I often have one poet that I am in love with for a very long time, whose songs I can't ever completely tap out of their inspirational resources. For the past few years, that poet has been Drake.
You all likely know who Drake is. Aubrey Drake Graham is the 27 year-old Canadian rapper who in recent years has shot up to astronomical fame, has won a Grammy, has sold countless millions of records all over the globe, and has more number #1 singles than Jay-Z. He's what we all might describe as a phenom.
Drake is a lot of things to a lot of people, but to me, Drake is my own personal mojo. Whenever I get discouraged with being a poet and a person -- I can listen to Drake and I feel like he's talking to me, telling me it's going to be ok and to keep on going. Drake understands how to address a listener in a way most performers don't. Other poets can get lost in the winds and weathers of their minds, performing their intricate importance to a reader or listener, but Drake understands no one is more important to the song than me. And that this is the great sacrifice of a wordsmith -- to give me, the listener, over half, if not all, of the power.
The first Drake song I fell in love with was his hit single from 2009, "Best I Ever Had." During that time, I was going through a horrible commuting regime for school and work and everything, especially the long days with no end, depressed me. When I heard Drake's voice, it was both sweet and sad, and it told me that there would be an end at some point and to keep going. It gave me a lot of hope. With Drake's simple admission of "You the best," I couldn't help but wonder: Maybe I am?
What Drake does especially well is to use direct address so effortlessly. In the song, he starts off by saying, "You know a lot of girls be... thinking my songs about them, but/
This is not to get confused, this one's for you." And then he proceeds to tell the listener that he or she is the "best I ever had." This grand gesture of love echoes Tina Turner's classic hit, "Simply the Best" ("You're simply the best, better than all the rest/ Better than anyone, anyone I've ever met"), and it's always a classic gesture employed in the best poetry, reminiscent of the New York School and Confessional poetry.
When you use a you in a poem, you are alerting your listeners to a lot of things. First, that you know that they exist and are listening. Second that the pathos of the poem and what it emanates towards them is important. Third that the poem itself is a stage space meant for everyone, for every listener beyond the you. This is intoxicating to a reader, because not only do they feel implicated in this intimacy, but they feel as if the poem has taken into account who they are and that they are a live listener.
We can see a similar gesture in a poem by New York School poet, Frank O'Hara in "To You.". In this poem, O'Hara dramatically tells the you that by the light of the "moon or a gasping candle" he or she becomes "a landscape in a landscape/ with rocks and craggy mountains/ and valleys of sweaty ferns," i.e., some sort of immortal love magnet. After all, "What is more beautiful than night/ and someone in your arms?" Certainly, Drake can't find anything better, when he freely tells us (the you) that with "Sweat pants, hair tied, chillin' with no make-up on" that lucky you is "all I ever wanted," and in doing so, reminds us that sometimes telling the you that "You the best" is the first and last step in getting the you to listen.
Another more recent song, "Worst Behavior," from his 2013 record Nothing Was the Same, makes equally glorious but different poetic gestures. This is a war song of vindication, as he tells the listener, with equal parts joy and emptiness, that with each new success he, the poet, is "on my worst behavior, no?" because "They used to never want to hear us/ Remember?" He's obviously alluding to all of the people who may have not believed in him (morons!), but now his songs are now in an arena of fame that has surpassed their judgment.
Not in content necessarily, but in form, does Drake remind me of one of my other favorite poets, Gertrude Stein. In his song, he uses a staccato and incessant repetition and a simple palate of a few words and phrases ("motherfucker," "remember," and "loved us") to drive home the poem to a crazy momentum. For example:
Motherfucker never loved us, remember?
Motherfucker never loved us
I'm on my worst behavior,
Don't you ever get it fucked up
Motherfuckers never loved us
Man, motherfuckers never loved us
Motherfuckers never loved us
Fucker never loved us
Take a poem like "Chicken" from Stein's 1914 Tender Buttons, and you can see how Stein too realized how much emotional power you can build up with the play of a few simple words in a poem, as she writes, "CHICKEN./ Stick stick call then, stick stick sticking, sticking with a chicken./ Sticking in a extra succession, sticking in."
In both poems, Drake and Stein force us to revisit their content again (in his case the sweet revenge of being a great poet despite the critics and in her case, the oddness of cooking a chicken's body and its reminder of our own mortality) through an incantatory repetition. Certainly, both poets use the space of the poem to show us that the poem is always, first and foremost, a spell.
Maybe this is why I love Drake so much, because his songs cast a spell upon the listener, unabashedly. How many poets right now can we say feel free enough in their own powers to do this?
Sometimes I have the thought that the real reason I love Drake is because he is a Scorpio. All of the great poets have been Scorpios. Come on, you know it's true: Anne Sexton, Ted Berrigan, Dylan Thomas, Marianne Moore, Sylvia Plath, Alice Notley, John Berryman, John Keats -- the list is endless. No, but I think it is more than that.
But before I forget: this post is in honor of Drake's birthday. Happy Birthday, Drake! We are so glad you are here and among us. I can't wait to listen to all of your new songs. I hope you are writing some more, just as you read this.
Dorothea Lasky is the author of Rome: Poems.