Hip hop has a tough, aggressive image - but now Drake is selling millions of records that reveal a softer side. Is rap changing forever? Greg Kot investigates.

On his 2011 album, Take Care, Drake felt sufficiently put-upon to issue a disclaimer: “Showing emotion don’t ever mean I’m a pussy,” he rapped. It was a telling moment on what turned out to be a big album, a multi-million-seller that affirmed Toronto-born Aubrey Drake Graham’s status as a hip hop star.

Now, with Nothing Was the Same as the number one album in the US with first-week sales of more than 600,000, Drake is again doing what once seemed impossible in mainstream hiphop: he’s made vulnerability cool.

That’s no small achievement in a genre where testosterone is often a must, swagger a given, toughness a requirement. For decades, vulnerability was often interpreted as weakness. The notion that an MC could have feelings was often reason enough to put the rapper’s manhood in question. Hip hop itself was built on wordplay defined not just by skill but by one-upmanship, the idea that he who talked the toughest and verbally smoked his rivals was the best MC. In the ghettos from where hip hop rose, putting up anything less than a tough-as-nails exterior could be an invitation to a beatdown or worse. No wonder rappers needed to come across as invulnerable, immune to sentimentality. In the early days, rappers were poet-warriors whose words, to paraphrase Public Enemy’s Chuck D, had the impact of bullets.

Tough love?

There were exceptions. LL Cool J had a hit single in 1987 with what was widely viewed as the first hip hop ballad, I Need Love. In an era when MCs such as Run-DMC. and Rakim came hard or not at all, the suave LL dared to play the seductive ladies man. But it was no coincidence that he also kept swinging the iron, flexing on the cover of the aptly-named album Mama Said Knock You Out a few years later.

Other hip hop groups enjoyed brief flurries of success by taking a less aggressive tack during the height of the gangsta-rap era. De La Soul delivered Daisy Age psychedelia and PM Dawn, melodic spirituality. Digable Planets played it jazzy and whimsical and Arrested Development brought a gentle earnestness. The Fugees scored a massive 1995 hit with a cover of Roberta Flack’s quintessentially sensitive 1970s R&B ballad, Killing Me Softly.

More soul-searching voices emerged by the late ‘90s, in response to what was seen as the materialism of hip hop’s Puff Daddy phase. Underground rappers such as Atmosphere and the Stan-era Eminem matched the introspective ‘emo’ punks of indie rock. OutKast reached No. 1 on the pop charts in 2001 with Ms. Jackson, in which Andre 3000 offers a contrite apology to the mother of his ex-lover.

But it was Kanye West’s 2008 album, 808s and Heartbreak, that changed the game. Here was one of the biggest names in hip hop putting out an album saturated with sad-android vocals and wrenching break-up songs. 808s paved the way for rappers to channel their inner Bon Iver.

Soon after came Man on the Moon: The End of Day, by West protégé Kid Cudi, with his stoned croon and lonely, last-man-on-earth soundscapes. Drake found himself stranded on the same island on his 2010 debut, Thank Me Later, in which the MC got choked up about his grandmother’s recent move to a nursing home. He amped up the inner carnage on Take Care, which included Marvin’s Room, a voyeuristic account of drunk-dialling an old girlfriend to confess his failures.

Weak become heroes

For the first time, we had a mainstream rap star whose persona was based on exposing his weaknesses rather than masking them. Was he pandering to a female audience to sell records? Perhaps. But the skill of his work argued otherwise. His meld of craftsmanship and emotion felt genuine.

Nothing was the Same is his best work yet. It’s rougher around the edges, with Drake occasionally puffing out his chest and going on the attack. But a tougher Drake isn’t necessarily a less sensitive one. If anything, he acknowledges he’s more confused than ever. Even for those prone to dismissing anything that smacks of celebrity whining, Drake has something to offer. He revels in nuances and his delivery is remarkably conversational − he raps as if he’s confiding in the listener, yet expertly shifts tone and tempo. In Connect, he shades the word “swingin” with different meanings. In one verse, it’s a declaration of hustling. In another, it suggests he’s just barely hanging on.

What makes Drake so compelling is that his narrators don’t have it figured out. Even when he swaggers, deeper anxieties inevitably surface. His characters aren’t just about showing and proving they’re the best, they’re also in conflict with their past, their ex-girlfriends, their family, their conscience. Drake is selling millions of albums not by acting tough, but by revealing who he is when the spotlights dim and his guard drops.

Mainstream hip hop remains dominated by the indomitable. In the last decade, when a contrasting, more comforting tone or a hook was needed in a Top 40 rap song, usually an R&B singer was imported. But Drake is versatile and confident enough to address both extremes of the emotional spectrum. He’s not the first mainstream rap star daring to show a softer side, but he’s among the biggest. And his success just might pave the way for more.

Greg Kot is the music critic at the Chicago Tribune. His work can be found here.

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