Among the most anticipated albums of 2010, “Thank Me Later,” by Canadian singer-rapper-actor Drake, drops June 15, with all the critical attention and media hoopla of a major superstar release. The 23-year-old has been on his first headlining tour since April, selling out arenas — an unheard-of feat for an emerging artist. His first two singles, “Over” and “Find Your Love,” have risen near the top of the pop and urban charts.
Through it all, however, the soft-spoken Drake remains focused and unfazed. “If I have anything to prove it’s that I am unafraid,” he tells Daily Variety backstage at a show held at Syracuse University. “I feel that when you care about your music, taking risks is something you should do to keep things exciting.”
Drake, who broke into show business as an actor on the popular Canadian teen drama, “Degrassi High: The Next Generation,” is expected to take the crossover potential between street-inflected hip hop and melodic pop to new heights. In the studio he sings, raps, and composes; in concert, he performs with the charisma of a seasoned veteran. “There is a lot of song crafting involved on the new record,” he says. “There is a lot of music that will hopefully spark an emotional journey.”
Unlike his contemporaries and mentors such as Lil Wayne, he has climbed to the top of the heap without the aid of a criminal past, thug’s bravado or ghetto childhood. He is also astutely proactive in his career: “I try to really capitalize off of what other rappers really can’t do,” he says. “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 them are a long-term endorsement deal with Sprite, which has sponsored his Away From Home World Tour.
“The minute we heard him, we knew he was not the average rapper,” says Al Branch, who with hip hop moguls Gee Roberson, Kyambo Joshua and Cortez Bryant, form the management team guiding Drake’s career. After gaining the support of controversial rapper Lil Wayne when an associate gave him his mixtape 19 months ago, Drake’s career has since been a whirlwind ride driven by his association and collaborations with Rap’s Big Four: Jay Z, Kanye West, Lil Wayne and Young Jeezy.
“These are the most powerful people in hip hop,” says Branch. “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’s sudden ascendency couldn’t be more unorthodox. His mixtape, “So Far Gone,” distributed free on the Internet, gained him millions of fans through a frenzied online campaign. From there, he crafted a series of top radio hits as a “feature,” appearing 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.
While being positioned as a kind of romantic symbol in the pop vein, Drake also occasionally displays the kind of sexism in his songs that’s inseparable from hip hop. “I’m 23 years old and I am allowed to contradict myself. I’m not changing who I am. Emotions can fluctuate,” he says.
Born Aubrey Drake Graham to a white mother and black father, he grew up in suburban Toronto in an arts-passionate home. His dad, Dennis Graham, is a R&B drummer for such acts as Al Green and Jerry Lee Lewis. “Musically, it was being around the soul of Memphis every summer with my father that really inspired me,” he says. “Hip hop came later.”
His parents split when he was five, though he remains close to both and is still a resident of Toronto. He credits his mother, Sandi, an educator, for his development as an actor, a career path he will resume again once the initial promotional efforts for “Thank Me Later” subsides.
To maximize his show business opportunities, Drake signed worldwide to 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.
“It’s all very exciting,” says Nelson Meigs, who is best known for her representation of Beyonce Knowles. “You don’t come across someone this talented all the time.”