At the end of 2009, the most popular song in the country was “Empire State of Mind,” the hoary, inflated, thudding collaboration between Jay-Z and Alicia Keys. It was perhaps the final evolutionary form — a mealy and edgeless arena ballad — of the rapper-singer collaborations that, over the prior two-plus decades, had come to dominate hip-hop and, increasingly, pop.
By that point, the formula — a rapper brings narrative, and a singer brings pathos, joy or sensuality — was still largely unquestioned. But in truth, songs like this had become rote and unimaginative.
That same year, someone finally noticed, and in one fell swoop, solved the problem.
Drake’s “So Far Gone” mixtape — released in February 2009 — marked the arrival of new path: singing as rapping, rapping as singing, singing and rapping all woven together into one holistic whole. Drake exploded the notion that those component parts had to be delivered by two different people, and also deconstructed what was expected from each of them. His hip-hop was fluid, not dogmatic. And in so remaking it, he set the template for what would eventually become the global pop norm.
At that time, however, the genre had just come out of an intense Auto-Tune phase; the notion that a rapper might lean heavily on melody was largely considered heresy.
To say Drake upended those conventions isn’t nearly strong enough. He fundamentally rewrote the rules of what it meant to be a rapper in the 2010s. Before him, Kanye West and Lil Wayne had fiddled around with melodic rapping — T-Pain, too, of course — but Drake made it a whole worldview, and by the time of his 2010 debut album “Thank Me Later,” he’d quickly become the most popular figure in the genre.
In Drake’s hands, rapping and singing were in constant, graceful dialogue. He was able to be tough and tender, write chest-puffing boasts that felt shocking and also the catchy hooks that made them go down easily. And he also knew how to render bravado using soothing coos, and intimacy using stern barks. Even though they were overtly radical, his musical choices seemed self-evident and effortless.
Is it any wonder everyone fell in line behind him? By 2012, hip-hop in Atlanta — where the genre’s most rapid stylistic turnover happens — was beginning to melt. Future was beginning his ascendance to narcotized, ecstatic moan-rapper. Young Thug was on his way to becoming the standard-bearer for the new rap psychedelia. Rich Homie Quan’s “Type of Way” was dizzyingly triumphant. Come 2014, Rae Sremmurd, the sweet-voiced brother duo refined saccharine sing-rapping.
In 2015, the dam broke. Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen,” shimmering and yelping and borderline whimsical, became a global phenomenon. Post Malone released his debut single, “White Iverson,” a blurry folk song that sounded like a hip-hop song that sounded like a drunken whisper serenade. Drake released “Hotline Bling,” a song with no actual rapping (not even really sing-rapping); it would go on to win the Grammy for best rap song and best rap/sung performance. Clearly, everyone was getting confused.
If the lines were blurry then, by 2017 they were obliterated. Almost every new rap star minted since then has been a true hybrid: Gunna, Lil Uzi Vert, XXXTentacion, Juice WRLD, Travis Scott, Lil Baby, A Boogie wit da Hoodie, YoungBoy Never Broke Again and many, many more. Now, in 2019, more rapping is singing than is not. It is a startling turn, representing the almost complete reconstituting of the genre’s DNA. But it also has been a victory for hip-hop’s emotional and textural range. The genre used to look elsewhere to bolster its dimensionality, but it no longer has to.
Some more traditional rappers certainly thrived this decade, but it should come as no surprise that they regularly found themselves in conflict with Drake. Drake’s 2015 beef with Meek Mill was predicated on the idea that Drake didn’t write his own rhymes, but the friction was as much a referendum on hip-hop’s evolving ethics as on what constituted the center of the genre. Meek Mill was a rapper in the classic mold; in a different era, he’d have had a clear path to dominance. But Drake had swiped the genre out from under him. The elders could only look on, aghast and humbled.
What’s more, when promising young rappers emerged who didn’t necessarily neatly fit into the Drake paradigm, often he was among the first to work with them, a strategy of both support and distraction. He couldn’t fully enter their worlds, but he could edge them ever so slightly to his approach — he became a universal recipient of hip-hop micro-evolutions.
The mutation of rapping into singing is the most significant Drake-driven phenomenon of this decade, but by no means the only one. He’s been a significant driving force behind the increased conversation between emergent hip-hop-adjacent music scenes around the world — Nigeria, England, the Caribbean and beyond. He helped inch the genre away from the rigid structure of album cycles. He made virality central to his art, and was the first pop star to truly weaponize its power in a non-gratuitous manner.
But what he’ll be remembered for is how casually and effectively he rebuilt hip-hop — the genre as it is today is indelibly in his image. And because Drake’s ascendance came at the onset of the peak streaming era, his influence has been felt globally, too. There are now rappers who are also singers in Spanish, rappers who are also singers in French, rappers who are also singers in Korean. Which means that the sound of pop around the world for the next decade or more will stand on his shoulders. And that the brashest rappers of the next decade will likely set out to disentangle the threads he’s so carefully woven together.