The uncanny parallels between Drake and Leonard Cohen
How Toronto's 6ix god mirrors Montreal's secular saint
Written by Erin MacLeod
The cover of Drake's album Views pictures the artist sitting high atop the CN Tower looking down over the city he's lovingly dubbed the 6ix.
A nine-storey mural in downtown Montreal features an enormous Leonard Cohen, bathed in light, hat cocked forward, hand on heart, eyes gazing down over Montreal in similar benevolence.
Montreal and Toronto might be hockey rivals that also represent the two solitudes of French and English, yet, looking past these historical divides, the two largest metropolitan areas in Canada seem to share a desire to present a face to the world in the form of icons Leonard Cohen and Aubrey "Drake" Graham, respectively.
Taking a cue from Cohen's first book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies: one is a sensitive troubadour who found fame speaking and singing about both consummated and unrequited love and the other, well, is pretty close to the same. Unique artists who each occupy outsider positions, they both challenge listeners by pushing the envelope of particular genres, dabbling in cultural influences outside of their own and producing questionable portraits of women. They have both also near single-handedly changed the world's perspectives on their hometowns.
Nov. 18 marked the day that Drake met Lil Wayne, kicking off what has been a storied career thus far. Nov. 22 was the release date for Cohen's posthumous album, Thanks for the Dance. While considering the last 10 years of Drake and his tremendous success, it's worth considering that what Cohen was and remains to Montreal, Drake is to Toronto.
'Started from the Bottom'
Cohen and Drake grew up in affluent outskirts of the cities they have come to represent. Westmount and Forest Hill are full of multimillion-dollar homes; they are wealthy enclaves that rank high on the list of the richest neighbourhoods in the country. Both boys were raised primarily by their mothers, who nurtured their artistic tendencies.
Similarly, Cohen and Drake found early success within the Canadian cultural landscape: Cohen's Let Us Compare Mythologies containing poems written while a teenager, and Drake's starring role on the country's most well-known adolescent drama, Degrassi: The Next Generation.
A move to the U.S. was, for Cohen, ostensibly to attend graduate school, but in reality the goal was to move away from the limited literary circles of Montreal and enter the music industry. Whereas pre-"Suzanne" Cohen initially tried his hand at country singing in a band called the Buckskin Boys, Drake shifted gears from Cancon-centric TV to American hip hop.
Another obvious connection, true to both stars' upbringing, is that they were raised in the Jewish faith. Though Drake hasn't yet spent much lyrical time on the subject of his beliefs, antics on Saturday Night Live, the video for "HYFR" and responses in interviews make it clear that he identifies as Jewish. Cohen, for his part, was very much part of the Jewish community in Montreal — his bar mitzvah group celebrated its 70th anniversary in 2017 — even though he was ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk in 1996.
Rabbi Aubrey Glazer, in his book Tangle of Matter & Ghost: Leonard Cohen's Post-Secular Songbook of Mysticism(s) Jewish & Beyond, speaks of Cohen as representative of a Canadian Jewish mystical tradition, engaged in writing of home from exile or, in Drake's words, being "hardly home but always reppin'."
The two artists represent outsider identities — Drake, with Black American and Jewish roots, and Cohen, an anglophone Jew, representing what has been called the "third solitude" in Quebec. These groups of layered identities, for Glazer, can be seen as informing artistic creation.
I think something that [Drake] shares with Cohen is his instinct to subvert categories and to create these hybrids. I think that impulse is a mystical impulse.- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer
Certainly Drake, though prolific, is significantly younger and earlier in his career, but Glazer does see the potential for him to move toward the mysticism one can see in Cohen.
"I think something that he shares with Cohen is his instinct to subvert categories and to create these hybrids," he says. "I think that impulse is a mystical impulse. So in that sense, if you wanted to argue that Drake had something of a mystical quality to him, Drake is working within the tradition that he's inherited, and he's creating new language by subverting it. And that process is the process the mystics look at as their calling as a way to be able to immerse themselves in the source of all being and to also be able to repair the brokenness; that's what they're constantly yearning for."
'In My Feelings'
Anyone who listens to Drake notices his vacillation between poetic MCing and sultry R&B singing — and no, contrary to his boasts, he's not the first, but it is definitely something he likes to do. Cohen lyrics also seem to move from recited speech to melody, and though limited in range, he was also very much a singer.
Jason King, professor, music journalist and strategist, has written specifically about the phenomenon that is Drake's singing. Admitting that though Cohen's tone "is fascinating," whereas Drake has the "sonority of a T-Mobile sales rep," they both, according to King, have a "conversational quality" that works to amp up intimacy. The distance from speaking to singing is not far; there's no embellishment, and the combination of tonality and register has the effect of inviting listeners to sing along.
This move of attempting to sing is also something that King connects to the idea of camp: an exercise in trying to achieve something with seriousness, and a gap existing between that desire and its actual outcome. King notes that this is evident in both artists' work. "There's something deeply earnest about it, which generates a certain kind of empathy." Drake does, for King, connect with a type of blues feeling, "but through the lens of this Canadian affluent, contradictory human being" (think "Marvin's Room"). And blues melancholy in Cohen's work? "That is there."
Claims that Drake presents a "sensitive" perspective — King offers that, "Drake said once, that he likes to cleanse his soul in public forums" — can be seen as a willingness to be confessional through music. And though his lyrics might have been less straightforward, there's some clear soul-bearing happening with Cohen.
"I think that that is definitely one of the things that puts them both on that same level," says King.
'Hold On, I'm Coming Home'
Drake's love for Toronto has been recounted in many a listicle of lyrics, and Cohen was devoted to his hometown even while not living in Montreal, according to his son, Adam, who claimed that the poet/singer was "very suspicious of anyone who didn't love Montreal." But these outward declarations of allegiance — Cohen famously also said that he had to keep "coming back to Montreal to renew my neurotic affiliations" — may not connect with either Cohen or Drake's actual lived experiences as residents of their respective cities. Though that doesn't matter to those banking on tourist dollars and international brand prestige.
Mark Campbell, University of Toronto professor and founder and curator of Northside Hip Hop Archive, references Drake's stated desire to keep the 6ix in the forefront. But alongside this, Campbell also explains where this connection to Toronto stems from: "His representation of Toronto is very much aligned with his business model and, you know, the tourism desires of the multicultural city and all of the well-worn tropes that circulate globally but don't resonate on the ground." Drake is from Toronto, but, as Campbell puts it, "there actually isn't a section of Toronto that he could represent without there being beef because he doesn't really come from a particular area."
Drake can always smooth over Toronto's anti-Blackness, right? People participate in the city without ever having to deal with the consequences of its anti -Blackness, which allows it to sell globally.- Mark Campbell, University of Toronto professor and founder/curator of Northside Hip Hop Archive
Writer and editor Sharine Taylor echoes Campbell's perspective regarding Drake as representative of Toronto in terms of branding the city and the country, and also points to the fact that certain populations are not centred.
"When we think about the campaigns that nationally are latched onto, there are all these things that are rooted in Blackness," Taylor says. "So are we now saying that Canada equals Blackness? Because I know people are not saying that, that's not what it is."
Drake's iconic status does not eliminate the reality of racism in Toronto, from the infamous practice of carding to the erasure of culture that occurs when Jamaican language loanwords are referred to as new "Toronto slang" popularized by Drake — which Taylor has argued.
As Campbell states, "Drake can always smooth over Toronto's anti-Blackness, right? People participate in the city without ever having to deal with the consequences of its anti -Blackness, which allows it to sell globally."
Where Cohen is concerned, he may not have ever been a hype man for the Montreal Canadiens, like Drake's relationship with the Raptors, but there's no doubt that tourism based on the man who sang "Suzanne" is more than evident throughout the city. From New York Times travel pieces to audio walking tours of key Cohen sites to the now-touring art show presented at the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal, Leonard Cohen is a selling point.
Rabbi Glazer recognizes that commodity culture is not a stranger to Cohen. "The need to be able to monetize is endless," he says. "So there's a kind of cult of personality that ultimately will continue to generate things that are worthwhile and things that are kitschy, you know, or that are just really schlocky."
Especially post-death — through images on stamps and on buildings, tribute concerts and offerings of pilgrimages to Cohen's favourite haunts — Montreal has embraced what the New York Times calls the "unifying elixir" of Leonard Cohen, transcending linguistic and other divides. Through Cohen, Montreal gets to play the role of international multicultural city rather than the reality of the city being, for instance, a francophone space. It's also easier to celebrate Cohen than discuss Jewish history in Quebec. Rabbi Glazer reminds us of "the virulent anti-Semitism that is still very much rooted in the history of Québécois culture that could produce someone like Leonard Cohen. It makes you wonder whether through that oppositional force sometimes, you know, that friction can also produce remarkable art. I don't think that there's been enough of a reckoning in terms of that history…. It makes a big impression even if it hasn't been fully resolved."
Though both Cohen and Drake have clearly reached iconic status, it's not without criticism. Drake's Caribbean appropriation has been a topic of conversation for some time, reflecting a Canadian desire to connect and craft a marketable culture to the world. "I feel like Canada's that angsty teenager that's trying to figure out life while all these other things are happening around it," says Taylor. "Which is cool, I guess. But oftentimes things that are 'birthed' in Toronto are ultimately rooted in Blackness and then Drake happens to latch onto it and then it becomes this whole thing."
In addition, Drake's reputation as a problematic fave where women are concerned has been well documented. Even though the 2018 single "Nice for What" moved women to the front, 2019 gave way to what the Atlantic's Hannah Giorgis called a "troubling" track alongside Chris Brown. Lyrics insisting on some Drake-defined concept of the "good girl" and what she should and shouldn't do are pretty par for the course. But anyone who wonders about the lyrics of "Hotline Bling" will probably equally wonder about a song called "Don't Go Home With Your Hard-On."
Reading Cohen's second and last novel, 1966's Beautiful Losers, was shocking for students in Brian Trehearne's class at McGill University. Recalling one iteration of his Leonard Cohen-focused course in which the students were 85 per cent women, Trehearne "had a sense that we were all gathered to do a ritual shaming." In addition to graphic scenes of sexual violence, the book is a bit of a study in offensive cultural references. Though considered a landmark experimental work, arguably making some point about sexual desire being connected to politics that is difficult to discern through the muck of everything else, it contains a fair bit of material that would be more than frowned upon now. It's an uncomfortable book — one that would most likely not get to print today — but if one is reckoning with Cohen, it's 272 pages that can't be avoided.
"We'd rather imagine Cohen without Beautiful Losers," Trehearne says. "But I would rather — because I think human beings are really messy things — grapple with and struggle with the problem Beautiful Losers gives me next to the stunning beauty of something like 'Anthem.' That to me is a human being, right? We are terrifically over-reverencing, sanctifying him in the process; we are hollowing him out and making him far less interesting. Of all the pictures to go up on the building, why did we do that saintly wise old man? That's what we seem to want now."
Trehearne also asks whether there is something about both Cohen and Drake that might lead to conversations — acknowledging cultural appropriation is important. Like Taylor, who began her discussion about Drake by admitting that she'd be "very remiss to say the music is not good; he has very masterfully approached music-making," so too does Trehearne ask about Cohen: "What if we're in that uncomfortable space between 'Hallelujah' and Beautiful Losers where something that, in isolation, we might want to condemn is enabling something we want to get to?"
Alexandra Boutros, who teaches a course on Drake at Wilfrid Laurier, reflects on the similar way that Drake can't live up to idealized notions. "It's almost like there's this insistence on seeing him a certain way, that maybe he does benefit from as an artist, but it's not like he's really misrepresenting himself," Boutros says. "It's more how the city or the country, the city is choosing to represent him and then be outraged … outraged when he doesn't meet that representation that he never was. I think it has happened with Leonard Cohen, the sort of outrage when people realize that he wrote more than 'Hallelujah,' you know, some of it was problematic."
In 2013, King wrote that Drake "somehow manages to embody contradictions that the culture is still trying to work out." Boutros has observed through her students that there is a discomfort with Drake that might stem from "a social discomfort with, you know, ultimately hybridity of any sort. Because we're still in a world of oppositions and binary opposites."
Rabbi Glazer has spoken of Cohen as a "pop saint," occupying a position in secular society that comes with a level of reverence. The established hagiography of Cohen and growing canonization of Drake seems to demonstrate a desire on behalf of Montreal and Toronto, and perhaps many Canadians, to see this country and its urban spaces in a particular way. It allows Montreal to transcend language issues, because even though Cohen is bilingual, he is not francophone. It's an idea that he can kind of represent all of Montreal when in fact he really is only representing a very specific element of it. Similarly, Drake allows for Toronto to represent itself in a way that papers over significant issues of race and class.
As Taylor underlines, in reference to Drake, "there's an entire world that exists outside of this human person." That messiness, that uncomfortableness. Perhaps that is what stems from comparing how these two men — men with a strangely large set of elements in common — have enabled Montreal and Toronto to represent themselves on the world stage in terms of tourism and branding as idealized spaces. Looking critically and comparing the mythologies around both icons can help avoid reducing multifaceted urban spaces to easy, safe images.
"Our national identity or our municipal identity can be built and achieved through other factors," Taylor continues. "And a part of me thinks that we might be getting to that point or we're a little bit closer to that point now than we were before."