Chasing Drake

Chasing Drake

Media, marketers, major labels and, yes, the ladies are pursuing Aubrey Graham, alias Drake. The Toronto rapper without an album is stirring up a frenzy that will be felt on the red carpet of the MuchMusic Video Awards tonight

He doesn’t have a video of his own in rotation. He’s never even made a studio album. But make no mistake: rapper Drake is one of the most anticipated guests at tonight’s MuchMusic Video Awards.

“The red carpet is going to be bananas,” said MuchMusic VJ Devon Soltendieck of Toronto-born Aubrey Graham’s first local appearance since his sold-out show at Sound Academy last month.

Since his third mixtape So Far Gone was released in February, Drake (aka Drizzy) who starred for eight seasons as paraplegic Jimmy Brooks on Degrassi: The Next Generation has slowly become rap’s hottest property.

“Hip hop has been hungry for its next big star,” said New York-based Elliott Wilson, founder and CEO of “(Early in the year) people were talking about Asher Roth, Kid Cudi and Wale, and no one put Drake in. But by April, it was all about Drake.”

And it’s been more about Drake since his storied May 26 performance at Manhattan’s hip S.O.B.’s club, which was jammed with about 300 tastemakers, celebrities, journalists and record executives, such as Warner Music boss Lyor Cohen.

Each day seems to yield new chatter about the 22-year-old, who is working on his debut album for a fall release but remains unsigned despite being wooed by major American record labels. He says it himself on top track “Best I Ever Had”: “Buzz so big I could probably sell a blank disc.”

In just the past two weeks:

June 6: Drake’s managers say they plan to sue Canadian Money Entertainment for selling an unauthorized album, The Girls Love Drake, which features selections from So Far Gone.

June 7: His unscheduled cameo at Hot 97 FM’s annual summer concert at Giants Stadium is thunderously received. It’s considered an anointing by the Big Apple’s hip-hop cognoscenti.

June 10: At the Black Eyed Peas’ CD release party in NYC, Drake is photographed with singer Rihanna, fuelling rumours that they’re an item. He has said they are friends, collaborating on her next album.

June 14: Kanye West directs the video for Drake’s “Best I Ever Had.” Jay-Z and Common are spotted on the New York set.

June 15: It’s announced that Drake is going back on tour with Lil Wayne (the pair hit the Molson Amphitheatre Aug. 4), and will appear on the lead single for Jay-Z’s forthcoming album. The same day, he performs on The Tonight Show alongside Jamie Foxx.

June 16: Complex magazine nominates So Far Gone the third best album so far of 2009.

June 18: Drake is named as an MMVA presenter.

“He’s searched (online) twice as much as Eminem, who just dropped a record but is mostly selling to old fans,” said Yves Darbouze, CEO of pLot Multimedia, a New York-based marketing firm behind campaigns for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Alicia Keys, Toyota and Pepsi.

The company pursued a contract with Drake after determining his “blue-chip” marketability, in part by measuring the algorithms of positive vs. negative online comments. The performer, who now shares management with Kanye West and Lil Wayne, scored an “off the charts” 78 per cent, compared with, say, Diddy’s career range of 48-58 per cent, or 50 Cent’s 38-48 per cent, according to Darbouze.

“We wanted to work with Drake more than any artist we have worked with before,” said Darbouze. “We had several face-to-face meetings with management, but then he got so busy he reached critical mass and we didn’t close the deal and the window of opportunity closed.”

A performing producer along the lines of Pharrell Williams and, Toronto’s Slakah the Beatchild is benefiting from Drakemania: there’s increasing interest in his just-released debut Soul Movement Vol. 1, which features three songs recorded with the rapper two years ago.

“Within the music community, we all said Drake was going to be the next,” said Slakah, citing the high-school dropout’s tone, witticisms and delivery. “With his wordplay and understanding of metaphors, he’d be a great English professor. He can say something 10 different ways and make it rhyme.”

On the strength of previous mixtapes, Room for Improvement (2006) and Comeback Season (2007), Drake came close two years ago to signing with Universal Motown, which is among his current pursuers.

It’s acknowledged that subsequent mixtape collaborations with Lil Wayne, who took him on tour this winter, broadened Drake’s appeal in the U.S.

“That was the ultimate co-sign,” said Flow 93.5FM music director Justin Dumont, who has been playing him on air since February 2006, when “Do What You Do” arrived anonymously in the submissions pile. “He always had the talent, Lil Wayne gave him the credibility. He does what Kanye does, but in some people’s opinions better. His music is really honest.”

Rhyming talents aside, women have also been particularly responsive to Drake’s collegiate good looks and his combination of vulnerability and swagger. “When you’re a hip-hop artist and you can fill a club with more girls than guys … He’s pretty much the Derek Jeter of rap: guys want to be him and girls love him,” said Darbouze. “He has the marketability of Will Smith and the musical gravitas of Kanye West.”

Degrassi co-creater Linda Schuyler remembers Drake (it’s his middle name) as “very charismatic, even as a rather awkward 13-year-old when he started here. He had a way of connecting with people. We would do these mall tours, 3,000 to 4,000 teens screaming for the Degrassi kids, and you could see that Aubrey set off that energy.”

Wilson said the offspring of a Memphis-based black musician dad and white Jewish educator in Forest Hill is a border-hopping barrier-crosser. “He’s Canadian, he’s half-Jewish, that’s a novelty,” he explained. “Stereotypes of region and race are being challenged, yet he has no credibility issues and he’s comfortable in his own skin.”

It wasn’t always that way. In 2006, Drake spoke with the Star about being a racial minority at Forest Hill Collegiate. “It was very awkward,” he said. “I never had a girlfriend. Not one of those girls would bring me home. It would be too risky.”

“His parents represented two different sides of life,” said Schuyler. “As he got older, he needed to find ways to reconcile those two different influences. Music was a wonderful outlet for him and he turned out to be extraordinarily talented.”

The entertainer recently told Vibe magazine that his goals are to win a Best New Artist Grammy, finish high school and resume acting. In that same 2006 Star interview he said, “I’d definitely like to be an icon. Not only in the city, but across the world.”


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