can empathize. I don’t think he’s purely attempting to wear the West Indies like a cheap knock-off. He certainly exoticizes and tokenizes. But in calling this playlist “More Life,” borrowing a Jamaican expression used to wish someone well, Drake betrays an ulterior motive of celebration and joy. This approximation of Caribbean culture is clearly a source of solace and happiness. It’s as if, in attempting to relate and try to ground himself, Drake reaches for that which isn’t his. It’s an appropriative outstretched hand, to be sure. But there’s an intentionality there that may not be entirely damnable.
I spoke earlier about Drake’s biraciality as simultaneously exposing him to the threat of appropriation and also enabling his own transgression. Such is the particular, oft-discussed bind of mixed identity: privy to two ostensibly disparate worlds yet never quite comfortable in either, always attempting to overcompensate. You say “nigga” around your black family as if that will somehow validate your melanin. You laugh at jokes disparaging black people told by your white peers because, after all, you’re not really black. In a way, you feel doubly marginalized, with no real claim to either cultural spheres. So you lash out and throw stones in attempts to hit something, to resonate with anything. And when it lands (finally, thankfully), you hold on tight. Even if that which you’ve assumed isn’t necessarily yours. I’ve done it. I still do it. Less than nine months ago, I boarded a Brooklyn-bound subway and locked eyes with a family conversing amongst themselves in Spanish. They smiled “knowingly.” It’s not the first time I’ve been mistaken for Latino. When they laughed at jokes shared in Spanish, I too quietly chuckled and made sure to visibly smirk. They smirked back. Again, “knowingly.” I don’t speak Spanish, let alone understand it. I simply saw the opportunity to throw a touchstone and did so. No one corrected me. And I did not invite them to. It was not authentic, and I immediately felt disrespectful. It wasn’t the first time I’ve engaged in this act of cultural intrusion. I doubt it will be my last.
I don’t mean to project onto Drake (perhaps I do), and I don’t pretend that my actions bear the magnitude of him releasing a playlist devoted to the co-opting of a vague understanding of an entire region. I only mean to indict myself with the very charge of which I accuse Drake. In doing so I hope to clarify my criticism and validate the earlier-noted temptation to give Drake a pass. As of now, I don’t intend to let him off the hook. But I will try and relate. I’m biracial after all. I don’t live in a world of mutual exclusivity either. Fuck.