Aubrey Drake Graham is the man who sends you a drink from across the bar and walks over right as you take the first sip, sidling up next to you to ask for the name of your lipstick shade. He can’t help it, really. The man is a simp of calculated, caricatural proportions. He’ll tell you the stain it leaves on your glass reminds him of the way the sun rises over Toronto, sanguine but delicate.
He’s used that line before. But you roll your eyes and catch yourself leaning in anyway. “It’s called ‘Diva’,” you hear yourself saying. “They told me this red is great on brown skin.”
He grins, a crooked smile-smirk that says, “I’m not going to ask if you’re a diva, but I’m thinking you are and I want you to know it.”
It’s almost seductive, the transparency of it all.
Drake makes no attempt to disguise his own marketing ploy; he’s engineered to seduce you. If Oscar Isaac is the internet’s boyfriend and Zayn Malik our “perpetual friend with benefits,” then Aubrey is the dweeb-y Friend’s Brother who’s been eyeing us since freshman year with minimal subtlety. And now, he’s the Degrassi graduate who got hot suddenly and knows it, newly dressed in the finest bravado money can buy. To write (or tweet or Instagram) lustfully about Drake feels like acquiescing to the same part of myself that buys “last-minute” items in the checkout line. His stock rom-com script is eye roll–worthy, but it’s still hot. In a word, it works.
Drake’s evolution into a sentient “no invite? ;)” text has played out in YouTube clips and GIFs seen ‘round the web. And the recipients of his most lit-up eyeball emojis are visibly, notably, and undeniably black women. It is, as Toronto native and esteemed Drake scholar Amani Bin Shikhan writes, “the intricacy with which diasporic hoods flirt and intermingle with each other” that creates Drake’s local context. Though the biracial rapper is undoubtedly Toronto's own, his blackness is so often (and so strangely) contested by the same white people whose ancestors birthed the One Drop Rule. And yet, unlike a certain fellow Scarborough native, he is most keen to publicly fan-girl over women who are wear-a-headscarf-at-night, hot-sauce-in-my-bag, dutty-wine black. From Nicki to Rihanna to Serena to every stripper in Houstatlantavegas, it’s black women who leave Drake in awe.
“No woman ever had me starstruck,” he raps on “Charged Up,” the first of two diss tracks lobbed at Nicki Minaj’s beau Meek Mill over the course of an ugly late 2015 meme war. The line is curious, a blatant falsehood for which the internet rightly provided receipts. Indeed, powerful black women have always knocked the wind out of Drizzy’s hookah-filled lungs.
Most recently, The Boy served as the semi-erect backdrop of Rihanna’s double-feature “Work” music video. Nearing almost tantric stimulation, Drake feebly braces himself as the resplendent Rihanna wines pon di ting in the video’s steamier first half. Set in Toronto’s Real Jerk restaurant, the bashment scene recalls '90s/early aughts dancehall videos and the Bad Gal’s own early career “Pon de Replay” era. The Bajan artist is every bit in her element, bubbling in the mirror as her own reflection entrances her.
Aloof and deeply awkward, Drake is less dance partner and more dance wall. He marvels at Rihanna (who among us is immune?) for good reason. She is majestic, her hips hypnotic. He’s hardly a potential beau and more like a makeshift mirror, a prop whose function is to reflect back Rih’s kaleidoscopic hotness. And if Drake’s love interest in this video is Rihanna, then Rihanna’s is…also Rihanna. It is not hard to adore Rih, but it is damn near impossible to be her equal. It’s by no means the first time she’s reduced him to putty in her hands, and it won’t be the last. Rihanna makes Drake her pet video vixen, her sweatpants-clad mannequin. This is her show, and The Boy is a glorified extra.
That any man could have played Drake’s role in “Work” is evident, and Drake must know it, too. And yet, he continues to play along, grateful simply to bask in her glow. In the video, his function is decorative, ornamental. And lyrically, his verse on the track itself is limp, unmatched to Rih’s slow but steady patois lilts. “If you had a twin, I would still choose you” is a real thing he says. It is the perfect crystallization of Drake The Brand, a vaguely complimentary string of words that means little but still ostensibly highlights how Special(™) a woman is.
But Drake is still arguably the most powerful genre-bending artist in the current pop culture landscape, a sex symbol whose bulked-up, bearded ascent into Heartthrob Status came as a destabilizing surprise. RiRi included, the black women who bring him to his knees are beholden first and foremost to themselves, regarding his public affections with a sense of amusement. Because to be a black woman in the entertainment industry or elsewhere is to have to work twice as hard for that recognition. When men like Drake dish it out so generously, if also nauseatingly, it’s noteworthy despite its prickly bits.
Nicki Minaj effectively broke Drake in the video for her 2014 single “Anaconda,” and the GIFs of her lap dance on (though not for) a disbelieving Drizzy traveled far and wide at lightning speed. It wasn’t the first time he’d publicized his puppy love for her, but it was the most comically relatable. In a video filmed at a corner store and uploaded that same month, Nicki smiles gleefully as Drake buys her “mad snacks.” He follows her around the bodega like a small animal, content to purchase any high fructose corn syrup–filled, sodium-laden item her heart desires. “Just throw it in the bag,” you can practically hear him thinking. It was meme fodder of the most delicious variety, the kind of video that both epitomized #RelationshipGoals and poked fun at its own conceit.
But if there is any woman who has made a proper power bottom out of Drake, it is the incomparable Serena Williams. When rumors of their coupling surfaced (again) last summer, Drake was spotted supporting Serena everywhere. On the tennis court. At the New York Fashion Week premiere of her HSN clothing line. She sat in his lap when they kissed at restaurants, but Aubrey was very much the lapdog. He smiled with negative chill, practically radiating disbelief that a woman of her stature would continue to entertain the overly enthusiastic Canadian ball boy following her around. The jokes wrote themselves.
Still, their coupling held weight. Here was Drake publicly adoring a black woman who is so often compared to men, to horses, to any manner of insults. That Serena does not have the slender physique, thin features, or light skin of women like Rihanna and Beyoncé, whom even a casual racist might list as Hot Black Girls, is not insignificant. The details of their breakup notwithstanding, his public affection was yet another reminder that Drake loves him a black girl. Hard. Even when they’re not as keen on blowing those kisses right back.
To Erykah Badu, Aubrey is “a friend;” to Aubrey, Erykah is a sage. Aaliyah, whose face Drake has tattooed on his body, never knew he existed. Beyoncé knows Drake wishes she “was [his] pound cake.” Professional basketball player Skylar Diggins kissed Drizzy dutifully on the forehead after he read a love poem about her at the 2014 ESPYs. Zoe Kravitz’s name practically fell out of his mouth during an early Fader interview.
If you pay close enough attention, the idea that Drake is both the internet’s biggest dork and verified fuckboy is hardly surprising. Only the kind of man who would send “Lol you crazy, wyd” texts accompanied by the meme du jour could earnestly call himself “Champagne Papi.” Men like Drake, who send lengthy drunken voicemails when they inevitably fuck up, are a Molotov cocktail of unprocessed emotions and juuuuust enough charisma to keep you coming back. They wield their own sentimentality as a means to possession. Hip-hop has long served black women love at the same table as degradation, and Drake’s version is hardly new. To the extent that sexism in hip-hop has always been our problem, Drake’s particular kind of misogyny is, too.
But exhausting though his laser-focused attention may be, it is distinct. The women Drake names and pines after — dancers and students and waitresses who broke his heart — all have names like “Bernice and Yaris,” ethnicities like Ethiopian and Somali, and hometowns like Houston and Atlanta. They comprise a veritable patchwork of black womanhood, a cornucopia of objectification that Drizzy draws almost exclusively from the African diaspora. In a climate where rappers clamor for women whose phenotypes betray as little of their African features as possible, his unapologetic reverence is, if nothing else, mildly refreshing.
The spectacle of Drake’s public thirst is as much a story about black women’s power as it is a reflection on Champagne Papi himself. For black women, Drake’s appeal is in part informed by his function as a mirror, funhouse or otherwise. Here is a man who celebrates us and exclusively us, regardless of how meteoric his rise to fame and facial hair continues to be. The nature of that praise is complicated, but its impact feels undeniable.
We may not belong to him (or even want him), but The Boy is ours.