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By Reginald N. Barnett

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Aubrey “Drake” Graham’s been around for a minute. He’s not some cat who just magically appeared and became a celebrity overnight. I remember my cousin harassing me on MySpace to check him out. I liked what I heard. But I really didn’t take him seriously. He was Jimmy. From Degrassi.

He’s being taken seriously now. One of the headliners of Weezy’s Young Money Clique, Drake is changing and has changed the game. His flow is nice. Aside from lyrical performance, is it possible that he is changing the branding of manhood in the rap game?

The folks over at Makin’ It Magazine struck up an intriguing conversation of Drake as rap’s Barack Obama. It’s not the first time President Obama has entered the Hip Hop realm. Byron Hurt created a fabulous dichotomy of President Obama and 50 Cent titled Barack and Curtis. I don’t know if the president has rhymes, but it is a fascinating topic to present the Barack/Drake masculinity dichotomy. In other words, can Drake be the Barack Obama of Hip Hop?

In Barack and Curtis, Hurt makes the critical observation that black masculinity is being defined in extremities of the hyperviolent and über-menacing or the effeminate and educated. That is problematic for black men who, already living on the fringes of American society, can exude characteristics of both 50 Cent and President Obama. In Hip Hop music, this “oppositionalism” is still very much a common and accepted practice. What was once called “Gangsta” renamed itself “Thug.”

 And what constitutes both ideologies is the necessary persona of the “bad nigga,” a nihilistic outlook on life and the possibility of legitimate success in a corrupted American social hierarchy. The distortions of the black male body and exaggerated expectations of masculine expression overshadow the need for a balanced portrayal of African American men. Because there is still a willing consumer market for such portrayals, there is a marginalized need for Baracks. Fiddies will do. What Drake’s forefront presence in the game is channeling, however, is a reconsideration of an unbalanced Hip Hop Masculinity.

In similar fashion to Obama, Drake is (seamlessly?) negotiating spaces of race and gender. He draws from Toronto, Canada and Memphis, Tennessee. He doesn’t deny his upbringing with his Jewish mother nor his Degrassi stardom. He equally heralds his experiences with his black father and his exposure to the experiences of the black American working class. All of them validated and heralded in his music.

But check his brand, folks. Drake’s performance of his multiethnic heritage makes him stand out and retain visibility in a shifty/shady manufactured space. Mark Anthony Neal astutely argues that there is need behind a black man’s brand (identity) to have an opposite for functionality: “[they] are dependent upon each other to lay claim to that which their brand doesn’t – and, quite frankly, can’t – allow.” So, if 50 Cent is Barack Obama’s foil, who would make Drake relevant? Weezy (Lil’ Wayne).

“No Ceilings:” Lil’ Wayne and Drake

Lil’ Wayne is an enigma. He’s a trickster figure, street philosopher, and veteran in the game (a decade and some change). In a pre-Grammy interview with Katie Couric, Lil’ Wayne certifies himself as a threat – “I’m a gangsta, Miss Katie. I do what I want.” And his latest criminal woes complement that sentiment. While he’s undergone a lyrical transformation – transitioning from writing his rhymes to flowing from the top of the dome – physical perceptions have only changed with the addition of tattoos.

Appearance wise, Weezy embodies the dark menace of the bad nigga America fears. Self proclamations as the best rapper alive and references to his status as an alien demonstrate Weezy’s high self-esteem and an inherent belief that his talent and blackness marginalize him from the rest of the world. The third tier to that could be his masculinity.

But he’s a businessman. And Drake was the business. So he signed him with an unheard of bonus – two million dollars.

Drake and Weezy hold each other to their assigned duties outside of delivering ridiculous bars. While one may argue that Lil’ Wayne also has the capability to maneuver a variety of social-economically constructed spaces, he navigates those spaces through a specified lens of black masculinity. He is only acceptable because he maintains the performance of that boy from Hollygrove in New Orleans, LA. Inherently or inadvertently, Weezy is often restricted to perform within the manufactured space of thug rapper.

His attempts to break free from those specified boundaries in the form of a rock album have gone underappreciated if not heavily criticized because it does not fall into the acceptable category of Lil Wayne, rapper. The same goes for his social commentary. “Misunderstood” on The Carter III, for example, is a haunting melody sampled from the song by Nina Simone. A tirade against the treatment of poor blacks in America, Wayne goes in for nearly ten minutes. His philosphyin’ on wax, however, does not reach a national audience. What does reach a national audience is “I’m a Gangsta, Miss Katie.”

Drake, however, navigates those spaces through being able to conform himself to differing stages of performance. He can pull from Degrassi or he can pull from a blunt. He can wear a suit or a fitted (hat) and still be perceived in a way that does not make his audience shy away from his message or his presence. It’s a definite possibility to see him as Hip Hop’s Obama.

In similar fashion to the changing tide of identity politics and multiculturalism in America, Hip Hop is starting to slowly relent and allow fresh perspectives in. Bakari Kitwana suggests that Hip Hop is a moment, a reflection of the generation. Perhaps our generation is shifting to another standard of authenticated (black) experience. Usher in the likes of Kid Cudi and Lupe Fiasco.

Hip Hop is going back to the river. A change gon’ come. Drake’s leading that charge.

Regina N. Barnett is a doctoral student in African American Literature and Culture at Florida State University. She earned her MA in African American Studies from Indiana University Bloomington. Currently, her research interests include performance and gender identity, popular black culture, late 20th and 21st century black literature, and Hip Hop.

Ms Barnett blogs at Red Clay Scholar.

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