By Marcus Blackwell
So what I tend to do is think of today as the past
It’s funny when you coming in first, but you hope that you last
You just hope that it lasts
On the 10-year anniversary of his critically-acclaimed 2009 mixtape So Far Gone, the closing words from a 22-year-old Drake on “Lust for Life” have indeed become a reality. Drake has not simply “lasted” but has been consistently one of the most dominant musical acts over the past decade — just check the charts.
His ability to transcend genres and continually grow his fanbase has placed him in a unique position as an MC. The signature slow-paced, atmospheric, and melodic sound he built with in-house producer Noah “40” Shebib (heard on early songs like “The Calm,” “Brand New,” and “The Resistance”) is still very much thriving today, but it’s been Drizzy’s ability to maneuver into diverse musical spaces over the years that has aided in his strategic efforts to maintain his top position.
On the 10th anniversary of what was a career-catapulting mixtape, we trace and highlight the most calculated and standout moments in Drake’s sonic evolution.
Fortifying His Signature Sound (2010-2013)
Not long after the So Far Gone mixtape hit the ‘net on February 13, 2009, Drake inked a deal with Lil Wayne’s Young Money Entertainment under the legendary Cash Money Records. As the new kid on the block, his career took off, propelled by that trademark airy sound. It’s a sonic mood that resulted from the R&B that first brought Drake and 40 together, as the producer told GQ in 2011. Shortly after, they created “Houstatlantavegas” in the studio and “that abstract world we were taking rap music to” was born.
From the time of his debut album Thank Me Later in 2010 to 2013’s Nothing Was the Same, Drake found comfort in that world, and it was easily identifiable; you hear it on essential singles like “Headlines,” “Marvin’s Room,” and “Started From the Bottom,” effectively showcasing his artistic range and taste.
“A lot of people pick their single by what’s the strongest song. I don’t really do that,” Drake told Billboard‘s The Juice in 2011. “I like to make sure that the content is very relevant to right now. I want people to party to it but at the same time the fans, the people that care about my career, the people that follow me, will hear a message in it.”
Following the release of Drake’s third album, the scope of hip-hop was beginning to shift. In late 2014, Migos were bubbling with anthemic trap cuts like “Fight Night” and “Handsome and Wealthy,” while Future had the streets on lock with a flurry of records complemented by radio hits like “Fuck Up Some Commas.” This generation of Atlanta’s distinct, high-energy trap sound was starting to take over the mainstream.
The era’s early elites like J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, and Drake himself were no longer the fresh faces of the industry. After five-plus years in the game as an top-tier act, Drake had to make some tactical adjustments to his musical direction.
Experimenting With Trap (2015)
When discussing 2015’s year in hip-hop, two things that will eventually enter the conversation are Drake’s surprise mixtape, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, and Future’s legendary mixtape run that eventually led to their joint project, What a Time to Be Alive.
A heavy, well–documented critique from Drake fans who have more of an affinity for his prototypical rap cuts is that his albums tend to be overly drenched in R&B or “sing-songy” records. If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late was Drake’s opportunity to strategically showcase that he not only could pump out the easy-listening hits fans were accustomed to (think “Hold On, We’re Going Home”), but that he could also take on the sound that was holding down the streets.
“I always wanted to make a project with [producer] Boi-1da, just like exclusively his brand of music… like just hard shit, just snap as much as I could and get as many joints done as I could,” Drake told Beats 1 Radio in 2016. Drake adopted this heavily trap-influenced style all through 2015 — and it worked. Records like “Know Yourself” and “6 God” were strong renditions of the bubbling Atlanta-based sound, and the project was well-received by fans and critics alike. A track like “Energy” set the stage for Drake to get into a braggadocios bag and rap with a more aggressive delivery than what fans typically heard from the Canadian rapper.
The victory lap of What a Time to Be Alive found its massive moment, too, and propelled St. Louis producer Metro Boomin into stardom via a few undeniable records like “Jumpman” and “Big Rings,” and set up the record-breaking Summer Sixteen Tour the following year.
Dipping Into Dancehall (2016-2017)
In January 2016, Rihanna dropped “Work,” featuring Drake, as the lead single to her eighth studio album, Anti. The record’s blend of reggae, pop, and dancehall — a Jamaican sound that Rolling Stone called a “sleeker, rowdier descendent” of reggae that incorporates more electronic sounds and rhythms — made it an instant smash. Looking at the wide audience and international success that “Work” and Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” garnered as No. 1 songs in multiple countries, it made a lot of sense for Drake to step into that lane. He’d already flirted with the idea of doing more dancehall-leaning tracks with “Find Your Love” back in 2010.
This strategic experimentation eventually earned Drizzy his first Billboard No. 1 record as a lead artist with the Afrobeat, dancehall-influenced hit “One Dance” later that year. In a sit-down with DJ Semtex, Drake spoke proudly about the influence U.K. singer Kyla’s “Do You Mind” had on the record. (He enlisted her for “One Dance” as well.) “I love that tempo, that cadence, and those melodies,” the rapper said. “That’s the kind of music that makes me happy in life. It was great to be able to make something like that and to shine a light on a song from the U.K. that deserves it.”
He built upon these international sounds throughout 2016 on his fourth album, Views, and his “playlist” More Life in 2017 with tracks like “Controlla,” “Passionfruit,” “Blem,” and “Madiba Riddim.” He flexed his versatility in his rhymes, too; on the loosie “Two Birds, One Stone,” he declared, “I rap like I know I’m the greatest and still give you tropical flavors / Still never been on hiatus.”
New Orleans Bounce And Beyond (2018)
Despite the mixed reception of Drake’s fifth album, Scorpion, 2018 can be argued as Drake’s most impressive year, in great part due to the strength of his singles. “God’s Plan,” “Nice for What,” and “In My Feelings” all hit No. 1, giving him a career total of six chart-topping hits. Two of these were exercises in Bounce, a high-energy southern style of music rooted and based out of the eclectic culture of New Orleans. It had previously been immortalized on Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up” in 1998 and personified by the N.O. legend Big Freedia, who features at the beginning of “Nice for What.” Drake attempted to pay homage to the sound back in 2011 on Take Care’s “Practice” and more recently on Views’ “Child’s Play,” but there seemed to be a lack of precision in his execution.
With “Nice for What,” Drake was able to successfully tap into and uplift a Bounce style that was under-appreciated by the mainstream. With Big Freedia’s vocals on the backdrop of an upbeat Lauryn Hill-sampled banger, Drake knocked another feel-good No. 1 record out the park. It was only right that months later, “In My Feelings,” a song in the same vein, would take the country by storm. By sampling “Smoking Gun” by Magnolia Shorty and sprinkling in vocals from the City Girls and Lil Wayne, it captured an authentic southern New Orleans vibe. Shiggy’s Kiki Challenge also gave the song an additional boost, propelling it from mere hit song to cultural moment.
A decade after So Far Gone, Drake’s story is still being told through his public successes and fallouts, while being detailed through his deep-cuts and mainstream smashes. But what musical territory will Drake venture into next?
Was his Spanish-language hit “Mia” with Bad Bunny a preview of a future run in the Latin-trap scene? Will he continue to build upon the chemistry he and Memphis producer Tay Keith showcased on hard-hitting records like “Nonstop” and “Sicko Mode?” Only time will tell, but coming off of a 2018 campaign where he explored a range of different musical styles to relentlessly dominate the charts, fans will be undoubtedly be locked into wherever Drizzy takes them next.