Shot exclusively for XXL by Jonathan Mannion
Don’t say it. We already know what half of you are thinking: Hell naw, that muthafucka? Yep. Aubrey “Drake” Graham, 23. That muthafucka. As in, that new hip-hop artist from Toronto. As in, the one who owned 2009 thanks to a little mixtape known as So Far Gone, hip-hop’s first instant-classic tape from a virtually unknown artist since Young Jeezy’s Trap or Die. As in, the one who landed in the middle of a major-label bidding war so closely watched that his ultimate signing to Young Money/Cash Money/Universal Motown made news in a way not seen since the day 50 Cent signed to Shady/Aftermath/Interscope. As in, the one who had more than 60,000 downloads of his So Far Gone mixtape in its first day. As in, the one with Lil Wayne’s co-sign and Kanye West behind the lens of his first video, “Best I Ever Had.” As in, the one who had two songs off of So Far Gone land in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 and sold 414,000 copies of the official re-release of his monstrous mixtape, yet still hasn’t dropped his debut album, but has already appeared alongside Wayne, Kanye and Eminem (on the same record!), handled a hook for Jay-Z, recorded with Alicia Keys, Timbaland, Jamie Foxx, Young Jeezy and a rack of other top-tier stars, received two Grammy nominations, starred in a Sprite commercial that debuted during this year’s pre-Super Bowl broadcast of all things, and been romantically linked to Rihanna. As in, the pretty boy who played the wheelchair-bound Jimmy in Canadian TV’s teen drama Degrassi: The Next Generation, who purses his lips in photos and is prone to dressing like a character out of a romance novel. As in, the one the ladies love and the rap blogs love to hate. As in, the one with the R&B steeze who just dropped his lead single “Over,” a street record and instant fan pleaser. As in, the one who was passed over for XXL’s Freshmen Class of 2009 only to turn down being part of 2010’s. As in, that muthafucka—the one with the audacity to name his debut album Thank Me Later, as if his success were already a foregone conclusion.
So which is it? Is he that muthafucka? Or will he forever be that phenomenally successful rapper/singer/actor you love to hate? Only one way to find out.
What are your thoughts on this cover?
It’s great to me. I’ve never done XXL, so it’s exciting. And to be doing it with Nicki, man, that’s my dog. That’s more than my dog. That’s, like, we have the most interesting relationship, ’cause it’s so multilayered. That’s my co-worker, my peer, my family. But, at the same time, on any given day, she’s, like, the love of my life… Nicki’s a very intriguing character. To be doing it with her is great, man.
So since the success of your mixtape So Far Gone you’ve become rap’s golden child. Has it been hard getting your debut together, to live up to that hype?
Not hard. If you’re not struggling, then there’s something wrong. If it was effortless, then I’d be scared. If I was like, “Yeah, this is it, this is the one.” I’m still listening to it, and I’m like, “Man, I don’t know, it could be better.” But that’s just me. That’s just the artist in myself competing with myself. And now it’s so crazy, because, to be in the industry, a lot of people start playing you their music. You start hearing other people’s hits and sound, and you start thinking, Wow, okay, this is all the music that’s coming out this year. And you start thinking about yourself fitting into that, you know? Like, last year, other than Blueprint 3, it was a pretty dry year for hip-hop, as far as, like, the legends. But this year it’s way different. You know, you’ve got OutKast rumored to be coming out.
Do you know something we don’t?
I don’t. I just read what I read. Even from, like, [Santogold] is coming out again, MGMT. You’ve got Jeezy. You’ve got T.I. Carter IV’s gonna drop as soon as Wayne gets out. So it’s a great year for music. But when you’re in it, you also start thinking about, Well, I can’t get lost in that. And I make R&B, and hip-hop, so I’m not only thinking about the rappers—I’m thinking about the Dreams, the MGMTs, just great music on a whole. That’s the best part about it, because that’s what makes my music better and pushes me to keep working on it, as opposed to just being, like, “Okay, it’s done.” I wasn’t confident when I dropped So Far Gone, neither. I thought I had made the biggest mistake of my life.
Yeah, ’cause I started the mixtape off with an R&B song about women that were lost in the world. It was a risk. I mean, we knew it meant something to us, but we also sat there, like, “Man, are people going to accept this? A rapper that’s singing?” And I’m not just doing melodies, I’m singing. Same with this album—I’m singing. And I even went further. I explored music on So Far Gone. I was taking other people’s music and revamping it. I can’t do that on an album. I love that genre of music. It sparks something in me when
I use soundscapes or write like that. So now I’ve crafted my own interpretations on that that apply to my life, and I’m just wondering, Are those going to work now? ’Cause it’s just me. It’s my shit. So it’s a lot of unknowns on this album.
Sometimes I’ll have been up all night thinking about it, and then I finally get to the studio, listen to it front to back, and I’m like, “Man, this is a good record. It’s a great first record.” And it’s so crazy, too, because people are always telling me—oh, you know, like, the Kanyes, and the Jays, and the Jeezys, they put me, like, for some reason, over there, like my album is gonna be competing with those people. And I don’t know if it’s just what they assume soundwise, like, maybe it’ll sound that big and be in the category, but really, for the new artists that just put out a mixtape and are working on their first album, I mean, just those guys, the new class, that’s really where I’m at. I really only put out a mixtape, and this is my first album. And just, like, [Kid] Cudi or a Wale, J. Cole—time-line-wise, that’s where I am. —Benjamin Meadows-Ingram
To read the rest of this cover story, be sure to pick up the May 2010 issue of XXL, featuring Young Money’s Nicki Minaj and Drake on the cover, which hits newsstands nationwide April 20.
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