Aubrey Drake Graham, commonly known by his stage name “Drake,” is a modern-day Renaissance man, a jack of all trades. From acting in the role of Jimmy Brooks in Canada’s signature teen television show Degrassi, to hosting the 2014 ESPY awards with a combination of hilarious skits and songs. From working as the Toronto Raptors basketball team’s Global Ambassador, to becoming Grammy award-winning artist and innovative influencer in rap culture and commentary. If there’s one thing for sure, he definitely knows how to stay relevant. Almost too relevant, even, as he is also the root cause for the popularized use of the acronym “YOLO,” standing for “You Only Live Once.” While many of his commoner critics are concerned over the term’s transition from awe-inspiring to annoying, those within the music industry, specifically rap-naysayers, are opposed to rap’s inclination to be overly boastful and brash, and those within the rap genre are against his vocal combination of classic components of rap and his signature flair, both of which will be contested in this exhibit, Drake: Rap, Rhythm, and Rhyme.
The largest audible contrast between traditional “songs” and rap is the vocal delivery, the first is sung, while the latter is spoken. In addition, the lyrical content of most songs is centered around emotions that are generally considered to be more genuine and heartfelt, like love, pain, and anguish, while rap is infamous for being home to what some would call a cesspool of degrading references to money, drug abuse, and sexual activity. When combining the two points of analysis together, both vocal delivery and lyrical content, we arrive at the term “paralinguistics,” which entails vocal effects that are used to augment and/or alter the desired meaning and mood of the words being produced, an area of rapping which Drake’s voice has captured and captivated with.
Specifically in his “Forever” verse, which, fittingly, was written and recorded for the soundtrack of the "More Than a Game" documentary about professional basketball player LeBron James, Drake embodies a crucial, captivating blend of technical choices that illuminate his innovation and ingenuity not only in the sphere of rap, or even music, but the idea of voice as a whole. His paralinguistics dodge the stereotype of rap’s usual topicality by enlightening a empathic story of struggle to success and ambition against adversity through pause and pace, tone and timbre, and volume and vocal fermata. His specific angle on these tactics maintains the down-to-earth, almost-rough feel of classic hip hop, while revealing the emotional honesty in his rhyme and rhythm that is present in spoken word poetry, which rap is a derivative of. Though preserving these roots of rap, his vocal performance avoids the sneer and distatched disdain that other rappers (as will be seen with an audio recording from Childish Gambino) exhaust unto their audiences, and instead, offers a motivational and engaging conversation of his background and becoming that compels those who hear him to find commonality in and inspiration from. At heart, his voice speaks with, not at, his listeners.
In virtue of his array of ability and affect, Drake’s unique voice creates a channel of connection through the shared emotion and energy in his rap(s) that his audience can genuinely identify with, and subsequently, be inspired by. Ultimately, one does not listen to a Drake song to hear Drake. Instead, one truly listens to a Drake song to hear themselves, and in that self-reflective respect, Drake’s voice is captivating.
In this audio recording, we hear the voice of Drake rapping a verse from his song “Forever.” Drake’s diversity of vocal techniques is exemplified mostly through variation in pace, pitch, volume, and vocal fermata. He begins the verse with a constant, fluid flow of words that lacks any definite mid-phrase pauses for emphasis, but in the last four lines, he takes up a pattern of pacing that splits the last word from each phrase from the rest of its body with a pause for silence, before nailing it at the end with a higher volume. These four final words at the ends of the lines, which are metaphorical in nature, are also characterized by a vocalized fermata that Drake uses on them to stretch out their spans and strengthen their resonance, accentuating not only the rap’s rhythm and rhyme, but also the emotion and energy behind his message. While his high head register elevates the focal point of his story to one that comes from a place of reached prosperity, these other aforementioned tactics capture a certain inner drive to surpass hardship with hard work and succeed, captivating a relatable calling that is not of pride, but rather, genuine perseverance.
In this audio recording, we hear the voice of Childish Gambino rapping a couplet from his song “I Be On That.” As his placement of vocal pitch, power, and pace correspond to the respective rhythm of the background instrumental beat, Gambino’s paralinguistics are the primary source of vocal analysis. At the beginning of both phrases in the couplet, his syllables ricochet off of the seven evenly-distributed knocks from the beat, an effect that is compounded by his head register voice rapping over a lower-pitched instrumental. At the end of both phrases in the couplet, in which the pause in pace occurs, the instrumental sustains a silence gap where Gambino, now with a slightly lower, gnarling timbre, enters with a pair of rhyming, two-word metaphorical punchline that, fittingly, punches the silence with sound, before concluding with an snarl-spoken expletive. Here, we see the same pace as that of Drake’s “Forever” verse combined with slightly different paralinguistics, that convey a certain tint of cockiness, rather than confidence. Instead motivational story of a rise to rap’s throne, we hear a haughty vocalization someone who resonates that they have already been sitting atop of it.
In this audio recording, we hear the voice of Drake rapping a verse from his song “Forever” again, but unlike in the other clip, his raw voice is featured without the background instrumental beat. The absence of supporting music allows us to pinpoint certain tactics and themes about rap culture in general that the song excerpt didn’t, including internal beat, breath, timbre, and tone. Before he arrives at the first words of his verse, Drake is heard rebounding the rhythmic drum of the beat by repeating the vowel sound of “uh” with an anticipatory moan. This practice of preceding the rapping of a verse with non-linguistic vocals is common with the sphere of rap as it assimilates the rapper’s mind with the metronome of beat, which “gets them in the zone” to rap, as some would say. Furthermore, his audible respiration between lines speaks to the characteristic of quick flow that most raps carry, as the breathes themselves are very short and swift in duration, as if to connotate a swimmer bobbing his/her head up for water between each stroke, or in this case, line.
Because rap’s roots are ones that have origins in the concrete jungles of American cities, often revealing stories of strength through struggle, the rough, earthy timbre of Drake’s voice is critical to remaining grounded to both humility as opposed haughtiness, but also to the historical art form of rapping itself, as this is the most common approach to tone color in the genre. While Drake’s creativity in composition of other areas of his voice allows him to captivate the attention and allegiance of listeners over other competing rappers, his consistency with the aforementioned genre-specific guidelines heard in this audio recording allows him to retain his primary qualification as an authentic rapper as opposed to a full-on singer.
In this audio recording, we hear the voice of Jason Fotso performing a stanza from his poem “Reach.” Like the a cappella recording of Drake’s “Forever” verse, this one doesn’t have a background instrumental beat, which allows for a closer look at the techniques of breath, pace, pause, volume, and vocal fermata. As Drake did, Fotso begins the stanza with a constant, fluid flow of words that lacks any definite mid-phrase pauses for emphasis, but in the last four lines, (again, like Drake) he takes up a pattern of pacing that splits each phrase in half with a syncopated breath as a pause for silence, creating a tempo that has momentum in rhythm. In addition, his volume resets at the beginning of each of the aforementioned four lines and gradually rises until he reaches the last rhyming words (“art,” “Mars,” “stars,”and “scars”), where he then drags out the ending syllables, holds the words’ resonance with vocal fermata. His progressively elevating volume illuminates the thematic focus of “reaching,” and his stretched syllable sounds add a paralinguistic presence to his cosmos-based references, as he vocalizes both a unifying connection with the people and universe around him.
In this audio recording, we hear the voice of Rahul Sharma, a moderate listener of rap, discussing through a meta-vocal lens what he feels is the aura of ambition that is conveyed and created by Drake’s “Forever” verse. As aforementioned, Drake’s paralinguistic passion, and more significantly, precision, can be accredited to the atmosphere that is brought about by the song. The “effort” and “work” that Sharma refers to in his commentary is enunciated with Drake’s rough timbre and tone, the distinction between “whatever [unfavorable] situation you’re in” and “wherever you want [to be]” is emphasized with pauses in pace and breaks in phrases, and his gradually heightening volume for “whatever you have going against to” into a transition towards arriving “a certain level” allows the song to be seen as a motivational push for the aspirations of others who are ambitious against adversity, rather than simply a vocalized victory lap for the individual rapper himself. He captures, as opposed to looks down upon, the continued hard work of his listeners in their own respective lives, captivating their ears, and ultimately, their sense of hope.