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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Drake, Kanye, Lil Nas X, and the Art of Online Self-Creation

The roles we play are telling. I have believed for a time that one of the thrills of the social internet—what tantalizes each of us on some level—is the way it allows us to be whoever we want. It grants license for role-playing, makes room for the pageantry of performance. It lets us live outside our sometimes stagnant selves as someone else. It can veil one in anonymity, sure—the abuses of which are long-practiced by catfishers, trolls, and scammers. But at its most transcendent, its most digitally divine, the social internet permits fantasy, it gives way to a kind of inflated realism. It authorizes a more porous self.

Within this ecology of vast and contrasting identities, there are archetypes born of specific generational sets, emblems that we play into or are projected onto but otherwise make our own (some of which also double as memes). Maybe you’re a Karen or embody the tendencies of a Facebook Boomer; perhaps you’ve come across Hoteps in the comments section of a Dr. Umar YouTube video or just this week argued with a Barb on Twitter, one of the fertile platforms where these blown-up identities proliferate and find community. A trendy character within this carousel of online temperaments is the serial cheater, the dating app lothario—the fuckboy, as it were. It is very likely you know one. Maybe you’ve even dated one. (It happens to the best of us.) The suave-talking bro who prefers one night stands, he ultimately has little room for genuine compassion and is driven by a need for constant reassurance. He’s a chronic heartbreaker. A werewolf in Gucci slippers. He’s Drake.


There was, commonly, little pride or reward in parading such a flagrant persona in the open—rare is the admission of the archetype out loud by the wearer—which makes the latest project by the Toronto rapper, titled Certified Lover Boy, all the more mystifying; it’s luxuriant in braggadocio and light on remorse, a millennial mindset all too familiar. The album is his sixth major-label release, and it adopts the mood and sound of an ex-partner who consciously, perhaps even purposely, left you on read—only to wonder, days later, why you haven’t texted them back. Certified Lover Boy is a crash course in the ancient arts of toxic masculinity (Drake actually uses the phrase in the album description), a mirror to man’s uglier compulsions. We live in a world of self-prescribed heroes, wannabe do-gooders, and TED Talk motivators, of people who, despite their hidden intentions, desire to convey just how decent they are—but Drake opts for the role of most hated. Why? Because it’s all performance. And we love a riveting show.

He isn’t the only one dressed in shiny cosplay. Along with Kanye West, who released his 10th studio album, Donda, earlier this month, Certified Lover Boy is merely an accelerant to a larger conversation about how and what we need to make good art. What their music is about—what it says—has nothing to do with the music on its own. Neither artist is at their peak here; a lot of what we hear on CLB and Donda is recycled material. Instead, it is the ceremony that surrounds the art, the extravagant spectacle and characters they embody, that compels us to watch and listen, to endlessly stan (this is one of the reasons why talk around Kanye’s listening sessions, which were held in sold-out stadiums and streamed on Apple Music, was far more engrossing than the chatter around the album). The music becomes about something else altogether: the mask of self-creation the internet affords us.

An amalgam of heartbreak and loss, scorn and swagger, of all the drunken voicemails, “u up” texts, and family drama encountered in previous iterations, Certified Lover Boy is a regurgitation of everything that predates it. You can’t help but wonder if this is the character that Drake—once a teen actor on Degrassi—has wanted to play all along; that maybe this is his final form. There is no evidence of growth. No surprise turns. “I remember that I told you I miss you, that was kinda like a mass text,” he raps on “Papi’s Home,” a line from a song that could have easily appeared on any of his last five albums.

Kanye also wrestles with old devils. Love, spirituality, and the death of his mother, for whom the album is named, all find root on Donda. If we can, for a moment, divorce the art from the man and his tangled politics, there is no denying that Kanye is a gifted stylist, producer, and orchestrater. Every album up until Ye pushed the limits of our expectations as listeners, from the sheer emotional scale of Late Registration to the skeletal futurism of Yeezus. And you can feel him reaching, even amid the chaos and harmony of Donda, for a post-sound sound, one that reaches somewhere deeper and farther than he has before, one that perhaps eclipses what he accomplished previously, even if it doesn’t totally make sense. (Well intentioned or not, unorthodox tracks like the opening salvo, “Donda Chant,” don’t quite work.)

To consider Kanye and consider his sound alone is to miss the point of his mad, magnanimous project. The same is true of Drake. Neither exists in a vacuum. As cultural totems who have reshaped the music industry on more than one occasion, they create not within a single context but across many. Whether you love or despise them, they have tailored their art perfectly for the polyphonic expression the internet lends itself to. Drake secured nine of the 10 top spots on the Billboard Hot 100 the week following his release. Kanye likely takes up more brain space than you’re willing to admit. Even when they underperform, they are everywhere. But what they both fail to achieve with their new albums is a progression of thought. There is little evidence of forward movement, of that precious commodity all artists covet but few capture time and again: originality of expression.

What is harder to parse is who Kanye wants to be now. What role is he playing on Donda, and to what end? The album is not without the occasional high point—he sounds especially resplendent on the Lauryn Hill-sampled “Believe What I Say” and the Kid Cudi-assisted “Moon”—but the bulk of the material circles old pains and grievances. We’ve heard all of this before.

One artist whose role has become exceedingly clear over the last handful of months, and who has no trouble with originality of expression, is Lil Nas X. With 2019’s “Old Town Road”—one of the first songs to presage the eventual influence of TikTok over the music industry—he arrived like a supernova in the night, and hasn’t let up since. The release of his debut album, Montero, this week has made plain just what kind of voices we need in music, and on entertainment’s biggest stages. Being a Black, gay pop star at the height of fame would alone be enough—but Nas wants more. We want more from him too.

Nas came of age running a stan account on Twitter, a point he shied away from early on, but it has made him a deceptively and electrifying canny pop artist. With total saturation of the market—across all of social media—he has outsmarted, out-marketed, and adapted better than every one of his peers. When Drake released the album cover for Certified Lover Boy, Nas responded first by riffing on the original version (within a few hours, mind you) and then got pregnant, Beyoncé-style, recreating her iconic photo shoot from 2017. All of it played perfectly into the release of his second single, “Industry Baby.” Riding a stripper pole into the pits of Hell,  giving a lap dance to Satan—the images will endure. As the saying goes, Lil Nas X is not new to this.

Yet, he is. His nascence is his greatest asset, and perhaps his biggest disadvantage. Unlike Drake and Kanye, who have morphed their identities around what the internet makes of them, Nas was born online and seemingly emerged with his persona fully formed. This is, perhaps, why he can often seem so bulletproof, but also immutable—that persona isn’t a mask. When he thanks “the gay agenda” for a VMA win, he means it, even if he is trolling his detractors in the same breath. It can, at times, be tough to reconcile the joy we get in seeing him win and outsmart naysayers with the fact of his sexuality. It’s become the dominant interpretation of his art, a lazy entry point into his music. It is both unfair to him and us. We need more queer heroes, and specifically, Black queer heroes. The problem is, they don’t always have the luxury of playing a role in the way Drake and Kanye do. Instead, he’s trying to make the fantasy of Lil Nas X real for us. We would do well to let him.

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