a mapped review of Drake on Pitchfork.
by: Jamieson Cox, 5 March 2015
Toronto contains multitudes: rivers of asphalt underneath a rapidly expanding skyline, old neighborhoods increasingly run over by latte peddlers and yoga studios, an immense shoreline studded with beaches and bluffs, leafy avenues and massive suburban manors—all lit by a harmonious orange sodium glow. These are all views from the 6—a reference to two of the city’s area codes, 416 and 647—and scenes from a place that’s shaped the music and lyrics of Aubrey Drake Graham ever since he started rapping. For Drake, Toronto is more than a hometown. It’s a battleground, a kingdom, something worth fighting for and celebrating. With last month’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, the 28-year-old takes his unofficial Toronto ambassadorship to unprecedented levels, offering ever-finer details on the characters, roads, and language that define his worldview.
His intense civic boosterism isn’t particularly novel in itself: Rappers have been writing love letters to their cities and building rose-colored landscapes in their music for decades, from Dr. Dre’s dispatches from the streets of Compton, to OutKast’s sketches of a colorful, creatively vibrant Atlanta. No MC has ever attempted to play tourism director on such a grand scale for Toronto, a city more renowned for its hockey players and indie rock collectives, but Drake’s mission is proving to be a success. Rappers and producers from the 6 are getting more attention, and a new generation of artists now have a career to emulate and a legend to chase. His mythological Toronto is a metropolis where everyone knows your name and exes are always lurking around the corner, a forest of penthouses with a panoramic view, a park-studded playground where the skies are free of ambient light and the highways are always clear. Like many hip-hop locales, it’s a city closer to the realm of theory—and fantasy—than reality.
That’s an important distinction, because the real Toronto has problems just like any other city: rising inequality, a budget that’s tougher to wrangle every year, infrastructure deficits and transit planning woes, and an identity crisis that’s bubbled beneath its surface for almost two decades. But Drake’s music puts forth a version of Toronto that transcends these headaches—a version of the city at its best.
Drake’s lyrical relationship with his city has shifted and grown over the years. On mixtapes like 2009’s So Far Gone and his debut album, Thank Me Later, his interactions with Toronto were vague and distant; any references to the city were typically oblique, and couched in either regret or nostalgia. On the woozy “Karaoke”, he tells a possible girlfriend back home, “Things have been so crazy and hectic/ I should’ve gotten back by now/ But you know how much I wanted to make it.” At the time, Drake was fighting for credibility and clout, spending time away from Toronto and working to achieve some semblance of legitimacy as a nakedly emotional and insecure lover in a genre full of street-wise fighters. He was willing to proclaim himself the city’s savior and leading light, but those proclamations were risky; had his early releases failed to impact the industry in any considerable way, lines like, “Shout out to my city, though I hardly be in town/ I’m the black sheep, but Chris Farley wears the crown” would have seemed laughable—or, perhaps more accurately, even more laughable. He didn’t yet have the power or profile to turn Toronto into his full-time base of operations, and he was still in his early 20s, drunk on experience, soaking up the rest of the world.