“Sailin’ da South” or the Place of Southern Rap in Canadian Rapper Drake’s Musical Identity

“Born in Toronto but sometimes I feel like Atlanta adopted us.”—Migos ft. Drake, “Versace (Remix),” 2013.

In 2013, on the remix of “Versace,” Atlanta-based rap group Migos’s hit single, the Canadian rapper Drake took the opportunity to express his admiration for the ATL and its rap scene (Hiatt, 2019). More than a passing reference, with just one line, the multi-platinum artist has encapsulated the essence of his dual identity. Born in Toronto to a Jewish-Canadian mother and an African-American father from Memphis, Drake’s musical identity has been framed by this hybrid cultural heritage—Canada and the American South turning out to be his main sources of inspiration (Singh & Tracy, 2015: 98). As a long-time admirer of rap produced below the Mason-Dixon line, Drake has benefited from the external perspective—conferred by his Canadian identity—to digest this exotic influence. Coming of age in the mid-aughts, when the South was progressively replacing its coastal counterparts as the stronghold of American rap (Westhoff, 2011: 8), the Canadian rapper would unexpectedly spearhead the evolution of the genre (Serrano, 2015: 196).

If we retrace the history of Canadian rap, Drake is definitely not the first MC to have looked south for inspiration, but before him, most Canadian rappers had not ventured farther than US northern cities (Boutros, 2020: 100–101). Without undermining the impact of New York’s rap juggernauts, Jay-Z and Nas, if we were to map the Toronto rapper’s influences, the names of southern rap epicenters would stand out in bold characters. The languid productions of Houston’s Screwed Up Click, the introspective lyrics of Atlanta’s legend Andre 3000, and the dark melodies of the Memphian group Three 6 Mafia are all part of Drake’s sound. Yet, more than the music, Drake has also adopted the codes associated with the region’s sub-genres, conveying the image of the typical southern rapper through his shiny grills—the name given to the removable gold and diamond teeth popularized by southern rappers in the 2000s—and his double cup full of lean—Texas unofficial beverage, consisting of a mix of codeine cough syrup and soda (Brickner-Wood, 2022). Furthermore, from his discovery by Jas Prince—son of Houston’s rap mogul, J. Prince—to his successful collaborations with Miami’s rap star, Rick Ross, in the early 2010s and his signing to Young Money—the label of New Orleanian Lil Wayne—Drake’s path to stardom could have hardly been more southern. The South has not only shaped the Canadian rapper’s musical identity, but his family ties and the ones that he has built with the region have anchored his persona in a recognized, imagined space. 

From the get-go, rap emerged as the epitome of a place-based type of music. Born in the 1970s among the disenfranchised minority communities of the Big Apple’s inner-city neighborhoods, rappers strove to reflect the grim realities of their surroundings. A premium was soon put on place as a marker of authenticity through the practice of representing one’s neighborhood or hometown (French, 2017: 261–262). By the 1980s, it had led to the standardization of rappers’ triumphant tales along the lines of America’s idealized ticket to success. Rappers were portrayed as resourceful African-American or Latino men who, thanks to rap, were able to escape from a violent and poverty-ridden milieu (French, 2017: 261–262). A conception that remained largely undisputed until the mid-2000s and Kanye West’s sensational debut. The Chicago MC showed the way to success for other artists with a middle-class and noncriminal background (Serrano, 2015: 169–170). Drake, a former child actor raised in a Torontonian upper-middle-class neighborhood, greatly benefited from this paradigm shift (Serrano, 2015: 195–196). In a 2011 interview, he clearly acknowledged his indebtedness to Kanye—whom he mentioned alongside Andre 3000—for his impact on the music industry:

I think Kanye [West] deserves a lot of credit and Andre 3000 deserves a lot of credit for the shift in what you have to be to be a rapper, and what your music has to sound like. […] They made it OK to not necessarily be the most street dude. For me, I started to believe more in myself when I saw those two guys. I thought, “I’m good at rapping, so if they just respect the talent and don’t crucify you for what your past is or who you are, then I should be OK.” (Stern, 2011)

For all that, Drake did not discard his claim to authenticity, and his ambivalent relationship with place testifies to his enduring attachment to rap’s core values.

Early on, Drake played on his hybrid cultural heritage to bolster his credibility as a rapper (Pope, 2016: 17–18). For many Canadian rappers–including Drake–migrating to the US had been seen to be the only way to achieve mainstream recognition (Boutros, 2020: 100–102). In Drake’s case, this migration was as much physical as it was mental. Toronto and Canada offering little value in terms of authenticity, Drake rapidly associated his music with a more attractive imaginary: the American South. The result is a constant feeling of in-betweenness, especially on his earlier works, with, for instance, the opening track on his 2006 debut mixtape, Room for Improvement: “This right here is a Drake and DJ Smallz collaboration, so, I’m from Canada, my man’s from down South, you understand? The number one DJ in the South, to be exact.” Around that time, the South witnessed the resurgence of DJs through the development of mixtapes—promotional compilations available online for free—which usually saw an ambitious rapper and an established DJ join forces—the DJ’s presence asserting the rapper’s credibility (Westhoff, 2011: 188–189). Despite Drake’s apparent pride in his Canadian origins, the codes of southern rap were used to certify his rap persona. This quest for authenticity has not solely been illustrated by scattered references across songs and albums, but Drake’s visual DNA has also been partly constructed around this adopted identity (Pope, 2016: 15–16).

In 2014, Drake released the video for his single “Worst Behavior” off his third studio album, Nothing Was the Same. The video was shot in the streets of Memphis—his father’s hometown—and conveys a stereotypical depiction of the city and the American South as a whole, with allusions to its poverty and rural-ish landscape (Ibid.), which is an image held in the minds of many rap fans all across the world. Drake benefited from the presence of three of the city’s highly-revered MCs, with cameo appearances from Juicy J—a founding member of Three 6 Mafia—his brother Project Pat, and MJG—one-half of the iconic duo 8Ball & MJG (Singh & Tracy, 2015: 104). On the same album, “Started From the Bottom”—Drake’s anthem to upward mobility—is not distinctly southern but stays American in essence, following the pattern of the country’s much-cherished rags-to-riches stories. Yet, a long way from appropriating an ingenuine “urban struggle” (French, 2017: 262), Drake defined his own vision of the “bottom”—one that is both Canadian and middle-class (Boutros, 2020: 100–102). Despite the backlash that the song received from some of his American counterparts (Ibid.: 100), Drake showcased his mastery of adaptation, navigating freely between his cultural influences to bring the American Dream and—on a different scale—southern rap, closer to home (Ibid.). The secret of Drake’s longevity is precisely this ability to digest and adapt eclectic sources of inspiration to wide-ranging audiences. Although he has more than once come under fire for his alleged appropriation of foreign cultures—some considered him as a “culture vulture” (Persadie, 2019)—the Canadian rapper has stayed close to his early influences.

Nowadays, at the heart of Drake’s multi-faceted style, the South has remained an enduring element. Over the years, Drake showed his commitment to his southern roots with the release of songs and albums that inevitably seem to be drawn to Dixie’s bubbling rap scene, as shown by the release of collaborative projects with Atlanta rap stars Future and 21 Savage. Far from being a one-sided relationship, Drake’s music has come to reflect the influence of his sound on southern rap. Drake’s distinct style—between singing and rapping over southern-inspired productions—has laid the blueprint for the identity of the Toronto rap scene. The fusion of slow and low-filtered instrumentals with his phlegmatic voice and introspective lyrics has shaped the Queen City’s “nocturnal” sound (Whitmer, 2017). A style perfected by his fellow Torontonian singer The Weeknd, and that has transformed and broadened the average rapper’s palette—singing is now a requirement for any mainstream MC. This evolution was, again, best illustrated in Atlanta—the new epicenter of rap—with a new wave of singing rappers who took over the industry in the second half of the 2010s, in the light of the success of artists like Young Thug, Lil Baby, and Gunna (Caramanica, 2019). 

Just like DJ Screw and Houston rapper E.S.G., Drake has been Sailin’ da South—the title of a seminal H-Town record released in 1996 that Drake sampled for his album Take Care (Krastz, 2016). In constant dialogue with the region’s rap scene, the Canadian rapper borrows from its various sub-genres and, in return, shapes its creative direction. Drake has brought with him the rap culture of the Great North to the hot climate of the American South, and in recent years, the sounds of both regions have become increasingly intermingled. Canadian rap is now as much a part of Southern rap as the opposite, and Drake is the main architect of this evolution, which has led to the birth of his country’s original rap aesthetics. In spite of his adventures into remote musical territories to fuel his creativity, Drake is not one to forget about southern hospitality, since the South has remained his longest-lasting source of inspiration. Last September, Drake took the opportunity of a concert in the Big Peach to praise, once again, the city’s legacy: “Where would any of us be without Atlanta? All the love that you’ve shown, all the musicians that you’ve birthed, all the contributions that you give. This is hands down the most important place in rap music.” (my emphasis) (Elibert, 2023)

Noé Schwoehrer

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Citer ce billet
Liliane Bois-Simon (2024, 13 janvier). “Sailin’ da South” or the Place of Southern Rap in Canadian Rapper Drake’s Musical Identity. What Holds Canada Together ? Consulté le 15 juin 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/vkx7

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