“Hotline Bling” makes me cringe. I hate myself for loving it. It goes a little something like this: Drake is distraught that his ex has moved on, and instead of admitting he's kind of obsessed and therefore Instagram stalking (because seriously, if he left the city, how is he so keen on her whereabouts?), he opts for condescendingly slut-shaming her, and dictating where she does and doesn't belong. The song comes off so petty that you forget his feelings are hurt (or maybe you're more aware).
He sings about her wardrobe changes:
Ever since I left the city you
Started wearing less and going out more…
He ponders about her "new" social life:
Used to always stay at home, be a good girl
You was in the zone
You should just be yourself
Right now you’re someone else
It's classic Drake: You're singing along, but you can’t help but roll your eyes. "Good" girls stay at home? Please.
His lyrics hide his misogyny, since he plays the role of the vulnerable nice guy. Take his 2011 one-off track "Trust Issues." He's skeptical of women who are sexually aggressive, singing, "women want to fuck like they're me and I'm them."
More recently, on "Diamonds Dancing," a trap ballad with Future, the song takes a dark turn when Drake starts complaining: Apparently his ex has moved on, which he finds upsetting (You doing me dirty/Haven't even heard from you/How can you live with yourself/Ungrateful") and the new man she's with "can't save her soul." Does she need to be saved? Just because she hasn't returned his calls?
On Roy Wood's "Drama," Drake claims: "Every lost girl I know is over 26/Every lost girl I know is just too afraid to admit it." Growing up is not "good," apparently.
Drake was also featured on The Game's 2011 song "Good Girls Go Bad," where he, once again, patronizingly rapped about women and their sex lives:
With some girls that say they models but umm, I don't believe 'em
Who's still getting tested?
Where's all the women that still remember who they slept with?
Where's all the girls too busy studying to make the guest list?
But when you do go out, you still working what you was blessed with
It's easy to glaze over the sexist message (too much sex makes a woman undesirable), because it's catchy and it sounds good. Drake tricked me. In hip-hop, there’s so much criticism of blatant misogyny and slut-shaming that it leaves little room for calling out stealthily problematic lyrics from easy-listening rappers like Drake. Sure, he's really, really good at expressing his feelings, broadening the scope of masculinity in rap (which he’s received both praise and ridicule for)—but his concepts and ideas about love and women are flawed. Drake's lyrics are rooted in patriarchal and paternalistic themes, complete with a fascination with “good” girls and saving women. He simultaneously plays the role of worried father and jealous ex-boyfriend. It makes listening to his music an emotional rollercoaster—first, I like the song; then once I learn the lyrics, I feel offended.
In a 2011 interview with Stereogum, Drake tried to explain what he called his "sex-driven chauvinistic undertone." He said:
"I think that’s just where I’m at in my life. When I’m super inspired and I meet that right person, I’ll be able to make songs like brand new again, where I’m vulnerable and whatnot. Right now I’m at a place where I can only talk about what’s going on around me. It’s hard for me to make it about love […] My songs are like, I’m the man, bitch, I made it. I made you who you are now take a shot for me!"
But now it's 2015, and the 28-year-old rapper still sounds the same. He’s not as overtly sexist as some other current rappers, like Future, A$AP Rocky, Ty Dolla $ign, or August Alsina (who technically isn’t a rapper, but his recent non-consensual groping of a woman on stage means he deserves to be here). Instead of flat-out calling women “hoes,” Drake implies it. He consistently makes distinctions between “bad” and “good” girls, and says things like: “Your mom would be ashamed of you," “And she was acting like a virgin, I gave it to her then I curved her” or "I got strippers in my life but they virgins to me."
In Drake’s eyes, a woman is deemed worthy based on his approval of her behavior. That's a form of control for men—and damaging for women. The women he sings about are usually independent—and have probably been wronged by Drake. But: A "good" girl is elusive, stable, goal-oriented, virtuous yet somewhat sexually active, and wants to be in a relationship. On "Thank Me Now", he raps: “Man, the good girls went silent on me, they got a boyfriend, or went to college on me.” In other words, he can't find any. A "bad" girl is care-free, untrustworthy, not marriage-potential, into casual sex, needs saving, and is possibly this way A.D. (after Drake). On "Karaoke," he sings: “I hope you don’t get known for nothing crazy, cause no man ever wants to hear those stories about his lady.” On "Practice," a song about how every sexual encounter his woman has had has been practice for being with him, he sings:
You telling me it's only been a couple other people that you've been with
I'mma trust you I'mma give you the benefit of the doubt, and I'mma love you
You can even call me daddy, give you someone to look up to
Drake wants the woman he decides to be with to know her way around the bedroom, but not with too much experience—because then she's not worth loving. He can even spot “good” girl potential. On "Hold on, We’re Going Home," he sings: “Cause you’re a good girl and you know it/You act so different around me.” In an 2013 essay for NPR, music writer Ann Powers noted:
Popular music abounds with stories of women whose elusiveness leads men to mourn their virtue—and then, sometimes, to violently claim them anyway.
Drake's lyrics aren't violent, but his concept of love is closely related to ownership—on both sides of the relationship. On songs like "Wu-Tang Forever," "Own It," and "Furthest Thing", Drake reassures an estranged former girlfriend that that he still belongs to her. He injects his "good" girl expertise on Beyoncé's "Mine" by rapping:
I know you think it's funny that your ex is not a running back
But that nigga came running back
And you tell me that you’re done with that
And I believe it's true as long as you know who you belong to
In addition to making the world believe he's a sensitive nice guy, another notable Drake superpower is his ability to involuntarily empower women. On "My Side" he raps: "I empower girls that don't deserve it, I don't mean to do that shit on purpose." The songs (like "Best I Ever Had," "Make Me Proud," and "Plastic Bag") that Drake makes to "empower" women are often full of empty clichés; he tells women that he's super proud of them for working so hard, that they deserve all the money they make (for working), and that they are still pretty without makeup. Thanks?
Drake's ideal woman is goal-oriented, and he doesn't discriminate on career choices: His potential mate can be a stripper, superstar, or in college. Drake's empowered woman has her own life and money, but isn't exempt from salvation. She's in college pursuing a degree, but someone else is playing for her classes ("Or they go to Georgia State where, tuition is handled by some random nigga that live in Atlanta"), she can't hold her liquor so Drake has to help her ("Just throw up while I hold your hair back"), she's sexually liberated but lost ("I can taste pain and regret in your sweat"), or she's making her own bank as a stripper but Drake has to help her ("You go get fucked up and we just show up at your rescue"). Sometimes Drake can't assist all the women in his life ("The girl that I wanna save is like a danger to my health") or he can't get over the fact that they don't appreciate it ("Remember when you had to take the bar exam, I drove in the snow for you?"). It's counterproductive and insulting to praise women for their independence while boasting about how they still need your help.
In a 2010 interview with Katie Couric, Drake explained himself in a way that's the equivalent of a white person saying he can't be racist because he has a black friend. He said:
"I’m definitely not the type of guy who demeans women, I value women because one of the greatest women in the world raised me to be the guy that I am, so I could never not see the value of a woman."
We've seen Drake love his mother, obsess over Rihanna, buy snacks for Nicki Minaj, and support Serena Williams. But, we've also seen him slut-shame a woman (allegedly Rihanna) in a verse on 2Chainz's "No Lie," ("Chances are if she was acting up then I fucked her once and never fucked again/She could have a Grammy, I still treat her ass like a nominee/Just need to know what that pussy like so one time is fine with me"), use Nicki Minaj as a pawn to win his beef with Meek Mill, use an actual phone call from his ex-girlfriend on his song "Marvin's Room," and allegedly threaten a stripper, fearing she would tell the public they had sex.
I don't think Drake actually hates women. But it seems like he does have a problem: Letting pettiness get the best of him as a result of not being able to contain his bruised ego. Plus, this is all just fun for him. In the same interview, when asked about his lyrics demeaning women, he told Katie Couric:
“There’s a fine line between demeaning… And fun, and wit. A lot of the music that me and Wayne made, for example…it’s fun, it’s witty. ‘I Wanna F*** Every Girl In The World,' that’s one of our biggest songs. Is it to be taken literally and dissected? No. It’s more just fun, witty moments. Hip-hop has elements of comedy. Those make the best punch lines… I feel like to demean a woman is something completely different than what we do."
It's like Drake is self-aware without realizing the part he's playing in it all. And while it would be unrealistic to say I'm never going to dance and sing along to his songs, I won't let the catchy beats distract me from what he's really trying to say. Drake, I hear you.
Tahirah Hairston is a style writer from Detroit who likes Susan Miller, Rihanna's friend's Instagram accounts, ramen and ugly-but cute shoes.