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.

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.

Really?
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—timeline-wise, that’s where I am.

But the start to your career has more closely resembled Jeezy’s and 50 Cent’s, rather than J. Cole’s. Those are big names.
That’s obviously what I’ve been working towards the whole time. It’s just funny to me how it works. But I’m excited for it to all roll out. The only thing I wish is, I wish I just had a little more time. I’ve never really worked like this before, where my days are consumed with tour planning and shooting videos. And it was always just, like, finish the body of work, have it be a great body of work. I never had the stresses of rollouts, and the singles, and picking and choosing. I always just let the people dictate it. So this is a little different. I’m interested to see how it works, ’cause I put my trust in a lot of people who have done this for a lot of years.

You said it was a risk to put So Far Gone out and start the tape with an R&B record. But with your tape before, Comeback Season, you were already going that way.
Yeah, [with] Comeback Season, I was at a point, like, where I was really discovering different music that I liked. Comeback Season was, like, a marker in my life, where I fought everything commercial. And I just loved—and I still do—but I just loved [J] Dilla, Slum Village, loved Little Brother. I would listen to Dwele before Trey Songz or The-Dream. It was a time in my life where I just felt like it was the purest form of music to me, and when I’d be walking to school or driving around, it was the Mick Boogie mixtape that made me feel something, you know?

I wasn’t listening to the Jeezys. And then I had a love for R&B. But I never looked at it as something that I could do. And it took me meeting 40 and D10, who produce a lot of my R&B, and them bringing that out of me, to understand that I could now incorporate that into my sound. [With] So Far Gone, I was still finding myself, experimenting. And now I know how to apply rap and R&B in one song and either make it so that I can talk about my life, and be real, and respected or so that I can still have it with integrity, but have it be a hit song.

Sitting there and coming up with a verse is probably one of the best feelings in my life, period. It’s one of the most euphoric feelings, to come up with a verse and you know it’s good. I remember the night I came up with the “Forever” verse and finished typing in the last word, ’cause I write on my phone. And it’s just, like, you get up, and it’s like, “Agghh.” [Stretches] It’s just… It’s just… I don’t know. It’s fun to me, man. I love it.

On “Successful,” you were clearly pursuing an idea of success for the variety of reasons that everybody wants success. But now, on “Over,” you’re kind of bucking against some of the things that come with success. At this point, it sounds like a contradiction. Those ideas are things that you typically hear on album three, album four.
But the funny thing is, this is album three or four to me. It’s just in the eyes of the world, this is album one. Album No. 1 was So Far Gone. So Far Gone was my Reasonable Doubt. It was my hunger. It was my underdog moment. And now, on a first album, to talk about dealing with the struggles of being famous and being able to really, like, you have to do it in a creative way. You have to maintain the fact that, like, "Okay, yeah, I’m here, but nothing is for sure," remember that. Because people say, “Oh, man, well, you’re one of the biggest rappers in the world.” But it’s, like, when they say that, it’s a scary thing, ’cause it’s like, “Yeah, so, what do I rap about?” Like, I’m one of the biggest rappers in the world, but this is my first album, and I haven’t proven myself yet, so on what mind level do me and a listener meet?

I have a record on this Kanye beat, really talking about my life. I’m hesitant to put it on the album, because I’m like, “Man, I sound like an asshole, like I’m bragging.” Talking about shit that is bothering me. But it’s real, and it’s honest. My favorite compliment to get [is], “You just be saying what I’m thinking.” But if people didn’t just come up on millions of dollars, how are we gonna relate?

Do you think about the traditional XXL audience, and if you fall, not just a little bit, but significantly outside of that, in terms of the type of music you’re creating?
Yeah, but I’ve never really voluntarily made myself a member of that lifestyle. I just make good music, and that’s really what it should be all about. Because a lot of the people that the XXL audience believes in aren’t even that official anyway, as far as rugged and rough. A lot of that stuff is perceived, it’s assumed, it’s not proven. And a lot of it gets embellished throughout the course of a career. As you get more famous, you can start saying more reckless shit, and people believe you. It’s never been about being perceived as a rapper [for me].

I love making music, man. I love hearing people that love my music, or witnessing my music being played, and people enjoying it. I make the music, and I love the result of what happens after that. That’s pretty much where my involvement in hip-hop stops. I just want to make the music. For anybody that doesn’t believe in me, your favorite rappers do. They call me for hooks, features and all that. Ross, Jeezy, the hardest dudes—B.G. C-Murder calls me from jail. Turk calls me from jail to tell me I’m doing great. For the people that don’t believe, the people that you do believe in got love for me. That’s all that matters.

Where do you fall on the debate about what real hip-hop is, especially with the plane that you’re operating on now?
I think it’s two things. It has a lot to do with success, and that often is why people retreat into the “real hip-hop” mentality. Like, “Yeah, Drake, he’s blowing up. That ain’t real hip-hop. He’s too mainstream. Nah, that… Yo, Cole. Cole’s real hip-hop. He’s still doing it for the people.” Sometimes, I be like, "Well, really, I’m still rapping about life," which may include things like money, women. I’m not lying. It’s not like I got here and switched up my whole style. In my opinion, if you want to talk about a debate between real hip-hop, then you’re talking about an era where hip-hop was, like, at its base form. You’re talking about the Rakims and KRS-Ones and A Tribe Called Quests. That’s where I can see when people say, “Young Money or whoever isn’t real hip-hop, man, that was real hip-hop.” I can’t argue with that, because I wasn’t around for that. I didn’t grow up on that music. I don’t remember it, you know? But when they start arguing now about who’s real hip-hop, I don’t know, man. I just feel like you can’t tell me Lil Wayne is not real hip-hop. You can’t tell me that man doesn’t rap his ass off and service people with phenomenal music that is hip-hop music.

Nowadays, the hip-hop artist is tempted to branch out, because there’s more available to us. Hip-hop is the most popular form of music, and when you want to start singing, or doing rock, it’s accepted now. So when rap artists start making rock records and singing, when does it stop being hip-hop and start being rock or R&B?
If you like hip-hop to be not shiny, and not big, and not melodic, and not triumphant, and you just like it to be grungy and dirty and that music that, like, you and 10 friends know about, then Lil Wayne making rock music is not for you, or me singing is not for you. And you’re right, people are going to say that we’re pop. But, at the same time, I think it’s a personal preference—what each individual likes, man. I don’t think it’s a way to generalize. Like, when does it turn into pop? Because, for a lot of people, I still haven’t gone pop yet. And then, for a lot of people, I have gone pop. But then when did I really go pop? I’ve been singing since Comeback Season, when I had Little Brother and Slum Village on [my mixtape], had beats from 9th Wonder and was rapping over Alchemist shit. I was still singing. I was still doing my thing. But because I’m successful now, maybe I went pop. Because it’s more in your face, or because I started using the singing more?

When will you feel successful? Do you have a goal in mind? And what’s the goal?
I think a big hurdle for me will be putting out this album and just establishing myself as an artist that’s going to consistently put out great music, but I can’t part the skies on the day this album comes out. I don’t know what the people really expect from me. I don’t know what type of extravaganza that they think is going to occur. But I really am eager to sorta just put it out, have it be a great body of work that people love. I pray to God that it does do some numbers and that we do have some stories to tell afterwards. And then I’m just going to go on to my next album, and hopefully people know a little bit more about what to expect from me. And just when they know what to expect from me is when I’ll probably start trying to do something a little different. But I’m pretty confident in my sound right now, and I think I’ve got a couple of more records that people need to hear.

I talked a lot about my life on this record but I still didn’t give it all away, just so that I can get deeper as the years go on. It’s like building a relationship with someone. I’m starting to trust my listeners more, so I gave them a little bit more of me on this record. I answered the questions that I never answer in interviews. People often ask me about my parents or Rihanna, or has anything ever happened to me now that [I’m] famous, and I answer all that stuff on the album. Quickly, too, within the first three songs.

I just want to put the album out, and after that, I think a lot of pressure will be off, and I’ll be able to make music, and people can enjoy it, instead of it being about this moment in time, which is what this record is really about. It’s about proving a lot of things to a lot of people.♠