IN THE SUMMER OF 2003 I WAS unanimously considered the best rapper at Camp Walt Whitman in Piermont, New Hampshire. Looking back, I may have been even better than I gave myself credit for. I had a sophisticated sense of timing and was dexterous with internal rhyme schemes. Sam Rosen/Flow’s chosen/To make folks frozen, like naked hobos in Hoboken. Rap was part of my identity there. I gave album suggestions, settled arguments, and in my most important contribution, organized the camp’s first-ever rap battle. It happened late one night, after dozens of hopefuls had scribbled in their notebooks and rhymed in the shower for weeks. We tried our best to recreate the dark, musty setting of 8 Mile—there were forty of us and we packed in close, left only one light on in the center of the cabin, and used an extra shower head as a microphone. Everyone had given himself a moniker. Jesse Goldberg was “Dr. Dreidel,” and I coined myself “20 Shekel,” evoking the bravado and ruthlessness of 50 Cent, whose Get Rich or Die Trying was the anthem of our summer spent canoeing and playing whiffle ball.
LAST YEAR, I SAW EXACTLY who I would have become had I never retired 20 Shekel and just went on rapping. His name is Lil Dicky—a white, upper-middle class Jewish rapper from the suburbs of Philadelphia. Richmond University, class of 2010. When his first music video went up on YouTube, it got one million views in 48 hours.
I will argue that no white rapper in the entire world is as consumed by his whiteness as Lil Dicky. Most white rappers have one mediocre catharsis track where they exhume their anxieties about doing Black music; Lil Dicky is trying to build a career out of this tension, and so far he’s pulling it off. What makes Dicky so fascinating, though, is how directly he seems to embody the bizarre logic of conscious appropriation: he is constantly lamenting the fact that he is not Black while simultaneously celebrating the spoils of white privilege.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the video for a song called “White Dude.”
The video shows Lil Dicky gleefully celebrating all the spoils of white privilege. He smokes weed in broad daylight in front of a police car, drives a BMW into the driveway of a gorgeous suburban home, and eats nutritious food while his Black friend opts for a cheaper, less healthy option. Where I eat at when I’m high is where they eat at to survive— food chains! At one point, Lil Dicky simply extends his bare arm to compare skin color with a Black man. As the camera pans up, our protagonist is grinning while his friend looks blank and defeated. Dicky is pretty happy to be a man, too— he’s happy not to have to “cake on my makeup,” “eat dick, and he doesn’t have to “speak to his mother to still love her.” When his girlfriend presents him with a positive pregnancy test, he simply waves his hand and leaves the room. “If I impregnate I can pack a bag and be on my way, but good luck, girl!” It’s amazing, really, the way the song so explicitly outlines the realities of white supremacy and patriarchy, and then tells us that has nothing to do with Black people.
But Lil Dicky also sees his whiteness as the greatest tragedy of his career. This pain is everywhere, but he has an entire song dedicated to it, called “How Can I Become a Bawlaa?” The song is basically a list of all the rap tropes he doesn’t have access to do because he’s white. “I just wish I could say Black things,” he laments.
Lil Dicky is grounding his entire narrative in the tension we were navigating at summer camp— the cover of his mixtape is a panned-out shot of him standing in the middle of a gigantic, on-fire star of David— and he’s off to a nice start. That his videos can garner millions of views in a few days is a testament to how many white rap fans relate to his position, the same one I struggled with as a 13-year-old. In a recent appearance on AXS TV, Dicky’s interviewer, a fellow white guy, said this: “That’s what I love about your music, man. You paint the perfect picture of what it’s like to struggle as a white, heterosexual, middle-class male. And hip hop needs that.” The audience chuckles awkwardly, but Lil Dicky remains serious. “Yeah,” he says, “there’s a big voice out there that’s not represented in hip hop.”
IF LIL DICKY HAD LAUNCHED HIS CAREER when I was at summer camp, he would have been everyone’s second-favorite rapper, but our favorite—by a mile—would have been Drake. Drake’s third album Take Care won this year’s Grammy for best rap album and the reception to his recently-released Nothing Was the Same cements him, if Take Care hadn’t already, as one of the very biggest stars in music. He’s handsome and charismatic and talented. But there’s something else going on that has put Drake on top of the world’s most popular kind of music, and it has so much to do with the kind of tension that Lil Dicky is navigating.
Drake is, according to lildicky.com, LD’s favorite rapper, something that is both interesting and incredibly obvious. Drake is Dicky’s favorite, and would have been 20 Shekel’s favorite, and maybe is my favorite today, because he is the only person that stands at the absolute center of race and identity in hip hop.
The details of Drake’s life combine to form a racial identity that far more complex than Drake simply being thought of as a Black man. This is true partially because Drake has a Black father and a white mother, but that’s not the only reason. J. Cole, for instance, also has a Black father and a white mother, and he would never receive a critique like the one rapper Kool A.D. (of Das Racist) leveled at Drake, tweeting: “i like the new Drake album but 1. he didn’t start from the bottom 2. he says nigger a few too many times 3. he seems to hate poor people. [sic]” Here lies the complexity: Drake is Jewish, an identity that today in America is deeply coded as white. Yet Drake is also universally recognized as Black, because if you have a Black parent in America then you’re Black. Drake is not the only Black Jew in this country, but he is coded as both in a way that would seem impossible if we couldn’t watch him pull it off.
Drake is Black and white and hood and suburbs and introspective and aggressive and delicate and hyper-masculine. He was formerly a child actor on the teen drama Degrassi, but his mentor is Lil Wayne. His video for the recent single “Started from the Bottom” shows Drake working a boring job at a convenience store and living in his mother’s house— his idea of the bottom, as Kool A.D. notes, is decidedly middle class.
The richest example of Drake’s embodiment of this paradox is the video for Take Care’s “HYRF (Hell Yeah Fuckin’ Right).” The song features Drake at the peak of his powers. He raps the middle of his verse in a single, spellbinding breath. He is powering through his words, but enunciates everything perfectly as he recounts a failed relationship—in mere seconds we learn where she went to school, who’s paying her tuition, where they ate on their first date, how long they waited to have sex, and the details of their last awkward texting session.
But you could watch the video on mute and still glean its importance—the song itself is completely tangential to the brilliance of the video. The first frame is actual footage of a young Aubrey at his bar mitzvah. A white relative bends down to ask him if he has anything to say to the camera. “Mazel tov!” he beams, adorably. “On October 24th 2011 Aubrey “Drake” Graham chose to get re-bar mitzvah’d as a re-commitment to the Jewish religion,” the screen reads as little Aubrey dances awkwardly at his actual party. “The following is a clip displaying the events that took place…” And then there he is, all grown up, standing outside an enormous Miami synagogue with his entourage, reading carefully from the Torah as the rabbi assists him. He kisses the ends of his talis, his prayer shawl, and touches it gently to the scroll, just like I did in 2003. It’s a sold-out show—the pews are packed with white family members and Black rap celebrities. Brian “Birdman” Williams, CEO of Drake’s Cash Money Records, is sitting between DJ Kahled and an old white lady. Everyone wears the same proud smile. The candle-lighting ceremony—all of the shout-outs that a Jew ever gets to make, crammed into fifteen minutes—features R&B star Trey Songz and more tequila than cake, and segues into a cultural dance orgy. White uncles make out with Black supermodels; Drake’s cousins chug Maneschevitz and break furniture with Lil Wayne.
Drake is the hip hop Rorschach test. Do you see a Black guy acting a little “too white,” or the opposite, like Kool A.D. does? You can hate Drake or love Drake for basically the same reasons. Drake would have meant everything to us at summer camp if he had been around when we were that age, because he would have been “Black enough” for us to accept him as an authentic rapper, yet “white enough” for us to feel like we could claim and celebrate him without being ashamed. Drake would have given us a deeper level of closeness with the Black music we were dying to feel and understand. I still experience that impulse, but now I better understand how wary I should be of embracing it.
FOR PEOPLE WORRIED ABOUT THE appropriation of Black music, Drake poses an interesting dilemma. You can’t call his music appropriation, because he’s obviously Black, but the reception of his music has the potential to feel an awful lot like appropriation if you choose, reasonably, to look at Drake as a Jewish guy who makes great rap music. Luckily for the concerned, Drake’s music provides plenty of fodder for leveling a veiled critique of the very complicated racial politics he represents. Drake talks about love and intimacy in a way that is more interesting and layered than almost any of his peers. Most rappers love songs are about women; Drake’s are about how men feel about women. Drake is not a feminist—far from it—but his perspective is unique for a genre whose mainstream rarely leaves the strip club unless it’s going straight to the parking lot to get a blowjob in the Maybach. “I’ve had sex four times this week—I’ll explain,” he coos shamefully on “Marvin’s Room.” “[I’m] having a hard time adjusting to fame.”
If you want to critique Drake these days, this is where you hit him. You frame him as soft, weak, overly sensitive, possibly homosexual. There is a Twitter account, @DrakeTheType, with almost half a million followers whose soul purpose is to churn out these kind of jokes. All the tweets start the same way, “Drake the type of nigga…”: “…to make a photo collage for his homeboy’s birthday.” “…to put a condom on to kiss a girl.” “…that won’t use hand sanitizer because he feels guilty about killing germs.” “…to try and pay for a grape he ate the grocery store.” “…that would get nudes from a girl then photoshop clothes back on her body….” “…who wears a robe and fuzzy slippers in the morning.” These jokes are not relegated solely to the world of Internet shenanigans. Kendrick Lamar, the newest insurgent rap king, recently boasted in a verse at the BET Awards that he “tucked a sensitive rapper back in his pajama clothes,” and in the morning the music media was abuzz about how Kendrick dissed Drake without even mentioning him by name.
The point of these jokes is to weaken Drake by framing him as rap’s most prominent poser, and more specifically as something less than a real Black man. Dissing Drake is great self-promotion for Kendrick Lamar— whose good kid, m.a.a.d city, is adored by serious fans (and features a lovely verse from Drake) but whose commercial success so far comes nowhere near that of the “sensitive rapper”— because it both boosts his credibility with purists and increases his profile with mainstream fans. White fans do this too— condemning Drake is one of the quickest ways to show that you’re a fan of “real” hip hop. I used to do this—my favorite way was to call him by this first name, Aubrey.
But this critique of Drake is so transparent. Instead of critiquing Drake for being white, we critique him for being soft. Instead of explicitly saying that Drake’s success feels a little like the most complex form of appropriation of Black music, because it brings fans like me a little closer to ownership of the music than maybe we should be, everyone just calls him a pussy. Drake is not a “real” rapper, so if Drake makes you feel a special connection with hip hop then you’re just fooling yourself. Problem solved.
Ironically, this critique calls on the classic, pernicious tropes of Black masculinity that rappers like Kendrick Lamar are so heavily praised for dismantling. Casting Drake to the periphery of hip hop culture—when he’s very obviously at its core— requires championing the same ideas that many are, rightly, so worried will spread through misguided appropriation of Black music: that Black men are violent thugs, that Black women are hoes not worthy of true personhood.
Drake often boasts that he plans to a very important rapper for a long time. I happen to think he’s right, but probably not in the same way he does. In 2013, as this country incessantly asks whether we are finally “post-race” in a way that proves that we obviously aren’t, Drake is the rare public figure whom we’ve been able to deem both white and Black, and really mean it, without having our brains explode. We don’t often get figures like Drake in American culture, someone who simultaneously makes us think so much about race without letting us barricade ourselves behind tropes and stereotypes. So Drake will continue to be incredibly meaningful as a measurement of racial ideology in America because how we think of him will say so much about where we are. It doesn’t matter if he wins 15 Grammys or his career fizzles out—either outcome would be a powerful referendum on our collective racial consciousness. His career has absolute value meaning. When your success is just as meaningful as your failure, you have power that not even Drake himself has likely ever dreamed of.