Behind every talented woman is a trifling man moping in the corner of her close-up.
For Nicki Minaj it’s Meek Mill, a domesticated Philly rapper now reduced to folding his famous partner’s fishnets and anonymously fuming about Drake on Reddit. For Beyoncé it’s Jay-Z, hard-living rap mogul turned ousted cheater turned diligent Instagram husband. And for Rihanna it’s none other than Toronto’s finest, Aubrey Graham, a man who has turned pining after women into an art form.
So when Drake finally arrived at Sunday night’s VMAs to present his alleged paramour with the Video Vanguard Award, we expected wild flattery and adoration. What we didn’t prepare for was the complete transformation of one of hip-hop’s biggest stars into an anthropomorphized heart eyes emoji.
Instead of one artist celebrating another innovator, we got full Bill Clinton at the DNC—an oral history of all things Drake and Rihanna, from their 2009 meet-cute to their most recent musical collaborations. And in case you weren’t convinced that Drake is #WithHer, Canada’s premier purse-holder took this very public opportunity to shout his love from the proverbial rooftops: “She’s someone I’ve been in love with since I was 22 years old. She’s one of my best friends in the world. All my adult life, I’ve looked up to her even though she’s younger than me.”
Rihanna’s response, a barely concealed cringe and a half-hearted dab, was the physical equivalent of a read receipt. If we learned anything from the 2016 VMAs, it’s that Drake has sent more unanswered texts to Rihanna than to the combined stripper population of HoustAtlantaVegasToronto. Drake might come from the 6, but he’s a full-time resident of the friend zone. And if Drake had a twin, Rihanna would still choose her career.
But no VMAs moment epitomized Drake and Rihanna’s relationship quite like the curve—a lifetime’s worth of overreaching and rejection, immortalized in one gut-punching GIF. After Drake professed his love and RiRi was all like, “OK, Aubrey, wrap it up,” Drake appeared to go in for the kiss. The ensuing curve was 11 years in the making, and it shows. The complexity of Rihanna’s curve choreography implies that she’s done this before, as does her subsequent scolding; she appears to mutter, “That wasn’t funny.” Drake nods uncomfortably, disappointed but ultimately cognizant of the fact that he probably shouldn’t have tried to trick Rihanna into a make-out sesh in the middle of such a huge career milestone.
Drake interpreting this awards ceremony as an opportunity for romance is the equivalent of Drake showing off his brand new body for Serena Williams at the U.S. Open. Great beard, Drake, but this really isn’t about you.
The VMAs taught us that Drake loves Rihanna, and Rihanna thinks Drake is short. But this is just the latest installment of Drake and Rihanna’s touring production of whipped Romeo and apathetic Juliet.
In 2009, the artist formerly known as Jimmy met a girl. Her name was Robyn Fenty, she hailed from Barbados, and he was immediately about it. According to a Page Six report, a post-Chris Brown Rihanna rebounded from her abusive ex as only Rihanna can: by furiously sucking face with Drake at New York’s Lucky Strike Lanes & Lounge. According to one particularly observant source, “She was drinking whiskey and apple juice and making out with him all night.”
Sadly, the apple juice-fueled affair was short lived. In separate his and hers interviews, Rihanna and Drake both insisted that they were just friends, with Rihanna telling Hot 97, “I definitely was attracted to Drake, but I think it is what it is, like, it was what it was. We didn’t want to take it any further.” On May 2010 Drake released “Fireworks,” a song about the time in 2009 when his mouth touched Rihanna’s mouth at Lucky Strike Lanes & Lounge. This song is not to be confused with Katy Perry’s “Firework,” a song about fireworks.
On the track Drake exhibited his consistent enthusiasm for proper nouns, rhyming, “I could tell it wasn’t love, I just thought you’d fuck with me / Who could of predicted Lucky Strike would have you stuck with me / Damn, I kept my wits about me luckily / What happened between us that night / It always seems to trouble me.” While promoting his debut album that June, Drake told America’s paper of record that Rihanna treated him like a “pawn,” explaining, “You know what she was doing to me? She was doing exactly what I’ve done to so many women throughout my life, which is show them quality time, then disappear. I was like, ‘Wow, this feels terrible.’” It takes a special kind of man to retool a story of romantic rejection into a humble brag about how many women he’s slept with. Drake is that man.
But as summer gave way to fall, a formerly salty Drake started to come around. October brought us “What’s My Name?” a Drake x Rihanna pop-up collaboration set at a grocery store. In the steamy music video, Rihanna spills some milk (an early prototype of spilling the tea?). Drake scholars will confirm that this is not the first time Drake tried to make a woman fall in love with him in a bodega.
“What’s My Name?” was also Drake’s first No. 1 hit, and Rihanna’s eighth. Drake rode Rihanna’s coattails all the way to the 2011 Grammys, where the duo showed the world their unique performance style, in which Rihanna dances around looking amazing and Drake shuffles back and forth awkwardly, as though he is uncomfortably aroused.
In 2011 Drake changed his tune again, giving Elle a new account of the RiRi affair in which he essentially recasts himself as a rap world Monica Lewinsky. The naive ingénue confided, “That was the first girl with any fame that paid me any mind. You spend days reading about this person in the magazines. All of a sudden you have this number-one song and you’re at some birthday party and there she is. And you’re just some naive kid from Toronto staying in some shitty-ass hotel who got invited to this party on a whim. That’s just how it happened.”
Bright lights and birthday celebrations aside, it seems that Drake doth protest too much. For all his insistence that he was just star struck that one time, TMZ reported in July 2011 that Drizzy and RiRi were once again laying on the PDA, this time at a Canadian nightclub.
Of course, any discussion of Drake and Rihanna would be incomplete without a thorough dissection of Chris Brown and Drake’s bottle-throwing club brawl. The date was June 14. The year, 2012. The beef, bloody. It all went down at Club W.I.P. in SoHo, where the rappers were celebrating Ne-Yo’s manager’s birthday. The interaction began with an alcoholic olive branch, as human trash can Chris Brown attempted to make nice with Rihanna’s other ex, sending the Drake camp a bottle of Champagne. Drake sent back the peace offering as a Trojan horse, attaching a note reading, “I’m still fucking Rihanna.” The consistently violent Brown did not take kindly to this information, sparking a melee that left him bruised and bloody. Later that night, Brown accused Drake of “hiding in the bathroom” as their respective crews came to blows.
Despite another Rihanna-Drake collaboration, 2012’s “Take Care,” the Barbadian songstress eventually reunited with Brown; the controversial couple’s reunion lasted from September 2012 through May 2013. In Hooters across North America, Drake gathered strength and waited out the storm.
Come 2014, TMZ was once again declaring Drake and Rihanna a couple. Drake told Rolling Stone that Rihanna was his “ultimate fantasy,” while Chris Brown’s rep told Page Six that Brown was “happy [Rihanna] found someone.”
2015 proved that when Drake truly loves someone, he sets them free. And if she doesn’t come back to him, he starts dating Serena Williams. While Rihanna and her alleged boos, from Lewis Hamilton to Travis Scott, made headlines, she confessed to Vanity Fair that Chris Brown was her last “real, official” boyfriend. That’s got to sting. But being repeatedly denied on newsstands across the world didn’t stop Drake from teaming up with his favorite fun buddy turned collaborator. 2016 brought us not one but two joint tracks—Rihanna’s “Work” and Drake’s “Too Good.” Both of the romantic singles fueled relationship rumors, as did the two sexy videos for “Work”: eight straight, highly superfluous minutes of Rihanna grinding up on Drake.
But after eight years of letting RiRi take his love for granted, Drake now seems hell-bent on proving to the world that he and Rihanna are actually getting it on. In the wake of Sunday night’s curve heard ’round the world, Drake took to Instagram to prove that his crush does actually like him. Like-like him! In the early hours of Monday morning, Champagne Papi posted a couple-y pic of the on-again, off-again couple, allegedly from a recent date at Toronto’s aquarium. Of course, this being Drake, the saccharine shot shows him kissing Rihanna on the cheek. But hey, she’s not actively moving away. Or maybe she is, because this is just a picture—one that Drake loved so much that he kept it on his camera roll and Instagrammed it like a month later.
Here, as always, Drake’s unquenchable thirst is on display; his admiration for all the incredible women of the world—the Rihannas, the Nickis, the Serenas—as sincere as it is misguided. Here, as in his VMAs speech, Drake is doing a hilarious Drake impression. Only time will tell if his girlfriend Rihanna is laughing right alongside him, or if he’s just the butt of the joke.