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Numbers on the Board: How Drake's Streaming Success Is a Lesson in the New Music Business Model

Drake
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Drake performs at The SSE Hydro on March 23, 2017 in Glasgow, United Kingdom. 

It’s been nearly a decade since Drake flipped a mixtape into a retail project with 2009’s So Far Gone. At the time the move felt divisive, as the freebie version appeared to be the litmus test to see if a Canadian teen drama star could transform into a global rap sensation. A string of sold out American show dates, coupled with a Young Money badge, sealed Drake’s fate, and from that point on he remained a chart-topping beast.

Fast forward to 2018. In one day Drake’s newest track “God’s Plan” (off his latest EP Scary Hours) broke a single-day streaming record for both Apple Music and Spotify, upstaging Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” -- with “God’s Plan” raking in 14 million streams in the first day on Apple Music alone (82.4 million total U.S. streams in the first week). The move came following a seemingly long, drawn-out investigation as to why Drake didn’t submit his 2017 project More Life for Grammy consideration. We would later find out that despite the noticeable uptick in hip-hop nominations for the Recording Academy Awards, the winners would be slim. Did the 6 God see this coming, ahead of all of us? 

For years now, Drake has gone against the grain, yet leaves with the most bread. In 2012, he broke a Billboard record for the most number-one singles on the rap charts (11 total), bumping Diddy from his throne. In 2015, he would reign as Spotify’s most streamed artist of the year. A year later, Views would not only nudge Eminem’s Recovery off its six-year run as having the most weeks at No. 1 on the Sales Plus Streaming (SPS) chart, but also beat Beyonc√©’s Lemonade as the most streamed album of 2016.

In 2017, his “playlist project” More Life broke the streaming record that Drake previously set himself with Views. “God’s Plan” also broke Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE.” record with 68 million on-demand streams. The hits just keep on coming, and at this point the competition is too far in the distance to be noted.

“There was always something about him,” recalls Jemeni, writer and radio personality at Toronto’s G98.7 FM. During Drake’s glow up, Jemeni and her co-host Mark Strong were the morning show at Toronto’s biggest Urban music station at the time, Flow 93.5 FM (now called The Move). “He was always super charming, really self-assured, and would tell us his plans and then actually reach them,” she says. “It was always like, ‘What does he know that we don’t know?’”

What Drake knew was how to combine the right and left-brained attributes of a well-rounded success story. While his early days were drenched in doubt that a Degrassi graduate could actually reinvent himself, Drake would use that as the most prominent foot forward in experimentation. After all, what did he have to lose when the odds were against him? His ability to pivot between various variations of hip-hop-sounding music has not infrequently been met with the feedback of remarkable annoyance. But at the end of the day, the numbers were always on the board.

Since So Far Gone (which peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard 200), not a single Drake project -- defined as an album, mixtape, or playlist -- has failed to reach No. 1 in both the U.S. and Canada. Many have faulted Drake’s often erratic hot takes on uncharted success, but as we learned from the Grammys this year, while many hip-hop artists are still tethered to the old music business model of hitting one milestone and crossing fingers for an accolade, Drake is “so far gone,” drawing fans in with both name recognition and unbridled curiosity. He also makes music that doesn’t serve any one demographic other than people with mobile devices ready to stream.

Scary Hours is proof of that. The two-track offering features the rhythmic “God’s Plan” with the edgier “Diplomatic Immunity” (no doubt titled after rap collective Dipset, given its brassy production and smoother hip-hop sound). And Drake has always swum in different waters. For every “One Dance,” there was a “Pop Style;” for every “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” there was a “Started From the Bottom.”

While many presumed that Drake’s switch-flipping between singing and rapping was more of an insecurity to prove he had bars, at this point, it was merely a genius tactic to corral as many fans from all walks of life as possible. “He has a way of tapping into people culturally that I don’t know if a lot of other emcees in the game do,” Jemeni adds. “Let’s not deny that he’s hugely talented -- and that’s not just the lyrics or the music. Everything together is just working.”

Drake also has the unique privilege of not committing himself to solely one streaming music gang. While some artists pledge allegiance to TIDAL like JAY-Z or conceal their Apple Music record deals like Chance The Rapper, Drake sends nods around the room and banks off everyone. While over-diversification was once Drake’s biggest criticism, it’s now the reason why Drake can be home in his pajamas on Grammy night watching his singles break records.

When he took umbrage the previous year that “Hotline Bling” was considered for hip-hop Grammy categories, he wasn’t removing himself from the hip-hop equation; he was removing himself from the boxes that consistently betray his peers. And once again, he’s winning. So of course Drake will keep re-editing Views and More Life even after they’ve both released digitally, or sound more trop-house than the subgenre’s de-facto leader Kygo, only after riddling off bars like he’s at a 1994 rap battle. Drake is merely flexing his flexibility, leaving everyone bewildered by his success when they’ve all been measuring with the wrong barometer -- or like he says on “Diplomatic Immunity,” opinions over statistics, of course

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