Hip-hop star has potent pedigree

Read the first part of the Variety interview with Drake

For somebody who a year ago was best known for his role on the teen cable series “DeGrassi High: The Next Generation,” being branded “The New Face of Hip-Hop” might seem like overstatement when applied to Canadian singer-rapper-actor Drake. Nevertheless, his major label debut, “Thank Me Later,” is being released today through Universal Music Group with all the hoopla of a superstar release.

And although it’s a tall order for the 23-year-old to expect the kind of numbers that his mentor, Lil Wayne, now in prison, generated with his debut album, “Tha Block Is Hot,” which sold more than two million copies in 1999, “Thank Me Later” is expected to ship anywhere between 400,000 units to twice that figure this week. These projections represent an impressive number at a time when low six-figure album bows are fast becoming the benchmark.

After gaining the support of Lil Wayne when an associate gave him his mix tape 19 months ago, Drake been on a whirlwind ride driven by his association and collaborations with Rap’s Big 4: Jay-Z, Kanye West, Lil Wayne and Young Jeezy.

“These are the most powerful people in hip hop,” says Al Branch, who with hip hop moguls Gee Roberson, Kyambo Joshua and Cortez Bryant, form the management team guiding Drake’s career. “In society, you hear how successful black men in American can’t work together. In Drake’s case, you’ve got these educated, successful black men all collaborating together for a common goal.”

Drake has been selling out arenas since April, and just returned from a series of large outdoor festival shows in Europe with Jay-Z. Despite this being his maiden voyage as a headliner, ticket sales on his U.S. tour have been red hot: In San Francisco he sold out the Warfield in 45 minutes, L.A.’s Club Nokia in less than 12 minutes; and Philadelphia’s Fillmore in just five minutes.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, he has climbed to the top of the heap without the aid of a criminal past, thug’s bravado or an embroiled ghetto-centric childhood.

“I try to really capitalize off of what other rappers really can’t do,” he said. “There are opportunities that rappers I love simply can’t get, because … you know … I don’t have the tattoos; I have a different image.”

Among those opportunities is a long-term endorsement deal with Sprite, which has sponsored his Away From Home World Tour.

photos/emmys2010/Drake-Thank-Me-Later.jpg” vspace=”3″ hspace=”3″ align=”left”>Drake’s sudden ascendancy couldn’t be more unorthodox. His mix tape, “So Far Gone,” distributed free on the Internet, gained millions of fans through a frenzied online campaign. His breakthrough solo hit, “Best I Ever Had,” reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 without a label backing him. A subsequent EP version of the tune sold almost a half million copies even though it had been available for free online.

He has appeared on tracks for Jay Z, T.I. and Alicia Keys. In 2009, he won two Juno Awards, Canada’s version of the Grammys, and received two Grammy nominations, sharing the stage on the January telecast with Eminem, Lil Wayne and Travis Barker.

To maximize his show business opportunities, Drake signed worldwide with ICM for representation, with Robert Gibbs and Dennis Ashley from its music division booking his live appearances and agents Andrea Nelson-Meigs and Dana Sims handling his film and TV projects.

He was recently given an action- hero character role named Jase, in the Microsoft Game Studios/Epic Games videogame, Gears of War 3, expected for release on the Xbox 360 in 2011. Says Drake: “When Epic came to me with this character, I couldn’t pass it up.”

His media exposure will continue June 23, when MTV airs a special behind-the-scenes documentary on Drake and his career.

Read the first part of the Variety interview with Drake

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