Yesterday it was announced that Taylor Swift sold 1.3 million copies of her new album 1989, meaning that she moved more records in one week than any other artist has of any new album in the entirety of the past 10 months. This was appropriately being noted as a historic feat before it was even confirmed, but it is not the most impressive capitalist achievement the music industry has seen in 2014. That, instead, would be everything Drake has done this year.
Last week, Drake put three new songs up on his Soundcloud. Twitter immediately flipped out, as it does, but Drake portrayed the tracks as mere throwaways he tossed online because his arm was being twisted. "Just 3 songs that I knew some hackers had," he tweeted. "But enjoy! Back to this album." Rappers float tracks to the internet all the time now—with hip-hop as an industry as fractured as its been since its inception, new songs get dumped online daily with no warning. For most rappers these days, this is where the process ends. A track goes on Soundcloud or YouTube and that more or less becomes its permanent home.
But Drake isn't most rappers, and in 2014 he has proven himself to be in a class of his own. One of those three tracks he released to his Soundcloud is called "How Bout Now."
It's a good, but not particularly great, Drake song. With its iced-over Jodeci sample and painfully confessional lyrics, it sounds more of a piece with his 2011 album Take Care than any of the sneering, chest-thumping tracks he's released in 2014. It should be a song important only to Drake completists—more Drake songs, better Drake songs, more purposefully professional Drake songs are surely on their way. When most rappers put out a loosie like "How Bout Now," it rarely makes much of a discernible impact. But Drake is not most rappers.
This week—the same week in which Taylor Swift tops Billboard's album charts for selling 1.3 million copies of her album—"How Bout Now" debuted on the R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart.
In a vacuum, these are barely comparable accomplishments. The scale of a million albums being sold is far grander than a song being played on one small sliver of the radio. But the thing about "How Bout Now" is that Drake didn't even actively try and get the song on radio, contrary to long established music industry customs. He simply put "How Bout Now" on his Soundcloud account and it instantly trickled up to radio on its own.
This route is much more unlikely than it sounds. The pool of songs that get radio play nowadays—in any format—is constantly shrinking: popular songs are more popular than ever (think of how many times you unwillingly heard "Happy"), leaving every other song at increasing risk of getting left out in the cold. This is perhaps even more acute at rap and R&B radio stations, which this year have turned to playing songs by interlopers like Sam Smith and Disclosure as a means of survival. The result is that even established artists like Rick Ross, Future and Usher—rap and R&B's comfortable middle class—have surprising trouble breaking singles to their core audience. Those three artists, for example, have released something like ten official singles this year combined, and only two—Future's "Move That Dope" and Usher's "Good Kisser"—were top 10 songs in any format.
But it's in this environment—where a rapper or singer can turn from an established star to an also-ran in an instant—that Drake has become bigger than ever. What Taylor Swift is to pop music—a Godzilla-like force looming over an entire metropolis worth of artists—Drake is to rap. But in Drake's case, he's become that figure without even really trying.
Consider his two big hits of the year: "Trophies" and "0-100/The Catch Up." Both have been club and radio staples, ubiquitous if you're the type of person who exposes yourself to other people's playlists, but each started as a track simply posted to Drake's Soundcloud. Neither song has a video. He has not performed either of them on national television. He has not done interviews to promote them, and neither is likely to appear on an album, although "Trophies" was appropriated as a lead single by his bosses after it was already an established hit. What even some of rap's most established stars constantly struggle with—breaking a single, let alone two—Drake has done accidentally, merely by letting the public know of a song's existence. He has completely circumvented the established ecosystem—in which a song is made, sent to radio by a label and actively promoted by that label—by acting as if that ecosystem doesn't even exist in the first place.
This power extends, too, beyond songs with just his name on them. Radio is being closed off to more and more artists, but newcomers can still crash the gates. Some of 2014's breakout rap stars—Iggy Azalea, Young Thug—have barely any connection to Drake, if one at all. But a notable few of them do.
iLoveMakonnen is an awkward Atlanta native who might be the unlikeliest rap star in years. Instead of rapping, he warbles unsteadily over beats, his voice unshaped and unaltered, its many imperfections presented right before our eyes. He has a gift for melody, and he was working with some of rap's most in-demand producers even before many people knew who he was, but Makonnen's official songs sound like a fan singing those songs in the shower.
His track "Club Going Up on a Tuesday"—which sounds like a lullaby muttered by a teenager trying to put a baby to sleep for the first time—was a burgeoning viral hit this summer, but the idea of a song this intentionally rickety being played on the radio seemed like an impossibility. On August 11—a Tuesday—Drake posted a remix of the song to his Soundcloud, and on the first day of September it was announced that he had signed Makonnen to his label. "Club Going Up on a Tuesday" was then rebranded as "Tuesday," featuring Drake, and now a few months later it's a top 40 pop hit.
Drake's Midas touch has extended to other, equally unlikely, places this year, too. Dej Loaf is a Detroit MC who recently signed to Columbia Records on the strength of her single "Try Me," a wispy but menacing track that's like biting into a tuft of cotton candy only to find it pocked by razors. Months before Dej Loaf was on the radar of executives, let alone most bloggers, Drake quoted "Try Me" on Instagram, lending Dej Loaf—or, as Drake put it, #youngdej—the industry's most important stamp of approval.
The mere thought that Drake might remix "Try Me" was probably worth thousands of dollars in promotion. An actual Drake remix is worth even more, as proven not just by Makonnen, but also by Soulja Boy. Though seen by the general public as the proprietor of a generation's most infamous one-hit wonder, Soulja Boy has been steadily releasing rap music over the years, generally only to cult acclaim. But two days before New Year's Eve 2013, Drake posted a remix of a mostly unknown new Soulja Boy song called "We Made It" to his Soundcloud. It, too, got a taste of the radio—Soulja's first in years—and months later Soulja would appear on a song with Nicki Minaj and be in the studio with Justin Bieber and Lil Wayne.
Though Drake's power—accidental and otherwise—has been especially pronounced in 2014, he has been rap's most powerful amateur A&R for years, having helped bring artists like 2 Chainz, A$AP Rocky, Migos and The Weeknd to the mainstream. But now he isn't only being tasked with shepherding up-and-comers. If there's any precedent to what Drake is doing in 2014, it's what Lil Wayne did six or seven years ago, when his own hits ("Stuntin' Like My Daddy," "A Milli") were augmented by an army of features that made him an inescapable presence in rap and R&B. Eventually, Wayne turned around and used his power to elevate his own artists, with Drake and Nicki Minaj—both of whom are signed to his label—becoming superstars in their own right. But that was then—the reality of now is that even Wayne, a true legend whose influence on the business of contemporary rap music can't be overstated, is relying on Drake's clout.
Wayne is releasing his new album Tha Carter V sometime this year (probably). Its lead single is called "Believe Me," and though it features some of Wayne's best rapping in ages, you don't actually hear his voice until a minute and 45 seconds into the song. The preceding 75 seconds features only Drake, who does the first verse and raps the hook twice. Anyone who heard the song without having first read that it was an official Lil Wayne single almost certainly assumed it was Drake featuring Wayne, not the other way around. The point is hammered home by the fact that "Believe Me" was first uploaded to—where else?—Drake's official Soundcloud.
"Believe Me"—a decent-sized hit—was followed up by "Grindin'," the second nominal single from Tha Carter V. It, too, features Drake, but it was a certifiable flop, maybe the only glaring example from 2014 that Drake is as fallible as anyone. The song's resounding failure probably didn't do too much to dampen either Drake's or Wayne's summer, though: the two embarked on a 30-city tour called "Drake vs. Lil Wayne," in which they performed back-to-back and at the same time, with the audience encouraged to use an app to vote for the "winner" of each show.
According to Wikipedia, Lil Wayne and Drake each "won" 12 shows, with the remaining six—including the final three—ending in draws. But you only need to turn on rap radio for a few minutes to understand that the implication made by the final results of the tour—that Drake has an equal in 2014—was purely a token of respect.
[Photo composite by Jim Cooke, photos via Getty]