How Drake went from Degrassi to rap star to the king of memes

Drake’s sixth studio album Certified Lover Boy, set to be released on Friday, is his first in three years. But the internet is buzzing over its odd cover art: 12 pregnant woman emojis of different ethnicities wearing different-coloured shirts arranged in neat rows.

Love it or hate it, the album cover is only the latest example of Drake’s long history of dominating internet culture.

The Toronto rapper is a frequent subject of memes and viral moments — and they’re all carefully orchestrated efforts to leverage his brand, experts say.

The cover for Certified Lover Boy, Drake’s sixth studio album, with imagery by British artist Damien Hirst, has already become a meme itself. The album will be released on Friday. (OVO Sound)

The origins of Drake’s meme-ability

As a biracial Jewish man from an upper-middle class home in Toronto, Drake started as an underdog in the hip hop scene, said Dalton Higgins, a Toronto-based hip-hop scholar who is Ryerson University’s music professor-in-residence.

“Nowhere did we think, as hip-hop scholars, critics and journalists, that a biracial, black Jewish kid … would be the most popular rapper on the planet.”

Higgins, who also wrote an unauthorized biography of Drake, noted that hip-hop culture originated in low-income neighbourhoods of the South Bronx and Los Angeles. 

The Canadian rapper’s entry into the genre was unexpected, especially after he starred in teen drama Degrassi: The Next Generation.

According to Higgins, hip-hop culture has an “obsession and fixation around being from the streets and hardcore, coming from low-income environments, having seen a lot of adversity.”

“And then here comes this rapper who was a child actor in Degrassi, of all television shows.”

That humour wasn’t lost on the internet, and the memes began to appear in parallel with Drake’s fledgling rap career. Many were ableist references to his Degrassi character, Jimmy Brooks, who was paralyzed from the waist down.

Then, in 2009, a video of Drake rapping “freestyle” on a radio show went viral — because he was reading the lyrics from a BlackBerry phone, something frowned upon in freestyle rap.

WATCHDrake freestyles while reading lyrics from his BlackBerry: 

As Drake grew increasingly popular and established in hip hop, so did his tendency to go viral. He used the phrase “YOLO” — meaning “you only live once” — in a 2011 song and it entered the popular vernacular.

The cover art for his 2013 album Nothing Was The Same and his 2015 mixtape If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late were frequently used as meme templates. 

As the Toronto Raptors’ global ambassador, Drake is a frequent presence at home games.

A 2014 video of him lint-rolling his pants courtside sent the internet into a tailspin. At their next game, the team handed out Raptors-branded lint rollers. 

WATCH | Drake and his lint roller go viral: 

When Drake’s album Views was released in 2016, the cover depicted the rapper seated at the edge of the CN Tower, so the internet photoshopped tiny Drake onto other makeshift-seats. 

But it was two freeze-frames from the neon-lit Hotline Bling video that became the most ubiquitous Drake meme: An image of Drake gesturing in distaste, followed by one of him smiling in approval.

“I think when Hotline Bling came out, he became the unofficial meme king,” Higgins said.

Cover takes internet by storm

Drake’s emoji-splashed cover art for Certified Lover Boy by British artist Damien Hirst has already caught on as a meme among fans, brands and other musicians, with many quick to reproduce its quirky imagery.

It’s all part of his branding strategy, said Jenna Drenten, an associate professor of marketing at Loyola University in Chicago.

“Celebrities are increasingly realizing that the more their content spreads, that’s publicity for them,” she said.

“So being engaged with meme culture and even, at times, purposefully inserting themselves into meme culture is a way to have a cultural footprint and impact beyond their music or movies or television.”

Following the release of the Certified Lover Boy cover art, rapper Lil Nas X immediately tweeted his own version with nods to his queer identity and his debut album Montero, set to be released Sept. 17.

As of Thursday afternoon, his tweet had garnered over 14,000 retweets and more than 215,000 likes.

Like Drake before him, Drenten says Lil Nas X is using memes as “a really important part of generating conversations around his music.”

Alongside other brands, Amazon’s official Twitter account tweeted an image of multicoloured packages formatted in the same style as Drake’s cover art.

In one notable example, condom company Trojan posted a version of the album art on Instagram — but the previously pregnant emojis were decidedly un-pregnant, a winking implication that their product works.

So it’s not just Drake benefiting from his meme-ability — other people and corporate brands are profiting off the images and using them to compete for likes, shares and retweets.

“Memes are creative, but they’re also capitalist in many ways, to be able to use as a marketing tool,” said Drenten, who researches digital consumer culture.

“We are the ones that get to create the memes. And Drake has sort of given us the approval to do that. He’s on board; he likes it when those things happen.”

In on the joke

Part of the appeal is that the rapper is in on the joke. 

“I have become the most memed person aside from the Michael Jordan crying face,” Drake said in a 2016 interview on Instagram. 

“I love that I’m the guy that doesn’t take himself too seriously. I like laughing, even if it’s at my expense. It doesn’t feel like it’s necessarily malicious or hurtful stuff.” 

I like laughing, even if it’s at my expense. It doesn’t feel like it’s necessarily malicious or hurtful stuff.​​​​– Drake

The rapper regularly spars with his hip-hop peers, a tradition in the genre. But Drenten says his clever use of memes controls the narrative around these public feuds.

“Rather than becoming the butt of the joke and being an outsider of this culture making fun of him, he’s actually contributing to that.”

Drake even meme-ified the music video for his song Energy, aimed at his rivals, inserting deep-faked versions of himself into famous scenes of pop culture figures.

WATCH | Drake’s music video for Energy: 

In 2015, Drake performed a diss track aimed at his foe Meek Mill with a slideshow of mocking memes playing in the background. About a year later, he would lampoon that very song in a Saturday Night Live skit called “Drake’s Beef.”

And in 2018, the Toronto rapper garnered negative publicity when fellow rapper Pusha T revealed that Drake had fathered a child and kept it a secret.

Three years later, Drake’s new album art seems to suggest he’s reclaiming that incident and accentuating his playboy reputation, Higgins noted.

For Drenten, Drake’s time in the limelight depends more on his meme-able persona than on any single album or candid moment.

“It’s really more about Drake than it is about the individual things that Drake creates.”

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