At a recent Toronto Raptors home game, Drake introduced the Raptors’ starting lineup. Guess what? He was great at that, too. He had nicknames and jokes for everyone, and he called Amir Johnson “a good friend of mine.” He made a joke about Christina Applegate’s butt in an Anchorman 2 cameo. Drake gets asked to do these things because, first, he became very famous for making rap music, and, second, he’s good at doing them.
Earlier in his rap career, the Degrassi thing was a punchline. On SNL, he co-opted the joke in his opening monologue. He also apologized for “YOLO,” and performed a very funny rap about his mixed African-American/Jewish roots. All your jokes about Drake, the upper-middle-class ex-soap-star Canadian rapper: they are belong to Drake. My mom watched him on SNL and told me that he was a young man with a wonderful sense of humor about himself.
Kanye West is a lot of things, but in this context, two are particularly relevant. One, he is a foundational influence on Drake’s rap career. Two, he is unfailingly self-serious.
E.G.: Last year, Kanye was scheduled to be the musical guest for the season finale of SNL. About a week before, in the midst of one of his trademark diatribes at a Roseland Ballroom concert, he told his audience that his contributions to the show would be strictly musical in nature.
“Hell no, I ain’t doing no mothafuckin’ SNL skits,” he said. “This is my goddamn life, this ain’t a mothafuckin’ joke.”
Kanye notwithstanding, self-seriousness is sort of a prerequisite in rap. There’s plenty of room in the genre for humor and for serious introspection, but one thing you don’t really do in rap in 2014 is make fun of yourself.
Drake gets this, and on record, he treats himself with the utmost seriousness. He is the motormouth, he is the one you should worry ‘bout; you better have his money when he come for that shit like ODB; etc. When he references Degrassi on “Nothing Was the Same,” it’s meant to demonstrate how much he’s changed, and even then, it’s framed by a whole bunch of menacing “remember, muhfuckas?”
But we’re fast approaching a point where Drake’s recognition as a cultural celebrity—as real-life famous guy Aubrey Graham—extends beyond his recognition as a rap artist, a point of which hosting SNL may well be a harbinger. The dissonance between Celebrity Drake and Rap Drake is going to become increasingly important. And we are going to be forced to square the SNL charismatic and well-mannered famous person with “Worst Behavior.”
Maybe this is not a problem for you. After all, there is no mandate that rap personae must accurately reflect their IRL creators. Did you know that William Roberts was actually a correctional officer, and not a cocaine kingpin, before he became Rick Ross? (You did). Donald Glover was Donald Glover before he was Childish Gambino; in fact, he continued to be Donald Glover even after he became Childish Gambino.
But Rick Ross and Donald Glover are not Drake, mostly in the sense that they are not on the cusp of genre-defying, known-by-your-mom celebrity. We are not forced to reconcile William Roberts’ professional resume with Rick Ross’ on-record boasts, because a) William Roberts is no longer a corrections officer and b) Rick Ross is exclusively famous for rapping, not for being a capable sketch comedy actor or the Toronto Raptors’ global brand ambassador. Televised glimpses into the real life of William Roberts are rare, heavily edited, and do not get 4.7 overnight ratings.
Go back to Kanye performing on SNL last year. For “Black Skinhead,” he’s pinwheeling about and unleashing primal screams in front of a silhouette of three terrifyingly chompy hunting dogs. When he starts rapping, the dogs are replaced by three black Klan-style triangular hoods. During “New Slaves,” he stands perfectly still for three minutes, against the backdrop of an uncomfortably up-close view of himself.
Even in the context of Saturday Night Live, with the curse words suppressed, these are potent performances. They are aggressive and uncompromising and, yes, self-serious. Kanye was not about to go back out afterwards and do some lighthearted sketch comedy. To do so would have been, at least on some level, a disavowal of the performances he had just given.
Which might explain why the least convincing performance Aubrey Graham gave on Saturday night was as Rap Drake. I’m not sure that his renditions of “Started From the Bottom/Trophies” and “Hold On, We’re Going Home” were all that bad in the abstract—he’s certainly better at papering over curses than Kanye. But in context, the earnest stares and spastic hand gestures seemed like self-parody.
This is the rub, for Drake: it’s difficult to present many different sides of yourself and ask your audience to be equally credible of each. This is why the people who have done double duty as SNL host/musical performer are almost all pop stars (Ludacris is the exception, and he is not exactly killing it, rap-career-wise). This is why rap artists tend to be deadly serious in defense of their image, even if that image isn't itself all that serious. The joke can never be on you, even though that’s exactly what we tend to want out of our SNL hosts.