A crowd of more than 25,000 rabid fans blanketed South Street Seaport’s Pier 17 in Lower Manhattan to see rapper Drake the day his long-awaited debut album, Thank Me Later, was released.
His opening act managed to perform two brief songs before police decided the mob of fans, more than three times the number expected and managed by limited security, was too unruly and stopped the music. When it became clear Drake would not be performing, fans began hurling bottles and metallic lawn chairs. Fights broke out. Sensing a near riot, police sprayed mace through the crowd.
“When I was driving away, people were screaming, ‘F--k Drake!’ and throwing s--t at my bus,” said Drake in an interview. “And I was frustrated because they didn’t know how bad I wanted to get off that bus and perform.”
Eighteen months later, on the eve of the release of his highly anticipated second album, the rapper is huddled in a small corner booth at a restaurant in Midtown Manhattan. Sporting a black T-shirt from his OVOXO clothing line, jeans, and no visible jewelry, he doesn’t look like the platinum-selling hip-hop star who’s had flings with Rihanna and Nicki Minaj, been a protégé of heavily tattooed hip-hop maestro Lil Wayne, and once rapped, “Last name ever / First name greatest.”
Then again, Drake, 25, is far from your typical rap superstar.
Born Aubrey Drake Graham, he’s the son of Dennis Graham, a black drummer who shared a stage with Jerry Lee Lewis and whom Drake credits with passing on his “musical gift.” When he was a young boy, his father would take him out—unbeknownst to his mother—to late-night club gigs in Toronto, he said: “I knew how to sing ‘Ride, Sally, Ride,’ which is a cover he’d perform, and he’d bring me up onstage with him to sing it as part of his act.”
His father and Jewish-Canadian mother, Sandi, split when he was 5, so Drake would spend the school year with his mother in Toronto and summer in Memphis with his father.
“My mother made me truly appreciate women,” said Drake, getting slightly emotional. “I obviously make sex-driven, darker, sexier music, but I try not to offend women in them. It’s not in my character. And my father was basically a reverse-role model for me. I’m dying to be a great dad one day, whenever that day comes.” He paused. “Other than that, it was hard just growing up with my mom and watching her fight for me to have a good childhood. It was tough to watch.”
Drake’s mother Sandi raised him Jewish, and he had his bar mitzvah in the basement of an Italian restaurant in Toronto. Describing himself—between fits of laughter—as a cross between “Pimp C and my mom,” he says he still celebrates all the Jewish holidays with his mother and that one of his goals in life is to travel to Israel. “It’s part of who I am and I embrace it.”
At 15, Drake was cast on the Canadian teen sitcom Degrassi: The Next Generation as Jimmy Brooks, a star basketball player confined to a wheelchair after being shot by a creepy fellow classmate. In a hilarious harbinger of things to come, Brooks even laid down a freestyle rap early on in the series. Drake’s first love was acting, however, and he was thoroughly convinced that the role would catapult him to acting stardom. But his experience on the show left him with a bad taste in his mouth.
“It was just too dependent on other people,” said Drake, who appeared on the hit series from 2001 to 2009. “I also knew what it was like to get f--ked over a bit. We basically all came to work one day and we were all kind of fired in our own way.” He paused. “It was devastating for a lot of us. Our names were changed on our dressing rooms and we were like, ‘What’s happening?’” He added, “It was bothering me so I realized music was something I could take into my own hands and it was something I was good at, so I gave up acting for music.”
He released a series of three mix tapes via his website and MySpace, starting with 2006’s Room for Improvement. By the time So Far Gone, his third, came out in 2009, he was boasting guest appearances from Lil Wayne. Drake was a music marketer’s wet dream: the perfect mélange of Jay-Z’s braggadocio, Kanye West’s mama’s boy soul, and Lil Wayne’s breakneck flow, concealed within a fresh-faced former teen heartthrob. In June 2009, after a heated bidding war, he signed to Lil Wayne’s Young Money label.
Just a few years ago, hip-hop seemed to place extreme emphasis on the thug image, portraying rappers as Horatio Alger types who rose from the streets to achieve fame and fortune. So how did a half-Jewish Canadian ex-soap star cross over?
“I think Kanye [West] deserves a lot of credit and Andre 3000 deserves a lot of credit for the shift in what you have to be to be a rapper, and what your music has to sound like,” said Drake. “Those guys made it OK for melody to be introduced. They made it OK to not necessarily be the most street dude. For me, I started to believe more in myself when I saw those two guys. I thought, ‘I’m good at rapping, so if they just respect the talent and don’t crucify you for what your past is or who you are, then I should be OK.’”
Drake’s talent speaks for itself. His debut LP, Thank Me Later, a contemplative, R&B-tinged album about lost loves and the trappings of fame, sold nearly half a million copies in its first week and received high marks from critics. And one song, “Fireworks,” coyly referenced his first celebrity romantic fling—with pop superstar Rihanna—which happened right after her Chris Brown fiasco. The whole relationship took the then–little known Drake by surprise.
“I came straight from Toronto, just a kid that was trying to get out of my mom’s house, and the first person I meet is a girl that’s the biggest person you could possibly meet at my age,” said Drake. “So I meet her and it was just mind-blowing. I couldn’t believe she’d even want to talk to me.” He paused for a moment, adding, “I read some interview where they painted me as so sad and heartbroken, but we’re cool. I was never torn apart by that situation.”
Still, the story has persisted in the media, sparking recent rumors that Brown elbowed Drake in the head in retaliation.
“I respect Chris Brown. I’d like to call myself a friend—I don’t know if I’m allowed to do that,” said Drake. “But I definitely didn’t get elbowed in my face. Somebody would’ve got knocked the f--k out.”
One person who Drake can definitely call a friend: Bill Clinton. The former president invited him to perform at a Clinton Foundation fundraiser back in March to benefit the Millennium Network. “One of my favorite pictures I have in my house is of me and Bill and I’m wearing a zebra Supreme jacket and he’s wearing a suit,” said Drake. “It’s wild!”
Whereas his debut album focused on his conflicted emotions about fame, Drake’s latest album, Take Care, sees him enjoying the spoils of his good fortune. On “Marvin’s Room,” he raps about sleeping with four girls in a week—which he confesses has happened. “Make Me Proud,” about his ideal woman, features a guest appearance by label-mate Nicki Minaj, which, as it happens, is no coincidence.
“If there’s any woman in my life that’s the ideal woman for me, it’s definitely Nicki,” said Drake. “I like the stripped-down Nicki. I like Nicki with no makeup, black hair, some casual clothes in a recording booth rapping an amazing verse. That’s sexy to me.” He added, “I know some great women, but all jokes aside, Nicki is somebody I could spend my life with because I think we understand each other.”
Affection for Minaj aside, Drake still has some celebrity crushes, including Kat Dennings and Sofia Vergara, and recently purchased a bachelor pad in Miami. While he’s a silent owner in an Italian restaurant—his favorite food—in New York City, one of his dreams is to open up a place of his own. Another is to collaborate on tracks with fellow Canadian Justin Bieber and, now that he believes he’s risen to the same stature as his rap mentor, Lil Wayne—“I think at this current time as far as relevancy goes, [Wayne] has to look at me as an equal”—an even bigger goal is to get back into acting. He just signed with high-powered Hollywood talent agency William Morris Entertainment, and when they asked him what he wanted to do, he replied, “Do a movie with Ryan Gosling.”
The rapper also wants to meet President Obama but ran into a little bit of a snag because of his Canadian roots.
“I ran into somebody who works for Barack Obama the other day, and she’s like, ‘I’m so sorry we haven’t called you, but we can’t have Canadian citizens perform or be a part of U.S. politics,’” said Drake. “I was like, ‘Well I’m a dual citizen!’ And she was like, ‘No way! Well, you’ve got to come now.’ So I think I might actually get a chance to meet Barack.”
At the Midtown Manhattan restaurant where the interview was taking place, Drake glanced outside the window. Three little girls were standing in the street with homemade signs and wearing backpacks and had waited for hours to get a picture taken with him.
“I guess fame is a little less surreal,” he said. “I think initially I was turned off by it and reluctant, but now I’m just embracing it. I feel like I’ve learned to ignore the negative stuff around me, and I feel like I can truly find myself in this life.” He paused, taking one more glance out the window at his trio of young fans. “It’s crazy, man, but I got a long way to go.”