What Drake's 'More Life' actually means for Toronto art and culture
'What responsibilities can we as listeners demand of our artists to generate more authentic work?'
About a week ago, I was lying on my living room floor scrolling through Twitter when I read that More Life, Drake's latest musical mosaic, was streaming on Beats Radio One.
Despite the immediate hype online, I was skeptical. Drake's last album, Views, was a commercial success, though it felt like he made more of an effort to reference popular Torontonian neighbourhoods like Weston Road (an area he lived in before moving to the wealthier Forest Hill) than serve as an actual reflection of our sound. But while listening to More Life, I realized that this was the project Views probably intended to be: explicitly its own and unapologetically rooted in Toronto.
Before I go on, I will admit this: my loyalty to the boy fluctuates. In fact, it's about as inconsistent as his music is. But what I heard on More Life grabbed my attention for a myriad of reasons.
The album is a music production masterpiece, featuring a plethora of Canadian production talent like Murda Beatz, Noah "40" Shebib, Nineteen85, T-Minus, Hagler, Frank Dukes and Toronto's production poster boy Boi-1da. The production is crisp and distinct with seamless transitions, unexpected vocal appearances, summer 2k17-worthy riddims and the inevitable sample here and there.
Most listeners and myself would agree that the "playlist" takes us on a global sonic journey. It starts off with a sample of Australian soul band Hiatus Kaiyote's "Building A Ladder" (sung by Nai Palm), then continues with "Passionfruit," an intergalactic ballad that'll make you want to glide through Queen St. West on a hoverboard at 3am. The playlist then moves to an underground South African house track (a nod to DJ Black Coffee), brushes with U.K. grime (unsurprisingly, considering his previous overlap with Skepta and support of gritty British drama Top Boy) and then back to the harmonic rap style we've become all too familiar with. The latter part of the album is headlined by floor-shattering trap beats and collabs with American artists like Kanye, Travis Scott, Quavo, 2Chainz and Young Thug. Throughout almost every track is a heavy watering of Toronto slang.
It would seem that a biracial kid from the world's most diverse city is trying to piece the diasporic patches of this vibrant fabric together.- Lindsey Addawoo
No one should be surprised that the album showcases Toronto culture. After all, we knew this from his first early days when he expressed his love for Canada on his first mixtape Room for Improvement.
But what we couldn't have expected from his early trajectory was his "borrowing" of diverse sounds. From Jamaican patois to softcore afrobeats, it's come to the point where we've got to ask: just who does Drake actually think he is?
Acknowledging his position in the industry now means identifying a black Torontonian (sub)culture and exploring its roots, influence and relevance. Much like London, Toronto is a city whose urban population is largely shaped by first and second-generation immigrants of Caribbean and East and West African descent. This means that our food, look, slang and artistic makeup are all rooted in the countries of our parents, most notably those of Jamaican, Ghanaian, Nigerian, Ethiopian and Somali descent. It only makes sense that the veins of our underground art world follow suit.
Taking a look at Drake's cultural collateral means taking a hard look at worldwide blackness. What are the connecting threads in the African diaspora? We're shaped by varying degrees of displacement, immigration, slavery and proximity to our roots; how can we even begin to comprehend the different layers of blackness in a global context?
It would seem that a biracial kid from the world's most diverse city is trying to piece the diasporic patches of this vibrant fabric together.
We're in an interesting time when Toronto and its surrounding areas are at the forefront of culture. Acts like The Weeknd, Roy Woods, Alessia Cara and Tory Lanez have all gained mainstream recognition; now, we're in a swirling state of cultural renaissance at a time when the world has its ear turned to the North. Now that our culture is on a global platform, how can we protect its authenticity? And ultimately, is Drake the right man for the job?
Many would argue no. Some would even say that Aubrey would not have been as successful as he is today had he remained faithful to Toronto's "sound," instead of getting away with a flow arguably developed from his summers in Memphis.
Toronto culture has a rich, incomparable value that needs to be seen and heard worldwide, and it's about time we showed them what's really good.- Lindsey Addawoo
More Life forces its listeners to have uncomfortable conversations about Drake's constant line-hopping between cultural appropriation and appreciation, and whether or not he is indeed a culture vulture.
Toronto-based Jamaican diasporic writer Sharine Taylor recently told the CBC that "a lot of folks' introduction to Dancehall has been by way of Drake, and sometimes it stops there. But there's an entire dancehall industry, and there are artists that are not necessarily having access to the same kind of visibility as this artist does."
For an artist who has as much pull as he does, it raises concerns of socio-cultural responsibility. Jamaican black culture has a history of being commercialized and commodified in the same way that African-American culture has been packaged and (re)sold to us under the guise of musical progression (e.g. every white pop artist who's tried to twerk, dab or Dougie in their music videos over the past few years).
Both cultures have become extremely susceptible to exploitation when there was no reservation of cultural ingenuity.
What's even more interesting to note is that we're living in a digitized time where we have the power to do that. Whether it's music, film/television or even mainstream media, we possess the digital agency to demand more from our content creators, artists and entertainers. We can call them out when they don't pay respect. We can publicly hold them accountable. The proverbial lanes are now open, and artists are paying attention to their fans.
What responsibilities can we as listeners demand of our artists to generate more authentic work? And how much of a socio-cultural responsibility can we really hold them accountable to?
In my opinion, there should be less of a conversation about whether or not Champagne Papi is The One, and more about how Toronto artists can capitalize on the world's newfound interest in the city. Our artistic narratives are as diverse as the cultures living here.
Toronto culture has a rich, incomparable value that needs to be seen and heard worldwide, and it's about time we showed them what's really good.