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Drake: The Billboard Cover Story
On a clammy Saturday afternoon in May, thousands of nose-ringed, suburban teens are crammed into the Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford, N.J., to catch their favorite emo, dance, punk and emo-dance-punk acts at the two-day Bamboozle Festival. While middle-aged chaperones waited patiently in the "parents" tent, barely clothed diehards bounced from stage to stage, panting at the sight of Ke$ha, Matt & Kim, MGMT, OK Go and headliners Weezer and Paramore, among others.
But one of the night's unexpectedly large turnouts was for 23-year-old hip-hop sensation Drake, whose highly anticipated debut album, "Thank Me Later," will be released June 15 on Aspire/Young Money/Cash Money with distribution through Universal Motown.
Backed by a five-piece band and DJ, and dressed in all black,
"People who love rap love his rhymes, especially passive rap fans, who are mostly women," WQHT (Hot 97) New York PD Ebro Darden says, adding that all of Drake's officially released singles-with the exception of his latest, "Find Your Love"-have been top five research performers on the R&B/hip-hop station. "They love the melodies and honesty in his music. He's flossy yet vulnerable, clever with his word selections, and at the same time, you can easily understand his punch lines."
At the end of his set, Drake asked that the stage lights shine on the crowd. "I see you with the Giorgio Armani shirt, like it's 2002," he called out to one fan. "I see you with the bikini, like we're in Acapulco. I see you over there with the headband, just like my publicist wears," he said as fans screamed in excitement.
"I want the type of show that doesn't feel like I'm out of place. And really, that night didn't feel like I was an outcast," Drake says. "It was really important for me because, like Wayne said, I felt like they were listening, and they were screaming and they were excited. But most important were the faces that I could tell had never even heard of me or seen my face before, yet they were still listening. It was a great feeling."
In the face of a crumbling business, it makes sense to go after as wide an audience as you can. It's part of Drake's master plan to not only engage his hardcore hip-hop fan base with his natural rap skills, but also to pull in new fans who are now, thanks to shows like Bamboozle, paying attention.
"Thank Me Later" will feature production from West, No I.D., Boi-1da, Noah "40" Shebib, Timbaland, Swizz Beatz and Francis & the Lights frontman Francis Farewell Starlite-whose band opened up for Drake on his Campus Consciousness/Away From Home college tour alongside Canadian rapper K-OS. Collaborators on the set include West, Wayne, Alicia Keys, Nicki Minaj, Jay-Z, the-Dream and T.I.
First single "Over" peaked at No. 3 on Billboard's Rap chart, No. 4 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs and No. 14 on the Hot 100. Second single "Find Your Love" was recently released alongside an accompanying video shot in Jamaica by director Anthony Mandler and starring dancehall artist Mavado.
Other tracks include "Shut It Down," an empowerment song for the ladies; the intro "Fireworks"; "The Resistance"; and the leaked track "Miss Me," featuring Lil Wayne, which Al Branch, GM of Hip-Hop Since 1978-Drake's management company-assures will be the next single. ("Wayne shot his part [of the video] and Drake's shooting his in a couple of weeks," he says.)
While Drake's getting co-signs from the likes of Jay-Z, sharing verses with Eminem and being romantically linked to Rihanna, it's his wholesome, unassuming and almost average depiction of life through music that already has him touted as the next big thing; even before releasing an official album, he'd garnered two Grammy Award nominations and two Juno Awards. Drake is often mentioned in the same category as the company he now keeps.
The accolades flatter Drake, but he still feels he isn't quite there-yet. "That's the most flattering thing in the world but at the same time, real, legendary status can't be dictated by the people who are still here witnessing it," he says. "Legendary status is when the next generation comes up. The kids that are 15 right now and will be going to college in five or six years-if they say, 'Yo, I remember when Drake came to this school. That's one of the most legendary shows ever,' that's when you're a legend. I'm young. I'm 23. This is too soon. I really want to grow and be that guy."
While Drake has scores of supporters, he also has nonbelievers-naysayers who question his talent and criticize everything from his singing to his videos-especially the West-directed "Best I Ever Had" clip. But Drake isn't phased by them. "When people really listen to the album, I think they'll say, 'There's some really interesting songs on here, really interesting lyrics, really interesting layers,' " he says. "It's very reflective, very personal, but at the same time, it's fun. It's about my induction into the rap game, into Hollywood, having famous people that are friends with me. It's all very overwhelming."
EMI West Coast creative president/head of urban "Big" Jon Platt signed Drake to a publishing deal in June 2009-in the artist's dressing room at the BET Awards. "I went to see him in Toronto well before everything really exploded," Platt says about snatching Drake before anyone else did. "We just hung out all day and had a great conversation. I knew then that he was the real deal."
For Robert Gibbs, Drake's music agent at International Creative Management, Drake's appeal makes booking him for shows that much easier. After his Away From Home tour, Drake will go on a club/festival/radio tour and then head to Europe in July where he will support Jay-Z on a couple of U.K. stops as well as play the Wireless Festival with him. Afterward, Drake will hit Toronto for Caribbean music festival Caribana. He is also negotiating a fall tour, which AT&T will sponsor.
In addition, Drake has been reading movie scripts, although he's turned down a number of roles already. Dana Sims, Drake's motion picture talent agent at ICM, says, "Until the album is out, [Drake will] be putting the acting on hold."
To promote the new album, Drake will make appearances on late-night TV shows, an iPad giveaway promotion is in the works, and an MTV documentary will premiere on the music channel the week of June 20. Drake also says that as soon as "Thank Me Later" is released, he will start working on a follow-up-a move that Branch encourages, stating he'd like for Drake to release another album less than a year later, "like Justin Bieber did."
Although this is only his first album, Drake understands that his swift ascension from underground mixtape rapper to the next Biggie/Lil Wayne/insert-legend-here means that listeners are expecting not just quality, but greatness.
"I know I have a lot of growing up to do, but I guess unfortunately, people won't judge me as if this is my first album or my first year in the game," he says. "This is a crucial moment for me. It actually feels like my last album, not my first. I'll be working hard to make sure you remember it. I'll be in your city, performing all the songs, and hopefully looking at you in your eyes and letting you know it's real out here, man. I'm ready."