With hip-hop’s collective attention focused on new hip-hop sensation DRAKE, can the muthafu&#a who dominated last year with a mixtape live up to the hype with his album? ’Bout time we found out.

Interview By Benjamin Meadows-Ingram
Images 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.

XXL: 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.