Drake superior

The former ‘Degrassi’ actor is being hailed as the next hip-hop superstar. Is he also Rihanna’s new man?

Drake superiorDrake may be the first rapper to talk about how his mom disapproves of his car. The former Degrassi: The Next Generation star used his acting money to lease a Rolls-Royce Phantom in order to fit into the world of hip hop—and he’s not too proud to admit, in his song Say Whats Real, that that kind of thing doesn’t go over well at home. “And my mother embarrassed to put my Phantom out / So I park about five houses down / She said I shouldn’t have until I have the crown / But I don’t wanna feel the need to wear disguises around / So she wonder where my mind is / Accounts in the minus / But yet I’m rolling round the f–kin’ city like your highness.”

For Drake, who is being hailed as the next hip-hop superstar, it must be difficult to reconcile a blinged-out lifestyle with home—which is Forest Hill, a tony, predominantly Jewish neighbourhood in Toronto. Born Aubrey Drake Graham (he goes by Aubrey Graham when acting, and Drake when singing), his parents split when he was young. His father is an African-American musician who lives in Memphis, and his mom, who is white, raised him in Toronto, where he was bar mitzvahed. “I didn’t go to Hebrew school though,” he told Peter Rosenberg, a popular Jewish hip-hop talk show host. “I cheated. I collected the money.”

At 13, he landed on the Canadian teen melodrama Degrassi: TNG playing Jimmy Brooks, a wealthy kid and basketball star who ends up in a wheelchair after a bullied classmate—whom Jimmy had befriended—shoots him in the school hallway. Not exactly the kind of bullet wound he can brag about to his hip-hop peers, like his mentor Lil Wayne, who has a few weapons arrests and claims to have shot himself accidentally with a .44-calibre when he was 12.

Drake acknowledges his less-than-thug upbringing, joking to Rolling Stone magazine that he has to overcome the three strikes against him: “Being an actor, light-skinned and Canadian.” So far, it’s all been easily surmountable. Record companies Universal and Atlantic are rumoured to be jockeying for him, with a $2-million upfront figure being thrown around. His coming-out show at S.O.B.’s in New York City had all the big names in the crowd, including Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Bun B and Talib Kweli—and was positively reviewed by the New York Times, the Village Voice and Rolling Stone, who named him the “hottest MC in the game” and a “22-year-old prodigy.”

While Canada has never produced an A-list international hip-hop star—sorry, Maestro Fresh Wes—neither Drake’s Canadianness nor his years on a teen soap have deterred legends like Dr. Dre and Jay-Z from collaborating with him. And famous, beautiful women are none too bothered by the hue of that handsome face. Just check the tabloids for gossip about how Drake is the new man in the dramatic life of young R & B star Rihanna. Despite PDA sightings at bowling alleys and celebrity record release parties, the official word is they’re just friends, and he’s writing some new material for her. It almost seems justifiable when he boasts on one song, “Buzz so big I could probably sell a blank disc.”

Up until now though, he’s recorded and self-released four “mixtapes” over the Internet—also bankrolled by all that Degrassi money. The last one, So Far Gone, came out in February and the Toronto release party was hosted by NBA superstar LeBron James. The album itself, according to Rolling Stone, was “critically lauded for its mix of melody and deft lyricism. But some derided the work as a knock-off of Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak due to Drake’s crooning and female-flavoured numbers.” The next album is already titled Thank Me Later, and the hottest collaborators have been lined up—Drake just needs to decide on a label.

While his Forest Hill neighbourhood isn’t synonymous with black music, Drake did have some pretty heavy-hitting influences in his life. He spent summers in Memphis with his father, Dennis Graham, who was a drummer for Jerry Lee Lewis and friends with Muhammad Ali. His grandmother, he says, babysat Louis Armstrong. One of his uncles, Larry Graham, was the bassist in Sly and the Family Stone and played with Prince. Another uncle is guitarist Mabon “Teenie” Hodges, who co-wrote Take Me to the River and Love and Happiness with Al Green.

And then there’s Drake’s story of how he started rapping, which, as told to the Complex blog, almost sounds too “legit” to be true: “My dad was in jail for two years and he shared a cell with this dude who didn’t really have anyone to speak to. So, he used to share his phone time with this dude and at the time I was probably 16 or 17, this dude was like 20 or 22, and he would always rap to me over the phone—it was Poverty, that was his rap name. I started to get into it and I started to write my own s–t down. He would call me and we would just rap to each other. And after my dad got out I kept in touch with the dude and eventually I accepted the fact that I wanted to be in music.”

It was around that time that Drake started handing out CDs at his day job, on the Degrassi set. The cast and crew immediately recognized his talent and encouraged him to give a disc to the show’s co-creator Linda Schuyler, thinking this was something he could showcase on the series. According to Schuyler, Drake (he’s still Aubrey to her) was hesitant. “He said, ‘I do some swearing on it and I don’t know if I want Linda to hear it.’ Which is so cute.” The other problem with bringing his music to the show, says Stefan Brogren, who plays Snake in both the original Degrassi and in The Next Generation, was that Drake didn’t think his character Jimmy would rap. “We said whatever rap you do it doesn’t have to be Drake-level hip hop,” says Brogren, who is also one of the series’ directors. “In fact, it needs to be less. He did do it in the end. And I think he was happy.”

Schuyler, Brogren and Degrassi’s screenwriters are impressed by his skills. “The writers,” says Schuyler, “say his lyrics are eloquent, clear, honest and he’s going through a lot of genuine self-examination.” Adds Brogren: “I find his lyrics really truthful about who he is, the darker side, though. He’s half-black, half-Jewish, with a white mom—so many different backgrounds that he maybe never felt accepted in certain circles. It would feel false if he was talking about gangbanging, but he raps about his experience.”

Actually, he mostly raps about his ladies. R & B queen Mary J. Blige has named him the “saviour” on the basis of his song Best I’ve Ever Had. “The kid Drake is the best,” she told a camera crew at Summer Jam ’09. “I love what they’re singing about, they’re bigging up women again. They’re making women feel special. It came to the point where women were just bitches and hos, and he came around and said, ‘You the best.’ ” In interviews, Drake works the sensitive side. “I’m single,” he told a female radio host in April. “Twenty-two and very much single. Very good man. I like to cook. I like to throw on sweatpants and cook—give a nice massage. But I like women though, women who have a presence and self-awareness, and who are educated, ambitious and funny.” If the rumours are true, Rihanna may have found herself a keeper this time around.

“My God, you look at those two faces together,” Schuyler gushes about Drake and Rihanna, “and you think, that’s pretty stunning.” She’s proud like a mom, and rightfully so—she’s the one who spotted him at 13. “We were looking for an athletic, friend-of-everybody type,” she says. “Aubrey had a charm about him, and a warmth, that same beautiful smile he has now. He was green as anything, but willing to do whatever it takes.” When the series broke big in the U.S., the cast members did a string of mall tours south of the border. “We would get 3,000 or 4,000 kids and Aubrey even then had this aura about him as a rock star.”

But can a Canadian child TV star handle all that’s expected of him and all that goes along with the stardom he seems destined for? The paparazzi are on the prowl for the hotly anticipated photo of him and Rihanna. He’s threatening to sue a Canadian label that released an unauthorized album of his; he’s got a public beef with fellow Toronto rapper Kardinal Offishall. And he’s the target of an Internet backlash—that most artists don’t experience until they’ve at least had a No. 1 album—which led to an allhiphop.com editorial: “The hate toward him is puzzling considering what he’s achieving before our eyes. Is there loathing because he’s got a shot with Rihanna? Or that he is a fair-skinned, half-Jewish Canadian and not from the South Bronx or the Dirty South? Perhaps the hate stems from his close link with another ‘detested’ (and million-in-one-week-selling) rapper, Lil Wayne?”

This certainly wasn’t something that the original Degrassi kids ever had to worry about. No one from Zit Remedy was going to be courted for a recording contract.

The latest stars of the show, who came in last year after Drake’s character Jimmy had graduated, must be psyched. Instead of fading into the distance, maybe doing a guest spot on Degrassi every once in a while (as many of the graduates tend to do), Aubrey Graham changed his name and career path and is making surprise appearances on The Tonight Show—he showed up there last week with Jamie Foxx. “It’s like he’s a unicorn,” says Brogren. “The new kids are realizing, ‘Oh my God, he was on the show and he’s about to pop.’ I’m sure a lot of them are inspired to start their own rap crews now.”

By the time they get themselves established, expect Drake to be conquering something else. He’s been relishing the Will Smith comparisons: “I’m going to have the movies and s–t,” he promises. Mom should probably start clearing out the driveway.