(The Root) — Drake's new album, Nothing Was the Same, sold more than 658,000 units in its first week, with the single "Hold On, We're Going Home" demoting Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" from the No. 1 spot on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. The Toronto-born-and-bred MC's personal best week ever puts him in second place this year to Justin Timberlake's The 20/20 Experience in most first-week album sales.
Damn! At least the people agree on something: Drake has the pedal to the metal on pop culture. The numbers don't lie. And neither do I.
As a hip-hop scholar and aficionado, I'm always asked to reveal my favorite rapper. That's difficult because it assumes that hip-hop culture is a static lifestyle with fixed ideas, perspectives and modes of storytelling. So I'm usually quite skeptical about naming just one person to the throne. I've resolved this issue by creating "Dr. Joyce's 2013 AP Class of MCs." Right now my No. 2 Advanced Placement MC is Aubrey "Drake" Graham, and here are three reasons the singer-rapper gets prime real estate on my list:
1. Drake is hip-hop's clutch MC. In basketball there is the point guard, and then there's that whiz kid shooter positioned just beyond the three-point arc during win-or-lose moments. He's primed to take the shot when the ball touches his hand. Swoosh! Nothing but net with the flick of an accurate wrist. That's Drake. When he gets the ball, he scores. Love him or hate him. His form might not be the same as the others' — he might even look corny when he plays — but still, he makes it happen, forcing everyone who loves the game to respect him.
2. Like Drake's sentiments in "Furthest Thing," my taste in music is "somewhere between psychotic and iconic" — which brings me to the second reason Drake is my clutch player. Somewhere within the extremes of off-the-wall madness and vogue exceptionality, the 26-year-old megastar feminizes hip-hop, and that's not a bad thing. As I wrote that last sentence, I could feel my hypermasculine, overly aggressive hip-hop heads saying, "Hip-hop ain't 'bout feminizing."
Actually, it is. Hip-hop is rooted in the womb of safe spaces that offer opportunities to celebrate success as well as express frustrations, vulnerabilities, secrets and codes about love, loss, grief and hustling. Somewhere along the way, many MCs neglected to remember this. Not Drizzy.
Of the 15 songs on his 69-minute compilation, nine of them address relationship issues with women, family and friends. The others are odes to poppin' bottles, cashin' big checks or falling victim to the beguiling female passions. Funny how he always seems to refer back to experiences with love and lust even when he veers off into the brash braggadocio of hip-hop.
3. Whether through sampling, interpolations or features, NWTS honors the past, present and future of hip-hop culture. I can hear Fat Pat's verse from "25 Lighters" chopped and screwed on "Connect," as well as crunk inspiration from Lil Jon's "Who U Wit" on "Started From the Bottom." More than anything, however, Drake populates NWTS with references to Wu-Tang Clan, showing his special affinity for the mark Wu left on hip-hop.
I'm a huge fan of the nine-member collective, owning all Clan and solo member albums, along with the Wu-Tang Manual, which the group's primary producer, The RZA, published in 2005. Suffice it to say, my Wu roots run deep, and so do Drake's. It's clear on a couple of cuts: "Pound Cake," which features Jay Z and a Timbaland-inspired interpolation of Wu's "C.R.E.A.M."; "Worst Behaviour," a nod to Ol' Dirty Bastard; and "Tuscan Leather," one to Cappadonna.
Drake flips the title of the Clan's 1997 double album, Wu-Tang Forever, to create a song of the same name. Injected throughout Drake's version are samples from Wu-Tang's "It's Yourz." However, Drake adds new meaning to what the Clan originally intended as an ode to their Staten Island, N.Y., roots. For Drake, "It's Yourz" refers to the hip-hop game and his feelings for a woman when he raps, "What make me think about the game girl/and how I switched it up wit' a new thang/Young nigga came through on his Wu-tang/And nowadays when I ask about who got it, they say 'it's yourz'." For that line, Drake gets a C for courageous confidence because he cleverly claims the girl and the game as his.
Nothing Was the Same is not Drake's best album if measured against Take Care, his Grammy-winning sophomore collection. More than anything, though, NWTS captures how comfortable Drake is in his own skin. He has put together a solid concept album. He's mastered the art of articulating his rhymes without amorphous obscurity, although he's often criticized as the sappy, corny-acting rapper who takes up way too much studio time airing a laundry list of emotions through an annoying, nasal-tinged voice. Like an awkward-shooting three-point baller, Drake has learned how to motivate off the hate.
But Drake is also my No. 2 fave right now because his life stories force me to think about my own emotions. Like my mother says, I'm a poor little black girl from the South who, like Drake, started from the bottom, and now I'm here. I can only imagine how many other people — be they hip-hop heads or not — can truly empathize with how humble beginnings, messy relationships and a commitment to the grind of life can lead to personal success.
Clearly, I don't mean success as it relates to cash money. I mean courageous success. That peak moment when grace meets grind. Emo rap or not. It's hip-hop at its finest.
Joycelyn A. Wilson is an assistant professor at Virginia Tech and a Hiphop Archive alumnus fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University.