rap

On Drake; or, private media

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In the artist of all kinds I think one can detect an inherent dilemma, which belongs to the co-existence of two trends, the urgent need to communicate and the still more urgent need not to be found.            – D.W. Winnicott

Do people write appreciations of Drake anymore? A lot of the discourse about him is pretty negative these days. Just as Drake arrives as one of the undisputed leaders of contemporary hip-hop, his reputation seems to diminish considerably. Could Drake, of all people, require a defense?

Of course, one suspects that this kind of attention suits a figure like Drake just fine. It is not necessary for us, after all, to like Drake, so long as we keep hearing and listening to his songs. The Drake Product needs only to remain in the awareness of others; the specific content of our feelings is mostly irrelevant. In a review for the New York Times, Jon Caramanica calls Nothing Was The Same, Drake’s third and latest studio album, the definitive announcement of the “Tough Drake era.” Spin, presumably less taken with this new voice, calls the album “cold and isolated.” The braggadocio of the album’s first single, the anthemic “Started from the Bottom,” raised doubts of Rick Ross proportions about the authenticity of its narrative. With another of the album’s hit songs, “All Me,” Drake reaffirmed this stance of independent self-actualization: “Came up, that’s all me; stayed true, that’s all me; no help, that’s all me; that’s all me, for real.”

One of my recent blog posts was about Wordsworth; this post about Drake, which I guess could be considered a sort of companion piece, ventures a very few thoughts about another famous egotist. In a rather instrumental way I will make some thoughts about Drake lead to consideration of a broad and somewhat amorphous domain I’m calling “private media.” Social media has commanded attention now for so long that it feels at once inevitable and strange to attend to the nominally opposite “private sphere,” and to mediated practices of asociality or anti-sociality, esotericism or self-withholding. I think of private (“antisocial,” “nonparticipatory”) media as referring to a wide array of practices, products & platforms that make anonymity, singularity, or hermeticism central to the user experience or to the medium concept as such. In attaching this concept to Drake I obviously don’t mean to suggest that he or his music is any less “public.” I mean simply to mark Drake’s insistence on the irreducibility of private experience; and from this fact I make a (dramatically abbreviated) case for the relevance of this private sphere to understanding some aspects of hip-hop and other popular media.

“Private Media” was the subject of a panel I convened for the 8th Media in Transition conference at MIT last spring, with brilliant presentations by Natalia Cecire, Yohei Igarashi, and Stefan Helmreich (Tressie McMillan Cottom was scheduled to present but missed the conference due to illness). The conference title was “Public Media, Private Media,” and the panel was initially motivated by the question of what a “private medium” could actually be, given that most existing definitions of the medium emphasize its status as a channel for communication, and thus social in its structure. The medium concept typically presumes the existence of a public, without which there would be no need for the medium to exist. Nancy Baym and danah boyd speak to this widespread assumption when they write that the terms “Media and ‘public’ have always been intertwined.” Working somewhat against the grain of these associations, the panel was an early attempt to define some characteristics of private media practice, tracing its expression in objects as diverse as experimental poetry (Cecire), legal cases of search and seizure (Igarashi), and seashells (Helmreich), whose involuted forms offer a visual figure for the “private medium” as such. 

I want to claim now that Drake, spectacularly popular as he is, inhabits an interesting position in the much broader arena of what I’m calling private mediation. Characteristic of Drake’s work is the detailed reporting of private experience. The toughness and aggressive me-centeredness of Drake’s recent work is in one sense only surprising in the context of his extraordinary career. Drake is widely thought of as having opened hip-hop to a greater range of emotional depth, mainly through crooning love songs and stark confessions of emotional vulnerability. Mark Fisher calls Drake’s signature move “the transition from rap to singing, the slipping down from ego-assertion into a sensual purring.” The shift from rapping to singing may correspond to a shift in emotional register, as Fisher notes. Even in his raps, though, Drake moves with disarming rapidity between boasting and confession:

In person I am everything and more,I’m everywhere these other niggas never been before
But inside I’m treading waters steady trying to swim ashore (“Successful”)

As a singer too, Drake makes similarly rapid transitions between invocations of rap cliché and the confrontation with stark emotional truths:

I be yelling out money over everything, money on my mind
Then she wanna ask when it got so empty (“Headlines”)

These confessions and indications of emotional conflict have led Drake to be characterized as a guy who’d rather read you his diary than his bank statement.” The diaristic content of Drake’s work is more often offered in his songs through the medium of the telephone. The song “Marvin’s Room,” from the second studio album Take Care, is sung as if it were an extended late-night plaint over the phone to a former lover (“I’m just saying you could do better”). “Look What You’ve Done,” from the same album, ends with the recording of a voicemail message from his late grandmother. 

At the same time that Drake has made the reporting of inner experience a staple of his work, however, he highlights as well its difficulty (if not impossibility). The phone calls dramatized in “Marvin’s Room” and recorded in “Look What You’ve Done” represent, after all, missed connections rather than moments of successful communication. We think of music, to paraphrase Madonna (someone whose decades of pop success make her an authority on this subject), as art that invites us into a collective experience. Contemporary artists like Kendrick Lamar and Lorde invoke the provisional coming-together of collectives made up of the disaffected and/or disenfranchised. Instead, Drake fashions an intimate public predicated on the irreducibility and inaccessibility of private experience. 

With these gestures, Drake dramatizes the two competing impulses that Winnicott, in the epigraph above, attributes to the artist in general: the urge to communicate and the urge not to be found. Drake’s genius sometimes turns on the reversibility of these two positions, at a point where the disclosure of inner experience meets the assertion of its inaccessibility. In the album of the same title, the phrase “take care” evokes intimacy and solidarity (“I’ll take care of you,” Rihanna sings in the refrain to “Take Care”) at the same time that it reminds us, with menace, of our own vulnerability (as in the closing lines of the song “The Ride”).  

“Art,” Stanley Cavell wrote in a famous essay on music, “is often praised because it brings men together. But it also separates them.” The outcomes may be indifferent for Drake, divided as the music is between the impulses of communication and self-concealment. One finds a small but telling example of this self-division in the spoken words that open “The Ride,” the final track of Take Care:  

I hate when – I hate when people say they feel me, man. I hate that shit. It’ll be a long time before y’all feel me – if ever.

If I feel you, I understand you, I sympathize with your situation. But Drake rejects the possibility of our identification; we can’t know or even imagine what it’s like to be him. The superstar musician is literally untouchable: “Walking through airport security with your hat down / Instead of getting a patdown, they just keep on saying that they feel you.” The trope of untouchability in “The Ride” at once cites (“Can’t Touch This”) and brings up to date the rapper’s conventional boast that he is so ahead of the game that competitors stand no chance. In literal and figurative senses, Drake declares his exemption from the necessity of being “felt.” Characteristically, though, Drake modifies the trope to make the expression of irritation stand at the borders of a claim to the incommunicability of experience (“I hate when…I hate that shit”). The testimony of inner experience asserts the impossibility of what the reporting of inner experience is conventionally expected to produce (the sympathetic union of the speaker with the audience). We are invited to share Drake’s feelings only to be reminded that Drake’s feelings can have no reality for us whatsoever.

This paradoxical stance of something shared and unshared, both public and private, is I think crucial to what we can (with equal alertness to paradox) call Drake’s private media presence. I am not the most qualified to answer how far these developments in the language of rap reflect or overlap with developments in the music industry today. It is at least striking to note how as the reach and influence of hip-hop has expanded dramatically, so too has the iconic object associated with its playback decisively shifted, from the boom box 

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to the headphones.

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Drake’s equivocal assertions of privacy raise questions barely addressed here too about race, power, and privilege. How many black men today are able to experience undisturbed privacy in an age of stop & frisk, “random” traffic stops and security checks, and mass incarceration? What factors influence whether and how a young black male will seek to go undetected in contemporary life? and how successful in this will he be? What vectors of class and prejudice determine whether a black man will experience the self’s inaccessibility instead as a condition of involuntary isolation, of being an invisible man in public circumstances? These questions too are bound up in Drake’s music and in hip-hop’s language of private experience.

For Wordsworth, what is private in the artist’s work can arise from a failure to communicate inner experience or to be understood, whether from “the inadequateness of our own powers, or the deficiencies of language.” But the artist’s asociality may just as plausibly derive from the rejection of a straightforwardly communicative role for language. One thinks of Dickinson’s famous eschewals of a public for her art, or Wordsworth’s account of the poet’s “peculiar language, when expressing his feelings for his own gratification, or that of men like himself.” In both cases, involuntary or voluntary, the notion of private media may be more broadly applicable to what Winnicott calls the “incommunicado element” of human subjects and human language. How this incommunicado element is translated into contemporary artistic and cultural practice — how popular media forms may support non-communicative ends alongside more obviously communicative ones — is a subject worth closer attention.