Why is Drake so Popular?
How Drake Conquered Pop and Became the Most Influential Artist of Our Generation
“You’ve got me feeling emotions.” — Drake
While we can argue all day about the merits of our favorite MC, the fact is that one towers over the rest in terms of popularity. This artist has scores of hit songs that taken together, add up to over 1000 cumulative weeks on the Billboard Hot-100.
In terms of sheer dominance on the charts, no one comes close to Drake.
All of his 5 studio albums are certified platinum. 165 songs featuring him have made it to the Hot-100. Here’s a screenshot of the Billboard website from a couple of months ago.
Here’s a look at it today.
In terms of pure musical popularity, no other rapper or pop star comes close. The question then is, what makes Drake so successful?
Musical Trends — Sadness in Modern Music
Drake drives trends as much as he is driven by them. I wrote recently that music is getting sadder. It feels like some cultural force has been pulling us all down with its own tired gravity. If we measure the average valence (or positivity) of Billboard Hot-100 songs over the past two decades, it’s clear that they have been getting markedly more down-beat¹.
Using the same data² to measure the audio features of a song, the site Sentify³ can create dot plots of all tracks in an artist’s catalog. The below chart takes all of Drake’s songs and plots them on a 2x2 graph (positivity vs. energy).
Judging by all of those dots in the left-half of the graphs, we can see that the vast majority of Drake’s output sounds sad. For a point of comparison, let’s take a look at the same plot for the famously morose rock band Radiohead.
That left-leaning sad pattern emerges again. It’s as if Ok Computer was no longer a prophetic warning of a depressed, atomized, society but had instead become mainstream pop.
Hell Radiohead songs have a slightly higher average energy too. Even Kanye West had a phase in his career when he wrote bangers. Drake seems to have achieved an unprecedented level of success with songs that you can listen to in the bathtub.
Capturing the Zeitgeist — Technology, Globalism and Alienation
More than any other popular artist, Drake seems to understand the environment in which he operates. Both meme maker and meme himself, Drake uses technology as intimitely as his audience does. The man who rocks a Blackberry phone somehow managed to write the anthem to the text booty call⁴. As a child actor, his relationship to celebrity perfectly fits this social media age, where it’s ok to look ridiculous sometimes⁵. Drake doesn’t mind hiding in the bushes during a game of Fortnite.
As a Canadian, Drake’s worldview is also a bit more cosmopolitan than his peers. His music leans heavily on Caribbean sounds, dancehall, grime and even flirts with afrobeat⁶. By both taking advantage of and showcasing global trends, Drake is as ubiquitous as the internet, his style as diverse as the generation he represents.
And yet, even as the times we live in become darker, so too does Drake’s music. Studying song lyrics to measure their sentiment is a field of ongoing research⁷. Still, there is some evidence to suggest that song lyrics have gotten sadder over time⁸.
Drake’s music is no exception. The average sentiment score for his songs is -0.287, which is quite negative and close to the average for the 2010s.
Keeping it Danceable
With all this talk of mopey music, it’s easy to forget just how catchy Drake tunes are. This gets at the other big trend in music, an increase in song danceability. The plot below shows the average danceability of Billboard Hot-100 songs since 2000. Is it a coincidence that there is a spike upward in 2011?
Looking at just Drake’s hit songs, we see the same trend magnified.
Just as Kanye birthed Drake (and a few others), so too has Drake spawned scores of imitators. Though different musically, they all wear their sadness unapologetically as a badge of honor.
Drake didn’t invent songs about cold calling your ex, glorifying in ennui, or taking downers to get through the day, but he is arguably the poster child for all three. Newer songs like Sad! by XXXTENTACION more directly address these themes, signaling that depression in music has gone mainstream.
A League of His Own
In this new era of nihilistic rappers⁹, it’s worth pointing out that Drake still differs in some fundamental ways from his competition. For instance, in the summer of 7-track hip hop albums, Drake’s latest release ‘Scorpion’ is a double-record with a whopping 25 songs on it. It seems that even as a master of streaming services⁹ , Drake still thinks folks won’t skip through his songs on Spotify. If anything, the more successful he gets, the more music he wants to cram in.
While Kanye West is arguably the most influential musician of our time, Drake is by far the most successful. By perfecting Kanye’s brand of emotional hip hop and serving it to the masses, Drake has become both the captain of the zeitgeist and the paragon of the sad rapper.
It remains to be seen if Drake can stay on top of our collective consciousness and the charts. Like Kanye, will he become more of a supporting player to other artists? Or does the increase in the lengths of his albums show that success and celebrity have gone to his head?
One thing is for sure, music is forever changed because of him. Drake, the man who made it cool to mope, the millennial who embodied the euphoria and emptiness of our technological world, has made a lasting impact on us all.
2 —Spotify’s API provides a list of audio features for each song — https://developer.spotify.com/documentation/web-api/reference/tracks/get-audio-features/
4 — Those old Blackberry phones had a special LED to indicate unread messages. One of the first examples of a dopamine loop in a smartphone
7 — “Lyric sentiment analysis is not an easy task. Lyrics are more difficult to analyze than traditional senti-ment analysis corpora, such as movie reviews, be- cause they often express an emotion without using words that are sentiment-laden”