"It opened the doors for artists in Drake’s position to make music from their heart."
Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was -- the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period -- with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
“I’m just saying you could do better/ Tell me, have you heard that lately?”
It’s one of the many indelible lines on Drake’s “Marvins Room,” from its Ericka Lee-voiced blunt confrontation (“Are you drunk right now?”) to its dicey lyric outro (“Her white friend said, ‘You n---as crazy,’ I hope no one heard that”). Smooth in its croon but woozy in its motivation, the crux of the chorus from the Take Care lead single hangs in the air both lustily and unashamed. Its confidence lies in its inebriety; its ultimate devolving and apology swirls as rapidly as the room does after one drink too many.
Pulling from the age-old adage “a drunk man’s words are a sober man’s thoughts,” its premise is familiar -- the alcohol-induced nostalgic longing for an ex-partner is a near-universal experience. Yet, the song’s overt emotional vulnerability -- both its lyrical yearning and simple, low-end-driven production -- was much rarer in rap music at the time of its 2011 release, as Drake seemingly discusses on the album’s later “Lord Knows”: “I’m hearing all of the jokes, I know that they tryna push me/ I know that showing emotion don’t ever mean I’m a p---y.” Still, even if Drake’s text-worthy situationship lines have landed him as a punchline every now and then, his unabashed sensitivity, particularly on “Marvins Room,” steered the genre into new hybrid territory and connected with fans on an innate level.
“The easiest thing to do is be like, ‘I’m the coolest guy, I get all the girls, I’m untouchable,” says Drake’s longtime producer, Noah “40” Shebib. “The hard thing to do is be vulnerable and honest. [‘Marvins Room’] opened the doors for artists in Drake’s position to make music from their heart and not be so confined to self-imposed rules and regulations.”
Such sonic dissent from the then-norm was particularly notable for an artist in Drake’s position at the time. Granted, debut studio effort Thank Me Later didn’t exactly sound like your father’s boom-bap, but his impending sophomore LP was an opportunity to firmly place himself in the genre’s heavyweight class. The chart statistics were already in his corner: he scored a No. 6 debut on the Billboard 200 for mixtape So Far Gone, notched his first No. 1 for Thank Me Later and already grabbed three top 10 Hot 100 hits.
But rather than come out firing, Drake opted for a ballad on top of synth-swimming, single bass drum-thumping production. Though 40 recalls insisting on the day of recording that the beat was a work in progress, Drake immediately heard the backing track as a final product. “He was like, ‘No, you’re done. Don’t touch it,’ ” 40 laughs. “I remember being frustrated with him, like, 'Who are you to tell me it’s done? I just started!' But that was a testament to Drake’s brilliance to recognize the simplicity in that piece of music and its uniqueness.”
Other perceived-as-unfinished components to the track made the final cut as well. Take Chilly Gonzales’ piano outro, which he tells Billboard is “a good example of what Jay-Z would call ‘making the song cry.’ ” Invited to a studio session following a skit with Drake at the 2011 Juno Awards, the rapper played him “Marvins Room” and asked for some piano treatment. Gonzales remembers his emotional reaction after hearing the track for the first time and immediately putting together a progression on a ‘90s synthesizer. Though he expected to later recreate the piece on a grand piano, he praises Drake for knowing only one take was needed.
“With tears still fresh in my eyes, I captured something,” he says. “And the mood, the minute I stopped, was definitive. There’s a moment where words fail describing emotions, and instrumental music has to step in and provide emotional closure.”
Perhaps Drake’s only hesitation with “Marvins Room” was actually putting it on Take Care. He self-leaked the track in June, and when Universal Republic removed it shortly thereafter, he tweeted, “Universal needs to stop taking my f--king music down. I am doing this for the people not your label.” Though the track later resurfaced as a proper release, when it came time to put together the album’s tracklist, Drake considered leaving “Marvins Room” off the LP, says 40.
“His perspective was, ‘This has been out for so long,’ ” he remembers. “I had to fight Drake and be like, ‘Can you imagine going back in 20 years and trying to listen to Take Care as a body of work and ‘Marvins Room’ isn’t a part of it? We have to put it on the album.’ ”
But the behind-the-scenes emotional decisions made about the track merely echo its content. A drunken, late hours phone call to an ex is never an unblemished, elegantly-executed work of art. It’s messy and inevitably led by a spur-of-the-moment emotional decision or two.
Nevertheless, the song’s stability over the past decade can directly be attributed to its ubiquity, both among his fans and the greater artist community alike. In 2011 alone, Lil Wayne, Chris Brown and JoJo all remixed the track, with countless others piling on in the ensuing years. Be it the encapsulation of the vulnerability that accompanies heartbreak, the then-anomalous nature of its production and content as a lead rap single or simply the memes that it has spawned in its wake, Drake’s quintessential R&B cut has achieved a cult-like following. Even as he’s ascended to become arguably the biggest star of the decade, a good part of his central appeal can still be traced back to “Marvins Room” and his ability to illustrate the sentimental-but-unpretty side of modern romance.
“I don’t think there’s anything intrinsic about emotion in music other than some artists capture it, and it’s not something you can teach,” says Gonzales. “It happens like lightning striking. When it’s that direct -- when there’s an involuntary visceral, physical manifestation of the emotional power of a song, that’s when you know you have something.”